Category Archives: Tikorangi notes

Tikorangi notes: Iceland poppies are not from Iceland, naturalising trilliums, bluebells and escaping root stock

I have never been a fan of Iceland poppies. They were the one flower I remember my mother buying  when I was a child – a bunch of stems still in bud. She would burn the stems and then put them in a vase where they would open to what seemed garish and unappealing flowers to me. Tastes change and in recent years, I have found my eyes drawn to mass displays of these simple blooms. This patch is on a traffic island which holds the very modest clock tower in my modest local town of Waitara and it makes me smile when I pass.

The Waitara clock tower in a traffic island 

Ironically, on the opposite corner was this stand of fake flowers outside a Gold Coin shop.

Iceland poppies do not come from Iceland. I finally checked and in fact they come from the chilly areas of Europe, Asia and North America – sub polar territory, so presumably alpine meadows.  In the wild, Papaver nudicaule  (nude because of its bare stem which makes it a good cut flower) are pretty much all white or pale yellow. The other colours are recessive genes which have been brought out by plant breeding – presumably line breeding which is selecting down the generations of individual plants to pick out the stronger colours until those coloured genes have come to the fore.

Puketarata Garden near Hawera

This is not a plant I have ever felt the need to grow myself but there is a simple appeal to a mass display. I remember being quite charmed by their use in the clipped buxus formation at Jen Horner’s garden, Puketarata, one spring. It is hard to beat the simplicity of a single poppy, or indeed a daisy flower.

This poor little white one survived being taken off at the base with the strimmer last spring

These trilliums represent a minor triumph in Mark’s experiments with plants he can establish in meadow situations. We have plenty of trilliums in our woodland gardens but establishing them in a cultivated garden is different to getting them to naturalise on his bulb hillside. When I say “naturalise”, I mean that they are now sufficiently well established to return each year, able to compete with the grass and uncultivated soil. They are not actually increasing yet but they are at least established.

Mark has raised more seed and has about 70 pots of them in flower in the old nursery area. He is disappointed that most of them have come up white and said that he wants the red ones for planting in the meadow and he asked that the pale yellow ones be kept together as a group in one area. For him, this is all part of blurring boundaries in gardening again. He really likes the idea of trilliums thriving in managed garden conditions and then, as the garden becomes looser and more informal further out, the same plants popping up as wild flowers. Especially when it is something as choice as trilliums. Maybe I could surprise him with the surplus Paris polyphylla making an appearance on the bulb hillside, too.

I photographed this small flowering growth on Prunus Pearly Shadows as an example of unwanted root stock shooting away, even on a very well-established tree. Many plants are budded or grafted onto other rootstock so that the desired cultivar can utilise the strength of strong growing root stock. Which is well and good when the rootstock is compatible and doesn’t escape. If you don’t cut off the root stock, it can overwhelm the grafted selection so it is best to see to it as soon as you spot it. How do I know it is rootstock? It is a single white; Pearly Shadow is a fluffy pink double and is not yet in flower.

Prunus Pearly Shadows

This particular tree is a splendid example of what is described as a ‘vase-shaped form’. It has not been shaped. It grows naturally in that upward Y shape. It is in our car park area and has so far attracted three reversing cars. I am not quite sure how people fail to see it in their rear vision mirrors.

It is peak bluebell time in the park and even if these can be weedy, the drifts of colour are very pretty. Bluebells should, in our opinion, be predominantly blue. But the addition of a few white or pink ones amongst the blue gives a contrasting accent of colour that can lift the blue. The pink is also a strong grower, the white less so. We don’t want bluebells everywhere so I am removing them from some areas of the garden they are attempting to infiltrate but we are happy to let them spread in our meadows.

The magnoliafication of our local town

Our flagship magnolia, ‘Felix Jury’

Back in our nursery days, we used to send our reject plants down to be given away, sometimes sold for just a dollar or two, at a local op shop that a good friend was closely involved with. There are always reject plants that don’t make the grade to sell – usually due to being poorly shaped or sometimes over-produced –  and it seemed a good solution. Our local town of Waitara is what is often politely described as ‘lower socio economic’. There isn’t a lot of spare cash in the community and no local plant retailers so we saw it as a means of encouraging planting in an area where most people wouldn’t buy plants.

