Omarupapaku “Old Mother Parker”: the forest that was

“Round Bush”, an unassuming reserve near the coastal town of Foxton, Manawatu, is a place of great significance – though a casual passer-by would barely notice it, let alone have any sense of this significance.

A description of this remnant swamp forest is thought to be the first recorded account of the botany of the Manawatu. The account was made by E. J. Wakefield, when he passed the mouth of the Manawatu River by ship in February 1840.

He wrote:  “As we ran along within two miles of the shore I saw a remarkable grove of high pine trees, near the mouth of a river called Manawatu, or ‘hold breath’, which flows into the sea about twenty-five miles from Kapiti.”

The “pine trees” to which Wakefield referred were kahikatea, New Zealand’s tallest tree. They grew in a swamp which lay behind the dune lands, about 5 kilometres in from the coast, and about 4 kilometers north-east of the Foxton Port at the mouth of the Manawatu River [click here to view map].  They must have been a beautiful and awe-inspiring sight, particularly as they would have risen up like arboreal gods in the open sand country of the Manawatu, where there was little forest cover, even before European settlement began in earnest.*

However, in addition to its beauty, this stand of forest was of much practical value to early European settlers and travellers – potentially, it was even a life-saver. In the 19th century, when the primary access to the Manawatu was by sea, the stand of trees was an important point of reference to seafarers, in an otherwise somewhat reference-less landscape (at least to the unattuned eye of the European coloniser).

In “The Line of the Road” (1970), M.H. Holcroft writes how masters of ships used the stand as a fixed point by which to steer ships to port. Known to local Maori as “Omarupapaku”,** it was known by sailors as “Old Mother Parker” (evidently a crude transliteration of the Maori name). It was transferred as an endowment (though it is not clear from whom) to the Foxton Harbour Board in 1876, and named “Signal Station Reserve”.

When James B. Wilson wrote his book “Early Rangitikei”, published in 1914, the stand of trees still stood: “This grove of pine trees is still existent, and has served steamers going to Foxton as a guide as to the entrance… Stock have, however, so damaged the trees that many are dying, and “Omarupapaku” will soon be “Tupapaku” (a dead body).”

Sadly, his prediction proved accurate, though it is more likely that the kahikatea were removed for timber, rather than being left to degrade. Holcroft reports that by the time the reserve was transferred into the hands of the Manawatu County Council, it had decreased in area by 50 acres, and all the tall trees had gone. With its change of ownership, it was renamed “Round Bush”, perhaps because, having been stripped of its beauty and “usefulness”, its shape was its only remaining feature of note.

Today, Round Bush remains a reserve, under Department of Conservation management [click here to view information page]. It is used mainly by hunters rather than walkers, but as the only remaining example of coastal swamp forest in the area, it is valued for scientific purposes. It is described as a kahikatea/broadleaf forest, with a flax, raupo and cabbage tree wetland. Local iwi also harvest the kiekie vine (used for weaving) from the Reserve [click here for information about traditional use of kiekie].

* See the maps in Alan E. Esler’s excellent “Botany of the Manawatu” (1978) to see the likely extent and location of historical vegetation cover of the Manawatu, drawn from historical maps and accounts.

** I cannot find the meaning of the name Omarupapaku. This is not helped by the fact that any references I have found to it are in older history books which do not use macrons to denote longer vowels. However, it could be derived from the words “pāpaku”, meaning shallow, and “maru” meaning cover or shaded. If the initial “o” is long (ō), this can mean “place of”. So, “place of the shady shallows”. If anyone knows the meaning, I would be grateful to know.

Postscript: A recent Deed of Settlement (2008) for the Ngati Apa Treaty claim has provided for the name of the reserve to be changed from “Omarupāpaku” to “Omarupāpako”. This wetland formed the southern extent of Ngati Apa’s rohe (their settlements were focused more around the Rangitikei River), and is likely to have been an important source of resources such as eels, and flax and other plants for weaving.

For other kahikatea forest stories, see alsoThe slewing of our kahikatea forests: how Jurassic giants became butter boxesThe conquest of the “noble” forest of Waihou; The city of hidden lagoons: Palmerston (of the north) ; The place of an echo: Pūtaringamotu (Deans Bush)

Photo top: How Omarupapaku may have looked when Wakefield first saw it. “Exterior view of kahikatea (Dacycarpus dacrydioides) swamp forest.” Harihari, West Coast, South Island. Photo: J. H. Johns. Above: Round Bush Reserve today. As can be seen the forest is severely degraded, with the original canopy species long disappeared. Bracken, gorse and other scrub can be seen in the foreground. Photo by Erica Jones. See Erica’s account and photos of her visit to the Reserve on her website.

5 thoughts on “Omarupapaku “Old Mother Parker”: the forest that was

  1. Alan December 26, 2011 / 12:18 am

    Any idea if Kahikatea have been or will be replanted there?

    Keep up the great posts and have a great Xmas and NY! 🙂

  2. envirohistorynz December 26, 2011 / 7:04 am

    Good question, Alan. It would be good to find out. I am not aware of any regeneration projects there. There may be some natural regeneration, but as there are both deer and possums present (which would eat young saplings) new growth would not have much of a chance I suspect.
    And thank you for the seasons greetings and your kind support! 🙂

  3. jamie December 30, 2011 / 8:43 pm

    Hi, thanks for this blog. I thought for a minute there was another Lake Papaitonga to explore, but no ‘tall timber unfortunately. Having only recently discovered your blog I’m looking forward to future postings

  4. envirohistorynz January 3, 2012 / 7:32 am

    In response to your question, Alan. There are replanting initiatives going on at the reserve, led by the DOC office in Palmerston North. My contact was not sure whether kahikatea are among those species being planted but will confirm.

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