The weight of epiphytes

Over a century of epiphytic build up

When branches fall here, they often bring down a mass of epiphytes with them. It seems likely that, in some cases, it is the weight of those that causes the branch to fall. A combination of mature trees and a benign and humid climate means that epiphytes are a significant feature of our canopy. ‘Widow-makers’, Mark says, utilising the term for things that have the potential to fall from above and kill. It is a gender defined term, which I guess comes because it has a longstanding application in forestry which remains a traditionally male occupation.

There is an entire self-sown and self maintaining environment in this one tree

One of the characteristics of New Zealand native forest is the high incidence of epiphytes which are simply organisms (in this case, plants) that grow on the surface of another plant, getting moisture and such nutrients as they need from the air and rain and then from the debris that builds up around them. Because these epiphytes are perched up trees, they are vulnerable to drying out so are more commonly found in areas protected by other trees rather than on solitary specimens standing in exposed isolation. We also get regular rain here and have high humidity levels no matter the season. Add to that the fact that our native forest and bush is almost entirely evergreen. There are very few deciduous natives – a total of only 11 different species that are fully deciduous in winter. Most New Zealand gardens use a wide range of evergreen plants and shrubs, usually outnumbering the deciduous selections. So we have situations that are hospitable to epiphytes.

Add in to that mix, maturity. Because we have many well-established trees here, some dating back close to 150 years, there has been time for epiphytes to get a grip on their hosts.

Drooping spleenwort and leather leaf on the trunk of a tall queen palm

Where do these plants come from? Mostly a combination of wind and birds. Some of our trees have entire mixed colonies growing in them. The dominant epiphyte here is the collospermum, C. hastatum, but we have other species of both collospermum and astelia perching up high too. Also assorted ferns, particularly the native climbing ferns, Pyrrosia eleagnifolia or ‘leather-leaf’ fern and Asplenium flaccidum or ‘Drooping Spleenwort’ which is prettier than it sounds. We even get native orchids appearing in these epiphytic colonies but NZ native orchids are perhaps best described as being very subtle in appearance.

The host tree is leaning badly, the twining vines and thicker trunks are all southern rata

The rata is to the South Island what the pohutakawa is to the North Island, though we do have the northern rata as well. These are all the same family (so all metrosideros) but different species. Think of them being like cousins, perhaps. So the South Island rata is M. umbellata. That rata is an epiphyte, relying on an established tree to climb. Unlike most of the perennial types of epiphyte, it can eventually kill its host. In forest conditions, the rata is so well established by then that it can stand on its own, forming a hollow-trunked tree (the hollow centre being where the host tree has decayed away). We think it far more likely that our rata will not be sufficiently anchored to the ground to stay standing. The nearly deceased host tree – a eucalypt – has developed a definite lean and we think the whole shebang may fall sooner rather than later.

Like an octopus, Prunus yedoensis ‘Ivensii” with epiphytic collospermum

I did get the ladder and do some tree climbing to take out most of the collospermum from the Prunus yedoensis ‘Ivensii’ because I like this flowering cherry and I could see the collospermum were getting the upper hand rather than maintaining an equilibrium.

Generally, we just leave the epiphytes alone. Sometimes the weight will get too much and massive clumps will fall, often bringing down branches on the way. They are usually so heavy we have to dismantle them to remove them. In times gone by, Mark used to follow the Orchid Society practice of gathering up the decaying gigi (fallen collospermum) to use as potting mix for the growing of orchids. That was before the days of granulated bark potting mixes. Left to their own devices, epiphytes are just a part of nature – a naturally occurring matrix in fact. It adds an upper layer of interest to the garden while also creating its own ecological environment quite independent from human intervention.

Whenever we have to do a clean-up that involves fallen epiphytes, we just relocate the largest pieces we can manage to the back areas of woodland where they can continue to provide habitat and add diversity.

Mark is surveying a sizeable branch brought down by the heavy burden of epiphytes

In the meantime, there is another branch waiting to fall…

A quilted flower

The quilted spathe of Monstera deliciosa with the distinctly phallic green fruit from a previous bloom to the right

I had not noticed until yesterday that the interior of the spathe on the Monstera deliciosa is delightfully quilted. For quilting enthusiasts, they are hexagons – six-sided figures. The spathe is the curved hood on the flower – botanically a modified leaf but most of us will continue to call it a flower. Some readers will know the monstera better as the fruit salad plant – most often seen as a house plant or perhaps more as an office plant where there is greater space. I would rather doubt that it flowers, let alone fruits, when it is treated as an indoor plant.