In the early days, we had more reject plants of Magnolia Felix Jury than we would have liked so quite a few of those went down to be dispersed and I quipped at the time that if only a quarter of them grew, they would make their mark. The magnoliafication of Waitara, I used to describe it.

Iolanthe to the left, Felix to to the right

This year was the first year I have really started to notice Felix in bloom locally. It is unmistakeable with its enormous flowers so I drove down just a few streets, Felix-spotting, when I went to the supermarket yesterday. I doubt that the locals know that it was bred locally, named for a long-term resident and is now our flagship magnolia internationally but that doesn’t matter. It is just pretty spectacular and will continue to get better year on year. Magnolias are long-lived plants if they are allowed to be. I was a week too late to catch them with the best colour, but you can see what I mean.

Best colour – it fades out with age as the season progresses

We can get deeper and richer colour here than in some other parts of the world. Why? We don’t know whether soils, seasonal weather or climate affect it. All Mark is willing to say is that the stronger the plant is growing, the better the colour it achieves. I am loathe to recommend piling on the fertiliser; we never do and we don’t think it is good practice. We plant well, keep them mulched and will feed with compost if a plant needs a boost. Other gardeners like to manage feeding differently but the advice from the breeder is to get your plants established and growing well and you may find the colours are richer.

Next year, I shall get around a week or two earlier to catch the local plants in peak bloom. By then, I will have canvassed local friends to find the location of more trees.

Poor light and nearly finished, but another local Felix

The plant breeder’s garden

“It’s very white out there,” he said

“It is very white out there,” Mark observed. We were standing in the roller door of our large shed, sheltering from another rainy squall and looking out to the new summer perennial gardens. The photo doesn’t fully convey the white experience. The row of Fairy Magnolia White, Camellia yuhsienensis and Mark’s hedges of michelia seedlings were all in view. Mark was envisaging a carpet of snowdrops at ground level as well, even though they are but a fleeting delight. I was looking at the michelia seedlings.

Mark has planted two sides of the new garden area in michelia hedges. Technically – in accurate nomenclature – these are all magnolias now but we continue to use the earlier term ‘michelia’ for the sake of clarity. When we say ‘magnolia’ here, we are almost always referring to deciduous magnolia trees so it is confusing to include the world of evergreen michelias which also feature very large in our lives at this time of the year.

Some of the seedlings are simply gorgeous but won’t be named

When planting seedlings, it means every plant will be different. For the largest length of visible hedge, he planted out one particular cross that had not come out as he hoped because very few were coloured. The nature of the parentage means that they will flower well, not grow out of control and be suited to clipping but they will never have the precision of planting a row that is all one clone – in other words, identical to each other. Mark likes seedlings for mass plantings because it adds interest to have them all similar but not identical.

Others are pretty on their day but floppy blooms don’t cut the mustard

I paced along his hedging, estimating how many individual plants there are. Getting close to 200, was the answer, planted at about 30cm spacings because we want a quick hedge that can be trimmed as required. Each individual plant in bloom is lovely on its day but some are lovelier than others. However, none will be named and put into commercial production. Mark has already named Fairy Magnolia White and Fairy Magnolia Cream and he won’t name any more white or cream ones unless there is something that is radically different or a major improvement. So these are ours to enjoy alone.

Heading into pink 

Part of a breeding breakthrough in colour but not good enough to select

At one end, there are about three different pink-toned varieties which are something of an oddity in amongst the cream and white majority. Again, he has already named Fairy Magnolia Blush in this colour range so they will just stay as a quirky aberration in the hedge at flowering time. We are okay with quirks.

Hardy michelias are basically white or cream. While there are new tropical species still being discovered and some of those show more colour, Mark has no interest in trying to breed with them, even if we could get them into the country to work with. Most of the michelias are not overly hardy at the best of times and he has been trying to get hardier selections (will they grow well and flower consistently in places like the UK, is one of his measures) without introducing more tropical genes. But he has managed to get as far as pinks, purples and primrose yellow by ever more complex crosses using the material he has available.

