Tag Archives: early flowering magnolias

Giving thanks for when midwinter turns to the cusp of spring

I was going to limit myself to a theme of red and yellow but te mounga (the mountain, Mount Taranaki) was looking so very beautiful, I wanted to share the glorious sight again

I have twice heard our government give a strong message to New Zealanders to get home urgently while they still can. The first time was in March last year when then deputy prime minister, Winston Peters, said it and it was certainly chilling. At the time, I wondered if he was being overly dramatic. He wasn’t. Within days, flights had slowed and then they stopped entirely for a time.

We heard the same message from our Prime Minister on Friday, this time aimed at New Zealanders in Australia. It was just as chilling. Get home in the next seven days or risk being stranded indefinitely.

And Magnolia campbellii is coming to its peak flowering

I saw a tweet come down my line from a journalist that made me laugh – in that ‘if you don’t laugh, you will cry’ sort of desperation. I went to look for it this morning to screenshot it for this post but it has gone. She must have decided it was too flippant when there are thousands of our citizens in Australia scrambling frantically to find flights and then get negative Covid tests within the required time frame. It showed two small boats with people on them and the caption read: ‘Is this our Dunkirk moment?’

Covid is not done with us yet. Even though Mark and I are Pfully Pfizered, as I say, I am deeply grateful to be in one of the very, very few countries in the world that has no Covid past the border and my gratitude for how our government has managed it so far remains strong. I just wish we didn’t have so many whingers and moaners looking for fault. Just look beyond our borders to see how bad it could have been here, too.

Narcissis Twilight – blooming their little hearts out down in the park

On a perfect morning like yesterday, I could not think of a better place to be. Magnolia season has started, the narcissi are coming into bloom and we are at peak snowdrop. It may still be midwinter here but we are on the cusp of spring. All I have to offer is colour. And flowers.  

Magnolia Vulcan – where the passion for red magnolias started here
Magnolia Felix Jury followed
And then came Burgundy Star, shown here, and Black Tulip which is not yet showing its full colour

We always get the best red shades on the earliest blooms each season and we get the very best shades of red overall. They don’t look this colour in all climates and soils across the world.

Mark’s Lachenalia reflexa hybrid

While the red magnolias dominate the early season, when it comes to lachenalias, it is the yellow and oranges as well as red that bloom first. We have to wait for later in the season to see the less vigorous but arguably more desirable blues, lilacs, pinks and whites.

Hippeastrum aulicum

Still with the bulbs, the first hippeastrums are opening. We don’t go in for the hybrids much, preferring the evergreen species of H.aulicum and H. papilio which have settled in very happily to their permanent homes in the woodland.

Camellia impressinveris

It is, of course, camellia season. I spent some time this week writing a piece about camellias for an overseas publication so I am a bit camellia-d out but the yellow species never fail to thrill, even if they are not as floriferous as the more usual varieties.

One of Mark’s seedling vireyas

The big-leafed rhododendrons down in the park are just starting to break bud and show colour but the sub-tropical vireya rhododendrons in the upper gardens flower intermittently all year so we always have some in bloom. This a scented red which Mark raised for the garden that has never been named or put on the market.

In the chaos of the wider world, home has never looked safer or offered more solace for the soul.

Of weather, early magnolias, possums and rats

Frosty mornings from Wednesday to Saturday showing up the lawnmower lines

We had to drive to Wanganui and back on Tuesday morning – a five hour round trip. On the way down, we drove through snow (inland from here), sleet and hail as the first polar blast of winter hit. By the time we drove back the sun had appeared but with a biting cold wind that felt as if it had come straight off the ice caps of Antarctica. Wednesday dawned bright, clear, frosty and calm though cold and that has been the pattern in subsequent days – cold mornings and sunny days.

Sunrise on Wednesday morning

The magnolias are undeterred. Matariki[i] is underway and the plants agree that this is the time to celebrate the start of a new year.  It will be another few weeks before the Magnolia campbellii in our park will be in full bloom but my annual pastime of photographing the magnolia and te mounga[ii]  has started.

