The Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, commonly known as Bangalow Palms, are no more. We have been talking about cutting them down for several years and we have finally done it. The first we felled in the recent clean-up after Cyclone Dovi. It was in an area with a huge mess to be dealt with already and it seemed the right time to get rid of it. Zach dropped the second one this week.
I say we had two but really, we had two very tall specimens – and eleventy thousand seedlings. They were handsome enough with a tropical jungle look and posed no problems until they started setting seed. And boy do they set seed.
For the first few years, Mark would get out the extension ladder and cut the seed off. But they kept growing taller to somewhere around 12 or 15 metres and we kept growing older; this approach was not exactly sustainable. We decided they were expendable. I am sick of weeding out all the bangalow seedlings.
Archontophoenix cunninghamiana is an Australian palm from northern New South Wales. By my definition, native plants in their natural environment, or even just in their homeland, are not weeds. Seedlings can be surplus to requirements. I never describe our native nikau palm or even pongas (tree ferns) as weeds even though we have an abundance of them that we regularly thin out. They belong here.
Introduced plants are different. I see Brazil has a major problem with the bangalow outcompeting some of their native species and I think we are on a similar track in this country. Because it is so widely grown and sold commercially, that horse has probably bolted already. However, this does not stop us from taking responsibility for our own plants and stopping them from spreading. They will colonise much faster than our nikau palm (Rhopalostylis sapida).
I have seen more than enough of their seedheads over the years – huge amounts of red berries that are attractive to our native fruit-eating birds, particularly kereru, so spread widely by them. I can not say I had ever noticed their flowers before because they are so high up. Zach reverently carried over their flowers to show me. I say reverently because, weed or not, the flowers are exquisite in form and colour. Nature can be beautiful in so many different ways.
Plant collectors and the nursery trade don’t always have the proudest record when it comes to preserving desirable plant species in the wild. It was the habit of stripping material for commercial gain that saw flora as well as fauna being protected by CITES*. But there are exceptions and our native climber, Tecomanthe speciosa, is one example.
It was down to just the one, single, solitary specimen ever found and I think it is still down to just the one plant in the wild. Arguably it is the nursery trade and the popularising of it as a garden plant that saved it from extinction.
The same situation applies to Pennantia baylisiana, found at the same time on the same island. We have that growing in our garden too. One of the species of our native kakabeak, Clianthus puniceus, has never been reduced to just one plant but it is critically endangered with just one small location in the wild on Moturemu Island in the Kaipara Harbour. Circulating these plants in the garden trade doesn’t alter the situation of them being endangered in the wild due to loss of habitat, but it does stop them being wiped out entirely.
The tecomanthe was found on Manawatāwhi (formerly referred to as the Great Island in the Three Kings group to the north west off the top tip of New Zealand. It was found in 1946 and it is thought that the introduction of goats to the island had led to the extinction of all but the remaining plant. I understand the goats were introduced to provide food for shipwrecked sailors. With the eradication of goats, vegetation on that island has regenerated to the point where that last plant has become heavily shaded and it has hardly flowered since that year of discovery.
The tecomanthe is climbing vine, subtropical and therefore frost tender but well adapted to coastal conditions. Its foliage is relatively large, lush and shiny and I can’t get a photo because it is all right up on top, maybe 10 metres above. Fortunately, it doesn’t only flower right at the top but can put clusters of blooms out on its bare lower lengths of vine.
I didn’t know until I looked it up that T. speciosa is best grown from fresh seed and can flower within a couple of years whereas it takes much longer for a cutting-grown plant to start flowering. I am guessing most plants sold in the trade are cutting grown.
The potential is there for this vine to become a gnarly old plant – as ours has – with very thick trunks which may smother and even fell the host tree it clambers up for support but that will take many decades. I have seen tecomanthes trained along front verandahs but they do need training and pruning. Left to their own devices, they may rip the guttering off the house if you turn your back on them but at least you can get most of the flowering at eye-level with a bit of effort. It is probably safer to train a plant along a fence or a wall but whatever location is chosen, it needs a strong support.
