by Chris Tobin
If old trees could talk, they’d have a yarn or two to tell.
Certainly, Timaru’s well-known “Champagne Tree” in Wai-iti Rd would fall into that bracket.
In recent years, the tree has gained prominence in Timaru for lights that twinkle above its lofty boughs to herald Christmas.
Arguably, the tree’s greatest claim to fame might be for a man who once climbed it.
There is no official documentation that he did it, nor did he carve his name into the trunk to commemorate the feat.
But the owners of the property on which the stately monarch stands, Robyn and Gary Borland, have it on good authority that the man concerned was one of the country’s most distinguished citizens.
“People who lived next door were friends of Edmund Hillary. He stayed there as a young man and they said he climbed it,” Mr Borland said.
“He must have had to have spikes on to do it.”
Possibly Sir Ed, with Tenzing Norgay the first to summit Mt Everest, was visiting the region for some climbing at Aoraki Mt Cook and undertook the feat as a dare, or to test his skills, perhaps for a glass of champagne as an incentive.
Together with the Lovelock Oak at Timaru Boys’ High School, the Champagne Tree is probably Timaru’s most historically significant.
The tree stands at the back of the Borlands’ property in Wai-iti Rd, where they have lived for several years.
In that time they have become enthusiastic protectors of the tree and keepers of its history.
“We’ve signed a declaration with the council not to cut it down,” Mr Borland said.
Mrs Borland has collected clippings and records of the tree’s history.
“It was wheelbarrowed here,” she said.
The Wellingtonia gigantica is a direct link to Timaru’s first European settlers. The seedling was given by George Rhodes, runholder at The Levels, to his wife, Elizabeth. They had married at Lyttelton in May 1854.
George died in 1864 and Mrs Rhodes remarried a Timaru lawyer, Arthur Perry, who owned Beverley, a 12-acre (4.8ha) estate in present-day lower Wai-iti Rd that had a large grand house and one of the best gardens in New Zealand.
At the time of her remarriage, Elizabeth lived at Linwood House, today the site of the Timaru District Council offices.
She must have had some fondness for the tree, since she had it wheelbarrowed to her new home at Beverley. This was in 1873.
At the time, the tree might not have been a healthy specimen.
Captain A.W. Wright, of Craighead, did not think so. He bet a case of champagne that the tree would not survive at its new home.
The tree survived and thrived and became known as “The Champagne Tree”. Today it soars to 34m, having withstood being pummelled and lashed by countless storms over the years.
“A rotten part got blown out at the top a few years ago,” Mr Borland said.
However, he expected that all going well, the tree should be around for another couple of hundred years, a living reminder of the early days of European settlement.