Tag Archives: Abbie’s column

Ficus antiarus, rare plants and why only one plant in our garden is clearly named

The curious fruit of Ficus antiarus

The curious fruit of Ficus antiarus

I admit to a wry smile when I read friend and colleague Glyn Church writing of the pileostegia (climbing evergreen hydrangea) He made a comment that if you are keen to buy one, alas he has stopped growing them because nobody seemed to know about them – which means nobody bought them. We were struck by them growing up huge brick walls at Hidcote in Gloucestershire and had volunteers running all over the place to find a gardener to identify the plant.

We have our equivalent of the pileostegia. It is Ficus antiarus and it is the most asked about plant in our garden. We used to propagate a few but we realised that while everybody wanted to know what it was, nobody wanted to buy it. I was a bit stunned when somebody turned up last month asking for one. She was out of luck.

Ficus antiarus is a bit of a joke here. Probably close to half our garden visitors would ask what it was. We got to the point where somebody would produce a fruit, a digi camera with a photo or start to say: “What is the tree with the strange bulbous growths…” and we would chime in quickly. “Ficus antiarus,” we would say. “An obscure fig collected by Felix, Mark’s father, in New Guinea in 1957. That was back in the days when you could still bring new plants in to the country. No, the fruit do not grow any larger than that. They turn bright red-orange as they age and presumably the birds don’t like them much because they never strip it. Yes they do appear to be edible. I have tried them and they have a vaguely figgy taste but they are not very exciting to eat. Just a curiosity, really.”

Maybe I did get a bit carried away with the sign
Maybe I did get a bit carried away with the sign

This year, as I was getting some signage for carparking and toilets updated, I admitted defeat and had a sign made for Ficus antiarus. I say admitted defeat because we have resolutely held out against putting name plates on plants here, despite frequent plaintive comments about nothing being named. But as Festival neared its end, Mark commented that the one sign on Ficus antiarus had probably saved us several hours of repeating ourselves. He was very taken, however, by the dry comment from one garden visitor about the sign: “The size is a bit of a giveaway.” I didn’t think it was that large, but certainly you can’t miss it.

We have been intractable on refusing to name the plants in our garden. Public gardens are different. They have a strong educative function and are impersonal spaces. But this is our home, our personal space, even though we open the garden to visitors and we don’t want to see a whole lot of signage in our garden every time we step outdoors. The Ficus antiarus sign is only justified because it is a bit of joke. Besides, we have good memories and are very good at identifying plants by description and location, even though some visitors’ descriptions leave a lot to be desired. “What is the pink rhododendron flowering behind the house?” is a little vague when in fact the visitor is referring to one plant in the five acre park which lies beyond our home. And I admit it can be a challenge when they can’t even get the plant fanily right. “The big red rhododendron” has, upon occasion, turned out to be a telopea or waratah.

We have been to gardens where all plants are labelled. One in particular had every plant named with a section of venetian blind on which was written the name of the plant, the year of acquisition and nursery who supplied it. It was absolutely fascinating and we progressed from plant to plant, analysing the data so closely that we didn’t actually look at the garden context. It was a bit like going round a museum. It would be even worse in our garden where we don’t go in for mass plantings but pride ourselves instead on growing the widest possible range of interesting plants and where many of the garden plants are unnamed seedlings from breeding programmes. I have been to other gardens where owners have used the nasty plastic display labels sold for plant retailers – the aesthetics worry me. So we have no intention of naming all the different plants in ours.

My other observation about Glyn’s pileostegia and our ficus is to suggest to readers that when you see an interesting plant or one that you have been looking for, buy it on the spot, no matter your circumstances. There is no guarantee that you will find it offered again. The range of plants being grown in this country continues to contract, certainly in the woody trees and shrubs area. The phone calls I take on our business line during the day tend to be of two types. The first is people trying to find cheap griselinia hedging (just how many kilometres of griselinia hedging are being planted these days?) and the other group are people trying to find a particular plant.

Most times I have to reply that I don’t know of anyone producing it any more. The heady days of the late 80s and the 90s (now widely referred to as The Maggie Barry Era) when gardening was the rage and nurseries flourished, have long gone. There are few, very few, specialist nurseries still operating. In fact a fair swag of general nurseries have gone to the wall in the last decade and it is so rare for a new nursery to start that you should be able to hear a collective cry of encouragement ring around the industry when it happens. The result is that you will see a continued contraction in the range of plants being offered on the New Zealand market.

