SEATTLE — The tree canopy is sparse, the branches of shrubs prickly, the foliage bronze.
Nature’s gifts are understated here in the New Zealand Forest that opened Sept. 15 at the Washington Park Arboretum, but they are as typically Kiwi in the dramatic grandeur of spiky grasses, dry creek beds and boulders as firs, cedar and waterfalls are typical of the Northwest.
The $2 million project is the first of five eco-geographic forests to be completed in the Pacific Connections Garden, which eventually will cover 14 acres and be the largest exhibit of its kind in North America.
As it is, officials from the Seattle Parks Department, the Arboretum Foundation and the University of Washington Botanical Gardens, which sponsor the project, believe the forest is home to the largest single collection of New Zealand plant species outside the country.
Seeing it “is almost overwhelming compared to what was here. … It’s a destination for people to come to,” said John Watt, arboretum director emeritus.
Dozens of people, from New Zealand expats to gardeners, came for the opening ceremonies. Maori dancers performed, and traditional songs were sung as visitors strolled the paths through the exhibit.
There are tea trees and pepper plants with pungent leaves, lemon wood, a tiny fuchsia capable of growing to 40 feet, another so small it looks like curling ground cover.
All are from the land once roamed by moas — those giant flightless, now-extinct birds that influenced how the flora evolved.
Seattle Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith recalled how the site was once designated to become the R.H. Thomson Expressway, a 1960s highway project designed to relieve Interstate 5 traffic via a route through the eastern half of the city. The idea died in a special election in 1972.
Now an oasis from the city’s noise and fast pace, the arboretum and its New Zealand Forest “is the kind of place you think of when you’re stuck on I-5,” Smith said.
The New Zealand forest got its start in the early 1990s, when then-Honorary New Zealand Consul General John Bollard planted southern beech trees on a small space in the arboretum, in anticipation that there someday would be a larger forest. In 2001, the plan for the Pacific Connections Garden was created.
Eventually it will have gardens with plants from China, Australia and Chile, and a Cascadia forest from southern Oregon, along with the New Zealand Forest, the first to be finished.
Half the cost of the New Zealand project was paid for with the Seattle 2008 Parks and Green Space Levy, and the rest through private donations.
There are about 10,000 plantings, many from seed. All are indigenous to Otago on the south island of New Zealand, an area selected because its climate is similar to the Northwest’s, the Arboretum’s Randall Hitchin said.
Bollard’s beech trees, which had 10-foot root balls, were moved to the site by crane, Hitchin said.
Along the rocky paths in the forest exhibit is an ipe-wood bench carved in Maori designs by New Zealander Caine Tauwhare.
“The wood had a mind of its own,” Tauwhare said. “I greet the wood like a friend. Then I beat the heck out of it and form a bit of a relationship.”
For the Maori, the symbols are “our Bible,” Tauwhare said. They tell the stories of generations.
What emerges are carvings that capture the stories of the mother Earth and father sky and man’s relationship to both, and a reminder to be grateful for the gifts from nature — like the “gift of a spider web,” he said.