Myrtle rust has infected what is believed to be the country’s largest pōhutukawa, in the East Cape.
Te Waha o Rerekohu is a tāonga for iwi Ngāti Porou and a tourist attraction for Te Araroa.
“This is bloody serious… Generations lived and died around the tree,” Ngāti Porou kaitiaki (guardian) Graeme Atkins told 1News.
“A lot of people come to East Cape just to see this tree.”
The sacred tree is now at risk of being overcome by the pathogen, which spreads through the wind.
There is no known cure for the disease.
Atkins said finding myrtle rust on Te Waha o Rerekohu in February was a “sad day”.
“The dreaded day has dawned that myrtle rust has finally appeared on our big tree.
“What’s happening with pōhutukawa at home, it’s really bad.”
Local hapū decided to make the news public now, after first sharing the discovery with those who have mana whenua (land authority) in the area and hearing their views on what should happen.
'This tree to us is tapu'
The pōhutukawa is believed to be the oldest and largest of its kind in Aotearoa.
“Those things may be true but they're really of little significance for us because this tree to us is tapu,” Ngāti Porou kaumātua Lloyd Lawson told 1News in 2021.
The tree is named after local chief Rerekohu and is a symbol of the iwi’s long-standing authority and existence.
“How do you replace an iconic tree like that? It’s something that people in this area can stand by and say, 'The man who leant his name to this tree is my tupuna, 13 or 14 generations back,'” Lawson said.
Ngāti Porou kuia Te Raunikau Stainton told 1News in 2021 losing the tree, if it did succumb to the disease, would significantly affect the iwi’s way of life, with karakia (prayer) held under the tree.
“Taonga – this is our taonga,” she said.
'A shining light'
Atkins said myrtle rust surveillance group Te Whakapae Ururoa, which monitors forest from East Cape to Cape Runaway, is the only “shining light” in this situation.
The Government announced three years of funding for the project in 2021, with a manager, plant nursery technician and five field kaimahi (staff) employed.
Atkins said the group has gathered data from stretches of forest which shows from December last year to now, infections have increased in species like pōhutukawa.
“Some have it (myrtle rust) on a couple of hundred metre lines, some don’t… We give them health scores and visit monthly on rotation,” he said.
“It’s just gone from bad to worse. There are heaps of concerning plants.”
Atkins said a climbing rātā species is following in the footsteps of ramarama, which became functionally extinct in the area from the disease.
“She’s not really there anymore,” he said about the rātā vine.
Atkins said it’s concerning pōhutukawa seedlings are being hit with infections as they’re the “future whakapapa” necessary for the species to survive.
A community hui was held last week where locals were told about the work the group is doing and how they can offer support.
Atkins said it’s important to have “our own looking after our own places”.
He said the work is valuable for building knowledge to respond to future incursions as well.
What is myrtle rust?
Myrtle rust is a plant pathogen which is believed to have blown to our shores from Australia.
It was first detected in New Zealand in 2017, sparking a short-lived containment effort from the Government.
Myrtle rust threatens 37 of Aotearoa’s native trees in the myrtle family, including pōhutukawa, rātā and mānuka. Of those, 25 species aren’t found anywhere else in the world.
The pathogen infects new growth on trees and in serious cases, can cause tree death.
The first reported adult tree deaths from the disease were ramarama found in Te Araroa in 2020.
The fungal disease has been found throughout the North Island and in some parts of the South Island.