Do not be like the woman who talked to Mark about Davidia involucrata during our recent festival. That is the spectacular dove or handkerchief tree and we had a few plants for sale. She really wanted one but she wasn’t quite ready for it yet. Mark shrugged his shoulders and thought, “She’ll be lucky”. The chances of her finding a davidia when she is ready are not great at all.

The Moorish Gardens of Andalucian Spain

Moorish gardens of Southern Spain - the Alhambra &

Moorish gardens of Southern Spain - the Alhambra &

I didn’t really know what to expect of gardens in the south of Spain, although Glyn Church had told me that the Alhambra and Generalife in Granada was simply amazing. What really caught me unawares was the depth of history. Our country is still so much of the New World that gardens of a mere fifty or sixty years in age are often described as heritage or historic. Indeed I have heard people claiming that their garden is “mature” after about 15 years.

Traditional courtyard garden - this one in Toledo

Traditional courtyard garden - this one in Toledo

Andalucian gardens in the south of Spain had Roman ruins, overlaid with the Moorish exotica and wealth, reworked by the Christian kings – marching down the centuries, layer upon layer. It was the Moorish influence which was completely new to me and that, apparently, is unique to the area. The Moors were the Arabic Moslems who crossed the seas and controlled large tracts of southern Europe for many centuries before they were defeated and expelled in the late 1400s. The Spanish gardens are known for the use of small intimate spaces rather than the huge water gardens of Islamic Persia and India. Ah ha! The origin, I suspect, of garden rooms in the modern, western garden.

All the Moorish gardens are restorations. While the palaces survived, the gardens certainly didn’t though I guess a certain amount of archaeological evidence remained, along with sufficient pictorial record to enable a reasonable level of accuracy in reconstruction.

The exotic chorisia in the palace gardens at Seville

The exotic chorisia in the palace gardens at Seville

There has been no effort to maintain the original plantings and indeed these gardens don’t have a whole lot of plant interest. In Spain’s hot, dry climate (even in autumn, it was consistently 35 degrees), only a limited range of plants can be grown. There is a heavy emphasis on buxus, cypresses, citrus, roses, grandiflora magnolias and annuals for colour. The only plants to stop me in my tracks were a colourful bramble (which would likely be a noxious weed here) and the sight of chorisias in full flower in the palace gardens of Seville. Chorisias are South American (so a later introduction) and in flower rather look like trees full of exotic orchids. I have seen one flowering in Auckland though I don’t think our summers are hot enough to allow our plant at home to reach its potential.

The Moorish gardens were all about creating formal, but intimate spaces cooled by water and shade where the nobility could take refuge from the heat. So the emphasis is on structure and hard landscaping to give the form. In a climate where it is too harsh to grow lawn grasses, paths and terraces are usually paved, often with pleasingly subtle mosaics and interesting detail. What impressed me about these fine gardens were the gracious proportions and the flow from one area to another.

Shadows add another dimension in a country of unrelenting sunshine

Shadows add another dimension in a country of unrelenting sunshine

At the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos in Cordoba (that is the palace of the Christian monarchs), the majority of the gardens were much more recent but the Moorish flavour remains, just as it does in the breathtaking nearby mosque cum cathedral. In a climate where sunshine hours exceed 3000 per year, the purpose of using vertical accents (mostly cypresses) to create a picture in shadows made sense. I have seen the technique copied without much success. I think it worked in Cordoba because they have so much bright sun that the shadows are really deep and welcome, because there were wide avenues left open to frame the shadows and because even on a cloudy day, there was enough strength in the design for it to work without any shadows at all.

These gardens have nothing to do with the peasantry. It was all for the nobility, usually royalty with deep pockets. In such a dry climate, the use of water for aesthetic purposes is in itself a statement of power. Nowhere was this more evident than at the Alhambra and Generalife, an entire complex of palaces, forts, towers, gardens, water features and even a village, all enclosed by fortified walls. Now one of Spain’s premier attractions, gardens and palaces have undergone major restoration. Interestingly, the palaces were modelled on similar principles to the gardens. They were not huge and the rooms were comparatively intimate, user-friendly even. Small interior courtyards and gardens were a frequent inclusion, usually with a water feature – a small fountain or pool with rill. It was the open rooms and galleries that really took my fancy. These had open sides, defined by Moorish arches, and an overhead roof – presumably to keep the sun out but to encourage as much air movement as possible. What wouldn’t I give for a Moorish garden room? The Alhambra was set on a promontory with views across to the neighbouring medieval village (the Albaycin) and surrounding hills and both gardens and palaces made use of the device of framing views, of drawing the eye outwards from these intimate and delightful small enclosures.

