Bay of Plenty

Col­lect­ing the world's kauri species has led Omanawa farmer-turne­dor­chardist Gra­ham Dyer to some of the Pa­cific's most re­mote spots.

NZ Gardener - - Contents -

Gra­ham Dyer speaks to San­dra Simpson about his kauri col­lec­tion.

The quest be­gan in 1993 af­ter Gra­ham re­alised the world’s only Agathis col­lec­tion was grow­ing in pots in a glasshouse in the Nether­lands. “No­body else had ever put them to­gether. They were in Hol­land be­cause the early sci­en­tific work on Agathis had been done there, thanks to Hol­land’s colo­nial ties with In­done­sia,” he ex­plains.

“I didn’t think their iden­ti­fi­ca­tion was very ac­cu­rate so thought I might as well have a go. As Tau­ranga is the nat­u­ral south­ern bound­ary of kauri in New Zealand, it seemed the right place to do it.”

His fa­ther was a farm-forester at Onewhero near Pukekohe and Gra­ham reck­ons he was “tainted” by the pas­sion for trees at an early age, join­ing the New Zealand Tree So­ci­ety at 20.

When the fam­ily moved to the Western Bay of Plenty in 1960, Gra­ham be­gan beau­ti­fy­ing the dairy farm with trees, a project halted when the land went into ki­wifruit in 1980.

In 2005 he and wife Mavis planted what is be­lieved to now be the south­ern hemi­sphere’s big­gest gingko nut or­chard.

Although Gra­ham had a good start with his kauri quest in New Cale­do­nia, a place he de­scribes as “a mine of trees”, ob­tain­ing seed gen­er­ally re­quired great pa­tience and he quickly learned that turn­ing up in per­son was the only way to get what he wanted. “Once you ar­rive and start talk­ing to foresters, they un­der­stand. But for ev­ery one per­son who’s been co­op­er­a­tive, there have been 10 that weren’t.”

Each Agathis species – 21 in all – drops seeds in the wet sea­son, and ev­ery coun­try has a slightly dif­fer­ent wet sea­son.

“Seeds are vi­able for only three weeks, so if you go too early or too late, you’ve wasted your time.”

He re­calls once be­ing given the help of a “not young” seed col­lec­tor in Pa­pua New Guinea. “He climbed for about 45 min­utes – partly be­cause half­way up he had to get round a bee­hive – only to find all the cones had been shat­tered by sul­phur-crested cock­a­toos be­fore they were ready. He ab­seiled down in about five sec­onds. It was a lot of work for no re­sult but that’s how it is, un­for­tu­nately.”

An­other time, most of the seed he re­ceived from In­done­sia af­ter an un­suc­cess­ful visit ger­mi­nated but then died from damp­ing off. “It taught me not to do it all by my­self,” Gra­ham says. “Af­ter that, I sent half of any seed I got to some­one else so as to spread the risk.”

Since then he’s helped build up kauri col­lec­tions held by Graeme Platt in Auck­land and Clive Hig­gie in Whanganui.

But not all trees have been hard won – Gra­ham was puz­zling about how to ob­tain seed for Agathis mon­tana, which grows only at the top of a sin­gle moun­tain in New Cale­do­nia, when he dis­cov­ered there was a 30-year-old spec­i­men in Kerik­eri!

Gra­ham has given away al­most all his kauri now, do­nat­ing a col­lec­tion of the Juras­sic-era trees to Sy­den­ham Botanic Park in Tau­ranga and the ar­bore­tum at McLaren Falls Park.

Since 2000, he and Mavis have planted a dif­fer­ent col­lec­tion too, with each tree ded­i­cated to a fam­ily mem­ber – now three gen­er­a­tions of their own and their adopted Van­u­atu fam­ily.

The Dy­ers’ ties to Van­u­atu go back al­most 40 years from a stint Gra­ham did with Vol­un­teer Ser­vices Abroad (VSA), ac­com­pa­nied by Mavis and 12-year-old son Gavin.

Gavin had quickly made friends with a lo­cal lad, Mal­colm, who later lived with the Dy­ers for three years while at­tend­ing sec­ondary school. Mal­colm has since come back ev­ery year to prune ki­wifruit, joined by other men from South Santo Is­land, the largest in the ar­chi­pel­ago.

As a mark of grat­i­tude from this com­mu­nity, the Dy­ers have been given a life­time lease on a plot of cus­tom land on South Santo.

“Some peo­ple see the world play­ing golf or bridge, I’ve seen it col­lect­ing seed,” Gra­ham says. “These days I let Mavis sort the hol­i­days as I reckon it’s her turn to choose – though I do try and visit a botanic gar­den wher­ever we end up.”

Fe­male cone of kauri ( Agathis aus­tralis).

Mavis and Gra­ham Dyer.

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