From white through to pinks and purples with a few heading into pale yellow –  blooms from the breeding programme

I see it was four years ago that I set out to pick a representation of single blooms from his seedlings to show the range in colour, flower size and shape that he has reached in what is predominantly a white or cream plant genus. While he has continued to flower more since, this photo remains a fair summary. We have selected three new ones that are currently in propagation and performance trials for probable release but there is a whole lot more to selecting a plant than the just flowers. My lips are sealed as to what makes these three worth singling out until we are further down the track of commercial trials.

Fairy Magnolia Cream just coming into flower

In case you are interested in what goes into selecting a plant (or you want to name something you have found), off the top of my head, the checklist includes the following:

  • Is it either distinctively different or a major improvement to similar plants already on the market? (This is arguably the single most important criterion).
  • Are there plenty of flowers? How long is the flowering season (some can be a short flash in the pan)? Does it flower consistently well every year?
  • Are the blooms reasonably weather hardy?
  • If it is scented genus, are the flowers fragrant?
  • Do the blooms age gracefully and fall cleanly?
  • Is the foliage as good as the flowers?
  • Is the foliage in proportion to the flowers?
  • Where do the leaf buds open from? In the case of michelias, does it just set leaf buds on the tips (in which case it will look leggy and bare very soon) or does it set leaf buds right down the stem.
  • Does it ever defoliate in a wet spring (a feature of Magnolia laevifolia formerly known as Michelia yunnanensis)?
  • What is its performance like as a garden plant , not just grown in a container? It takes several years to make this assessment. In the longer term, will it stay a garden-friendly size? Does it take pruning, trimming or clipping well?
  • What is its international potential? How is it likely to perform in more extreme climates?

Only then do the propagation trials start. There is no point at all in selecting a plant that is difficult to propagate, where the percentage of cuttings that do not set roots is too high, where plants *whiff off* – Mark’s phrase meaning die – during production, or where very particular propagation and growing techniques are required for success – growers just do not want to put the time and expense into growing plants that are unreliable or too picky.

New releases used to be the life blood of our mailorder business. Some selections stood the test of time, others not so much. At least all the magnolias have proven to be worthwhile. It is the vireya rhododendron selections and a few of the camellias that have fallen off the Jury plant wagon. These days, we get a new plant through the initial selection and then we hand it over to our agents to manage through final trials and then getting it to market.

It is a long path to getting a new cultivar onto the market. But in the process, we get a lot of unique plant material to use in our own garden.

Magnolia doltsopa syn Michelia doltsopa – a selection released as ‘Rusty” by nurseryman, Peter Cave. Pretty flowers but showing typical floppy tendencies of this species and the original plant in our park is massive.

Tikorangi notes: narcissi, garden edgings and a happy plant breeder

The snowdrop season is all but over already. It is charming but brief. The narcissi, however, have a longer season, at least in part because we can grow a much wider range of species and hybrids. Yesterday felt like a winter’s day – the last gasp of winter, I hope – so I headed out to pick one each of the many different varieties in flower. We don’t grow many of the larger ones at all, preferring the charm of the littlies, the dwarf ones. Bigger may be better when it comes to magnolias – at least in our eyes – but daintiness wins with the narcissi. Most of these are named varieties though Mark is also raising cyclamineus seedlings to build up numbers for planting out and to get some seedling variation within them. The cyclamineus are the ones where the petal skirt sweeps back, sometimes completely reflexed, giving them a slightly startled appearance. He was intending to plant many of these down in the park but hadn’t got around to it so offered them to me for the new grass garden.

Drifting dwarf narcissi through the new grass garden. Camellia Fairy Blush hedge and Fairy Magnolia White edge the garden on both long sides. 

I have now compromised the big, bold, chunky planting in waves that is the hallmark of the new grass gardens by drifting hundreds of dainty, dwarf narcissi through them – though far enough out to escape being swamped by the large plants, for several years at least. It adds seasonal interest to an area that will not come alive again until later in spring.

Informal bark edging and bark and leaf mulch define the garden area

After much consideration as to how we wanted to complete the grass garden with regard to edging, mulch and path surfaces, we have gone for the casual, organic and local options. As soon as I started to load in the wood and leaf mulch that a local arborist delivered, I realised that the beds would need an edging to hold the mulch from spilling over. My idea of a seamless transition between bed and path was not going to work. We have pine bark to hand – left over from getting the firewood out from a fallen pine tree so I am constructing small edges out of that. It lasts for many years. The paths are still bare earth (we will probably use granulated bark on those) but as soon as I made the edgings and laid the mulch, it took on the appearance of a garden. It is a casual look but one that sits easily with us with the benefit of being low cost and, as Mark keeps saying, the use of organic materials adds carbon to the soils.