Coping with unexpected rain - a French visitor improvises at the Alhambra

Coping with unexpected rain - a French visitor improvises at the Alhambra

It rained on the day we visited. While clearly a most unusual event (few of the visitors were prepared for rain), we felt grateful because it cooled the air temperature on what could have been an oppressively hot seven hour visit and it bestowed a misty romanticism on the vistas which took my breath away.

What can we learn from the Moorish gardens of Andalusia? First and foremost, the sheer folly of trying to emulate garden styles rooted in a completely different climate and time and on a scale we can only dream about. It is one thing to extract ideas such as the garden room and the creation of gardens as a series of intimate spaces – a technique which has had a profound influence on western gardening. It is quite another thing to try and transfer the whole genre to a modern, New Zealand setting where it is alien. Leave them in the south of Spain – Moorish arches are more likely to look naff and tacky set against a backdrop of our wooden or summit brick bungalows. Similarly, the transplanting of the idea of the rill or narrow canal to a different garden concept rarely works. These tended to have a practical role in Islamic life (washing before frequent prayers) and were part of the engineering feat of moving water around a site long before electric pumps.

Garden rooms and galleries to die for - this one at the Alhambra and Generalife

Garden rooms and galleries to die for - this one at the Alhambra and Generalife

To transpose the rill or narrow canal in isolation is to ignore the wider context. Turning your back on the lushness and range of plants we can grow here in favour of a few cliched varieties is boring. But we can learn from the old masters when it comes to understanding the importance of getting the proportions right – especially in formal gardens – of making sure that garden rooms are not claustrophobic but that they combine intimacy with an invitation to explore further, of being bold when it comes to allowing sufficient width for paths and avenues, and of valuing the quality of materials when it comes to hard landscaping. Above all, the Andalucian gardens combined form and function, underpinned by aesthetics and logic. That alone is a lesson worth learning.

My unlikely global study of outdoor furniture made from polyester resin ends in the face of corporate takeover

The raffia or rattan look

The raffia or rattan look

I admit my fascination with polyester resin garden furniture may place me in a small minority. My global study, superficial as it is, may make it an even smaller club. I hasten to add that this curiosity is entirely academic, or is that esoteric? I have never owned a piece of polyester resin furniture in my life and indeed have actively shunned it on aesthetic grounds but this does not stop it being a source of great amusement.

Polyester resin furniture is that cheap, plastic type which hit our stores well over a decade ago. Being low priced and functional, it pretty much took the bottom end of the market by storm as New Zealanders embraced the concept of al fresco living. In those early days, it came in three colours – white, dark green, and for those with slightly higher social aspirations, sophisticated sage green. That was it. I didn’t think about it much until we did a trip to Vietnam about eight years ago. In place of their traditional bamboo and cane furniture, there were the same polyester resin chairs and tables but not in our aforementioned colours. No, the Vietnamese ones came only in French blue and burgundy. Suddenly it dawned on me that this was a global phenomenon and somewhere, maybe, there was a little man in an office who decided which country was to get what colours. Without wishing to overstate my desultory interest, I started to take more notice. On the Sunshine Coast of Australia, polyester resin furniture was all white and cream. On the Greek islands, it seemed to come in old gold and white. Each country visited over recent years appeared to have only two, sometimes three different colours but all in the same design. So it was both a revelation and a terrible disappointment when I pursued this entirely random study in Spain and Portugal recently.

Marbelette or marbeline

Marbelette or marbeline

The revelation was the emerging sophistication. First there was the ubiquitous resin chair (in Cordoba, for those of a pedantic disposition) which came with inset mock marble seat backs. I was entranced, though I felt they should have been Italian in origin. A marbleine finish, a friend suggested, though I thought perhaps marblette. Undeniably naff, but then so is most polyester resin furniture. Is poly resin in a swirly marble design worse than the plain, unadorned poly resin?

Then there were the poly resin chairs of a cut out design which attempted to look like the white aluminium furniture forever branded with the name Enderslea which was in itself an attempt to reproduce the expensive, antique wrought or cast iron furniture we associate with the French provincial look.

I burst out laughing when I came across the poly resin furniture in a Portugese restaurant which emulated the woven raffia look. By this stage my travelling companion, who had started out somewhat incredulous at my fascination, was entering into the spirit of the quest and arranging the furniture for my photographs. Indeed, we even found some more upmarket poly resin chairs in a roadside bar in Seville. These were in a stylish and sophisticated charcoal and a square design. These, I thought, I could actually live with in my own garden but only if necessary.

