One of the oldest pear trees in the country now bears fruit of a different kind

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Under the watchful gaze of Taupiri Maunga, across the Waikato River, a lone pear tree stands in an enclosure with its roots firmly anchored in New Zealand history.

The fruit tree was one of many planted by Reverend Benjamin Yate Ashwell near the Anglican mission school he established at Kāitōtehe, about 20 km north of Hamilton.

Ashwell made his way to the Waikato region in 1839 where he was authorized by Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, the first Kīngi Māori, to set up the mission on the banks of Kāitōtehe Pā, near the Waikato River.

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Over the next several years, the mission gained popularity among the Maori, and the Church Missionary Society freed up more resources for Ashwell to develop.

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Pear is the only remaining fruit tree planted in an orchard behind Ashwell Mission School in Kāitōtehe, near Taupiri.

Tom Lee / Stuff

Pear is the only remaining fruit tree planted in an orchard behind Ashwell Mission School in Kāitōtehe, near Taupiri.

One of the first things he did was place an order for fruit trees to be shipped from England to Aotearoa.

Pears, peaches, plums and nectarines were believed to be among the trees Ashwell planted in his orchard behind the mission.

Kaumātua Tame Pokaia, Ngāti Mahuta and Ngāti Hikairo, said that a pear tree was all that was left of the orchard and that it was a living memory of the mission site.

He believed it to have been planted in 1843, after researching Ashwell’s stay in Kāitōtehe with the Anglican Bishop of New Zealand, Sir David Moxon, in Hamilton.

Pokaia uses a storyboard for her educational tours of Kāitōtehe Pā and the neighboring mission.

Tom Lee / Stuff

Pokaia uses a storyboard for her educational tours of Kāitōtehe Pā and the neighboring mission.

The land of Kāitōtehe was a generous supplier of kai not only to the locals, but the food grown there was transported to Auckland via the river to help feed the growing city.

The introduction of fruit would have been a nice addition to the menu for Maori children in the mission who used to eat food from the ngahere, the forest, such as kawakawa and ringaringa, Pokaia said.

“But I can imagine the children looking at these fruit trees as they were growing up, wondering what they were. They would never have seen a pear tree or a peach tree.

“They were reportedly told to leave them alone until they were ripe and we know the fruit has become popular among children.”

A photo of Reverend Benjamin Yate Ashwell on the storyboard.

Tom Lee / Stuff

A photo of Reverend Benjamin Yate Ashwell on the storyboard.

Kāitōtehe Pā remains a visibly important landscape today as it would have been in the mid-1800s when a group of rulers approached Pōtatau to be the first Kīngi Māori, a position he reluctantly accepted in 1858.

The land around the pā leading to the mission and the river was confiscated by the Crown during the invasion of Waikato and was not returned to Maori ownership until the late 1980s.

It is now administered by a trust comprising members of Pokaia whānau, their extended families and relatives.

Tame Pokaia is also the kaumātua of Wintec and has spent many years teaching in its Maori studies department.

A photo of the Ashwell Mission School.

Tom Lee / Stuff

A photo of the Ashwell Mission School.

During the 2000s, he often used Kāitōtehe Pā and the mission site as an educational resource to help young minds better understand New Zealand history.

“After making this first visit with my own class, word spread and every class wanted to do it. “

The pear tree, his connection to Ashwell, and the pā featured prominently in his bespoke educational tours that had piqued the interest of more Kiwis keen to learn more about the past.

It included the Waikato Regional Economic Development Agency, known at the time as WRDA.

Pokaia with some of the relics found in the enclosure next to the mission school site.

Tom Lee / Stuff

Pokaia with some of the relics found in the enclosure next to the mission school site.

“I explained to them that the Waikato region was an economic powerhouse in the 1800s because of the land and food that was grown here and in places like Rangiaowhia.

“They asked me my opinion on a brand for the band so we talked about the concept of waka, how everyone works in unison and how our people have used that concept to navigate here. across the ocean.

“And because of their visit here in Kāitōtehe, they renamed themselves Te Waka. “

This visit and many others had prompted Pokaia and her whānau to think about what else they could do to share the stories and story of Kāitōtehe and the mission.