We have it as large, shade plant, climbing our trees and furnishing some of the back areas of the woodland gardens where it never gets frosted. It is a bit rampant, a monster even, although easy enough to cut back when it roots its way along the ground. It is more difficult to contain when it romps its way up the trees because it puts out strong aerial roots all the way and our largest ones are now a good ten metres up the trees. Looking tropical, even in the depths of winter. Fortunately, this is not a plant that will smother or strangle its host tree.

Monstera deliciosa can indeed be a monster plant when liberated in the garden

Our plants set fruit but we are not hot enough to ripen them to the allegedly delicious stage. Sometimes we get them to the point where the segments are ripe enough to fall apart, as they do, but the taste, while somewhat ‘tropical fruit salad-y’ in flavour, remains too sharp to eat many. A bit like cut glass, we say, which is apparently to do with oxalic acid. Our guess is that in hotter climes, the oxalic acid is less dominant.

Coming back to the flowers, I hadn’t really noticed how lovely they are until I saw this one yesterday and noticed the matching quilting on the central spadix (which develops into the phallic shaped fruit) and the interior of the spathe which embraces it.

Arum lilies, photographed in somebody else’s garden

“Aroids”, Mark said which had us googling a few other plants with flowers of similar form which were otherwise totally different and yes, they are all members of the araceae family, though not all are members of the aroid sub family.  Arum lilies are probably the best known. Arums are a great deal more prized overseas than in New Zealand. Here, they are seen as an indicator of poor land management (our pioneer roots are as farmers in this country), invasive and widely banned from sale but not on the total eradication list, as far as I know. As a garden escape, the problem with arums is that stock don’t eat them and they are difficult to control once they have established themselves. I once wrote giving advice on how to get rid of them. The coloured calla lilies are still grown as ornamentals but I dug most of mine out this year. I found them shy flowering and they didn’t justify the garden space. Too much foliage for too few blooms.

Arisaemas we grow a-plenty. Theirs is a very curious plant group, though not beautful in the usual sense. A. dahaiense

What surprised me more was to find that arisaemas and lysichiton are also members of the araceae family. They have the distinctive hooded flowers, but that is about all that looks the same as monstera or arum. I am sure I have photographed the lysichitons here (unromantically referred to in common parlance as ‘skunk cabbages’) but I can not find the photos in my files. We have both the yellow American species (americanus) and the white Asian species (camschatcensis) which we grow as bog plants.

Alocasias also belong to the same family. This includes taro, which is widely sold in New Zealand because it is a food staple for Pacific Island people, though it has never made its way into the general diet of most others and I admit I have never tried it. It has never been touted as delicious. Should you happen to be in Missouri, the botanic gardens there have the world’s largest collection of members of the araceae family. Munich Botanic Garden also has a splendid collection owing to world expert working there, the ever-handy internet tells me. I was just a bit surprised by the diversity of araceae we grow here. I was looking up the toxicity because some can cause burning of the skin and I wondered if it was connected to the aroids. But no, it appears that it is only a characteristic of some family members – chemically speaking, calcium oxalate crystals in the form of raphides. So now you know. This will explain the sensation of eating tropical flavoured glass shards when sampling the monstera fruit that are less than perfectly over-ripe.

Arisaema sikokianum – not easy to keep going as a garden plant but eye-catching

When a handle is a thing of beauty

Behold a simple thing of great beauty. At least that is what I thought when I saw it leaning against the side of the porch. This is Mark’s designated spade for the digging out of trees and large shrubs. It is not that he is seven feet tall, but that he likes a long handle to avoid having to bend his back. He is a man who has learned the hard way to be seriously protective of his back.

The handle is yew, harvested from a dead tree in the park, hand whittled to size and required smoothness, oiled with linseed applied in repeated thin coats. You can’t feel it in the photograph, but I can assure you it is wondrously smooth and tactile, for nobody wants to get splinters from a spade handle.

