I heard a thrashing about in the undergrowth, a strangled cry and a lot of swearing. Greg had ventured into the muddy, steep-sided gully, which is now our backyard, to collect oranges and grapefruit. We had been eyeing these juicy prizes for days, but the path to them is unusually treacherous thanks to the rain.
The normal route to our laden trees now requires slithering down a steep, muddy bank, gripping branches to slow our descent. Getting back up again is… hard.
There is an alternative route through the neighbour’s well-kept property, followed by a scratchy traverse and slippery descent, although the ease of the first section tends to engender a fatal complacency in the second. Also, this requires admitting to the neighbour he was right about putting in proper steps.
To be fair, harvesting our own grapefruit has never been so difficult. Our citrus trees have fruited early – and in previous winters rainy weeks were followed by enough dry weather to allow fruit picking without the need for crampons and a change of pants.
Last week Gulf News writer Silvia Massa spoke to observant islanders about the year’s bizarre weather. Her story, headlined ‘Climate change confuses native flora and fauna,’ quoted farmer Malcolm Philcox, who has been recording weather data from Awaawaroa Bay since the 1970s. He told her he worried about the fate of the island’s taraire trees, especially if tree roots exposed by so much rain were to be baked in hot, dry summers.
This seems likely, given the World Meteorological Organisation’s May warning of the high chance of record-breaking heat in the coming five years. Human-caused warming is amplifying the climate pattern known as El Niño, which have been linked to historic droughts in Aotearoa. Since then, another European climate service reported the earth’s hottest June ever. The phrase “uncharted territory” is being bandied about.
The taraire is not only a beautiful and special tree, but is also a favorite food of the kererū, a bird which Waiheke’s Native Bird Rescue founder Karen Saunders told Silvia has been seen less often this season, possibly due to the lack of fruit on karaka trees. A shortage of these beloved pigeons is more bad news for the taraire. Bird and tree are codependent – the kererū is the only bird left in Aotearoa able to swallow and disperse chunky taraire seeds.
Waiheke environmentalist Ivan Kitson told Silvia it is harder to know what plants will grow and fruit. “There’s no consistency anymore,” he told her.
This pattern is being observed in gardens around the world.
Jeff Lowenfels has written a gardening column for The Anchorage Daily News for 47 years, such an impressive span the New York Times wrote a story about him. “His advice to Alaskans,” the NYT reported, “has changed with the transformation of the planet… In 1996, he noted that Alaska was the only state in the country that couldn’t grow okra. In 2014, he mused that that might soon be possible.
“In 2019, it happened. He could not believe it. The crop was shorthand for all the change he has witnessed since he moved to the city in the 1970s, a distance between past and present that he has measured in vegetables and fruits — from cabbage, snow peas and potatoes to tomatoes, pumpkins and now, incredibly, okra. ‘Holy crow!’ he said.”
In the UK, a study of nature observations dating back to the 1750s revealed plants are flowering on average around 26 days earlier than they used to – trees less than this, herbs more.
In New Zealand, change is everywhere. Commercial berry growers, once a common sight in the Wairarapa, have left the region as the winter there is no longer chilly enough for a reliable crop.
Waiheke wine growers have spent years adapting to climate change, from the warm, torrential rains disrupting spraying to the heightened risk of drought and fire. Climate change, noted the business magazine Forbes, “poses a significant threat for all of agriculture, but it has particularly disruptive potential for the wine industry. This is because wine quality is closely linked to weather and quality is linked to value.”
As Californian wine growers are learning to their cost, grapes’ permeable skins make them highly sensitive to a dreaded condition known as ‘smoke taint’, only obvious after fermentation. Wine from some of California’s most hallowed vines, bathed in smoke during the Glass Fire of 2020, “smelled like a spent, day-old cigarette,” according to the New York magazine piece When Smoke Gets in Your Wine: Growers, vintners, and scientists are scrambling to protect California’s prized Napa Cab from the aftertaste of wildfires.
Here’s a sentence, from the story, to chill a vintner’s blood: “Lifting the glass to my nose, I thought I detected bacon.” • Jenny Nicholls