Stride of New Zealand: ancient ‘walking tree’ wins tree of the year | Trees and forests

A lone rātā that appears to be striding across the landscape has taken gold in New Zealand’s tree of the year competition.

The New Zealand Arboricultural Association – which runs the competition to celebrate New Zealand’s trees – said the “extraordinary” northern rātā had earned the name “The Walking Tree” because of its resemblance to one of JRR Tolkien’s sentient tree-like Ents.

The 32-metre tall tree, which grows near Karamea, on the west coast of the South Island, “captivated the hearts and imaginations of New Zealanders with its unique appearance and fascinating life story”, the association said.

The tree was the clear winner in the third annual competition, gaining 42% of the total votes and beating out other well-known favourites, including the country’s most photographed tree – a willow that emerges out of Lake Wānaka and has become so recognisable it has gained its own social media hashtag: #thatwanakatree.

The northern rātā is one of New Zealand’s tallest flowering trees. It begins life as an epiphyte, attached to another host tree. Eventually, its roots reach the ground and it envelops the original host. The species can live for 1,000 years. It is unclear how old the Walking Tree is but its existence was known about as far back as 1875.

‘The Walking tree’ grows near Karamea, on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Photograph: Gareth Andrews

Karamea local Pete Curry said his family cleared the land of trees when they arrived in the region in 1875. “The land was dense bush and my great-grandfather and his brothers cleared it for farming,” Curry told Christchurch newspaper The Press.

But they left the Walking Tree standing.

“They must have thought the tree was unique because they didn’t leave anything else. They slashed and burned everything in those days.”

The association’s president, Richie Hill, said the Walking Tree was a prime example of some of New Zealand’s remarkable trees.

“This award recognises the significant role that trees play within our communities, not only enhancing our local environments but also providing a sense of place for past, present, and future generations.”

New Zealand’s most photographed tree – a willow emerging out of Lake Wānaka. Photograph: Pachanatt Ounpitipong/Getty Images

Development West Coast chief executive, Heath Milne, said the region – largely made up of conservation land – is spoilt when it comes to trees.

“But one tree stands a branch above the rest – Karamea’s Walking Tree”.

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