Mark has always been a fan of yew as a timber. Back in the days when he was a woodturner, the favourite timber of most was, and probably still is, NZ kauri. That is because it is so easy to work with – in Mark’s words, it cuts like butter. It doesn’t have a particularly interesting grain like other woods, including heart rimu. Yew is not native but it also cuts like butter, so to speak, and has a beautiful grain. It was the traditional timber for longbows, presumably because it is both long lasting and stable. It does not warp and bend out of shape as readily as many other timbers. Just perfect for a long handled spade. I see another long handle being prepared for the drainage fork we use to clear out water weeds.

These examples of yew treen date back a few decades to when Mark was a craftsman woodturner, before his nurseryman, plant breeder days but post his university days.

Yew – commonly Taxus baccata, although there are other yew species.
NZ kauri – Agathis australis
NZ rimu – Dacrydium cupressinum

Our winner in the white camellia stakes – C. yuhsienensis

Camellia yuhsienensis

The world of white camellias is a quite heavily populated, especially if you narrow it down to white species camellias. Over time, we have gathered up most of the species that have been available to us, and very lovely many of them are. But the one we have singled out as the most attractive specimen plant is Camellia yuhsienensis.

You can tell how much we love this plant by the fact that we have chosen to use it as a feature plant. I just counted and found we have no fewer than seventeen of them as specimen plants, each sitting in its own space – not hedged or jammed in with other plants. It is not usually our style to repeat a single cultivar like that. Mark threaded it through the new gardens – the grass garden and the lily border – to give winter interest.

Threaded through the lily border to give winter interest. That is visible frost this morning. And a freshly dug rabbit scrape. The rabbits are still winning here. We may yet have to get a cat again, given our dogs are pretty useless on the rabbits. 

What do we love about it so much? It has handsome, bullate (textured) foliage which is not the usual shiny green associated with japonica camellias. It sets an abundance of buds in pointed clusters and opens them over a long period of time. But it is the flowers that are the real delight – pristine, white single blooms, good-sized and looking more like michelia or magnolia than classic camellia. And it holds its blooms well out from its leaves and branches. The blooms are not substantial but that can be an advantage in a camellia, especially when there is a long succession of fresh blooms waiting to take over. It is just a delight to us.

Some reports mention an overwhelming fragrance but we think that either that claim is exaggerated, the Chinese have greatly sensitised nasal capacities or the clone we grow here didn’t get much fragrance. It is really only lightly scented and that requires sticking one’s nose right up to the bloom. Nothing, alas, is perfect and we need to give the bushes an occasional shake or brush to get rid of spent blooms because they don’t always fall cleanly.

For NZ camellia purists, we grow the mounding selection chosen by Neville Haydon, back in his days at Camellia Haven

The native habitat of C. yuhsienensis is in the Hunan area of China which is, loosely speaking, southern(ish) and inland, with mountains, so it is not a tropical area. We have found it to be completely hardy in our conditions, although our winters are hardly testing. Because it is a species, plants raised from seed will show species variation. We started with two forms but always vegetatively propagated them to keep the selections stable. We had an upright columnar form but ended up cutting it out because the foliage and flowering were nowhere near as good as the mounding form we kept.

The bad news is that I doubt that it is commercially available these days in NZ so you will have to search hard to find one. I have to say that because it is disconcerting to me how many people read these posts and assume they are commercially driven and we must therefore be selling the plant and can send them one. Um, no. I write these posts because I am a writer by nature, we love gardening and it is greatly rewarding how many readers share this pleasure. I appreciate the comments. The phone calls and emails trying to order plants from us – not so much.

Superstar

And just because I took a nice photo of it this week, I close with Superstar. It grows at least four times the size as C. yuhsienensis, probably with a quarter of the flowers, if that, but it can show a lovely bloom. It is hard to beat a beautiful white camellia on its day.

Garden thoughts

Just another heavy transporter passing along one of our road boundaries. A particularly noisy one this Sunday morn.

I garden. A lot. So I have a lot of solitary thinking time. Never more so than this week when it has taken every ounce of my inner strength to maintain some equilibrium in the face of relentless heavy traffic from the gas well site on the farm across our bottom road. The company is ‘demobilising’ the workover rig that has been on site and that has generated as much, maybe even more, heavy transporters along our two road boundaries than at the peak of the bad days from 2011 to 2013. Once the rest of the rig gear has been moved out, the ‘well stimulation’ equipment will all be trucked in for four weeks of intensive fracking and flaring. Super! Yes we still carry out open air flaring and extensive fracking in this country. Worries about climate change apparently lie with somebody else, anybody else – a concern divorced from current, high-level activity.

