3 Rankers Reviews
8 Arthur's Pass
Alpine gardens on show
Park at the Temple Basin carpark, 700 m below Arthurs Pass and 3.5 km from Arthurs Pass Village.
Take care crossing the road and follow the winding track to the lookout opposite Arthur Dobson Memorial. Return via the same track, as crossing the fragile peat bog is harmful to the vegetation.
The plants brave enough to venture into the alpine world are rewarded with a stunning home, but have to cope with an environment that is harsh in the extreme. Avalanches are common, wind bombs, floods, landslips, droughts and tumbling boulders create a desolation to the landscape. But plants still survive. Other areas above the tree line have high winds, extreme cold and submersion in snow, searing summer heat, torrential rain and periodic disturbance of the soil to contend with. To survive in their niches, they have developed cunning and ingenious ploys.
Snow tussocks thwart the wind by weaving a dense mat of interlaced stems, trapping a warm layer of air near the ground. They hibernate in winter, conserving moisture and nutrients.
To withstand the environmental extremes, other plants have a hairy leaf and stem known as a tomentum, a fine hair like peach fur which insulates them from the desiccating effect of wind. Some alpine plants also have chemicals and salts in their held moisture, which act as a type of anti-freeze, inhibiting the expansion of freezing internal water, which would result in tissue damage. To keep grounded in moving scree slopes, many plants send out snaking underground stems, with tap roots penetrating deep into the soil like an anchor. During winter these perennials also die off, only to re-emerge the following spring and spread like a mat. This has the effect of binding the unconsolidated rocks allowing a seed bed for tussocks and other plants, thus stabilising the slopes for colonisation.
A feature of note displayed by New Zealand’s alpine plants is that 93% of them are endemic to the New Zealand landmass, compared to 80% of the vascular plants in general. This high degree of endemism is usually associated with a long history of evolution, but it is generally agreed alpine conditions have only been in existence in New Zealand for 2 million years. The most likely explanation is that a rapid evolution has occurred.
Another curious feature of the alpine flora is its split in distribution, for example some plants are only found in Nelson and Fiordland and absent from the intervening regions. The best guess here is that during the last ice ages an extensive ice sheet covered the entire central region, splitting the island with an uninhabitable nival zone. The plants have not yet re-invaded the gap.
Unlike other counterparts in Europe, many New Zealand alpine flowers are lacking in colour, white and yellow being the preferred palettes. The lack of specialised pollinating insects probably contributes to this, with long-tongued bees and butterflies being the most attracted to colour, and both being scarce in our insect inventory.
As you walk up from the treeline, the alpine vegetation traverses differing zones, from mixed snow-tussock scrub with a variety of tall snow tussocks, shrubs and large herbs. The herbfields are characterised by taller Celmisia, Ranunculus and Aciphylla species. On flatter ground, bogs are common in hollows and depressions, matted in a soft turf and mottled with small tarns and lakelets.
In the higher alpine zones are fellfields and scree communities, where plants occupy scant soils or exploit moisture in crevices. Cushion plants such as rock sheep (Raoulia) lie low to the ground and take advantage of the warmer layers with greater shelter from the wind.
Identification of individual alpine species takes decades of meticulous study, however learning the main families can be accomplished relatively easily with a curious mind and a little research. The main genera are as follows:
Ranunculus or buttercups – include Ranunculus lyallii, the largest buttercup in the world.
Anisotome – a relative of the carrot family and with similar leaf forms.
Aciphylla – forty alpine species distinguished by their sharp leaves (a direct translation of their botanical name). Also known as speargrass or Spaniard.
Dracophyllum – Prone to hybridise, the most commonly encountered are D. menziesii, with its pineapple-like leaf head, D. uniflorum and D. longifolium.
Celmisia – One of the most important alpine geneera with over 50 representatives. Often called mountain daisies, look for C. ramulosa, C. bonplandii, C. petriei and C traversii.
Raoulia – cushion and mat plants sometimes with a spongy texture and a mosaic-like appearance.
Gentianella – the southern hemisphere version of the much loved European gentians, with similar delicate flowers.
Ourisia – only found in South America, Tasmania and New Zealand. Often found with white 5-lobed leaves.
Hebe – almost 100 New Zealand species, with opposite leaves and sometimes with a whipcord form.
Chionochloa – snow grasses include C. teretifolia and C. crassiculata.
Arthur Dudley Dobson followed in his father’s engineering footsteps, but also trained as a surveyor. In 1864, on the advice of Maori chief Tarapuhi, Arthur and his brother Edward, crossed the pass into the Otira.
When the gold booms on the West Coast were triggered, finding the most suitable pass to access the coast became important. ‘Arthurs Pass’ proved the most suitable. Maori had known this all along. A road was opened in 1866.
South Island ▷ Canterbury ▷ Arthur's Pass
Very nice walk with beautiful flowers and plants. Short and easy. We did enjoy it.
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A short walk through a lot of different plants. Great nature and beautiful flowers.
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Nice little walk on the top of Arthurs Pass.
Thanks to all the good people working for the NZ Department of Conservation - for all your hard work - making NZ more beautiful, accessable and healthy! Cheers 😍