I am laying the mulch on fairly thickly – around a forefinger in depth which I measured to be about 7cm. Because it is fluffy, it will compact to less than that but if I see any weeds coming through, I can top it up.

Fairy Magnolia White – not only a beautiful flower form but a very long flowering season, beautiful velvety buds, good foliage and perfume

Mark is a quiet man, not given to blowing his own trumpet, but sometimes I hear him murmur a comment of deep contentment at a plant he has bred and named. So it was this week as we looked at the avenue of Fairy Magnolia White and Camellia Fairy Blush. “I picked White because it had a pretty flower,” he said. And it does. In a world of floppy white and cream M. doltsopa flowers, Fairy Magnolia White stands out with its beautiful star form. There were a lot of very similar sister seedlings to choose from in that cross and as a breeder, he always worries whether he picked the best one. I think he finally decided that he had indeed chosen the best which is just as well, when you think about it, because he will only ever name and release one of that cross

Camellia Fairy Blush also has a long flowering season, drops its spent flowers cleanly and clips well

Camellia Fairy Blush, planted as a hedge beneath the two avenues of Fairy Magnolia White, is also a continuing source of satisfaction and delight to us, even if it is a constant reminder of a missed commercial opportunity. It was the first camellia he ever named and sold. Back in those days, protecting a plant as our intellectual property was not even on the radar and now Fairy Blush is sold widely throughout the world and few know that it originated here and was Mark’s selection. We have even seen it branded overseas with other nursery names but we know it is ours. That is life and it is a very good camellia and continues to be a source of pride and pleasure to the breeder.

Fairy Magnolia White and a very blue spring sky

On the right track, at least

I came across the sight of this bulb drift in town and had to stop and look more closely because it seemed so unexpected. It is on Marsland Hill, for local readers. All credit to Council for putting it in and braving local flower thieves, but as I walked around it, I thought it was a good example of how it could be more exciting. My photos are less than ideal, sorry, on account of my mobile phone being a cheap one with a utility camera.

The paperwhite narcissi are gorgeous and deliciously fragrant but they aren’t exactly mass flowering in comparison the amount of foliage. I think they may be interplanted with other varieties that will come into bloom later which is good planning. But if that is the case, the paperwhites could have been concentrated in maybe four separate clumps with others planted between. It would give more visual oomph.

The combination with Dutch iris is a really good idea. But the selection of a pale variety in pastel shades is a bit insipid from a distance, though pretty enough close up. I saw a blue bud and my eyes lit up. But when I found one open, it was not a good blue. In fact, I would deem it an awful colour combination of yellow, purple and brown that should never have been selected in the first place.

Purple, yellow and brown to the left… our blue to the right

I am no expert on Dutch iris and we don’t have many in the garden. But we do have a pretty blue. It was a bit coarse and out of scale in the rockery (they are not a plant of great refinement) so I relocated them to the new perennial borders where they are right at home, multiplying satisfyingly and putting on a pretty show at this time of late winter. And it is a much prettier blue than the murky mix of the one in the planting I was looking at.

I feel I am learning constantly so I enjoy analysing what I think works and doesn’t when it comes to plantings. And while this planting was sufficiently delightful to make me stop and turn the car around, I think it would have worked better with concentrated patches of paperwhite narcissi interplanted with purer blue Dutch iris. Now I am going to have to go back in the next few weeks to see what comes into bloom next and how it changes through the spring. I will take my good camera with me. And I do hope that rogue flower pickers leave it alone so we can all enjoy it.

A forgotten resource

Auricularia polytricha, hakekakeka, or wood-ear fungus

It is a fungus, Auricularia polytricha, and it played a very important role in the European settlement of Taranaki 150 years ago. Mark was raised knowing it as ‘pigs’ ear fungus’. I shall call it wood-ear fungus if I can not commit the Maori name – hakekakeka – to immediate memory. Most of the common names appear to have an ear reference in them, though the unfortunately named ‘Jew’s ear fungus’ is a different species of auricularia. The Chinese call it mu-er.