The artefacts help show the changes brought to life as more and more settlers have arrived.

Tom Lee / Stuff

The artefacts help show the changes brought to life as more and more settlers have arrived.

“Our plan is to apply for funding so that we can look at a plan to establish a building similar to the one Ashwell built for the mission here by the river.

“It will give us the opportunity to show people what it was like and to share all these stories about the mission and the people of the day.”

Looking back towards Kāitōtehe Pā, Pokaia indicates where the māra kai, the vegetable gardens above the pā, were located. The food stalls are still there to see today.

“So we are thinking of a trail from the pā site, through the bush and up to these food pits, which could provide another educational resource to share.”

The pear tree and some of its descendants have particular protective mentions.

Tom Lee / Stuff

The pear tree and some of its descendants have particular protective mentions.

A magnolia tree and English oak tree, also planted by Ashwell, serve as reference points of where the mission school would have been near the Waikato River.

A study of historic and notable Waikato trees completed in 1973, conducted by Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, showed the oak to be an exotic tree of national interest and possibly the first of its kind planted in Waikato.

Study researchers also identified the pear tree at the Ashwell Mission in 1968 and believed it was the larger of the two planted, the other at Woodlands Estate, Gordonton, 7 miles away.

The study noted: “Pear trees live longer than most other fruit trees.”

Another image of the missionary school that Pokaia uses to tell stories of Kāitōtehe.

Tom Lee / Stuff

Another image of the missionary school that Pokaia uses to tell stories of Kāitōtehe.

There have been many accounts of missionaries planting fruit trees at their stations around New Zealand, including the Reverend John Butler, who planted 185 in his mission in Kerikeri.

The only surviving tree was also a pear tree, planted in 1819.

Cultivating the land near the Ashwell mission for crops in recent years had uncovered many relics that Pokaia keeps for visitors, in a shed near the pā.

He asked an expert from the Department of Conservation to date items that included tools, cups, plates, bottles, and eating utensils, most likely used in the mid-1800s.

Pokaia says the pear tree now has seven descendants, including one that grows at St Peter's Anglican Church in Hamilton.

Tom Lee / Stuff

Pokaia says the pear tree now has seven descendants, including one that grows at St Peter’s Anglican Church in Hamilton.

“The story I use on tour explains how all of these things signaled change had happened in our field, it’s part of the story that we can’t change.

“Some of the changes were good, the only change I didn’t like was the introduction of weapons of war.

“Up the road in Rangiriri, the story there is about the war and the important battle that took place, but here in Kāitōtehe, it’s a different story.”

Ashwell’s pear tree in the enclosure has remained a central part of Kāitōtehe’s story. It stays healthy and shows signs of new fruit for the summer season.

“They call her pear mummy because she now has seven children from cuttings taken from her over the years to grow elsewhere.

“She’s all alone here without any of the other trees that were planted next to her many years ago.

“But she has children who will be the next generation.”

One of her children was growing up outside of St Peter’s Church in Hamilton, donated to the Anglican Church because Ashwell was an Anglican missionary.

A few were donated to Hamilton City Council and another was growing in the garden of present-day Kīngi Māori, Tūheitia.

There was also one growing outside the hangar near Kāitōtehe Pā where Pokaia brings people for visits.

Pokaia said it was likely that cuttings were also taken from Ashwell’s orchard in the 1800s, by the parents of the children participating in the mission, eager to grow fruit trees closer to their homes.

He had tried to document as much as he could to keep track of the extent of the orchard.

The City of Hamilton, the District of Waikato, and the Waikato Regional Councils and other agencies have helped propagate, report, and fencing the pear tree and its descendants.

Pokaia realized that he hadn’t taken a cutting for his own garden after spending a good part of 30 years tending to the mummy pear tree and giving to others.

“So we have two cuttings here, one will be offered to those who organize the commemoration of the battle of Rangiaowhia (February 21, 1864) and I understand that it will be planted near a church there.

“The other is for my personal garden.”

Pokaia has scheduled a small ceremony on December 3 at her home with nearby Active Explorers Farnborough childcare center to reveal a plaque next to the last member of the famous Kāitōtehe pear family.


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