Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Wednesday Wildflower: Brazilian pepper tree

I've been wondering about some trees in Sunnynook Park every time I visit Auckland.  From the shape of their leaves and their panicles of small flowers I had assumed they're something in the Cunoniaceae. But I should have been more curious and looked more closely, because these leaves are alternate, whereas Cunoniaceae have opposite leaves with interpetiolar stipules.

Schinus terebinthifolius, a flowering branchlet from a female tree.
This week I was there again and saw one of the trees had little round pinkish fruits, and I realised this is Schinus terebinthifolius.  I knew S. molle, which has more graceful hanging leaves, and I knew the fruits of S. terebinthifolius are the pink peppercorns you sometimes see mixed with black peppercorns (Piper nigrum) in pepper grinders. (Pink pepper, confusingly, is made with true black peppercorns, using newly-ripened berries and treating them with brine and vinegar, described by McGee, 2004.)

It's becoming a bit of a problem weed in New Zealand and worrying some weed experts.  Back in 1988, Flora of New Zealand Vol. 4 didn't record it as naturalised (Webb et al. 1988), but now it seems to be establishing.  It's a major weed in many warmer countries.  The trees in Sunnynook Park don't seem to be spreading, although there appear to be suckers coming up from the roots.  Most of the trees there are male, but I did spot a couple of females.

It seems a lot of our new weeds are woody, and many are bird-dispersed.  I wonder how many originate from more tropical climates and owe their success here to climate change.

The Flora says it has 5–9 leaflets.  The leaf I randomly chose to photograph had 11:
Schinus terebinthifolius leaf
That doesn't mean the identification is wrong.  Many characteristics of plants are more variable than the descriptions cover, partly because the descriptions are based on a smallish sample that doesn't allow for the odd extreme.

Pink pepper is in the family Anacardiaceae, the same family as mango, cashew, and poison ivy; some people are very allergic to this family.  According to McGee (2004) it owes its peppery flavour to cardanol, an irritating phenolic compound.


McGee, H. 2004.  On food and cooking, the science and lore of the kitchen. (Revised edition), Scribner.

Webb, C.J.; Sykes, W.R.; Garnock-Jones, P.J. 1988.  Flora of New Zealand Vol. 4.  Botany Division, DSIR.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Wednesday wildflower: Red carpet, brown carpet

When I use the term wildflower, it's often to avoid the judgmental term "weed".  I like most plants, and if other people have species they don't like, well, that doesn't necessarily stop me enjoying them.  Furthermore, plants we designate as weeds are often biologically very interesting.  To a botanist, the term "weediness" has an ecological meaning that signifies more than a nuisance plant.

Pōhutukawa flowers
One of the interesting things weeds do well is reproduce.  All that any plant or animal needs to do is to reproduce itself at least once, but because an outcrossing sexual plant or animal contributes only one of its two sets of genes to each offspring it must do it twice to break even.  Even then, reproducing a few times doesn't guarantee the survival of all your genetic material, because which copies of genes get into a sperm or egg is random.  But some plants seem to reproduce in overdrive.

Weeds often succeed because they out-reproduce other plants.  Some are long-lived and may spread vegetatively, but others produce huge numbers of seeds.

A few red stamens have accumulated in the gutter beneath these trees, but sometimes, if it's not windy, a thick red carpet can build up.
Today's wildflower is a weed in the biological sense, but to New Zealanders it's a much-loved native flowering tree, the pōhutukawa, Metrosideros excelsa.  Pōhutukawa puts a lot of effort into reproduction, and that's probably why it's an unwanted weed in some other parts of the world where it has been introduced as an ornamental, like South Africa and Hawai'i.  Some people also consider it a weed in parts of New Zealand that are outside of its native range, such as Wellington, because it's invasive and aggressive there too.

A cluster of pōhutukawa flowers; each individual flower has about 25 red stamens (with yellow anthers) and one red style.
Pōhutukawa reproduction seems wasteful.  The trees flower profusely around Christmas time in New Zealand and in the later part of each flower's life the bright red stamens fall to the ground where they can form a thick red carpet.  This isn't over-production particularly; it's just that the red stamens are so visible and there are so many flowers producing them.  They can be dispensed with once their pollen has been dispersed.  They're visible for a good reason: pōhutukawa is primarily pollinated by birds (tūī, bellbirds, but also silvereyes and starlings) and the red colour attracts them because birds see well in the red wavelengths.

A bit later in the summer, many of the old flowers themselves fall.  I guess these are flowers that aren't setting seed; they no longer have a function and the plant can discard them.  I don't know whether these are functionally male flowers or simply flowers that didn't get pollinated, but these form a pale grey-green carpet for a time.

