By: Christopher Cookson
If someone asked you, “What grows in Marlborough?” what would your response be?
For many people, perhaps the first thing that would come to mind might be grapes. Perhaps asked to think a little more, perhaps they might also mention pine forests, and hopefully a few might recall the Marlborough Rock Daisy.
Grapes only take up around 3% of Marlborough's land area, but since they're planted in areas where roads go, it's easy to drive around Marlborough and get the impression that the region is mostly planted in vines. The reality is quite different, and Marlborough actually boasts an incredible amount of biodiversity if you take time to take a look. Even somewhere that might not seem all that exciting like the Wither Hills actually has quite a wide variety of native plants if you know where to look, and Picton is spoilt with the Victoria Domain tracks and Essons Valley tracks leading straight into rich native bush with everything from tall trees, to things like native orchids. The wide range of habitats in Marlborough from coastal salt marsh to alpine herb fields mean there are actually an awful lot of interesting plants, and given that where plants go, there's usually something that wants to try to eat them, some fascinating critters too.
I've always had a bit of an interest in native plants and animals, and as a kid David Attenborough was a bit of an idol with his nature documentaries. New Zealand's own natural history unit also produced some great documentaries. Making films can be time consuming and expensive, however armed with a reasonable camera, anyone can take photographs of native species.
Recently, doing some research to identify native plants photos I intended to publish here on Marlborough Online, I rediscovered iNaturalist, which is a kind of social media for ecology. The aim is to publish observations of living organisms along with details of where they are found, so that it's possible to build up an understanding of their distribution. This has a number of useful purposes. For endangered species, it makes it possible to track how well they are surviving, while with pest species it's possible to keep track of whether they are being contained or are spreading.
It's quite addictive stuff, and when a little 'Research Grade' icon pops up alongside an observation you've made, confirming that it's been correctly identified, I dare say you get a nice little dopamine hit, but it feels more deserving than a Facebook 'like', as it can take more work, and you're doing your bit for science. Of course you may not always know what something is you've seen, and that's the other purpose of iNaturalist. If you see something and want help identifying it, you can post an image, and experts can help you with identification. I found some orchids growing on the Wither Hills, and I'm no expert on native orchids, so posted a picture, and soon had a positive identification, while in the process, I helped document the distribution of the species in question.
The biggest controversies you'll find on iNaturalist aren't to do with politics, but over which species a given observation might be. The one downside is that you can easily end up spending a lot more time than you intend on the site.
Hunting out interesting species is surprisingly fun, especially when you can use a site like iNaturalist to keep 'score' of what you've found. It's almost like a mix of geocaching and orienteering, using your phone GPS to record where you found something, and either your phone camera, or a DSLR camera to record what you found.
If you want to start exploring local flora and want a bit of inspiration, take a look at the modest collection I've compiled of some Marlborough native plants.
After a day out discovering some of the diversity of Marlborough's flora and fauna, you'll gain a new appreciation for all the other things beyond grapes that grow here, and that glass of local wine might just feel well earned.