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Cushion plant in Tongariro’s Ōturere Valley. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Ground-hugging cushion plants are adapted to survive harsh winters. Here are five mountain locations to observe them.

Cushion plant is a generic term for several species of tightly growing, ground-hugging plants that occupy many mountain areas. The plants’ prostrate nature and tight-packed leaves shelter their interior and help them survive harsh winters. They often have woolly leaves, which additionally help fend off the cold. According to foremost alpine botanist Alan Mark, at least 18 genera of New Zealand plants have adapted a cushion form.

The most familiar to trampers is the widespread vegetable sheep of the Raoulia and Haastia genera, which can grow to considerable sheep-sized mounds.

Less obvious cushion plants require closer observation to recognise. One of my favourites is Donatia novaezelandiae, which has tiny star-shaped flowers – almost a miniature galaxy in one plant. It likes wetter areas, and is often seen on the edges of alpine bogs and occurs in mountains from the Tararua Range southwards. It’s also found in the mountains of Tasmania, dating back to the era when the southern continents were joined as Gondwana.

Another cushion plant with delicate white flowers is Phyllachne colensoi, named after the famed missionary explorer William Colenso, who collected the plant on his visits to the Ruahine Range in the 1840s. It’s found from Mt Hikurangi southwards and is another Gondwanan remnant that also occurs in South America and Tasmania.

Here are five mountain locations to observe cushion plants.

1 Ōturere Valley, Tongariro National Park

Tongariro’s Ōturere Valley is a surreal volcanic landscape where pillars of lava line the track like sentinels and at the high altitude, only sparse vegetation can survive – including cushion plants. Ōturere Hut forms part of the 3–4 day Tongariro Northern Circuit.

2 Tupari-Piopio tops, Ruahine Forest Park

These flat-topped summits in the Ruahine Range are most easily reached from Mangleton Road on a satisfying 3–4 day round trip, beginning and ending near Sentry Box Hut. Tramp up to Parks Peak Hut, descend into the upper Makaroro, then climb Tōtara Spur to reach the tops north of Tupari, where there is good camping. Here, tightly growing cushions of wetland plants cluster around the edges of myriad tarns. Head north along curiously undulating tops past Piopio to reach Aranga Hut, then bend south on forest tracks back to the road end.

3 Bull Mound, Tararua Forest Park

Bull Mound was part of the original Southern Crossing route when it began near Greytown and traversed the Tararua Range to Ōtaki Forks. This route neatly sidesteps most of Marchant Ridge. At Bull Mound is a small patch of open tops which offer excellent views of the Tararua Peaks, Southern Crossing tops, and Neill–Winchcombe Ridge. It’s accessible in 2–3hr from Cone Hut. Here are tarns and tight-packed cushion plants.

4 Mole Tops, Nelson Lakes National Park

From the Matakitaki Valley, a good bush track leads up Jameson Ridge to Mole Saddle, at the northern extent of the Ella Range. A small but tidy two-bunk hut occupies the bush edge. Above Mole Saddle, a route leads to Mole Tops (1651m), which is delightfully festooned with tarns and cushion plants. Back at Mole Hut, it’s possible to complete a round-trip by descending the route down Mole Stream.

5 Rock and Pillar Conservation Area

Otago is famed for its block ranges: high, flat-topped mountains dominated by schist, which often feature tall tors and other weird formations. This far south, the winter climate is unrelentingly bleak with snow persisting past winter. Few plants can withstand the extremes of summer heat and winter frost, but cushion plants can in places like the Rock and Pillar Range. A satisfying weekend trip is the circuit accessible from Glencreag, near Middlemarch. Tramp up the Glencreag Track to Big Hut (needs booking in advance for overnight stays) along the tops over Summit Rock (1450m) and down the Kinvara Track back to the road.