We grow two other tecomanthe species but both are more tender than T. speciosa because they come from New Guinea. Tecomanthe venusta (syn dendrophylla) needs to be under the cover of a verandah this far south but can be grown outdoors in Northland. The dainty one we have as T. montana (which may or may not be the correct botanical name) is arguably the prettiest of the three. We did have T. hillii which is native to Queensland but it succumbed to neglect.
None of the tecomanthe species are common in New Zealand but only one of them is extra special for the patriotic gardener. Fancy being a direct descendant of the one sole, surviving plant. They don’t come more endangered than that.
*CITES stands for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
“He leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden.”
Horace Walpole from ‘On Modern Gardening’ (1780)
In New Zealand, we tend to place a very high value on tidy gardens. Edges, hedges and lawns, as I once heard a prominent gardener espouse. Attend to those and the rest of the garden will look fine – although, if it is a garden open to the public, it must also be weed-free.
I call this garden grooming, the outside equivalent of housework. It is a never-ending task to keep a garden manicured, but it is a matter of pride for many. You will likely be judged by your neighbours, relatives and visitors on how tidy your place is.
All those sharp lines and tidy edges give a high level of definition to a garden that makes for good photographs but they do not make my heart swell with joy.
When I set out in 2009 to get to grips with contemporary summer gardens, primarily in the UK and parts of Europe, I was jolted out of that preoccupation with orderly, tidy gardens. There is a whole lot happening there and not much of it has to do with tidiness. I saw a generous profusion in the modern plantings, a fresh energy and vitality in the scale, the colour and the size of the plants that were never going to straitjacketed into obedience in a nice, orderly manner.
Current trends overseas are referred to as the Dutch New Wave, New Perennials, the new naturalism, naturalistic gardening, Piet Oudolf-inspired, prairie planting, the meadow revival, the Sheffield School movement and more. They all share certain features which come down to a principle of gardening with Nature, not gardening by controlling Nature. Many gardens sit on the landscape; these gardens sit within the landscape.
My gardening and life partner, Mark, and I landed on the term of ‘romantic gardening’ – a softer-edged, more naturalistic style that blurs the lines between the garden and the wider landscape. It is a different way of looking and it takes a different approach to managing the garden.
“You must go to Ninfa,” English friends and colleagues said to us when we first started talking about romantic gardening. The English love Ninfa, which is in southern Italy near the charmless city of Latina. Sometimes it is even described as “the world’s most romantic garden”. Essentially, it is a looser, voluptuous style of gardening set within the ruins of an entire small town that was sacked in 1370 after being occupied since Roman times. How can the result not be romantic? It was very different to all the classic, grand Italian gardens where formality and structure gives the framework and the planting is largely an afterthought.
We also visited Torrecchia Vecchia nearby: a smaller, private garden which emulated some of the Ninfa style. It, too, was created around ruins, this time of a small village. On the day, I admit I was not blown away by its beauty, although it had some lovely areas. In retrospect, it has given me more to think about because it was a modern interpretation of what the Italians call the ‘romantic English style’. This is not surprising when you know it was created in the mid 1990s by leading English designer, Dan Pearson.
Given New Zealand’s distinct lack of abandoned villages, small towns or anything in ancient stone, we need to strip away the underpinning physical structures of these gardens to see what could work here. Trying to re-create the magic of historic Italy in tanalised timber or ponga logs is really not going to cut the mustard.
Without the human-made structures, the layers of history and romantic back stories that typically characterise ‘romantic gardens’ elsewhere, we looked to the natural landforms, plants and management strategies instead. “Enhancing Nature”, Mark likes to call it.
For us, a romantic garden is one where the overriding sense is of being in the garden, rather than looking at the garden. English garden writer, Tim Richardson, talks about the difference between pictorial gardens and immersive gardens. Pictorial gardens are those where your eyes take in a pleasing view, where design and structure are usually the key elements. That is why they photograph well. Immersive gardens are more about the wrap-around experience, enveloping you in the movement, texture and colour of the close-up view.