The global corporate takeover

The global corporate takeover

But sadly, dear Reader, it dawned on me that my sociological study of this global phenomenon was showing too much variation for me to keep with my theory of the little man in an office determining distribution and colour. Not only that, but the true horror of globalisation and corporate sponsorship will see the end of regional diversity sooner rather later. Yes, folks, corporates like Coca Cola and Amstel have seen the possibilities of this ubiquitous furniture as cheap advertising billboards. National differences in colour are set to disappear in the face of the corporate red of Coca Cola or the Amstel colours.

Scientist daughter mentioned in passing that the production of poly resin is highly likely to be extremely unfriendly to the environment, that it is an amalgam of some real nasties and the cheaper the product is sold, the more likely it is to be produced in a country with poor environmental controls over its industry. You could argue that you shun poly resin furniture on green principles but then I always worry about how many little Indonesian orang-utan babies have been made homeless orphans by the continued harvest of Asian hardwoods so I am not sure that the bulk of outdoor wooden furniture is any more environmentally friendly. It is so very difficult to buy ethical and sustainable outdoor furniture these days, don’t you think?

The Enderslea look

The Enderslea look

The final word on this furniture came in a little garden we visited in Cornwall. The modest little afternoon tea set-up had camouflaged poly resin furniture. The tables (are they sometimes octagonal?) had pieces of hand-painted ply on top while the legs were encircled in bamboo stakes cut to size and tied together with jute. As I recall the chairs were draped in fabric and cushions. It seemed such a lot of effort to go to in order to mask the humble origins beneath but maybe she regretted the impulse which had seen her buy this cheap and practical outdoor furniture.

Almost acceptable styling
Almost acceptable styling

Rococo Gardening in Portugal

Just one of the eclectic collection of water features

Just one of the eclectic collection of water features

I had been warned not to expect too much of Portuguese gardens. That is despite Portugal having a much more equable gardening climate than neighbouring Spain. But there are only so many castles, palaces, cathedrals, ruins and medieval towns one can absorb and I am happiest in a garden. So when I reached Lisbon, I had already planned a couple of days of garden visiting. Sintra is a small town in the hills 30 minutes beyond Lisbon and it seemed the place to be with no fewer than three gardens of note in my guidebook to European gardens.

Alas the day did not go to plan. The light rain in Lisbon translated to very heavy rain and wind in Sintra. With the best will in the world, my sodden footwear, lack of raincoat and a small umbrella which was giving up the ghost and blowing inside out were simply not equal to the task. The water was teeming down the roads and visibility greatly reduced by mist. The gardens of Sintra were destined to remain a mystery though I could see why they were lusher and greener than other areas.

With intermittent showers the following day, I was not going to make the mistake of returning to Sintra but opted instead for the gardens at the Palacio de Queluz, a mere 15 minutes by train from Lisbon and hailed, in my guidebook, as “the best rococo gardens in Portugal – perhaps even in Europe”. I vaguely recalled Elton John’s garden in the UK being described as rococo and, had I thought about it, I may have conjured up a mental image of gilded cherubs and heavy decoration in the Baroque style. That doesn’t even hint at the extent if it, although there was no gilding.

Borrowing from all styles of history

Borrowing from all styles of history

Up until my visit to Queluz, Britain’s Prince Regent, George, held the crown of naff in my books with his self-indulgent, OTT royal pavilion in Brighton. Restrained good taste is not synonymous with breeding and wealth. A penchant for flamboyance will triumph and the gardens at Queluz left the Royal Pavilion for dead. To be honest, the whole thing was a little down at heel but European countries have an abundance of historic places to maintain at vast expense, and I am guessing that the palace at Queluz may be rated as less important than other premier attractions in Portugal. The palace was pink. Yes, pink and palatial in proportions, though most of it was only double storey. The whole shebang dates back to the 1700s and the royal family of Portugal used it as a summer retreat, somewhat akin to Versailles in France. The exterior of the palace itself was heavily ornamented and the gardens, the work of a French jeweller of the time named Jean-Baptiste Robillon, were designed to spread out from the front of the palace.

This rococo garden was all about simplicity of form overlaid with elaborate ornamentation. So there were long avenues radiating out and formal gardens, all defined by clipped buxus and pencil cypresses. Form is everything and I was struck by the importance of allowing sufficient space for wide paths. In New Zealand where we specialise in large gardens, too few demonstrate the courage of allowing generous paths, wide enough for maybe six people to walk abreast comfortably. It gives a sense of space and grace in a larger area.