I thought I should try cooking some if I planned to write about it but when I looked up how to use it, I found the comment:

Auricularia polytricha is usually sold in dried form, and needs to be soaked in water before use. While almost tasteless, it is prized for its slippery but slightly crunchy texture, and its potential nutritional benefits. The slight crunchiness persists despite most cooking processes.” (1)

It didn’t sound sufficiently appealing to me. Our son has friends whose parents were new migrants from China and occasionally they used to collect it here for their father, but he has moved on from Taranaki now. 

This fungus is by no means unique to Taranaki. It grows widely through South East Asia and parts of China and it was the Chinese connection that proved to be the salvation of the early settlers. When they arrived in this area, commonly expecting rolling grass fields, they found instead the daunting sight of dense native forest. They set about clearing the land and indeed, Mark’s settler great-great grandfather was killed by a falling tree, as was often the case in those days. Hakekakeka found the environment of felled and decaying native trees and stumps particularly hospitable and grew in abundance. I am sure these early settlers, most of whom hailed from South Devon and Cornwall, had no idea what this odd fungus was so it was their good fortune that a local merchant did.

Enter Chew Chong, though this is the anglicised version of his name which was actually Chau Tseung. Like so many Chinese, he left his homeland in the mid 1800s for the goldrushes, first in Australia and then New Zealand. The hardship, contempt, extreme discrimination and prejudice these early Chinese settlers endured has only been highlighted in recent years and there is real irony to new colonisers from Britain being so harsh on new settlers from China.

But Chew Chong carved out his own space in history. Gold mining was not for him. He became a merchant and found his way to Taranaki. He was an extraordinarily successful and entrepreneurial businessman. He saw the resource in hakekakeka and brought together an abundant supply in Taranaki with a market in China. In a period of 30 years, he is credited with exporting 8400 tons of dried fungus. If you convert imperial tons, that makes it over 8.5 million kilos of it, which is beyond comprehension, really. What was more critical to the development of Taranaki, is that he paid out in cash at a time when cash was in very short supply. I do not know how the recorded pay-out sum of £309,343 converts to modern monetary values but Chew Chong is credited with keeping the new settlements in Taranaki viable, laying the economic foundations for the dairy industry. Mostly based on this fungus.

I photographed it growing on one of the lengths of branch that we use to edge a garden. The decaying branch is whiteywood, (mahoe or botanically Melicytus ramiflorus) which is one of the main hosts, along with tawa and pukatea. Mark commented that people still sold the fungus when he was a child but he has no idea who was buying it. However, it might be time for a revival given the search for alternative protein, in addition to its many other valued qualities.

“It contains carbohydrates, calcium, potassium, iron, the same percentage of protein as meat, including eight kinds of amino acids, and is low in fat. The Chinese used it to lower cholesterol, coagulate and purify blood, improve circulation and aid wellbeing, and as an antiseptic mouthwash, an aphrodisiac and an ingredient in wood glue.” (2)

Maybe a hakekakeka revival could replace the highly polluting, intrusive Methanex plants locally that turn gas into methanol which is then used, amongst other things, to manufacture builders’ glue. I would call that a win all around. And all the clichés about our province of Taranaki being built on dairy, oil and gas (‘white gold’ and ‘black gold’, the defenders of those two industries like to declare) entirely ignores the pivotal role of Chew Chong and the flabby fungus.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_ear_fungus
  2. https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/chew-chong/

Postscript: Mark is sure we should be trying it after I pointed out its claimed protein content and all round goodness. This cluster of it has turned black now. When I find a fresher batch, we may try it after all. I shall report further as to whether it is neutral to eat or an acquired taste.

Tikorangi Notes: a top-knot hedge, magnolia time, soy milk and tofu (because we are multi-faceted gardeners here)

“Just add some googly eyes”, a friend suggested

This hedge in my local town of Waitara makes me smile every time I pass it. I think it is just Cupressus leylandii, often referred to as Leighton’s Green. Was that as high as the owner could reach to trim, do we think? Or did they like the top-knot look which makes me think of Kim Jong-Un? This may remain a mystery. I rather hope it is deliberate.