Absolutely shameless, this kereru was, eating the magnolia buds as we watched

By 10am, it is warm enough for us to sit outside for morning coffee and this shameless – shameless, I tell you – kereru[iii] took up its position in a magnolia a few metres away, eating the petals of the first buds showing colour. It may have been its mate just down the driveway that was doing the same to the first buds on Magnolia Vulcan. We are more charmed than miffed. Soon the trees will open so many blooms that they will outpace the kereru. We would rather have resident kereru all year round than perfect first magnolia blooms. I am told kaka – our big native parrot – can do the same but we have not had a mob of kaka descend on us. A reader tells me she once watched them strip every bud off a magnolia. The only two kaka we have seen here arrived singly in different years and while Mark saw one of them pulling buds off Magnolia Iolanthe to hurl at the tui who were protesting its presence, it takes more than one to strip a tree. Rosella parrots – a showy Australian intruder – are also reputed to cause damage up north but we haven’t seen them doing it here and we do have them turn up in small groups. 

Just an unnamed seedling, as we say

The only magnolias in full bloom so far are seedlings from the breeding programme that will never be released. We only ever name magnolias that are going into commercial production and these first ones are just too early, too vulnerable to winter’s icy blasts to put on the market. They exist solely to give us pleasure on our own property. Some of them are such good performers that an identifying reference name evolves. So it is with Hazel’s magnolia. We get asked for funeral flowers from time to time, or we offer to do informal casket arrangements for people we know. This magnolia formed the centrepiece of an arrangement for Hazel, the mother of a close friend of Mark’s and a dear lady who meant a great deal to him in his younger years.

Hazel’s seedling at its best
Hazel’s seedling this week. The red arrows show what is likely to be damage from a kereru eating the young petals. The green arrows to the left show burning from the frosts this week.

Hazel’s magnolia makes a pretty picture every year. It performs well and, we found, also holds well when cut. In the world of magnolias, it is not remarkable. There are prettier colours, more distinctive forms and it flowers way too early for most growing conditions. It just happens to be the first of the season for us, standing out in bloom where it is growing in the shelter belt that protects one of our open paddocks.  Yesterday, it looked great from a distance. Close-up, it revealed two problems. The chewed blooms are almost certainly the result of kereru feeding on the sweet, young petals. The browning is frost damage and if it gets damaged in our mild climate, it will get destroyed in colder conditions.

Magnolia buds that will never open to good blooms. Every one of them has had the centre nipped out of them.

We have long assumed that the chewing out of young buds which then open to distorted blooms can be attributed to the pesky possums that Mark wages war on all year round. We certainly could have done without the early settlers introducing the brushtail possum which is a noxious pest, optimistically slated for eradication in this country, though protected in its Australian homeland. Mark is now wondering whether it is a combination of rats and possums.

Possum guilt. That red is a stomach full of magnolia buds. Our magnolia buds.

We know possums are guilty. Mark has shot enough of them in magnolia trees and the proof lies in an examination of their stomach contents. All that red? Those are magnolia buds. Rats are harder to prove because we never seen one in the act and we don’t have the corpses to perform a forensic analysis of stomach contents. But when all the buds failed on a plant of Honey Tulip last year and closer examination showed that every single bud had a neat incision in it, he thought it may be rat damage, not possums. We know possums eat out the centre of larger buds with colour already developed. It seems like the very small nips in the less well-developed buds are rats.

Our pick is that the large bud on the left has been eaten out by a possum. The two smaller buds are more likely to have been attacked, ever so neatly, by rats. Possums don’t attack the buds at that early stage.

In the meantime, how many photos of the magnolia and te mounga do I need? I shall stop now until more blooms are open. But glory be, how I love big, beautiful magnolias against a blue sky or snow.

Thursday morning
and Friday afternoon. At least the frosts aren’t bad enough to take out the Magnolia campbellii blooms

[i] Matariki – the Maori new year, determined by the rise of the Pleiades star formation. 

[ii] Te mounga – the mountain in local dialect. In standardised Maori, mounga is more commonly seen as maunga. Otherwise known as Mount Taranaki.

[iii] Kereru – native wood pigeon. It is fully protected because its numbers are declining due to loss of habitat and its very slow rate of natural increase – most breeding pairs only raise a single chick each year.