More about style than plants

More about style than plants

Plants were just soft furnishing in this garden. There was nothing of botanical note – some Magnolia grandiflora from America (introduced to Europe around the 1730s but I don’t think these were original plantings), agapanthus, lindens, planes and eucalyptus. Waist high buxus hedges were of clipped sempervirens, shoulder height ones looked to be Buxus wallichiana. Formal gardens were defined by buxus hedges but often the compartments merely held a citrus tree or were left empty. In one area, clipped buxus was planted in a series of serpentine waves. It is all about form and shape, not about plant interest.

Add in the ornamentation. At every turn possible. The more elaborate and detailed the better. Goodness only knows how many statues and water features, scalloped pools, round pools, a large rock waterfall (with no water running on the day I visited and stuck in the middle of long vista so it made no logical sense and merely looked contrived), tiling, balustrades, urns – the more the better. Stylistically, the ornamentation is borrowed from pretty much every period in history. The exuberance was overwhelming.

A hint of mausoleum style in the canal garden

A hint of mausoleum style in the canal garden

Gild the lily further

Gild the lily further

The piece de resistance were the tiled canals at the end of the garden. A natural stream had been channelled through paved canals, designed with locks so that the water could be held back to raise the level, apparently to hold barges filled with musicians to entertain the royal family and their guests. Pity the poor peasants downstream whose water could be withheld at the royal whim and then possibly released in a wild woosh.
The canals were lined inside and out with glazed tiles predominantly in blue and white (though sometimes in yellow, blue and white), depicting murals of shipping scenes, courtly matters and still life representations. These have withstood the ravages of time over several hundred years and are still in good condition and quite bright. Apparently the Portuguese, like the Spanish, are happy to gild the lily even further- in a heavily decorated scene, add some more detail – so colourful urns adorn the plinths, statues stand guard and steps are constructed and tiled in a manner reminiscent of a mausoleum. The effect was quite astounding.

This is not a style of gardening that is intended to sit easily in the landscape with boundaries between garden and nature blurring, in the style of the English romantic tradition. Nor does it have anything to do with the Japanese gardening traditions of symbolism, restraint and control. It is a long way from the Moorish traditions next door in the south of Spain which are all about restfulness, shade, cool and controlled use of spaces. This is more akin to the historic version of Kath and Kim: “Look at me! Look at me!” It is an ostentatious show of wealth with a certain frivolity within its extravagance and flamboyance. Decoration and ornamentation are the dominant features. I am not surprised if indeed Elton John has the late twentieth century version of a rococo garden.

As a final thought, when our children were little, Para Rubber used to sell a blue, scalloped shell-like plastic affair for use a paddling pool. Possibly they are still around. I hadn’t realised that these had their derivation in the rococo style, along with the hinged clam-shell style of sandpit.

A hot, dry autumn in Spain and Portugal

The ubiquitous date palm was everywhere in the south of Spain and Portugal

The ubiquitous date palm was everywhere in the south of Spain and Portugal

Even as September melts into October, Spain is hot and dry. Alas Professor Higgins had it entirely wrong when he made Eliza Doolittle recite that the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. He certainly was not referring to the plains beyond Madrid where the rain clearly falls on rare occasions at best. They are dry and arid, too inhospitable even for the hardy olive tree. Nearer the mountains (the sierras, but more hills than mountains by NZ standards), it is clear that more rain falls. There were olives as far as the eye could see. Don`t be imagining romantic old olive groves. This was monoculture on an industrial scale (viz a viz Blenheim vineyards). I had to ask about harvesting. It seemed incomprehensible that such vast acreages are still picked by hand but apparently that is the case. Teams of itinerant pickers, many of North African origin, travel the area at harvest time. I suspect I have seen the origin of all the imported olive oil on the shelves of every supermarket at home. Maybe.

The olives are usually planted in groups of three, each leaning outwards to grab its own space, and pruned to around 2.5 metres in height. Presumably this makes picking easier because the olive tree, left to its own devices, reaches higher. We are working to keep our one at home down to about 4 metres.

The olive plantations looked to be corporate farming, much as our dairy farming is headed. The era of the small family farm appeared to be over in much of the countryside that we passed through. Often there were no residences visible for considerable distances and no indications of boundaries to suggest the smaller holdings of old. It was interesting to reflect on the debate at home regarding lifestylers populating our countryside. We had been discussing it before I left and came to the conclusion that, on balance, small holdings and lifestyle blocks add a welcome diversity to the countryside. Without lifestylers planting gardens, shelter belts, home orchards and landscape trees, Taranaki could well become even more of the unrelieved green desert favoured by modern dairy farming methods. In the centre and south of Spain, it is not a green desert but red-brown dirt with multitudinous grey-green olive trees and not a lot else.

