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Mothplant seedlings thrive in a light gap
Mothplant pods
The rocky shore of Cuvier Island
The weed hunters start work for the day


News Article

Mothplant Massacre on Cuvier Island
May 15, 2004

After two hours on the rolling sea the charter boat drew into a small rocky bay to offload its human cargo on Cuvier Island. The yellow inflatable boat splashed into the water and the task of ferrying ashore stores and people began. When the last waterproof barrel was resting safely on the landing rock, the charter boat slipped away, not to return until next Sunday.

Ensconced in the luxurious accommodation of the abandoned lighthouse keepers’ settlement, the weed hunters were able to focus on following day's challenge. It was a challenge that would test the limits of their intrepidness, every ounce of their determination and the very fibres of their leg muscles.

In the thousands of years since it (Cuvier Island) was thrust from the earth’s crust, the volcanic remnant had acquired a cloak of Pohutukawa and other coastal plants. These provided homes for a great diversity of birds, reptiles and invertebrates that remained after the seas rose and the mountain became an island. Many of these survived the settlement by Maori and the creation of a lighthouse station. When the island was cleansed of the four legged plagues, the species that had always called the island home could flourish once again. Some, like the saddleback, flourished so well that they provided a stock for reintroduction to other pestless islands. But once again the island lay beneath a gathering war cloud. This time the invader had no legs, but scrambled and sprawled, and smothered anything beneath it. This time the invader was mothplant!

The weed hunters' first encounter with mothplant came at the site of its first invasion, discovered some six years before. The vile mothplant spawn carpeted the forest floor in pasty green. The weed hunters were driven into a frenzy of scouring and plucking until not a single specimen remained of the thousands of evil seedlings. And they knew that somewhere in the trees above was hiding the progenitor of these slithering hordes.

With necks craned, and eyes darting from leaf to seedling to branch, the weed hunters marched up and down. They scoured the forest for any hint of the evil presence: a silhouetted leaf, a tell-tale hue of green. And then it came “That stem, by your hand!” It was a paler stem than most, flecked with dark, and it arched and curled its way to the canopy. From there the single thin stem wound across, past several trees, until it exploded into a mass of vines and leaves and pods. Each pod packed with winged seed, like troops approaching the beachhead, ready to pour forth and stake their claim on the virgin land.

The weed hunters climbed and pulled, cut and tore. The rent limbs of the mothplant spewed white venom that itched across their skin, into their wounds where it burnt like acid. Eventually the mothplant was subdued. The victorious weed hunters administered the coup de grace with great care, because fatal wounds to mothplant had many times proved to be not so fatal. With the burgeoning pods safely contained, the weed hunters continued on their search. That night they drank wine and slept heartily.

In the following days, trawling the steep slopes alternately grassed and forested, there was nowhere that mothplant was safe. Many plants had lurked, previously unseen, waiting to release their seed. But the vigilant eyes and tireless legs of the weed hunters claimed them all.

As Sunday dawned, eyes scanned the horizon for the boat that would carry them home. The weed hunters departed knowing that this battle had been won, but that there would be many others before they could claim victory in the war.

By Daniel Mahon
Department of Conservation