This is why our garden is still closed to the public. Fortunately my coping mechanisms are better than they were during the bad old days, but it does take a lot of mental energy to keep some positivity and inner serenity, I tell you. Especially for one who is not naturally of a serene disposition.

The gnarly trunks of the aged Kurume azaleas. In the background, Mark has draped old shade cloth over the newly sown areas of grass to discourage the pesky rabbits and sparrows.

Back to gardening. I mentioned last week that I was doing a clean-out of the Rimu Avenue. I still am, though I have broken the back of it and am now working more on the margins, including the bed of venerable Kurume azaleas which are underplanted with cyclamen. This is another area that can be left pretty much to its own devices for extended periods of time but it looks better when I get in and clear out the regenerating growth from the base of the azaleas, take out dead wood and shake out the accumulation of leaf litter from the trees above that builds up in the canopy.

It is not really self-sustaining gardening. More like lower-input gardening. For those who like a bit of substance to your gardening reading, you may enjoy Noel Kingsbury’s latest post on the subject of so-called ‘natural gardening’. He is an English writer and a specialist in that new wave style of perennial gardening led by Piet Oudolf.

We have never talked about ‘natural gardens’. Naturalistic, yes, and we have played around with various other descriptors. Enhanced nature, romantic gardening, gardening WITH nature rather than trying to control it but maybe the one we use most is sustainable gardening. We try hard to reduce the negative inputs (spraying, chemical fertilisers, really high input labour practices, use of internal combustion engines for routine maintenance and suchlike). For us, sustainable gardening is also about being able to manage this place as we get older in the next couple of decades. We have no plans to leave in our old age. I anticipate that, like his father before him, Mark will be carried out in a wooden box and hopefully that will not be for another 20 years. So we have to be mindful of how we manage our acreage and what expectations we have of the garden.

Fairy Magnolia White has opened her first, fragrant blooms this week.

Mark sees it in simple terms. He thinks that we all like to be surrounded by pretty things and that is why he loves flowers and always has done. It is the prettiness – sometimes even astounding beauty – combined with nature that feeds his soul, and indeed mine.

It is perhaps the dearth of homegrown gardening TV programmes and Monty Don and BBC Gardeners’ World taking a break from our screens that drove him to start recording ‘Best Gardens Australia’. This is not gardening as we see it. In fact it has very little indeed to do with gardening. The plants are mostly added in the manner in which scatter cushions and a stylish throw might be added to complete the picture of a stylish sofa. It has a heavy infomercial component and big budget outdoor spaces, mostly dominated by the mandatory swimming pool, additional water features, hard landscaping on a grand and permanent scale (no matter how small the site) and… pavilions. Garden sheds, washing lines, wheelie bins and storage for bikes are not in evidence, but pavilions rule supreme. Along with ‘resort-style living’. In New Zealand, resort-style gardens tend to mean the intimacy and tropical look of small, Balinese hotels. In Australia, it means something very different – the Miami look of lots of stark, hard-edged white plaster and concrete.

The children’s summer house in a handsome Yorkshire garden

England has its summer houses and garden rooms and very charming many of them are, too. In New Zealand, we are generally more modest and less permanent and the gazebo is most common. I am not a fan of the gazebo as a general rule, with its tanalised pine construction and trellis decoration. We call them gazzybows. They are usually bought in kitset form and too often used as a ‘garden feature’, rather than to enhance the outdoor living experience.

The typical off-the-shelf gazebo

I am not sure at what point a gazzybow crosses over to a pavilion. I suspect you need a budget at least 10 times larger (maybe 20), space in similarly inflated proportions and block or concrete construction (plastered, of course). By the pool. With a full second kitchen, a dining set that can accommodate a minimum of 12 people to a sit-down meal and a barbecue that can roast all the cuts of meat from a beef beast to feed the many (many) friends that the pavilion owners have assembled. Mark was a bit stunned by the pavilion shown with a drinks fridge that would rival most upmarket hotels.