An unrepentant kereru eating the first buds on Magnolia Vulcan

On another topic, rather than a postscript, those who read my May post about Mrs Wang’s garden (and there were many of you. I know this from my site stats) may enjoy this delightful and affirming update. I feel vindicated. Mrs Wang is indeed a first-generation New Zealander, she declares herself to be a digger and she did indeed experience the devastating famine in China during her childhood. I did not, I admit, pick her as a professional civil engineer. Those whose ugly response when the story broke was to defend the establishment by attempting to discredit Mrs Wang with vile speculation based entirely on their own prejudices, need to take a good hard look at their own racism. I am not referring to comments on my post – readers here are in a different league but I saw some pretty awful speculation and accusation coming through on other social media. There is much that is good in this world for those who choose to see it.

The first bloom of the season opening yesterday on Magnolia Felix Jury. We get the best colour on the early blooms.

The colours of late autumn

Persimmons – golden orbs against a clear sky in late autumn. Being an old fashioned, astringent variety, we have to wait until they are very ripe before picking them

Here we are, 23 days off the shortest day of the year and in the late autumn phase. The daytime temperature has dropped to the mid teens celsius and we even had a light frost this week. But we are lucky here that our light levels during the day don’t drop much. It just gets dark earlier.

The first of the sun’s rays hitting the Court Garden this week

We never get that grey, leaden look of spent perennials and patches of dark green that characterise many gardens in colder climates, let alone the blanket of white snow many northern countries experience. But neither are we tropical. I have busted out my thermals already. In self-defence, we do not retire indoors as the temperature drops and we are out and about in the garden in all but the worst weather.

Luculia gratissima ‘Early Dawn’ in sugar pink
Luculia pinceana ‘Fragrant Pearl’ with its white rounded heads
Luculia pinceana ‘Fragrant Cloud’

The luculias are in flower. Rangy and frost tender these plants may be, the scent is divine and the flower heads are large and attractive balls of colour well into winter. My favourite is the almond pink of ‘Fragrant Cloud’. Unfortunately, they don’t hold well when picked but we keep our house at a warm temperature in winter that is not conducive to any garden flowers holding well indoors.

The most enormous of hydrangeas and evergreen, too

Also rangy and frost tender, the enormous, evergreen tree hydrangea is in full bloom. Walking past it on sunny days, the hum of honey bees is not quite deafening but certainly on track in that direction. As the plant is about 5 metres tall and currently sporting so many blooms on the sunny side that the foliage is barely visible, it can accommodate a whole lot of honey bees at a time when other food sources are less abundant. Last I heard, this unusual Chinese hydrangea is thought to be a member of the aspera group.

Nearby, still in the woodland area we call the Avenue Garden, I like this seasonal composition with the red form of Cordyline australis x banksii, the hanging chalices of the tree dahlia D. imperialis (another rangy, frost tender plant), the cerise of the enormous bougainvillea, blue flowered plectranthus and Luculia ‘Fragrant Cloud’ on the right.

Ammi majus

Out in the rather wilder margins of Mark’s vegetable garden (which we never open to public view because while he is a productive gardener, he is also very messy in this area), the Ammi majus flowers on. I liked the mix of wildflower, the cloche and the communion of our two new ladders which Lloyd was using in tandem at the time.

In still wilder margins, this scene was the coming together of a United Nations of self-seeded plants – the nikau palms from NZ, Montanoa bipinnatifida otherwise known as the Mexican tree daisy,and the yellow mahonia which may or may not be Mahonia japonica from Japan.

Vireya rhododendron macgregoriae, this plant defying the odds and still going strong after 64 years

Back in the more cultivated areas of the garden, many vireya rhododendrons are blooming. These are the subtropical rhododendrons – so frost tender and generally pretty sensitive – and tend not to be longlived. Their flowering is triggered by day length, not temperature, so they bloom intermittently but autumn and spring are the main seasons. We have some dead specimens we are removing now and Mark is doing a cuttings round to propagate an ongoing supply. But this specimen, this one is defying that tendency to whiff off and die. It is the very plant that Felix collected from the highlands of New Guinea in 1957 and the start of his breeding programme – R. macgregoriae.

