I admit to a wry smile when I read friend and colleague Glyn Church writing of the pileostegia (climbing evergreen hydrangea) He made a comment that if you are keen to buy one, alas he has stopped growing them because nobody seemed to know about them – which means nobody bought them. We were struck by them growing up huge brick walls at Hidcote in Gloucestershire and had volunteers running all over the place to find a gardener to identify the plant.
We have our equivalent of the pileostegia. It is Ficus antiarus and it is the most asked about plant in our garden. We used to propagate a few but we realised that while everybody wanted to know what it was, nobody wanted to buy it. I was a bit stunned when somebody turned up last month asking for one. She was out of luck.
Ficus antiarus is a bit of a joke here. Probably close to half our garden visitors would ask what it was. We got to the point where somebody would produce a fruit, a digi camera with a photo or start to say: “What is the tree with the strange bulbous growths…” and we would chime in quickly. “Ficus antiarus,” we would say. “An obscure fig collected by Felix, Mark’s father, in New Guinea in 1957. That was back in the days when you could still bring new plants in to the country. No, the fruit do not grow any larger than that. They turn bright red-orange as they age and presumably the birds don’t like them much because they never strip it. Yes they do appear to be edible. I have tried them and they have a vaguely figgy taste but they are not very exciting to eat. Just a curiosity, really.”
This year, as I was getting some signage for carparking and toilets updated, I admitted defeat and had a sign made for Ficus antiarus. I say admitted defeat because we have resolutely held out against putting name plates on plants here, despite frequent plaintive comments about nothing being named. But as Festival neared its end, Mark commented that the one sign on Ficus antiarus had probably saved us several hours of repeating ourselves. He was very taken, however, by the dry comment from one garden visitor about the sign: “The size is a bit of a giveaway.” I didn’t think it was that large, but certainly you can’t miss it.
We have been intractable on refusing to name the plants in our garden. Public gardens are different. They have a strong educative function and are impersonal spaces. But this is our home, our personal space, even though we open the garden to visitors and we don’t want to see a whole lot of signage in our garden every time we step outdoors. The Ficus antiarus sign is only justified because it is a bit of joke. Besides, we have good memories and are very good at identifying plants by description and location, even though some visitors’ descriptions leave a lot to be desired. “What is the pink rhododendron flowering behind the house?” is a little vague when in fact the visitor is referring to one plant in the five acre park which lies beyond our home. And I admit it can be a challenge when they can’t even get the plant fanily right. “The big red rhododendron” has, upon occasion, turned out to be a telopea or waratah.
We have been to gardens where all plants are labelled. One in particular had every plant named with a section of venetian blind on which was written the name of the plant, the year of acquisition and nursery who supplied it. It was absolutely fascinating and we progressed from plant to plant, analysing the data so closely that we didn’t actually look at the garden context. It was a bit like going round a museum. It would be even worse in our garden where we don’t go in for mass plantings but pride ourselves instead on growing the widest possible range of interesting plants and where many of the garden plants are unnamed seedlings from breeding programmes. I have been to other gardens where owners have used the nasty plastic display labels sold for plant retailers – the aesthetics worry me. So we have no intention of naming all the different plants in ours.
My other observation about Glyn’s pileostegia and our ficus is to suggest to readers that when you see an interesting plant or one that you have been looking for, buy it on the spot, no matter your circumstances. There is no guarantee that you will find it offered again. The range of plants being grown in this country continues to contract, certainly in the woody trees and shrubs area. The phone calls I take on our business line during the day tend to be of two types. The first is people trying to find cheap griselinia hedging (just how many kilometres of griselinia hedging are being planted these days?) and the other group are people trying to find a particular plant.
Most times I have to reply that I don’t know of anyone producing it any more. The heady days of the late 80s and the 90s (now widely referred to as The Maggie Barry Era) when gardening was the rage and nurseries flourished, have long gone. There are few, very few, specialist nurseries still operating. In fact a fair swag of general nurseries have gone to the wall in the last decade and it is so rare for a new nursery to start that you should be able to hear a collective cry of encouragement ring around the industry when it happens. The result is that you will see a continued contraction in the range of plants being offered on the New Zealand market.
Do not be like the woman who talked to Mark about Davidia involucrata during our recent festival. That is the spectacular dove or handkerchief tree and we had a few plants for sale. She really wanted one but she wasn’t quite ready for it yet. Mark shrugged his shoulders and thought, “She’ll be lucky”. The chances of her finding a davidia when she is ready are not great at all.