In urban areas, living is in high density housing, usually 3 to 5 stories high. I peered at balconies and roof terraces, looking for signs of green-fingered locals which is so evident in British high density housing. It is not here. I came to the conclusion that your average Spaniard does not nurture an irrepressible desire to grow plants and the G.I.Y. (that is: grow it yourself) and back to nature drive that is currently so strong in NZ, Australia and Britain is not to be seen. Any outdoor space is rare. The delightful inner courtyard or patio which has a debt to Moorish ancestors must be the preserve of the wealthy. A mere six, or maybe nine square metres of outdoor space is a privilege in many parts of urban Spain. But in a climate where temperatures can soar to 40 degrees (and stay there), a cool house is more desirable than al fresco living.

Were it not for the public plantings, this would be an even more austere environment. Fortunately, there has been a heavy investment in greening urban spaces in recent times. Not grass, which does not grow here unless irrigated. Ground surfaces are all paved but trees are being planted in abundance. Madrid has the harshest of climates – very hot and dry in summer and remarkably cold and dry in winter – so there is not a large plant palette to work with. The stately plane tree is the most dominant but it was interesting to see the number of Australian plants being used, most notably the good old gum or eucalyptus.

Clipping the street plantings of orange trees to lollipops in Cordoba

Clipping the street plantings of orange trees to lollipops in Cordoba

We just do not grow plane trees well at home in Taranaki (we are too wet and they are inclined to drop limbs too readily) so we don´t get to enjoy their wonderful bark. There does not appear to be any fear of large trees. The bigger the better for they provide welcome shade.

Cordoba has a milder climate and orange trees dominate as a street tree. Flowering time must be magical with the strong scent of orange blossom hanging in the air. I briefly indulged a fantasy of the entire local populace being able to gather tree-ripened oranges in season. After all, they have nowhere to grow their own. No. I was told that it is a bitter orange which is harvested commercially and shipped off to the jam factory!

By the time we reached Cadiz on the southern coast, it was the palm tree that prevailed. As far as I can work out, (and I freely own up to the sparsest knowledge of palms at best), it is almost exclusively the common date palm which Google tells me is Phoenix dactylifera. It is certainly a most handsome palm and remarkably tolerant of salt winds, growing even on the waterfronts. Mind you, it is so common that locals may well take a scathing attitude similar to Taranaki people with our adaptable pohutakawa.

The cordyline australis had seen better days on the Algarve but had done well at some stage to reach this size

The cordyline australis had seen better days on the Algarve but had done well at some stage to reach this size

Crossing to Portugal, it became clear that more rain falls. I even saw a little green grass with no evidence of irrigation. In Lagos where I write (prounced Lagoosh and not to be confused with Lagos in Nigeria), the date palms continue but the real delight is the large number of blue-as-blue jacaranda trees which continue to flower even as autumn starts. The New Zealand cabbage trees interplanted between the date palms by the river do not look such happy campers, alas.

Yuccas and oleanders flourish everywhere – both plant families which prefer drier conditions. But just to prove that bad taste crosses all borders, the new cultivar of oleander favoured in public plantings in Seville was a thoroughly nasty novelty selection – yellow and green variegated foliage with dirty pink flowers. I think we saw a new spirea sporting a similar colour scheme in the United Kingdom last year.

Tales of the gardens I have visited will have to wait until after I return. Yes there are gardens and the historical gardens of Andalucia are rooted in impossibly romantic Moorish architecture. At the time of writing, I have yet to see the famous gardens of Lisboa and Sintra in Portugal. I have contemplated an Outdoor Classroom on the DIY Moorish garden but the prospect scared me. The likelihood of achieving something unbelievably naff is greater than the likelihood of successfully adapting such a unique and culturally distant style to home!

Just as well we don't need yew wood for longbows here

Taxus baccata fastigiata - no longer fastigiate in our rockery

Taxus baccata fastigiata - no longer fastigiate in our rockery

A little piece on yew trees in our local newspaper garden pages started us talking about them. They are a most interesting plant. It is just a shame they are not generally happy in Taranaki conditions and there are reasons why they have never featured large in New Zealand gardens and plantings.

We have one feature yew tree still surviving here, a venerable specimen of what is probably widely known as the Irish Yew – Taxus baccata fastigiata. At some point it keeled over at an angle and decided to stay there so we clip it tightly once a year and it resembles a kiwi body (minus any head) as a feature in our rockery. I say venerable, but that is venerable by New Zealand standards – as in probably 60 years old – not venerable by British and European standards where yew trees can survive for a very long time. Many hundreds of years is common and the oldest known tree at Fortingall in Scotland is thought to be somewhere between two and five thousand years old. Astonishing. We used to have many other yew trees here. Mark’s parents were as heavily influenced by English gardening traditions as others of their era and yews are an integral part of that. But over the years, many have, as we say, whiffed off which is our way of describing plants that die from root problems. If you look at where yew trees thrive, it is generally in colder, drier climates and their natural habitats in Britain are on chalk soils. We occupy the cheese side of the chalk and cheese equation – nothing even remotely resembling chalk soils here, thank goodness. We would not try planting more yews here – there are other plants we can grow better in our conditions.

