Myrtle rust putting pōhutukawa at dire risk

6:43 am on 1 June 2017

Officials are warning the iconic pōhutukawa could be one of the worst affected plants and even die off completely as the myrtle rust outbreak spreads.

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The pōhutukawa is among the native species at threat from myrtle rust. Photo: 123rf.com

The Department of Conservation (DOC) said dozens of its staff were scouring the country collecting seeds from native plants to safeguard against the worst case scenario.

Threats manager Alan Ross said the seeds of 10 native myrtle variants were secure in the Massey University seed bank, and the race was on to collect those of the outstanding 17 plant types.

Mr Ross said collecting the seeds was the prudent thing to do.

"It's a safeguard in case the impact of the myrtle rust is severe. Some of the myrtle species are relatively uncommon and one in fact is very rare. It's for a worst case scenario."

The outlook was not good for pōhutukawa, he said.

"The Raoul Island pōhutukawa is fairly similar to New Zealand and on Raoul Island the pōhutukawa has been quite heavily impacted.

"Certainly all the young shoots are getting the disease and over time it's got to be really hard for a tree to survive if all the young growth is being impacted."

Mr Ross said there was still hope a natural genetic variant in pōhutukawa might be resistant to myrtle rust.

Although no cases had so far been found in the wild, DOC expected the disease would become established in New Zealand, he said.

There were now 29 infections in the North Island, with 24 in Taranaki, three in Northland and two in the Waikato.

The other species affected so far included ramarama, lophomyrtus, eucalyptus, mānuka and monkey apple.

The latest outbreak had infected two mature pōhutukawa at a Waitara golf course.

President of the Manukorihi Golf Club, David Butler, fears in a worst case scenario infected pohutukawa trees at the course may have to be removed.

Manukorihi Golf Club president David Butler says he fears the trees at the course will have to be removed. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Manukorihi Golf Club president David Butler feared the trees might have to go.

"The worst case, that is what they are telling us. There could be another trees in that area [that have to go].

"We're not happy, but at the end of the day we have to deal with it and we're going the best way we can with the Ministry for Primary Industries to cope with it."

Mr Butler said the golfers were getting used to their new reality.

"We've got about 250 club members and the areas have been isolated, so currently the golfers are still able to use the course without going into those designated areas and they are washing their equipment and so forth as they leave."

Ann Naus says the till has been steady since Big Jims Garden Centre reopened this morning.

Ann Naus says the till has been steady since Big Jims Garden Centre reopened this morning. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Meanwhile, Big Jims Garden Centre reopened today after being shut down two weeks ago when the myrtle rust outbreak struck Taranaki.

Co-owner Vince Naus said it had had a big impact on the business.

"It's been like a morgue. We've been very limited in what we are allowed to do here.

"We've basically kept the plants alive by watering them and in that time MPI's had a spray programme, been checking all our plants to see if they could find any more disease.

"All the plants in the myrtle family have been taken off site and destroyed."

Mr Naus said his bottom-line had also been hit.

"We haven't been able to open the doors for 14 days so we absolutely haven't seen a dollar come through the door.

"We're working with MPI now as far as compensation goes but we'll have to put all the paperwork in place and see how we go with that."

Despite the disruption Mr Naus said he counted himself lucky because several other nurseries in the area were still in lock down.

Pauline Crowley-Zieltes is confident there will be no problems caused from buying plants at Big Jims.

Pauline Crowley-Zieltjes is confident there will be no problems caused from buying plants at Big Jims. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Huirangi local Pauline Crowley-Zieltjes was just happy to have her favourite garden centre open again.

"It's a great centre and we were shocked when it was closed and we just thought we'd come down today and on their first day back and we'll catch up and have a big spend up and get some lovely coffee next door."

Mrs Crowley-Zieltjes was confident there was no risk in buying plants at the centre.

"I'm trusting the authorities and Vince to be on to it."

The latest advice from MPI was for gardeners to avoid planting any species susceptible to myrtle rust, particularly in those areas already affected by the disease.

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