After our encounter with the Cunonia on the heathy slopes of Mount Moné, we made a steep, muddy ascent to the fog-shrouded summit, where ghostly figures hovered in the mist. (Click any pic to enlarge.)
They were all around us, yet all seemed to be back from the marked path, as though preferring to be admired from afar. Phil, in the fearless spirit of science, led me right up to one.
As a group, the Araucaria are the most distinctive and confronting of southern trees: primitive constructions rising to great size usually in a very symmetrical form, with fleshy, pointed leaves, like little spikes.
Northern readers are most likely to know Araucaria via Norfolk Island "Pine," Araucaria heterophylla, which is a common houseplant in Europe and America. Readers in temperate North America and Europe may also know the so-called Monkey Puzzle (Araucaria araucana) from Chile, which is planted now and then as a striking and very sharp ornamental tree in large lawns. Australians also know Norfolk Island Pine as the tall symmetrical tree that's planted universally -- to the point of cliché --in oceanfront city parks. As a group, the Araucaria date from the Cretaceous, which means that they once fended off browsing dinosaurs. They can feel a bit reptilian themselves.
Araucaria muelleri is found only in New Caledonia and only in a few locations. They seem to dislike forests but enjoy exposed sites. Here they clustered on a mountaintop, towering over the diverse, shrubby heath. Later we met one in a more dramatic pose, reaching from a very steep slope to hang out over a valley.
Phil climbed up to meet its nearest foliage, and ended up looking like he was having a close but friendly encounter with a very alien hand.
Meanwhile I studied the other end of the same tree as it gave shape to the valley below.
The brown things on the ends appear to be male pollen cones. A resemblance to penises doesn't usually signify maleness in plant parts, but in this and in many things, A. muelleri is an exception.
The next day, we were at Chutes de la Madeleine (the "Niagara Falls of New Caledonia", we are advised) we saw two more, looming like ruins on the far side of the river.
Phil was intrigued; this riverside site close to sea-level was completely unlike the mountaintop where we'd seen the others, so it was odd to see such a rare plant specialising in both. These mysteries serve to animate conversation between us, but we are also on holiday, so it's almost a pleasure not to solve them.