Added to that, another reason why yew trees have never been a big hit in New Zealand is that we still have very strong rural roots and yews are deadly to stock. We know. The remains of our golden yew killed four of our beefies when they got into the paddock with the fire heap in it. This is not at all a suitable tree for country folk to plant here.

Mark's little collection of treen turned from yew

Mark's little collection of treen turned from yew

The fact we can’t grow them well does not stop them from being an interesting plant. They are pretty sacrosanct these days in Britain but if you ever come across anyone cutting down an old yew, get down on the timber. Mark pretty much destroyed a chainsaw cutting into one many years ago (it wasn’t the yew that was the problem – it was the metal stake that somebody had driven in to support the plant and left there to be hidden as the tree grew). But when he came to turn the timber on his lathe it was not only one of the very best woods he ever used – he described it as being like turning hard butter – it also had one of the richest and most varied grains and markings you will ever see. We still have an assortment of treen turned from that one tree. Unusually for timber, the pale sap wood is also durable.

While there are other yew species from Japan, Canada, China and North America, it is the European form of baccata, also known as the English yew, that is the most widely used. It belongs to the family of conifers and its leaves are needle-like. These days it is highly rated in its homelands as a garden plant for specimen, hedging or clipping because it grows slowly, doesn’t ever get too large, it sprouts from bare wood and so lends itself to long-lived topiary and formal hedges where its fine, dark green appearance acts as a splendid punctuation mark in the garden. It is one of the main topiary candidates in English gardens. It is most commonly found with a spreading habit, not upright. In fact the vertical yews which make such splendid pillar shapes, are a far more recent addition dating back just two hundred years to a mere two trees selected in Ireland. No doubt other forms have been discovered since, but the so-called Irish Yew is identified as fastigiata (fastigiate just means tall and narrow) and is traced to those two specimens.

In its natural state, the yew is dark green but it can sport to a yellow variegation and in a country with a long winter, British gardeners continue to value yellow foliaged plants for a spot of colour whereas we tend to shun them in this country. Our most recent yew to kick the bucket (and not greatly mourned) was a specimen of the Golden Irish Yew. I don’t care if yew trees are all class, I still don’t go for yellow variegated conifers.

It may be as garden plants that the yew family are valued nowadays but that was not always the case. They have a history steeped in warfare. For it was the development of the longbow that made Britain a military force and yew wood made the best longbows. As far back as the thirteenth century, England was importing yew wood from Europe and the local supplies were under huge pressure. Within a hundred years there was a serious shortage and in 1350, Henry 1V basically nationalised all the yew trees in Britain so they could be harvested to meet the needs of the royal bowmen. Not only that, but trade with Europe was dominated by the supply of yew timber and within the next couple of hundred years, Bavaria and Austria were stripped of all their native yews to supply bows for the King of England’s archers. The move to firearms at the end of the sixteenth century had more to do with a lack of adequate supplies of yew wood left anywhere in Europe, rather than technological advances. Given the warmongering tendencies of the Middle Ages, it is a bit of a miracle that any yew trees survived in the wild anywhere in Britain and Europe.

Many, if not most of Britain’s significant yew trees survive in churchyards and there are many theories abounding as to why they are such a common tree there. It may just be that a respect for the church meant these specimens could not be plundered for the making of longbows.

There was considerable angst amongst conservationists and historians when researchers first found that Taxus baccata had natural compounds which could be used in the manufacture of a new drug to treat cancer. It seemed that the future of the remaining yews could be under threat because it takes a vast amount of raw material to yield a small amount of the compound. The loyal British gardeners rose to the occasion. When the call went out for them to gather up their yew clippings to contribute to research, apparently they did so in droves. It was sufficient to progress the research to the point where the compound could be manufactured synthetically in a laboratory.

The future of the yew tree seems secure.

Taking a second look at camellias as garden plants

Make your old camellia bushes work at more than one level as garden plants

Make your old camellia bushes work at more than one level as garden plants

The scourge of camellia petal blight continues unabated. This was one disease we could have done without in this country and the sad thing is that when it was first discovered in Wellington, it was limited to two or three locations. Had all the infected plants been incinerated immediately, this nasty fungal ailment may have been eradicated. So if you have been looking at your camellias, particularly the most common japonica types (which takes in most of the lovely formals and the really showy blooms), and thinking that their display ain’t what it used to be, you are right.

