Thursday, December 4, 2008

About the wattle -- an interview with Mr. Gittos

The "W. Gittos" mentioned would have been instead either John Gittos or his brother Francis, the latter being the manager at the time of the firm's Richmond tanning works near Western Springs. Apart from that, this is a rare reported interview, originally from the Auckland Star, but repeated in the Te Aroha News. 29 October 1887.

Our representative waited upon Mr W Gittos, of the firm of Gittos and Son, the well-known tanners, who has always exhibited great interest in the introduction of the black wattle to New Zealand. Upon being informed that information was desired, he courteously offered to supply what data he could. "Did you supply the seed from which the bark now on exhibition at the Star Office was grown?" was the first question propounded.

"Yes; I handed it to one of our men who was engaged at the Avondale works, and he planted it on his land not far from the railway-station."

"What kind of land was it?"

"Oh, the usual clay bottom; not too good in quality."

"Then the black wattle would flourish all through Waikomiti?"

"Evidently it would, as the soil is somewhat alike. There's one thing about that bark that is worth taking notice of. It is not taken from the trunks of the trees, but merely from the branches. Of course when the trees are cut down better bark will be obtainable."

"Is that bark of good quality ?"

"Yes; I consider as regards the quality that for the size of the growth it is very good. It is generally the opinion in Australia that five years' growth is very good. I would make an allowance of two years for the difference in the climate, and say let the trees grow for seven years in New Zealand. It is not advisable to let them get too old, or else the bark loses some of its value by becoming as it were, exhausted. It's just the same as the difference between a young and an old man: one is much more vigorous than the other."

"What kind of soil suits best — dry or swampy?"

"Well, as it comes from Australia, I should say that the wattle requires a dry soil. I fancy that although it succeeds well on the clay, the wattle would do better on light sandy soils."

"Do the seeds germinate pretty easily?"

"In planting the wattle it is better to soak the seed for about two hours in hot water. Of course not hot enough to scald it but warm enough to soften, as the seed is very hard. The black wattle seed is black with a little white cap at one end."

"I suppose the seed can be easily obtained?"

"Oh, yes! You can get it from Australia for about 2s 6d per lb. As the seeds are small, a pound of them would cover a lot of ground. I should advise intending planters to get the seed from Adelaide, as the bark from there is the best in the colonies. Launceston, Tasmanian, and Victorian bark is all good for tanning, but we consider the Adelaide bark superior to the rest. That is why I advise getting Adelaide seed. If we get the best seed we ought then to get the best quality of bark. The seed ought to be bought for about 2s per lb in quantity."

"How would you plant wattle?"

"That all depends upon the land. If it is cleared fern land easy to plough, I should recommend planting the seed in drills 6 to 8 feet apart. It will grow without manure, and would therefore be suitable for waste lands. Of course the richer the land the better the crop and the larger the returns. It always pays, you know, to use manure. But at the present time, when there is so much said about utilising the waste lands of the colony, I should think that the wattle would be a good idea. It also does very well on land where the timber has already been cleared. I should say if the seeds were scattered amongst the ashes after the burn-off, it would be sufficient to cover them, and they would do all right. In Australia, where the wattle grows wild the soil is very light, and the trees just grow up from the seeds dropped from above. That is one point that must be remembered. Here we have the labour of clearing the land and planting the trees, while in Australia it grows wild."

"Do you think that in the case of such a difference it will pay to plant wattle?"

"Yes, I do. At present the best chopped Adelaide bark is worth £9 per ton. We like the chopped better than the ground, because we can more easily detect if it has been adulterated. Some people, you know, grind up the silver wattle bark with the black. It is not a good plan, though, for we soon detect it, and then buy no more from that place, and so they lose the trade altogether. Some time ago Mr Kelly, at Mount Eden, was cutting up his land for sale, and he felled a few black wattle trees which he had. He sent down a sample of the bark to our establishment, about 2 to 3 cwt. It was as good in quality as any bark from Auckland. Myrtle bark is also at times mixed with the wattle bark, but it's not so good, as it is only suitable for light tanning. As regards planting the wattle there is one feature in its favour. That is, there is such a largo demand for the bark that there is no fear of over-stocking the market. Why, our own works alone at Richmond, if in full work, would use about 300 tons a year. At £9 a ton that would make a nice sum. Besides this the black wattle bark is now largely used in England. The reason for this demand is that the supply of oak bark is rapidly decreasing. So that there would always be a good market for the bark. Large quantities of Australian bark are sent over every year now."

"Evidently this might develop an industry."

"I think it would do better by keeping the money in the colony and preventing us from having to import Australian bark."

"But don't you use New Zealand barks? I thought Tanekau bark was reckoned first-class for tanning?"

"We don't u»c any of the New Zealand barks now. The reason is that there is too much wood and not enough tannic acid in our native barks. Tanekau has too much turpentine in it to be of much use for tanning. Towai and black birch have been used, but they are also deficient in tannic acid. Another difficulty is that settlers do not take the trouble to supply the bark, except at times like these, when money is scarce. I have now in hand several letters from settlers asking us to buy bark."

"There seems to be very little doubt from what you say that the bark will pay to grow?"

"Well, I think that any gentleman who has capital sufficient to enable him to plant the black wattle and wait 6 or 7 years for the return will do well. To succeed properly it would be advisable to erect a mill for chopping or grinding the bark on the plantation. The mill is not very expensive, and its cost would be recouped by the cheaper transit of the produce. It would never do to merely tie the bark together in bundles, more especially if it was to be exported."

"Is it necessary to plant any shelter round the wattle plantations?"

"No. The black wattle does not require much shelter. I think that if settlers would only turn their attention to this tree they might utilise a lot of land that at present is lying idle."

Our representative having the information he desired, thanked Mr Gittos and retired.

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