Sasanqua camellia ‘Elfin Rose’ and Nerine bowdenii

Autumn is sasanqua camellia season, now my favourite group of camellias. For years the NZ sasanqua market was completely dominated by consumer demand for white sasanquas – it may still be the case but I am out of touch with commercial production these days. We have plenty of different white sasanqua varieties in the garden but they do not spark joy for me in the way the coloured options do. This one is pretty ‘Elfin Rose’, seen here with the last nerines of the season, N. bowdenii at its feet.

It is not just flowers giving colour. While autumn colour is patchy and extended over a long period of time because we move so gradually from late summer to autumn to winter, the maples and some of the prunus give a pretty display.

Magnolia campbellii opening blooms in late May

Finally, in a sign of how our seasons lack the sharp demarcations of colder climates, the first magnolias are already opening. I follow a Facebook page for magnolia enthusiasts that is heavily dominated by mad keen magnoliaphiles from northern Europe. They are still posting photos of late season blooms opening on their spring magnolias. Meanwhile, as far away as we can get across the world, the Magnolia campbellii in the Anglican churchyard of my local town of Waitara is already open with a score or more blooms.

First flowers on ‘Fairy Magnolia White’ in late May

Here, we are looking at the first flowers open already on ‘Fairy Magnolia White’, the first of the michelias of the new season to bloom. As we are in the last gasps of autumn, these early magnolias are a reminder that spring is not far away.

The magnolia and the mountain

Magnolia campbellii in our park and Mount Taranaki

Magnolia campbellii in our park and Mount Taranaki

I prefer not to leave a negative post heading my home page for long (for an update on That Matter, refer to the last paragraph here), so here instead is the magnolia and our maunga*. I am waiting for more flowers to open so I can catch the hero shot of Magnolia campbellii in full bloom against the snow. This photo was taken in the early morning light at about 8am, as the sun was rising.

campbellii again

campbellii again

Mark is anxious that I point out I am using a zoom lens and the mountain is not 300 metres away from us. It is more like 35 kilometres distant. In this case, I feel it is appropriate to use the word iconic about our maunga. It is a beautiful volcanic cone which stands in splendid isolation on the coastal plain beside the sea and it is such a strong presence in Taranaki that it is etched into the very being of everybody who lives here. It is still active, although it is a long time since it has done much more than gently rumble to remind us not to take him for granted.

Magnolia campbellii

Magnolia campbellii

M. campbellii is always the first of the named magnolias we have here to open for the season. The tree is a fraction of its former size, having been clipped by a falling poplar tree a few years ago but it continues to grow and will regain its former glory over time.

Just an unnamed seedling

Just an unnamed seedling

For early glory, this unnamed seedling in one of our shelter belts takes the first medal. It is looking great, but it won’t be named or released. It flowers far too early for most climates and is not sufficiently distinctive. It is a good reminder that on their day, many plants look magnificent but they need to continue looking glorious in competition with many other candidates, not just on their day.

First bloom of the season on Felix Jury

First bloom of the season on Felix Jury

The first few flowers have opened on Felix Jury, which is still a source of real pride and joy to us. Felix beat Vulcan to the draw on first bloom this year, although the latter is now showing glorious colour. Felix will also outlast Vulcan when it comes to the length of the flowering season. In colder climates, these earliest bloomers open later. We are lucky where we live that we have clear, intense light – even in mid winter when these magnificent flowers start opening for us.

Mark's Fairy Magnolia White

Mark’s Fairy Magnolia White

Michelias have now been reclassified as magnolias and the earliest varieties are opening. This is Mark’s Fairy Magnolia White which has the bonus of a lovely perfume. Magnolia season feels like the start of a new gardening year for us and each day is filled with anticipation to see what else is opening. Many of our trees are now large, so I find I am often photographing up against the sky. Hence I often refer to this time of the year as the season of skypaper.

As far as my previous post on the magnolia and the well site goes, for those of you curious about the reaction of the company I can report that so far, the reaction has been… nothing. Nothing at all, although I know they spent a lot of time checking it on my site on Tuesday. I fully expect that situation to remain, although I will certainly be pleasantly surprised if the company responds to the challenge.

*Maunga is the Maori word for mountain and is widely used in New Zealand, especially when referring to mountains which have long held particular spiritual significance for tangata whenua – the first people of the land in this country.