While staying for a few days in Te Anau on the South Island, Bob and I made frequent trips into Fiordland National Park. Panoramic views of the landscape were spectacular and in places made even more beautiful by broad swaths of Russell Lupins that grow in abundance there.
Milford Road is the only highway through Fiordland National Park to Milford Sound. It runs through the Eglinton Valley that takes its name from a river by the same name. That name resonated with Bob and me because back home, in our neighborhood, there is an Eglinton Avenue.
Eglinton Valley is one of only a few valleys accessible by road in the whole of Fiordland National Park. Carved by glaciers thousands of years ago, the Earl and Livingstone Mountains shoulder the valley soaring to over 6,000 feet on the west and east sides.
Crystal clear waters of the Eglinton River flow through the flat-bottomed valley next to large areas of lowland Beech forest that also march up the mountain slopes. Native Red Mountain Beech forests can only be found in a few places in New Zealand. Eglinton Valley is one of those locations.
Fiordland National Park is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The singularity of its geological features has led to some species developing in isolation. In the Eglinton Valley alone, there are plants and wildlife found nowhere else on Earth, as well as over 30 rare, endangered or threatened species.
Bob and I were in awe of the outstanding scenery as we drove State Highway 94 (Milford Road). It was November, late spring in the Southern Hemisphere, and Eglinton Valley was lush with fresh growth and abloom with thousands of Russell Lupins. It was an amazing sight to behold.
More familiar to me as a flower in my garden at home, Russell Lupins are a perennial plant that produces flowers on a tall spike.
Russell Lupins thrive in moist habitats, so the Eglinton Valley was a perfect location for these plants to take a foothold.
Wild Russell Lupins hail from North America where the wild plants most often grow in shades of blue and purple.
Through collecting and cross-pollination with other species, a British Estate Gardener, George Russell, was able to develop more interesting and diverse colours of Russell Lupins. He spent 26 years to achieve this starting in 1911.
The plants were first introduced to New Zealand by settlers in the MacKenzie Basin area in the 1930s, and by 1958 these wildflowers were naturalized. Russell lupins now have colonized streambanks to the detriment of many native species of plants and animals.
Because there are frequent spots to pullover along Milford Road, travelers have the opportunity to explore the Eglinton River and its riparian habitat. Bob and I took advantage of a couple of stops to have a closer look.
On one such stop, we put up a Great Cormorant that had been hoping to catch a trout in the Eglinton River. The River is a trout fisherman’s paradise so there is no wonder that a Cormorant would be attracted to its banks.
After further exploration, Bob and I were surprised to see a Black-fronted Tern flying low over the shallow water also looking for a meal.
It is one thing for these birds to look for food in the river, but the proliferation and dense ground cover of Russell Lupins makes it difficult for certain bird species to nest. Wrybills, Black Stilts and Banded Dotterels are being forced out of their natural nesting grounds.
Not to mention that the colonization of Russell Lupins is crowding out native species of plants. Surprisingly, these wildflowers can actually contribute to flooding and erosion in river valleys. Their dense root systems cause sand and gravel to amass thus altering the flow of waterways.
I was smitten with the spectacle of these freely-growing wildflowers whose blossoms would peak by late December. We could see an abundance of flowerheads that hadn’t even opened yet.
It was hard to imagine that the sight could be any more beautiful. But, as spring moves into early summer, vaster areas of the landscape would be awash in pastel hues as the remainder of the Russell Lupin buds burst into blossom.
The quality of the flowers made it easy to see how these plants became introduced from settlers’ gardens. They were exquisite.
Despite the bad reputation of the Russell Lupins, their spread has not hindered some birds from inhabiting the Eglinton Valley. We saw a number of Swamp Harriers or Australasian Harriers making passes above the Eglinton Valley hoping to score some small mammal or bird.
Not everyone in New Zealand is concerned about the vigorous Russell Lupins. In fact, farmers in the high country have found these robust plants make ideal sheep feed and have petitioned the government to allow these wildflowers to be planted on leased pastoral land.
Growing in most cases higher than an average man’s height, Russell Lupins are being looked upon as a means of saving the merino sheep farming industry. The government has granted permission for the plants to be sowed as a high-country fodder crop.
So, although Bob and I were enthralled with the expansive spread of colourful pink, purple, red and blue Russell Lupins, their tall stalks swaying gracefully in gusts of wind, we harboured concerns for the fate of many of New Zealand’s native plants and animals.
Bob and I looked forward to every trip into Fiordland National Park knowing that we would pass through the Eglinton River Valley. Milford Road follows the course of the Eglinton River for a good 50 kilometres and always offered magnificent landscapes to enjoy. We couldn’t deny that the beauty of the Russell Lupins enhanced the views.