A celebration of bright light and the start of a new year of gardening

Our maunga – Mount Taranaki – on the day before the winter equinox

I have said before that the first flowers on Magnolia campbellii herald the start of a new gardening year for us. But I had not thought before of the bigger picture. On the day before the winter equinox last week, I went out on a clear day to catch the image of our maunga, our mountain, from the path down to our park. It wasn’t until I saw it on my big computer screen that I spotted the bird in the branches. I assumed it was a kereru judging by the size and shape and so did Mark when I showed him. When I zoomed close in on my screen, it is just a thrush.

The first blooms on Magnolia campbellii herald the start of a new garden year – for us, at least.

This week, the first flowers opened. And I made a connection between the first flowers, the winter solstice and Matariki. The last is a traditional Maori celebration now gaining popularity in the wider population. Sometimes referred to as the Maori New Year, its timing is determined by the rise of a cluster of small stars known to Maori as Matariki but commonly called the Pleiades in astronomical circles. The exact date of the appearance of this star cluster varies from year to year, but it is usually soon after the winter solstice. And it occurred to me that the calendar which we all follow where New Year is accepted to be January 1 is, of course, a northern hemisphere creation so everything seasonal is reversed. It makes perfect sense that the first flowers on M. campbellii signal the start of our new year in the garden.

Reaching high into the mid-winter sky, Dahlia imperialis Alba and a bougainvillea shoot

And what a week it has been. Cool nights (which means between about 3° and 8° Celsius where we are), followed by sunny, calm days with a temperature of 14° to 15°. We cannot complain about that in mid-winter, even though we know winter storms will return over the next six weeks before temperatures start rising in August.

The shaggy spires of Jacobinia chrysostephana syn. Justicia aurea in the early morning light

As usual, in this part of the world, we keep that clarity of bright light all year round. Not for us a watery winter sun held low in the sky and lowered light levels of winter gloom. No, we have bright sunshine and clear blue skies on good days where the only difference is the air temperature. And it is not so bad to winter-over in conditions where, even as I type with warm gloves (blood circulation to the arthritic fingers is not what it once was) in my office with the heater on, I know that after my 10am coffee, it will be warm enough outside to head outside and start on today’s project. And still we have a garden full of flowers.

Luculia Fragrant Cloud in full bloom

Luculia Fragrant Cloud with its sweet almond fragrance

Mark’s Daphne Perfume Princess – we have rather a lot of these scattered through the garden

Vireya rhododendrons planted in sheltered positions throughout the top garden flower intermittently through the year but are perhaps most appreciated in mid winter


12 thoughts on “A celebration of bright light and the start of a new year of gardening

  1. Robin Middlebrook

    Lovely to see those winter blooms. My love affair with salvias continues with an unknown specimen reaching 1.7 m with fat pendular blue blooms – the biggest Iv’e seen. Fancy having monarch butterflies dipping in and out of the sasanquas in June and still the canna lilies keep on giving.I’m finding out what can grow happily in our hard soil over here in HNth. Greasy clay pan – lots of gypsum and compost being applied.

  2. Pat Webster

    I’m glad you made the connection between stars, flowers, dates and new years, Abbie. Interesting to consider how much people who lived for centuries without all today’s distractions observed details of nature that most of us still miss.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Yes! Fascinating that Maori, in observing Matariki, arrived at the same date, within a day or two, as the then unknown northern hemisphere arrived at to set the start of a new year.

  3. Stephen Ferguson

    Dear Abbie

    Your “start of the gardening year” post struck a chord. When we bought our present house on Sydney’s Upper North Shore about 10 years ago we planted a Magnolia Felix as a specimen tree in the front lawn. It has reached in excess of 4 metres with blooms 30cm in diameter. Understandably it attracts a lot of admiration from passers-by with some of the regular walkers and neighbours asking when this season’s blooms can be expected. Looking at pictures from previous seasons and consistent with your post we seem to get first first colour in the first week of July and that for me is definitely the highlight of the year. The blooming season seems to last well into September, though leaves have also started by then.

    Regards Stephen Ferguson

    Sent from my iPad


    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Well that is lovely to read. We are very proud of that magnolia. You are opening blooms a few weeks ahead of us which is what we would expect in your warmer climate. When we first released Vulcan, we could track its flowering from the far north to the distant south by the phone calls we received from people wanting a plant.

  4. Paddy Tobin

    Your comment re winter light ring so very true. It can be a miserable prospect here in Ireland to look out on fog, mist, cloud day after day. I recall a Spanish visitor complaining that he had read of Ireland being a green country but he had found it to be grey. Your winter temperatures are very mild indeed, far milder than here in south-east Ireland. Like you, I look forward to the flowering of Magnolia campbellii – I go to Mount Congreve to see them where there is a view over the canopies of several dozen trees planted in the 60s and now mature and wonderful each year. Many thanks for another of your so very interesting articles.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      My mother had a Yorkshire childhood and spent most of her adult life living in Dunedin in the South Island here. When she came north for a few years, she really disliked the bright light which she described as harsh. And certainly her English style of gardening with primroses, hellebores, shrub roses and the like was ill-suited to the bright light. She found the big, bold, bright blooms that are more favoured here somewhat vulgar and lacking refinement so returned south after a few years. I have only been to the UK once in December and the winter light was at such low levels with a thin, watery sun barely rising in the sky that I have never forgotten that stark difference to our winters.

  5. tonytomeo

    Much of what I learned about horticulture from old people was scheduled on the behavior of the flora in the region. It was more accurate than the calendar and positions of the stars, at least in regard to how things were responding the the weather at the time. I am sure that the actual dates were important too, but adjustments were made for the weather.

  6. Paddy Tobin

    A comment I heard recently re some of the yellow magnolias is that they are actually a brighter yellow when grown in New Zealand and are less so here in Ireland – because of the difference of light levels. Certainly, we seek them out when we see the photographs and are disappointed when they flower. However, perhaps the brighter yellows don’t suit us here, certainly they can appear garish in spring, particularly, though fine in our summer light.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I have not heard that about the yellows before but it is true about the reds. We get deeper colour here than appears to be the case in most other parts of the world. But I don’t think it is related to the light – more likely something in our soils here. Also it appears that better colour is seen in northern countries where the cold winters are balanced out by hot summers which presumably ripens the wood more. We waited a long time to see Vulcan performing anywhere near as good as here and when it came, it was from Germany. Ireland, like southern England, presumably has comparatively mild winters but lacks the summer heat that seems to give better results.

  7. Dale Lethbridge

    What an incredible collection of perfume and beauty for Matariki/ Mid Winter. I would not have thought some of those plants would dare to show their faces now, the dahlia, when all the summer blooming types are mere bundles of sticks poking out of the ground, and the ‘vireyas wrongly considered as delicate and frost tender by many of us. Plants for the northern regions.
    The pleasure of winter sweet , wallflowers, daphne, violets, primroses, camellias, french lavender and white oxalis charmed me on this mornings walk after a few days of hard frosts in the Waikato. And even the last buds of rose ‘Abraham Darby’ were a special joy.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Waikato has colder winters than we do close to the coast here, but nothing on the far south or so many places in the northern hemisphere where most flowering delays until early spring and then comes on in a rush.

Comments are closed.