Pōhutukawa seeds in the gutter, Kelburn, Wellington
The third big dump of reproductive material is happening about now in Wellington, and that's the dispersal of seeds in their millions.  Most of these are never going to germinate.  They pile up in gutters, on footpaths, and at the bases of walls.  I'd like to do a rough calculation of the weight of stamens, aborted flowers, and seeds produced by a large pōhutukawa tree in a season; I think we'd all be surprised.  Multiply that, whatever it is, by the number of trees in Wellington and that's a lot of biomass falling to the ground each year.

Pōhutukawa seeds.
This prodigious reproductive effort is one of the attributes that makes pōhutukawa such a successful plant, and it's a trait normally associated with weediness.  No wonder then that our Christmas tree has become a pest in places.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

The Barber's

Getting a haircut in the 50s and 60s was a very masculine thing.  The Barber’s was an all male environment and you had to know, really know, how to behave there.  If your mother came in with you, she wouldn’t stay long (you’d hope).

The Barber was a wizened and enigmatic character, his thinning hair Brylcreemed back, or sidewards in a comb-over if it was thinning too much.  His face was haggard and he smoked; he looked a bit like a jockey.  You didn’t want to piss this guy off: he could kick you out of the shop, or probably something worse.
My first haircut in New Zealand was in 1955, in Whanganui.  I don’t remember getting it cut in England, but oh boy this was memorable.  The shop smelled of Bay Rum, Brylcreem, and cigarette smoke. I was five.  My Dad took me, and The Barber had this enormous wrought iron barber’schair. I was thinking, “how am I going to get up into that?”, when he produced a seat on a plank that sat across the arm-rests, and lifted me up onto it.  It had leather padding and its own little arm-rests, and I felt really special.  But the hand-operated clippers pulled at my hair and I squirmed.  Eventually The Barber got so grumpy he whacked me over the head with the handles of the scissors.  I didn’t dare cry, and Dad didn’t come to my rescue, such was the manly power of The Barber.
Later, in Tawa, The Barber’s became a regular ritual.  You’d be dropped off there to wait your turn and get your hair cut, usually on a Friday after school.  There was a long bench seat that ran around three sides of the shop, and you took your place at one end and shuffled along as each boy’s hair was done.  Sometimes there were too many waiting and you had to stand until a seat became free.  There were comics to read, and that was the best thing.  We were only allowed “Classics” comics at home, which told the stories of Dickens and the like in comic form, but here was the real thing: Phantom, all the Disney characters, and best of all, war comics.  Battler Britton, scrambled by an air raid during a cricket match on the village green, runs out of ammo over occupied France, and bowls the cricket ball he had stuffed into his battledress pocket to switch over the railway points and send the German ammunition train crashing into a horrendous explosion!  We always drew Spitfires and Hurricanes on the backs of our school books.
The Barber had a big poster behind the counter.  It was a kangaroo, leaping, with envelopes spilling out of its (her) pouch, and the caption “We post to Australia”.  I sat and stared at this, and I still don’t know what it meant.  I suspect it had to do with gambling; maybe the barber was an agent for Tattersall’s Lottery or something.  It was all exotic and dark.  Men, real men who smoked and swore, would come in, and the barber would leave off cutting hair and go behind the counter.  There would be a quiet conversation and money would change hands, but I never understood what was going on.  Later I learned that barbers sold condoms (we called them “Frenchies”), but I always suspected these clandestine transactions had something to do with the flying kangaroo.
After an hour or two of comics and shuffling along the bench, you’d finally get to have your hair cut.  It was always a bit off the top and short back and sides, even if you asked for something else.  When the cutting was done, he’d violently rub in some Brylcreem, slapping your head about in the process, comb and brush your hair into a bit of a style, flick the cut hairs off your collar, and finish off with a little spray of smelly stuff.  Everyone’s hairstyle was the same. 
By about 1964 we all wanted Beatles haircuts, long enough to be thought Fab, but short enough not to earn a detention.  The barber never understood this; we all walked out with short back and sides, then put off our next visit as long as we could and combed our hair, what was left of it, forward as much as we could; making the best of a bad job, a bit like The Barber’s comb-over.
After the barber’s, if you were lucky, was fish and chips for dinner, and you could buy a classic comic at the bookshop, or a 45 rpm record.  I remember buying “A Fool Such As I” by Elvis Presley.  I’ve still got it somewhere.  But no more barber’s for me; I don’t have enough hair any more.