A tui in a cherry tree

What a joy are the tuis in the cherry trees at this time of the year. They won’t sit still for us to count, but there are times when we guess around 40 to 50 of them are fighting for the nectar. The trees can look as if they are exploding with birds. Being strongly territorial, they spend as much time bickering and squabbling and giving each other their marching orders (or is that, flying orders?) as they do feeding.

Mark found one tui which had apparently overindulged, lying in the park looking distinctly glazed about the eyes and very wobbly. He placed the somewhat floppy bird in a safer spot where it had some cover and wondered aloud to me as to whether he should be trying to get it to drink water. I was not at all sure how he planned to get the bird to drink. Nor was I convinced that the metabolic system of a drunk bird is similar to that of a drunk human.

Whatever, when he returned a little later to check on its welfare, the tui had perked up considerably and was not going to let him come near it again.

It is the campanulata cherries which feed the native birds in late winter. They are sometimes referred to as the Taiwanese or Formosan cherry. Presumably when the intrepid British plant hunters went out collecting, the island was still known as Formosa. They also occur naturally in areas of southern Japan and south China.

The campanulatas are small flowered in sugar pink or cerise red tones and they flower long before most other cherry trees. A tree in flower is just a mass of bloom and the leaves start to appear towards the end of flowering. Because they flower and come into leaf so early, they are regarded internationally as only suitable for very mild climates but they will grow through most of our area.

We had a very knowledgeable visitor from England this week and he was delighted by the sight of the campanulatas which he says can’t be grown in the UK because it is too cold. Now that he is building a garden in Normandy, he thought maybe he could try growing them. He was a bit stunned when we told him they are a noxious weed in Northland and on the banned list.

herein lies the problem with camapanulata cherries. They are a joy at this time of the year and they provide plenty of food for tuis and honey bees. But many will set seed and Mark will tell you that wildling cherries are one of the main weeds he deals to on our property.

I talked to a couple of garden centres in the hope that they would tell me whether anyone has selected sterile carmine red forms so they don’t set seed. Sadly no. There is a great project for someone. But in the absence of hard information, we would advise people to err on the conservative side and not plant campanulatas of unknown seeding status if their property adjoins the national park or a bush reserve.

A sterile plant which does not set viable seed allows the best of both worlds – food for native birds along with colour impact at this time of the year. Three of the most common cultivars on the market are of Felix Jury’s breeding – Pink Clouds, Mimosa and (what else?) Felix Jury. As far as we know, Pink Clouds and Mimosa are both sterile but they are the sugar pink colour range. In the desirable carmine red range, such as Prunus Felix Jury, most appear to be far too fertile. The one sterile tree we have in the garden here is far too large for most gardens, already being in excess of 10 metres tall.

Cherry trees, or prunus, are a huge family with about 400 different species from around the world and many more named selections and hybrids. But as a general rule in this country, it is the Taiwanese ones flowering now and the Japanese ones flowering later in the season. The ones from Japan are generally small trees, often selected for their big fluffy flowers. Varieties such as Tai Haku, Mount Fuji and Kanzan are well known. Gorgeous these Japanese ones may be, but sadly they don’t feed the birds. Nor do they tend to be long lived in our climate, often succumbing to bacterial blast.

Unfortunately fruiting cherries such as the big beautiful Black Dawsons do not like our mild and damp climate. There are good reasons why they do so well in Central Otago and why the fruit sells for around $5 a kilo there whereas we rarely see it under $15 a kilo here. Believe me, we have tried growing fruiting cherries here and if we could, we would be producing them. But we can’t so we gave up.

Foliage for the Contemporary New Zealand Garden, Julian Matthews (Random House, $39.99) Reviewed by Abbie Jury.

Essentially this book is a collection of 114 different plants which have nice leaves and are liked by the author. Each plant is given an eyecatching photograph with the facing page giving relevant plant information.

The photographs are beautiful and my only quibble would be that there is usually no indication of scale within the image and it isn’t always easy to pick because they are all close ups. Given that the range of plants is vast – from the large ginkgo biloba tree down to a ground cover ajuga, relative size may be challenging to new comers.

What lifts this book above a simple, pretty coffee table tome is the writing. The author is experienced in both gardening and in writing. He does not shy away from using botanical names but he writes with such enthusiasm and clarity that novices will not be confused. His advice on plant combinations is what makes this book worth having.

It is a shame the publisher economised on the quality of the cover. It has a cheapskate cover which creases and curls and is unlikely to last the distance should you keep this book on your coffee table for inspiration.