We have always had botrytis in this country which can turn blooms to a dark mush but is generally not devastating. Modern camellias have been bred to be self grooming – in other words they drop spent flowers rather than holding them onto the bush and giving that unattractive look of some of the very old varieties still around.The trouble with camellia petal blight is that it seems to glue the flower to the plant so it defeats the self grooming process.

The sad sight of camellia petal blight

The sad sight of camellia petal blight

If you are wondering whether you have camellia petal blight, I would be very surprised to hear that you haven’t. It is unstoppable and untreatable. Well, you can treat your plants but you will just get reinfected. Being a fungus, the blight is spread from spore and I recall reading of it being tracked 5km on the wind. So if anybody has a camellia bush within a 5km radius of you, you are in trouble. If you go out and look at your camellias, you will likely find beautiful blooms with a nasty brown stain starting across some of the petals. Within about 24 hours, that bloom will have turned to a light brown colour. If you pull off the flower, turn it over and pull off the calyx on the back (that is the little green hat that holds all the petals together in the middle), you will find the tell-tale ring of white powdery web. That is camellia petal blight. If it is blacky-grey and the spoiled bloom is a darker brown, it is botrytis.

Camellias used to be second only to roses for the volume sold in this country. The bottom has pretty much fallen out of the market now and the volume sold is a fraction of what it used to be. I married in to a leading camellia family. Les Jury, Mark’s uncle, is still remembered internationally, long after his death nearly 30 years ago, for his huge contribution to camellias including such classics as Jury’s Yellow, Anticipation, Ballet Queen, Elegant Beauty and so many more. In his day, Felix Jury was far better known for his beautiful camellias than his magnolias – Waterlily, Dreamboat, Mimosa Jury, Rose Bouquet, Itty Bit and many others. Mark carried the mantle, encouraged by both his uncle and his father, until the day he heard that petal blight was in this country. He ceased all work on breeding camellias immediately and it is only now, well over a decade later, that he is starting to see directions he can take.

All this is such a shame because the camellia remains an enormously useful plant. It is just that we have traditionally seen it primarily as a plant to grow for its flowers. With the huge hit on its flower power, we are tending to ignore the other possibilities and positive aspects.

  • Camellias are unrivalled as a source of nectar for our tui and bellbirds through the winter. Singles and semi doubles with visible stamens will bring the birds to your garden.
  • Camellias remain fantastic hedging. They will sprout again from bare wood and most will tolerate dreaded salt winds. They only need trimming twice a year for a formal hedge and almost never for an informal look or windbreak. For our money, they remain one of the very best hedging options.
  • Autumn flowering sasanqua camellias do not get hit by petal blight. Not at all, that we have ever seen or heard.
  • Red flowered camellias still get petal blight but it doesn’t show up anywhere near as badly. The showiest displays we have had this winter have mostly been from red flowered varieties.
  • Reticulata camellias are commonly in shades of red and have such big flowers that they have sufficient weight to drop cleanly. They continue to put on a splendid display.
  • The little miniatures and single flowered types have many more buds and flowers and, by their very nature, each bloom only lasts a few days so they are usually over before petal blight gets to be unsightly.
  • Camellias are an unsung hero for topiary and clipping. If you get away from the few with really grungy colour and a tendency to turn murky yellow, most camellias have terrific foliage.

Clipping and shaping has never featured large in this country. While we may say that this is because we prefer a more natural look, gardening by its very character is an exercise in controlling and manipulating nature. It is more likely that we lack the labour force to clip extensively and we lack the cultural context to create entire scenes from clipped plants in the traditions of England, Italy, France, China and Japan. While yew and buxus are common clipping candidates overseas, the ubiquitous camellias grow so very well here that they give us an unexpected option. They are evergreen and not generally fussy. They sprout from bare wood so you can cut them back hard and they are very forgiving if you get the cuts in the wrong place. Clipping encourages bushier growth. Many people have large, mature specimens in their gardens so there is an abundance of raw material out there. The flowers then become a bonus not the prime reason for growing the plant. You will still get lovely flowers, just not as many as you used to and they won’t last as long.

If you have gone off your camellias, try getting out there and clipping before you cut them out. Balls, pillars, obelisks, clouds, free form shapes – there are lots of options if peacocks, animals and other birds do not appeal. A camellia bush can continue to justify its place in the garden if you make it work at levels other than just being a pretty flowering shrub.