Quietly growing in the centre of Te Awamutu are two trees that have seen approximately 170 years’ worth of the town’s history. In Selwyn park in Te Awamutu there are two veteran trees that out-date the oldest building in the town. A Sweet Chestnut tree ‘Castanea sativa’ stands proudly behind the bus shelter near the i-site with its slightly smaller companion of European Holly tree ‘Ilex aquifolium’ standing next to it. But what was the history of these trees and what have they lived though, and what can we do to help preserve this bit of living history for the future?
Tainui Maori first settled in the area in about 1450, but it wasn’t until 1839 that Reverend Ashwell asked the Whare Kura (Christian Maori) to leave their pa and set up a separate community in Te Awamutu. It was this act that led to the establishment of the Otawhao Mission Station which is located at the now Selwyn Park. John Morgan resided at the Otawhao Mission with his wife Maria from 1841 until 1863 and it was in this time that the Sweet Chestnut and the Holly trees were planted.
Sketches of the mission around 1854 show a large number of young trees that had not been in earlier drawings of the area. This sketch can be seen by clinking the link below that will take you to the Te Awamutu museum website.
This shows that John Morgan or his community had started to plant new trees around the site. The location of these tree in the sketches match with our Sweet Chestnut tree and Holly tree today. This puts our trees probable age at over 166 years old! That’s older than the oldest building in Te Awamutu St John Church which John Morgan built in 1854.
In this early period of Te Awamutu history our trees were not alone on the mission site with sketches showing many trees in and around the mission house which is now Selwyn Park. Our trees would have been at the heart of Ngati Maniapoto seizing the government press base in the mission house in March 1863 and the expulsion of Europeans from Te Awamutu and its districts, which in turn led to the outbreak of the Waikato Wars (1863-1865). After the Waikato Wars, the railways reached Te Awamutu in 1880, which saw the town grow and a few years later the sale in 1907 of the Otawhao Mission Farm.
Move forward to 1928 and the land had been earmarked as a good location for a camping ground as there was a shortage of housing in town. An engineers report was drawn up on the mission and the land around it shows the Sweet Chestnut tree and others around the building. This meant the end for the old mission house that was dismantled in 1929 but not before one last photo was taken of the mission and in this photo of the last residents is our Chestnut tree with its stem and lower branches just in shot. This photo can be seen by clinking the link below that will take you to the Te Awamutu museum website.
In 1929 the Chestnut tree was noted in the council meeting minutes when a report informing the council about a new shelter for sinks to be built, stated that
"a chestnut tree 50-60ft tall, with a girth of 14ft 3inch, cast a shadow on a summers day at noon of 4000sq ft. The tree is said to be original planting". Te Awamutu borough council minutes 1931-1980
Thankfully, the tree wasn’t cut down because of the “shadow” it created. But this gives us a good idea of how large the tree was at this point.
What about our Holly tree I hear you say? Well, apart from early sketches showing a tree in the right location for our Holly there’s no information until around the 1980’s when it listed as
"a very early planting and possibly being the first introduced to New Zealand". Te Awamutu borough council historic and notable tree document
This document notes five other trees in Selwyn park at this time including our Sweet Chestnut and Glossy Privet! Then both trees are noted in the book “Great trees of New Zealand” punished in 1984 with the Holly listed as
"an early planting for the area again". Great trees of New Zealand, p.244.
So, our trees have seen the early beginnings of Te Awamutu from a Christian mission, the battles of the land wars, a booming rural town to a camper enjoying the shade in the summer sun. Mid way through the 90’s, the campsite was closed, and the land and trees once again saw a change to their surroundings with the removal of camping huts and other large trees on the reserve leaving just our two veterans. The Sweet Chestnut and Holly now stand in the open grass area of Selwyn park as the only survivors of 166 years of change.
So now we know just how key these trees are to Te Awamutu history, what is their condition now?
The Sweet Chestnut has been heavily reduced (the size of the tree has been made smaller by pruning) in recent years to help reduce the amount of weight it has to support and reduce the loading/force from the wind. At the base the tree has an impressive stem with a large cavity or hollowing in it, which is quite normal for a tree of its age. You may not think so, but this hollowing doesn’t always affect the tree if the wood that remains is sound and healthy (think about how a scaffolding pipe is strong even though its hollow). There is also fungi bracket or mushrooms present which is why the tree has hollowed out over the years. But the overall health and vigour of the tree is good with little dead wood and good leaf and seed production.
The Holly is a multi-stem tree meaning it has lots of leading stem/trucks instead of one single stem and has a more modest size crown. It has had a lot less pruning than its companion with only minor crown lifting to keep the lower branches off of the ground. The overall health of the tree is OK but has had some die back and is sparser at the top of the canopy.
An important thing to remember with our trees is that they are both veteran trees, meaning that they may not be the oldest or ancient trees but trees which show ancient characteristics.
These may not just be due to age, but could result from natural damage, management, or the trees environment. We know ours trees are old and like all old living things they need special care to help keep them healthy. Luckily for us Waipa council is actively managing our trees with regular health inspections and pruning work carried out when required to help prolong our veteran trees health.
But what can we do?
We can help our trees by not driving under them or climbing on the roots and stem. When we drive over a tree roots area, we compact the earth making it hard for the trees to extract water and nutrients from the ground which they need to LIVE. When we climb on the tree root or stem, we can damage the bark.
So next time you’re in Selwyn park or driving by, take look at some of the oldest members of our community, our two veteran trees, and think about what has happened under the canopy over the 170 years of life!
A special thank you to Te Awamutu museum and Waipa District Council for their help with researching this topic. Have we missed some thing? Let us know! Please don’t hesitate to contact us.
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