Never have we felt more like the poor relatives across the Tasman than when faced by the ostentatious wealth of ‘Best Gardens Australia’. We are more in synch with the gardening philosophies of the aforementioned Noel Kingsbury.

French style. My photo library is entirely lacking in images of contemporary Australian pavilions.

So in the spirit of sweeping generalisations, I tell you that if you are a modest New Zealander, you have a gazebo. If you are nouveau riche Australian, you have a pavilion. If you are British establishment, you have a summerhouse or garden room. If you are French, you have a little, aged, shabby chic café table and chairs.

Finally, the late afternoon light falls upon our maunga or mountain on the winter solstice – a sight which keeps us anchored firmly to this place where we live and garden.

Blooms to sweeten a winter’s day – luculia

Luculia gratissima ‘Early Dawn’

Here we are, a mere three days from the winter solstice and outside my window, rain is pelting down while thunder and lightning is keeping the dogs safely in their beds by the fire. So I bring you winter sunshine, in the form of luculia, with photographs I took just yesterday when the sun shone and the daytime temperature was around 18 degrees Celsius.

I am very fond of luculia with their heady fragrance and their balls of flowers. Perhaps they are a bit like the wintersweet equivalent for mild climates. These are not particularly hardy plants even though their original homeland is declared as the Himalayas and Southern China. Think not of high, snowy peaks but more of temperate, protected, lowland forests and by the time you reach southern China, it is distinctly tropical. Luculia are okay with cooler temperatures and a degree or two of frost but that is all. The will not survive much beyond that.

There is not a huge range of luculia – there are only five different known species and, as far as I know, named cultivars are species selections, not hybrids. We grow gratissima and pinceana, grandiflora is also widely grown but I have not seen intermedia or yunnanensis except on line.

I am not a massive fan of L. gratissima ‘Early Dawn’, which is a smaller growing species. That sugar pink flower is very… sugary. Also, when grown in full sun or high light levels, the foliage can take on autumn tones which are not a great foil to sugar pink. Too often, ‘Early Dawn’ is clipped into obedient, rounded stature. Let it grow as it wishes in woodland conditions and the foliage stays bright green giving clean contrast to the pink, while the shrub becomes willowy and graceful. That is when it looks best, to my eye, although it won’t flower as prolifically in shadier conditions.

Luculia pinceana ‘Fragrant Cloud’

‘Fragrant Cloud’ is a different species, being L. pinceana. It is larger growing with considerably larger flowers in pretty almond pink, a stronger fragrance, more rangy and open in its growth and if you prune it too hard, it is highly likely to die on you. If you like tidy, contained shrubs, this may not be one for you. ‘Fragrant Pearl’ is one we named, another L. pinceana selection that came to us as a seedling from our colleague, Glyn Church. It is much more forgiving than its pink sibling and will take harder pruning. Left to its own devices, it will be just as rangy.

Luculia pinceana ‘Fragrant Pearl’

We used to grow ‘Fragrant Pearl’ commercially and it was one of the quickest turnarounds we had. Most of the trees and shrubs we grew took 3 or even 4 years from taking the cutting before becoming saleable. We could get ‘Fragrant Pearl’ through in 15 months. We would take the cuttings from nursery plants as soon as the new growth had hardened in January. They rooted really quickly and with a high percentage in the propagation beds. We would pot them from root-trainers to finished bag size in late winter or early spring, stake and shape them in January and sell them in bud in March and April. ‘Fragrant Cloud’, the pink form of the same species, was nowhere near as easy to handle as a nursery plant and the reason we don’t have L. grandiflora is because it was not that easy to propagate from the cuttings Mark tried and we don’t want it enough to go out and actually buy a plant.

I can not advise on how to make the flowers last longer when cut. Sometimes they have held reasonably well, other times they have gone limp and flaccid within hours. This probably has more to do with the time of the day they were cut than whether the stems were crushed or sealed by burning. But we heat our house to such a degree in winter that there is no point in trying to keep cut flowers in a vase.

