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Locals battling to save the country's largest and oldest know Pohutukawa from a deadly threat

Riria Dalton-Reedy

East Cape communities are looking for their own solutions to saving Te Waha o Rerekohu

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

The race is on in the East Cape to save the country's largest and oldest known pohutukawa tree from a potentially deadly fungal disease.

Te Araroa locals say their historic tree, Te Waha o Rerekohu, is a landmark but it is now infected by myrtle rust.

Community advocate Hal Hovell says it holds a lot of significance - when people are returning from other places, they see the tree and know they are finally home.

It is common practice in Maori culture to bury a child’s placenta at a significant place after birth, particularly under a native tree.

According to Hovell, the whenua (placenta) of Sir Apirana Ngata - one of Ngati Porou’s most prominent chiefs - was placed within the branches of Te Waha o Rerekohu.

A model pātaka (food storehouse) is displayed in front of the tree. This symbolises the ancient storehouse of the ancestor Rerekohu which stood at the same site. Photo / Jordan Perry

The tree is centuries old and has seen many generations pass by, but some fear this could be the last generation to witness the rakau (tree) in all its glory.

Six years after myrtle rust was first discovered in Aotearoa the disease has become widespread, affecting trees in the myrtle family such as pohutukawa, manuka and kanuka.

Longtime conservation worker Graeme Atkins (Ngati Porou) describes the wind-borne disease as ‘finer than smoke’ and highlights the devastation it has caused.

“We've lost two species from our ngahere (forest) - ramarama and rohutu.”

“If someone had told me five years ago that ramarama was gonna be a threatened species, I would’ve laughed because I knew there were hundreds and thousands of them.”

There is no known cure for myrtle rust, however, Atkins says there are fungicides that could prolong the lives of infected trees.

The Government has provided $1.5 million in funding to establish Te Whakapae Ururoa - a local initiative dedicated to combating the rapid spread of the disease.

The project employs seven people from the area who are monitoring the effects of myrtle rust in the region over the next three years.

Graeme Atkins says what they are doing is all for their mokopuna.

"To have a summer without Pohutukawa flowering doesn’t really bear thinking about."

Atkins says so far they haven't detected any infection on kanuka trees.

He says the species may have healing properties that might be able to combat myrtle rust. 

Some locals are also looking to use rongoa Maori as an alternative remedy, while they wait for more information from scientists.

Atkins says the community has spoken, and their message is that they must do whatever it takes to keep their rakau rangatira safe.

If you come across myrtle rust on the East Coast, notify the Te Whakapae Ururoa website or Facebook page.

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