A touch of Africa in Waitara

Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkopf’ and Dracaena draco, both from the Canary Islands

When I was photographing the Magnolia ‘Felix Jury’ plants in my local town of Waitara on Thursday, I stopped to photograph this small public garden by the river. I remember thinking when it went in about 15 years ago that it was a most unusual and extravagant planting by the Council. Local authorities are always strapped for cash and, when money is short, Waitara has a history of coming off second best to more affluent areas which are better at lobbying and demanding quality. The money, as I recall, came from a charitable trust and I am guessing an outside designer had a hand on this project.

Some red flowered aloe that neither of us could name

It was the mass of red flowering aloes that particularly caught my attention this week but I have thought about this planting on and off for years. Culturally, with its heavy African influence, it is like a fish out of water. But logically, is it any more culturally alien than the gleditsias planted down the main street, the bedding plants around the clock tower or indeed the magnolias I had just photographed? Would I have raised my eyebrows had it been a more conventional planting of cherry trees from Japan, daffodils and tulips, maybe with kowhai (our native sophora)? Most of our plantings in this country, be they public or private, are a mix of exotic and native plants.

Our own Aloe plicatilis have never reached this stature

And there are plenty of native plantings nearby – opposite on Manukorihi Hill, the pohutukawa that we managed to save from the ravages of the flood engineer downstream (as I recall, we lost about 29 to the chainsaws but saved over 80), extensive mixed native plantings upstream on the river flats. Literally a few doors down the road is a little pocket park that has been lovingly and just as carefully landscaped in natives.

Strelitzias from South Africa with the rock gabions visible behind as part of flood protection. The river is just behind the gabions.

There is no arguing that in this free draining, frost-free, sunny situation on the riverside, very close to the sea, these African plants are thriving. The stone gabions in the background are the latest addition to the stopbanks to get additional height to hold back floodwaters. Like much of coastal NZ, large parts of Waitara have been built on the flood plain and that is looking increasingly precarious these days. And this planting has prospered in a maintenance regime that is public sector, so not intensive and it will be a lot less intensive than bedding plants.

Mark tells me it is a Butia capitata which is actually South American. Looking terrific with a bed of native libertia at its feet. 

The attempt to incorporate our native nikau palm is not as successful in such an open situation. Many of our native plants have evolved to grow in close company.

I was discussing this with Mark and he made a comment that was like a lightbulb moment for me. “Well, it hasn’t been vandalised in all those years.” He is so right. Vandalism of public plantings is a larger issue than people stripping pretty flowers or stealing plants. Maybe this one just looks too prickly?

More aeoniums (with the only piece of litter I saw – spot the can) and Dracaena draco again

While it may strike me as slightly incongruous in its local context, this exotic planting owes much to the style of landscaping favoured at the time for upmarket, domestic gardens in the big city of Auckland. The interesting thing about it in this situation is how well it has done in the conditions and how it has matured gracefully over the years. Fifteen years without anything more than routine maintenance is like a lifetime in public plantings.

Agave attenuata is actually Mexican so this is quite an international planting. Like Aloe plicatilis, it is way more impressive in this open, coastal situation than in the sheltered conditions of our inland garden.

I am not so keen on the blue painted seats, lights, rubbish bins and the like but that is my personal taste. I prefer the plants to star rather than the man-made conveniences. The planting is not pretty in the conventional sense, it lacks all cultural context* – but it works. And it is undeniably different to every other public planting I have seen in our district.

*When I mention cultural context, it may perhaps help if I explain that the ONLY building of architectural significance that I can think of in Waitara is the meeting house on Ōwae Marae, the most important marae for Te Āti Awa, one of Taranaki’s pre-eminent Maori iwi, or tribes.

Photos at Ōwae Marae taken earlier at a government select committee hearing




10 thoughts on “A touch of Africa in Waitara

  1. orinococds

    As far from the English style of public so garden prevalent in NZ, as it’s possible to get. Maybe a nod to the Californian school of landscaping, or a Spanish influence?
    Very attractive nonetheless.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I think it is more attributable to the Auckland minimalist garden so popular around late 1990s, 2000, though that may have originated from Californian style. I bet it was an Auckland designer who planned it. And maybe it is that that expensive, minimalist Auckland style is about as far from small town Waitara as it is possible to get that made me hesitate. But it seems likely that the Waitara planting has matured and endured well past those Auckland gardens.

  2. katesnewgarden

    We grow so many Southern African plants in NZ they are definitely part of our horticulture culture. And so suitable and hardy in this coastal environment. Great for the birds in winter too. Easy to propagate – bet a few have found their way into local private gardens!

  3. sarahnorling2014

    Interesting post as always, and I agree with your thoughts. I always like seeing the largely unsung efforts of local council gardeners getting appreciated. I do find this planting both effective, bold and interesting, whilst also having that slight ‘where are we?’ reaction.

  4. Diana Kenny

    Hi Abbie

    When we moved to a coastal property 20 years ago I thought right Mediterranean planting salvia and the like – no didn’t work – OK then surely Aussie plants kangaroo paws etc – no didn’t work. So then I tried the South African’s and did they thrive Leucosperum, Protea, Clivia, Strelizia and the like and I just love them.

    Love reading your posts keep it up.


    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I don’t know where you are but the big difference with many of the South African plants is summer rain – that they come from areas that get summer rains like much of NZ (well, western coast side anyway). Whereas the Med and Australian plants are more likely to come from areas of summer drought.
      Thanks for saying you enjoy my posts.

  5. Michael Mansvelt

    Thanks Abbie for this insightful article. I admire the plantings in Waitara whenever i’m there, and agree , they are really unique. My feeling is they are appropriated by there coastal environment and im sure they are enjoyed by many who may need extra flamboyance to encourage them take look up and take note of local flora.
    I’m a great believer that in this day and age any planting is better than no planting, i just love that this selection has stood the test of time and provided such impact with minimum effort. I hope to see more public plantings appear in our region as peoples priorities return to the natural world around us.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Thanks, Michael. Glad you enjoyed it. I admit that we have a sneaking suspicion that if one quizzed the locals, at least half, maybe more, would prefer mown lawns, flowering cherries and daffies. But let not that get in the way of our admiration for the resilient and colourful planting that is there now.

  6. tonytomeo

    Butia capitata is variable. They all have their distinct personalities. They don’t work well for formal plantings. I believe that they are from Paraguay and Uruguay. We know them as pindo palms.
    Dracaena draco does better in Southern California than here. Landscapers insist that it is a yucca.

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