The Kim Yong-Un of hedge design? 

First flowers of the season on Magnolia ‘Lanarth’

I have been so busy looking down at the early snowdrops, Cyclamen coum and the first of the spring narcissi, or looking over in the hopes of the mountain being free from cloud so I can start my seasonal photos of Magnolia campbellii in our park framed against the distant snowy mountain flanks, that I have forgotten to look up. It is not just M. campbellii in flower. ‘Lanarth’ is opening now (technically M. campbellii var mollicomata ‘Lanarth’) and the season for this magnolia is short but spectacular. ‘Lanarth’ came from southernmost China via Cornwall. We have two plants of it growing in the garden. This is the one behind our house and it flowers first because it is a warmer location than the first and larger plant of it down in our park. These early flowers lack the colour intensity that sets it apart from many other magnolias.

Magnolia ‘Vulcan’, the first of the new generation of reds

And ‘Vulcan’ has opened its first flowers. It is still a very special magnolia for us, even though there is now a plethora of red magnolia hybrids on the market. This magnolia from Mark’s father, Felix Jury, was the breakthrough to the new generation of reds.

Magnolia Vulcan, showing some kereru damage to the petals

I didn’t notice the somewhat raggedy petals until I looked at my photos on the computer screen. That is pigeon damage – our native kereru – as opposed to rat or possum damage which looks different. Soon there will be so many blooms open, that the petal-nibbling kereru efforts will not be obvious. We have plenty to share.

With the early blossom opening (mostly Prunus campanulata or Taiwanese cherries), the tui population is increasing rapidly as they return for this favourite feast. We have some tui who stick around all year but scores of others flock in over this period of early spring. “When trees dance” is how Mark describes it.

Mark is drying and winnowing his crop of soy beans 

I wrote about the bean mountain back in 2015 and since then the soy bean harvest has assumed daunting proportions. Mark’s home production of organic soy beans is apparently somewhat unusual. Aficionados tell me that it is now impossible to buy organic soy beans in this country that have not been irradiated as a condition of their importation. I don’t think we have a local soy bean industry. Apparently the soy bean mountain here is more of a valued resource than I had realised.

Soy beans are not my favourite bean to eat whole. I will reach for the kidney beans and fava beans first, or even the borlottis which are also not my favourite. I swapped a few kilos with a local person found on Facebook who makes a variety of different miso pastes which proved delicious. But what to do with the rest? I started making soy milk about a year ago in an attempt to reduce our intake of dairy. We are not so enamoured of soy milk that we use it all the time. I still prefer cow’s milk in tea and coffee but I use the soy milk in many other situations when I would formerly have reached for cow’s milk and I find it more than acceptable in the breakfast muesli and porridge.

The amazing Soyabella!

The recent gift of a Soyabella machine has revolutionised my life. It was a bit tedious and messy making soy milk with the food processor, strainer, muslin cloth and a big preserving pan on the stove. This handy little Chinese machine, not much larger than an electric jug, makes a litre of fresh, hot soy milk in about 15 minutes with close to zero human effort. It is a wonder, my Soyabella. And it has opened up the world of home-made tofu. Why home-made tofu? For us it is both a way of using our home-grown soy beans but also about drastically reducing the plastic that comes into the house. With the arrival of nigari this week, I made the first block of tofu and, between Soyabella and I, the hardest part of was finding the right-shaped weight to fit on top of the tofu block to press it. It was perfect, just like a bought block. Nigari is just a coagulant – mostly magnesium chloride – which separates the soy milk into curds and whey.

A small but perfectly formed block of tofu

It was our trip to China three years ago that really converted us to tofu as a food staple. The crispy tofu was delicious so I searched the net for instructions. It isn’t difficult. Press the block of tofu for an hour or more to squeeze out excess water (I just use an inverted plate on top of it with a weight on that). Slice or dice the tofu and marinade for a few minutes only so it doesn’t take in more liquid. Dust it with cornflour and shallow fry. Voilà! Crispy tofu.

The lily border (currently empty bar Camellia yuhsienensis), backed by a clipped hedge of Camellia Fairy Blush punctuated with shaped Fairy Magnolia White all coming into bloom. Queen palms in the distance.