This softer-edged approach of working in cooperation with Nature is underpinned by increasingly important principles – sustainability, support for natural eco-systems, better environmental practices, harmony and respect – while placing a high value on both prettiness and beauty. It is sometimes a celebration of the simplicity, rather than grandeur.
Romantic gardening is not tied to a particular garden design style: it can work with cottage-style, woodland, meadow, sunny perennials, or even just a suburban section. The exception is a formal garden which requires strict maintenance and precision for its impact.
It is a way of looking with different eyes and a different mind-set translating into gentler ways to maintain the garden. Moving away from sharp definition and excessive tidiness means a softer-edged garden, a blurring of hard lines so paths and garden are more seamless, where plants are not corseted into submission but allowed to festoon – but within reason. Instead of focal points, we limb up taller plants to create views through and to highlight the play of light and shade. In some areas, we let the grass grow long and just mow paths.
We still have parts of our garden that are maintained to a high level, but not too many and generally closer to the house. I may look at the tidy areas with satisfaction when they are looking spruce but it is the looser areas that can make my heart sing.
The Higo iris in the meadow down in the park, the flowering cherries in the Wild North Garden dropping their petals on the water, the voluptuous helianthus with the tall grasses flowering in autumn, the disorderly jumble of colours and blooms in the bee and butterfly garden – all these make me happy in ways that tidy formality does not.
First published in Woman Magazine March 2022 and reprinted here with their permission
I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when the last of the Cyclone Dovi major damage was cleared and repaired. The abies that fell over the high bridge in the park has been cleared; Lloyd has reinstated the stopbank which had been ripped apart by the tree roots and the he has repaired the bridge.
The challenge with the abies was what to do with it. Mark had no interest in the timber for firewood. We have plenty already and abies is a lighter wood that does burns quickly so was not desirable. Had it been somewhere with vehicle access, we would have given it away but it was too much of a challenge to try and get it back up the hill when the only access was by our baby tractor or Lloyd’s quad bike and trailer.
The job of cutting it up fell to Zach. Given it had fallen right across the stream, we are lucky that we have had a dry late summer and autumn with low water flow because he spent a few days working around the water with gumboots that are no longer waterproof. He burned the foliage on site as he went. The wood was cut to manageable lengths. A few were used nearby as ‘installations’, we might say. Most of it, he carted halfway back up the hill to build what we have come to call The Barricades.
For readers not into musicals, this is a reference to ‘Les Miserables’. Of course it is. Zach is a fan of musicals and we have been been a Les Mis household ever since our second daughter played Little Cosette in the stage show at the tender age of 10.
Meet our barricades. Essentially, they are a way of dealing with surplus wood while giving some structure and height in a casual woodland area. Over the years, they will rot down but, in the meantime, they give all sorts of cavities in which to grow plants as well as being not so much a trendy hotel for insects, as an entire insect resort. Or condominium. Zach started with planting a few orchids in it and we will continue to add more plants as suitable candidates become available.
Meanwhile, the rate of recovery in the Avenue Gardens has been rewarding. When Dovi hit, this area was completely covered by fallen pine and the lower canopy of jacaranda, camellia and cordyline. After it had been cleared, it was a bare wasteland with everything tramped into the ground by heavy boots dragging out the debris. We covered it in the woodchip mulch – of which we had small mountains heaped around the area and this was how it looked on March 5.
Two months on, in autumn, it has already recovered to this point. We are still missing the middle canopy layer, but it looks as if the perennial groundcover will return afresh.
Further along the damage zone, the plants are already softening the length of trunk we decided to leave where it fell. In a few years’ time, Cyclone Dovi will just be a memory.
I wrote about Mark’s hippeastrum hybrids back in 2019. Another one has opened and is positively glowing in the Rimu Avenue. Everyone that has bloomed so far is red. It would have been nice to have had more variety, given that one parent is H. papilio. But what is more interesting is their random blooming. H. aulicum flowers like clockwork for us in September, H. papilio in October. These hybrids are popping up the odd flower any time of the year. It will take a few more years to see if they settle down to a predictable seasonal pattern but, in the meantime, it is quite delightful to come across unexpected, over the top blooms glowing in the woodland gardens.