Left to right: gratisima ‘Early Dawn’, pinceana ‘Fragrant Pearl’, pinceana ‘Fragrant Cloud

Found! Low maintenance gardening (of a sort)

The magnolia and te maunga

Magnolia campbellii, the Quaker Mason form

For me, the start of a new gardening year is marked by the opening of the first magnolia bloom. It is a very personal measure of time. This year, it happened this very week. Magnolia campbellii has opened her first blooms on the tree in our park. So I start a new season series of The Magnolia and Te Maunga – ‘te maunga’ being ‘the mountain’ in Maori. Our magnificent Mount Taranaki is commonly referred to simply as ‘the mountain’ by locals because it stands alone and is part of the very being of anyone who was born or now lives within sight of its presence. It is, by the way, an active volcano. With other volcanoes erupting in the world, Mark was moved to comment last week that we do at least live far enough away to get some warning if we ever need to evacuate. I have ascertained that the distance between our magnolia and the peak is 36km as the crow flies, so it is at the limits of my camera zoom.

Beneath the mighty rimu trees

Earlier in the year, we rashly agreed to open the garden for the annual conference of the NZ Camellia Society. I say rashly, only because the August date is coming closer. We closed our garden to the public coming up to five years ago now. While we maintain it to a standard that we are happy with, opening it to others requires a higher standard of presentation. I am beginning to feel the pressure. This week, I started working my way along the garden we call the rimu avenue. It is an area about 100 metres long and up to 25 metres wide, so large enough to accommodate a fair number of townhouses, were it in a major city. Fortunately, we are in the country, so instead of townhouses we have a backbone of 14 majestic rimu trees, now nearing 150 years old. Rimu are a native podocarp, botanically Dacrydium cupressinum. Mark’s great grandfather planted them back in the 1870s and photos show that they have doubled in size in Mark’s lifetime.

Beneath these rimu, we have what is probably the most complex planting of anywhere in our garden. Oddly, it occurred to me this week that it is the least demanding in terms of regular maintenance. This is not related to the complexity of the planting; it is to do with the fact that it is all in dry shade and also to the plant selection over time. In the last five years, we have gone through it and pulled out fallen branches and a bit of occasional debris but it has not had the loving attention to detail that I am currently giving it.

Over time, this area has become a largely self-maintaining matrix planting, an ecosystem in its own right.  There is a little bit of seeding down, but not too much. The *volunteer plants* that arrive are largely ferns, nikau palms, native collospermum and other astelias. The most common weeds are the occasional germinating Prunus campanulata and the cursed bangalow palms. Most weeds need more light. That in itself is worth knowing. If you hate weeding, go for shade gardening.

Piling the debris onto the meandering paths

All I am doing to jazz it up is going through and removing much of the fallen rimu leaf litter and debris which builds up over time, taking out the spent heads of bromeliads, thinning clumps where necessary, a bit of cutting back of shrubby begonias, zygocactus, thinning the thuggish Monstera deliciosa and Philodendron bipinnatifidum and general tidying up. It looks a great deal better for it.

For those who are wondering what plants we have growing in the rimu avenue, I will tell you that when we first went into the enormous subtropical glasshouse at Kew Gardens in London, we felt right at home. There seemed to be a large number of plants growing under glass that we grow under the rimu, an area that is completely frost free. We have a whole range of shade palms, schefflera, vireya rhododendrons, dendrobium orchids, many clivias red, orange and yellow, species hippeastrum bulbs, Crinum moorei, bromeliads galore, ferns and a whole lot more. Everything is interplanted so it is complex and layered full, interesting year-round, as well as low maintenance.  Mark’s father first starting planting this area in the late 1950s so it has only taken 60 years of active management to reach this state of gardening nirvana.

Laying cut lengths beneath

and spreading the mulched leafy waste – yellow because it was mostly berberis

While I am working ‘up the top’, as we say, Mark and Lloyd have been down in the park doing a tidy up of fallen branches and dead shrubs and trees. Chainsaw and mulcher work, mostly. For those who read these posts looking for handy hints, I photographed their techniques for dealing with the waste on site. While they may have removed the bigger pieces for firewood, the smaller lengths of branch and trunk are chainsawed into short lengths and laid beneath large shrubs or trees. Line the lengths up in the same direction and they look neater and more purposeful than being tossed higgledy piggledy. The leafage and finer material has been mulched on site and raked out over a bed of dormant herbaceous planting. These are not techniques for formal or tightly groomed gardens but we find it an acceptable process in informal and more naturalistic areas. And we like the philosophy of keeping the cycle of growth, death and then decay nourishing further fresh growth in the same location.