Kepa Bush knowledge shared

Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei nursery workers on seed hunt in Kepa Bush

On Friday, July 1, Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei - Pourewa nursery workers went on an exploration of Kepa Bush Reserve with two veteran volunteers, John La Roche and Jim Scott who’ve played a major part in keeping rats and possums to low levels. Also joining the visit were Roy Clements with over 20 years of environmental transformation effort at Selwyn Bush, and Local Board member Margaret Voyce whose responsibility is to look after Ōrākei’s important natural environment and the volunteers who do the work.  

The nursery workers were keen to see what special trees grow in Kepa Bush because

they want to use seeds with a local (Ōrākei) whakapapa to grow a million native trees for their nursery. What better seedbank could there be than this  bush reserve, adjacent to their iwi land, which is one of the few original pieces of native forest remaining on the Auckland isthmus? 

A colourful group in green fluoro vests, the nursery workers followed their team leader Wendy Watts and John La Roche  a mere hundred meters or so from the entrance to the iwi’s nursery along Kepa Road to Colenso Place, a small no-exit street between New World and Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei land that is the closest of three entrances to the reserve off Kepa Rd.

A colourful sign erected by Auckland Council marked the entrance, and John, always visible in his bright blue jacket,  confidently strode ahead and disappeared into what looked like a black hole.

Once in the bush it was a magical world of green and brown leaves and trunks, with well- formed undulating pathways and steps wending their way through the 13.6 hectares of bush.  Looking at Kepa Bush in 2022, it would be easy to overlook the 40-plus years of hard work by groups and individuals that has gradually healed  the land from farming damage, suppressed 70 weed species as well as possums and rodents, and helped the native bush regenerate. 

Mature Ponga formed a backdrop to a range of notable large, individual trees, including  kohekohe,  pohutukawa and  tōtara, some estimated to be at least 100 years old. John La Roche knew all the taonga trees and was keen to show Wendy and her team exactly where they were. John has recently published The Pourewa Valley Story, including descriptions and pictures of Kepa Bush trees identified by numbers. The intention is that this will be available to visitors on their mobile phones by scanning a QR code at the reserve entrances. Number signs will be placed beside each of these trees to help visitors see the trees described.

On this exploratory walk John  pointed out several trees, including kōwhai and kohekohe, that had dropped viable seeds. Before you could say “Whakapapa” it was heads down and hands in the leaf litter as the team carefully scooped them up and put them in the bucket to take back to the nursery. Wendy took note of a mature rewarewa for seed collection at a later date. 

Admiring a tall, healthy kānuka with branches spread far overhead, a nursery worker provided a helpful way to distinguish kānuka from mānuka: kānuka’s leaves are soft, whilst mānuka’s are sharp, hence “Kind kānuka, mean mānuka”.

At the southern boundary of the bush there was a wooden seat with a panoramic view of the recently-opened shared path/ Te Ara Ki Uta Ki Tui through Pourewa Valley. Cyclists and walkers could be clearly seen on the impressive raised path winding towards Auckland City; perhaps some of them glanced across the valley and saw a flash of fluoro amidst a swathe of dark green bush. 

Then it was a meandering path uphill until, without having retraced their steps, the party arrived at Colenso Place again. On the walk back to NWO’s nursery, Wendy thanked John, but it was obviously a two-way thing; John was delighted to be able to pass on his knowledge to a younger generation with a commitment to this special bush reserve that matches his own.

John summed up his response: “The whole Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei nursery establishment along with the adjacent Māra Kai garden is such an amazing achievement where the staff are always keen to make visitors welcome and share their knowledge. Obviously it is a challenge to identify original native species that grew in the area before humans arrived. Kepa Bush is the only patch of original native bush remaining, even though it was damaged by 25 years’ stock use, so the older trees are key to providing seed for the nursery.”

—Story and pix by Jan Power


1. Here we are. Team! Wendy Watts. Team Lead, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei - Pouwera Nursery.

2. John La Roche plunges into the bush.

3. Kohekohe: estimated age 300 years.

4. Collecting kōwhai seeds from the forest floor.

5. Ponga backdrop.

6. One hundred-year-old pohutukawa.

7. Shared Path/Te Ara Ki Uta Ki Tui seen from southern part of Kepa Bush.

8. Large tōtara.

9. Large kānuka — one of many in Kepa Bush.

10. Gravel path provides firm footing and track boundaries.

11. Scanning the ground for seeds; large rewarewa in foreground.

12. Getting the measure of all they see.

13. Group pic - Denise Tamaariki,Tracy Makoare, Wendy Watts, Qascidy- Jay Kaie-Rakete, Josephine Teua-Down (Pourewa Native Plant Nursery), Margaret Voyce (Ōrākei Local Board Member), Roy Clements, John La Roche and Jan Power.