From Ulladulla, we headed down to Catalina in Bateman’s Bay where our Air BnB was Something Else. With hundreds of metres of sheer curtains in lilac ombre festooned in every room and acres of large white tiles on the floor, it had its own style. Sydney daughter described it as having a Greek wedding vibe.
It is just over two years ago that the Black Summer fires swept through parts of Australia. Just -pre-pandemic in fact. I wrote this piece in January 2020. We had entered bushfire territory.
It is astonishing how quickly the Australian bush can regenerate – helped, daughters told me, by the fact that rains arrived not long after. That is by no means always the case but the area we were in was looking lush and green by Australian standards. “You can tell where the fires came through,” Canberra daughter said, “by the trees with black trunks with dense tufts of fresh foliage on short growths.” Those trees are mainly their native eucalyptus. We soon had our eye in for spotting fire damage and that was haunting.
The fires swept through Eurobadalla Botanic Gardens near Mogo on New Year’s Eve of 2019. Looking at the fire photos on line, there wasn’t much left and all the infrastructure was destroyed. These gardens are more what we call ‘nature reserve’ than ‘botanic garden’ but I don’t know how much of that is post-fire. Sydney and Melbourne both have botanic gardens that are more international in their plant collections; Canberra’s botanic gardens are based on Australian native plants and have a totally different feel. I would guess Eurobadalla has always been more focused on native plants but with the main efforts going into rebuilding infrastructure, the flora is more about regeneration at this time than showcasing a broad range of native plants.
The more than 37 000 knitted wattles on the entrance lawn were both eyecatching (“Well, that is one way to get colour in the garden,” was Mark’s initial observation) but poignant in the extreme when we read the information board. Wattles, from the acacia family, are one of the first nurse plants to appear after fire. So these hand-crafted sticks of flowers were both an acknowledgement of the devastation experienced and a symbol of regeneration.
We went for a walk one grey, calm morning along a beach which seems to be part of a nature reserve by the Clyde River that reaches the sea in Bateman’s Bay.
Elder daughter has a been a great picker-upper of unconsidered trifles all her life. It is only recently that I have dispersed most of her rock and shell collections from the back shed here. To my amusement, she has passed on this trait of gathering beach treasure to her small son. And I can tell you that the shells on this Australian beach were a great deal more varied and colourful than anything I have seen on a New Zealand beach. Small, but so pretty. I wanted to gather them myself. Daughter and son pocketed these small treasures to take home and that brought a smile to my face.
The beach was lined in what we call she-okes in this country. Excellent firewood, Mark says, despite being fast growing, brittle trees that can fall apart in our winds. She-okes are Casuarina equisetifolia, native to Australia and up through the Pacific into Asia. They are not a tree of great beauty in form or foliage, being typical of that somewhat scrawny, scruffy, rangy look of much of Australia’s tough native vegetation. What was interesting about these plants was the role they were playing in breaking the force of the sea and their ability to grow in areas where they must get inundated by salt water on a regular basis. That said, the front row of trees had fullly exposed roots and were falling backwards on a frequent basis.
After a rewarding week of family bonding, we were jolly relieved to test negative at Sydney airport, on our arrival home and again five days later. Travelling in Covid times is a whole new ballgame but we are big fans of N95 masks.
Postscript: It gave me quite a jolt when I heard my daughter cautioning her five year old that we were moving through snake territory at Eurobadalla Gardens. This is not what a NZ grandmother expects to hear. For overseas readers, NZ has no snakes at all – not even in zoos. Australia, on the other hand, has a fair representation of the world’s most venomous snakes. NZ children are taught about personal safety measures in earthquakes and tsunamis. I assume many Australian children are raised being aware of safety around snakes and bushfires.
Given my ingrained fear of them, I snorted when I saw this tweet come down my Twitter line. In a world where many people pay lip-service only to the threats posed by climate change, I thought yes. Very much yes.