Gardening with our native flora

The cordyline just arrived, I think. It is growing right on stream bank at water level and I can’t think that anyone would have planted it there

We like to garden with a wide range of plants here. A VERY wide range. Not for us that prescription from some *designers* who decree a garden should have no more than ten different plant varieties in it. I can’t give the most recent reference for that because I thought it was such a remarkably stupid thing to write that I didn’t bookmark it. I guess the author was thinking of small town gardens but even so, both Mark and I would be bored stiff.

I have been thinking about the extent to which we incorporate our native flora. The purist *native garden* is not for us, nor indeed the predominantly native garden. We are too much of the complex layering, detailed planting persuasion, using an extensive range of plant material in mix and match combinations, to ever want to place that type of restriction on ourselves. But when I walk around and look, it is a surprise even to me just how many native plants we grow and often take for granted.

I figured there are at least four groups of native plants – the volunteers that just arrive of their own volition, the rare and endangered which actually owe their continued existence to the horticultural trade, the utility backbone plants that we take for granted but are actually native and the ones that are grown because they are simply great ornamentals in their own right.

A note about naming: in NZ we know most of these plants by their Maori names. While there aren’t too many truly bi-lingual speakers in this country, our every day language is peppered with Maori words, names and phrases that can confuse English speakers from other countries. I hadn’t really thought of this until I mentioned pohutukawa on a Facebook post and an American replied, “Maori common names just don’t stick in my memory, I think that’s a Metrosideros?” Botanical names really do aid international communication so I have added those in brackets below.

We have never planted any tree ferns. They just arrive of their own accord.

The volunteers that just arrive will vary throughout the country. Ours include the tree ferns (commonly known as pongas – pronounced ‘pungas’, botanically cyathea and dicksonia), the nikau palm (Rhopalostylis sapida) , cabbage trees (cordyline),   an abundance of pepper trees or kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum) and a wide range of ferns. If they are not in the way, we just leave them to grow where they wish. Even NZ gardeners may not realise that we have three native dicksonia species and seven cyathea species. I think we just have the most common four or maybe five species seeding down in our garden.

Kakabeak, growing in a town garden (hence the power lines). I have the white form in a new garden but it has its own little wire cage because pesky rabbits just about ate all of it over just two nights

The rare and endangered plants contain some special stories. The tree Pennantia baylisiana and the climber Tecomanthe speciosa  were both down to a single surviving specimen in the wild but are now relatively common thanks to sustained efforts to propagate and distribute them. Similarly, the two species of kakabeak (clianthus) were at the extremely endangered status in the wild but are now widely planted in gardens. Sometimes commerce can ensure the survival of a species where protection of their natural environment has failed. Even Astelia chathamica was rated as under threat in the wild (in the Chatham Islands which are our southernmost islands marooned in the Southern Ocean) but there is no danger of it being lost these days, so widely is it grown now in mainland gardens.

The renga renga lily, as seen in almost every garden

Utility backbone plants include a fair swag of trees grown in this country but especially the kowhai (sophora – there are eight native species though S. tetraptera is the most common) and the pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa). Both of these are absolute standouts in bloom. What we call the rengarenga lily (Arthropodium cirratum) is so widely grown that it is probably seen as a garden cliché. But we don’t have a whole lot of flowering herbaceous  plants that are native to New Zealand when you think about it. And our gardens would be the poorer without the native astelias which are used very widely, being preferable as garden plants to our native flaxes (phormiums)

Pachystegia insignis to the left (the white buttons are the flower buds) and Xeronema callistemon with the red flower spikes

Some native plants are special in their own right as ornamentals and not necessarily easy to grow in conditions far removed from their natural environment. The Marlborough rock daisy (Pachystegia insignis) occurs naturally on exposed coastal rock faces in dry, hard conditions  ; the celmisias are predominantly mountain daisies : the Poor Knight’s lily (Xeronema callistemon) comes from sub-tropical northern islands and is distinctly frost tender and needs brilliant drainage, preferring coastal conditions. These and other plants are well out of their comfort zone here but interesting, showy and still indigenous plants if you take the country-wide definition.

The alstromeria is certainly not native but the grass is – Chionocloa rubra

What I don’t think has been helpful is the polarised positions adopted by some. The native purist position has long been claiming the higher moral ground (but only applying that to ornamental plants, and mostly trees at that, as I wrote about here) In turn, this spawned the sniffy response that our native plants are “boring”. Neither is a logical or thoughtful position.

I will say that if we stripped out the native plants from our garden, there would be HUGE gaps, not the least being our rimu avenue (Dacrydium cupressinum) and our totara hedge (Podocarpus totara). And yet, to the casual eye, most visitors would not pick that our garden is rich in a wide variety of native plants. I like to think that is because of a seamless blending of native and exotic flora rather than any self-conscious display of indigenous plants.

The widespread use of native plants is one of the key differences in NZ gardens and that is worth celebrating. We are derivative enough here. We don’t want to be a nation of gardens that could be located in any number of other countries around the world with no unique features to define our own location and heritage.

Pohutukawa to the left, kowhai with tui bird to the right

6 thoughts on “Gardening with our native flora

  1. tonytomeo

    I prefer simplicity, . . . but ‘ten’ varieties?! That really is too stupid to remember.
    The dilemma we have with out natives is that there are so many diverse ecosystems within the boundaries of California that what works in one regions will not work in another. Way to much emphasis is placed on the boundaries of the state, rather than on the particular climate zone. Coastal redwoods that need the coastal fog would not survive in Death Valley any more than Joshua trees would survive in cool and misty San Francisco!

  2. Julie Milligan

    Fell in love with Pachystegia insignis many years ago and when we moved house six years ago, tried to buy a new plant but had no success at all. A friend brought me back a packet of seed and I was thrilled to grow two plants which are doing well. Loved reading about this little plant and I am surprised it isn’t more widely available. Julie.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I think producing pachystegia for sale probably sits with specialist nurseries. Its particular requirements for production are unlikely to be compatible with usual propagation conditions.

  3. Tim Dutton

    I do agree, use native plants as you would any other as part of the whole picture, not just because it is a native. Our garden is less than 2 kms from a substantial area of native forest and we get many ‘volunteer’ seedlings popping up of indigenous species that we are unfamiliar with. Ferns abound in the garden, hundreds of them. We have bought and planted numerous other NZ natives here too, but often with less success. Many of the Hebes grow too fast and too leggy, or succumb to the wet conditions, though Hebe diosmifolia bucks that trend, is long-lived, stays bushy without any attention and self-seeds itself with wild abandon. The Pachystegia insignis was a dismal failure: I should have known better than to try growing it here. But with the ‘volunteers’ I think you can’t go wrong: they are certainly a case of ‘right plant, right place’ or they wouldn’t have turned up in the first place, and over time some can become very worthwhile additions to the garden. They can spring some surprises too. Recently I was walking past a scrubby section of the back garden and was stopped in my tracks by an intoxicating scent. It turned out it was coming from some small and insignificant green flowers on a native shrub with bright green shiny leaves. We’ve had many of these popping up, and then being weeded out, for as long as I can remember, but given the scent I finally researched its name: Geniostoma rupestre var. ligustrifolium. I am quite sure it will never be found for sale in a garden centre, but I won’t be treating it as a weed any longer, the scent is that good.

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