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May 2020 Issue
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Mountain ribbonwood and beech forest during autumn, in Fiordland’s Hollyford Valley. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography
Five places where you can see autumn colours in New Zealand’s evergreen forests

Hikers from the Northern Hemisphere often find New Zealand’s evergreen native forests both a source of interest and, sometimes, a disappointment. Where are the golden colours of autumn, the bare starkness of winter leafless trees, and the bounteous fresh green of budding spring?

While it’s true that most of our native plant species are evergreen, there are exceptions. Even some beech tree species shed leaves in winter, especially during exceptionally cold conditions, and are considered partially-deciduous. I’ve sometimes spotted a golden branch in an otherwise green beech tree. And we do have a handful of properly deciduous native species – including tree fuchsia and mountain ribbonwood. The latter is a small tree, growing up to 10m, also known as mountain lacebark. Two species occupy the subalpine zone in the Southern Alps, with Hoheria glabrata growing mainly on the west, and Hoheria lyalli growing in the east. Hoheria glabrata also grows on the slopes of Taranaki Mounga, its only known location in the North Island.

During January, both Hoheria species produce showy white flowers. Then, in April and May, the leaves of mountain ribbonwood begin to colour, most often to yellow, and in places where the species is abundant, trampers can experience New Zealand’s own subdued version of a Northern Hemisphere autumn.

I remember sitting at Harper Pass Bivouac once, supping a brew, just as snow began falling on the surrounding forest, which was dominated by a grove of mountain ribbonwood. Being winter, the trees had lost all their leaves. The falling snowflakes began to settle on the bare branches, creating a kind of tracery which was both stark and beautiful.

1. Baton Valley, Kahurangi National Park
The Baton River drains the eastern slopes of the Arthur Range and can be reached by a tramping track through the forest that ends at the nicely-situated Flanagans Hut. Beyond the hut, the route gets tougher and steeper, following a poled route over Baton Saddle.

Above the hut are some isolated stands of mountain ribbonwood.

2. Hurunui Valley, Lake Sumner Forest Park
Harper Pass provides a well-known and conveniently easy way to cross the Southern Alps on foot, with plenty of huts en route. Harper Pass Bivouac, located in the headwaters of the Hurunui River, is surrounded by mountain ribbonwood.

3. Mingha Valley, Arthur’s Pass National Park
In places, mountain ribbonwood lines the track up the Mingha Valley, famous as the route of the mountain running section of the annual Coast-to-Coast race.

4. Young Valley, Mt Aspiring National Park
The Gillespie Pass circuit is rightly considered a tramper’s classic. Young Hut sits close to the bushline in the Young River South Branch, amid stands of mountain ribbonwood.

5. Hollyford Valley, Fiordland National Park
The drive along SH94 from Te Anau to Milford Sound is one of the country’s most sublime, although far too often people are hell-bent for the fiord and don’t take advantage of the numerous walks alongside the road. The upper Hollyford Valley is especially attractive during autumn, as numerous groves of mountain ribbonwood provide a golden contrast to the sombre beech trees.