Tag Archives: NZ native plants

Gardening with our native flora

The cordyline just arrived, I think. It is growing right on stream bank at water level and I can’t think that anyone would have planted it there

We like to garden with a wide range of plants here. A VERY wide range. Not for us that prescription from some *designers* who decree a garden should have no more than ten different plant varieties in it. I can’t give the most recent reference for that because I thought it was such a remarkably stupid thing to write that I didn’t bookmark it. I guess the author was thinking of small town gardens but even so, both Mark and I would be bored stiff.

I have been thinking about the extent to which we incorporate our native flora. The purist *native garden* is not for us, nor indeed the predominantly native garden. We are too much of the complex layering, detailed planting persuasion, using an extensive range of plant material in mix and match combinations, to ever want to place that type of restriction on ourselves. But when I walk around and look, it is a surprise even to me just how many native plants we grow and often take for granted.

I figured there are at least four groups of native plants – the volunteers that just arrive of their own volition, the rare and endangered which actually owe their continued existence to the horticultural trade, the utility backbone plants that we take for granted but are actually native and the ones that are grown because they are simply great ornamentals in their own right.

A note about naming: in NZ we know most of these plants by their Maori names. While there aren’t too many truly bi-lingual speakers in this country, our every day language is peppered with Maori words, names and phrases that can confuse English speakers from other countries. I hadn’t really thought of this until I mentioned pohutukawa on a Facebook post and an American replied, “Maori common names just don’t stick in my memory, I think that’s a Metrosideros?” Botanical names really do aid international communication so I have added those in brackets below.

We have never planted any tree ferns. They just arrive of their own accord.

The volunteers that just arrive will vary throughout the country. Ours include the tree ferns (commonly known as pongas – pronounced ‘pungas’, botanically cyathea and dicksonia), the nikau palm (Rhopalostylis sapida) , cabbage trees (cordyline),   an abundance of pepper trees or kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum) and a wide range of ferns. If they are not in the way, we just leave them to grow where they wish. Even NZ gardeners may not realise that we have three native dicksonia species and seven cyathea species. I think we just have the most common four or maybe five species seeding down in our garden.

Kakabeak, growing in a town garden (hence the power lines). I have the white form in a new garden but it has its own little wire cage because pesky rabbits just about ate all of it over just two nights

The rare and endangered plants contain some special stories. The tree Pennantia baylisiana and the climber Tecomanthe speciosa  were both down to a single surviving specimen in the wild but are now relatively common thanks to sustained efforts to propagate and distribute them. Similarly, the two species of kakabeak (clianthus) were at the extremely endangered status in the wild but are now widely planted in gardens. Sometimes commerce can ensure the survival of a species where protection of their natural environment has failed. Even Astelia chathamica was rated as under threat in the wild (in the Chatham Islands which are our southernmost islands marooned in the Southern Ocean) but there is no danger of it being lost these days, so widely is it grown now in mainland gardens.

The renga renga lily, as seen in almost every garden

Utility backbone plants include a fair swag of trees grown in this country but especially the kowhai (sophora – there are eight native species though S. tetraptera is the most common) and the pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa). Both of these are absolute standouts in bloom. What we call the rengarenga lily (Arthropodium cirratum) is so widely grown that it is probably seen as a garden cliché. But we don’t have a whole lot of flowering herbaceous  plants that are native to New Zealand when you think about it. And our gardens would be the poorer without the native astelias which are used very widely, being preferable as garden plants to our native flaxes (phormiums)

Pachystegia insignis to the left (the white buttons are the flower buds) and Xeronema callistemon with the red flower spikes

Some native plants are special in their own right as ornamentals and not necessarily easy to grow in conditions far removed from their natural environment. The Marlborough rock daisy (Pachystegia insignis) occurs naturally on exposed coastal rock faces in dry, hard conditions  ; the celmisias are predominantly mountain daisies : the Poor Knight’s lily (Xeronema callistemon) comes from sub-tropical northern islands and is distinctly frost tender and needs brilliant drainage, preferring coastal conditions. These and other plants are well out of their comfort zone here but interesting, showy and still indigenous plants if you take the country-wide definition.

The alstromeria is certainly not native but the grass is – Chionocloa rubra

What I don’t think has been helpful is the polarised positions adopted by some. The native purist position has long been claiming the higher moral ground (but only applying that to ornamental plants, and mostly trees at that, as I wrote about here) In turn, this spawned the sniffy response that our native plants are “boring”. Neither is a logical or thoughtful position.

I will say that if we stripped out the native plants from our garden, there would be HUGE gaps, not the least being our rimu avenue (Dacrydium cupressinum) and our totara hedge (Podocarpus totara). And yet, to the casual eye, most visitors would not pick that our garden is rich in a wide variety of native plants. I like to think that is because of a seamless blending of native and exotic flora rather than any self-conscious display of indigenous plants.

The widespread use of native plants is one of the key differences in NZ gardens and that is worth celebrating. We are derivative enough here. We don’t want to be a nation of gardens that could be located in any number of other countries around the world with no unique features to define our own location and heritage.

Pohutukawa to the left, kowhai with tui bird to the right

Plant collector: the curious native Muehlenbeckia astonii

An unusual clipped specimen, M. astonii

An unusual clipped specimen, M. astonii

The proper name of this plant is not easy to spell – Muehlenbeckia astonii – but I have never even heard it referred to by its alleged common names of ‘shrubby tororaro’ or ‘wiggy-wig bush’. Not that common, apparently. The plantings in a prominent position at Auckland Botanic Gardens have caught my eye before. I am guessing they are planning to extend the clipping up another layer. In this interim phase. Mark chuckled and suggested they resemble Kim Jong-Un. The hair, dear Reader, the hair.

This is another of our native plants now threatened by loss of habitat. These days it is limited to the eastern coastal lowlands, stretching from Wairarapa to Banks Peninsula but it may have been more widespread in the days before extensive land development. Fortunately, it makes a good garden specimen and it is the ability to integrate into gardens that has saved critically endangered plants like Tecomanthe speciosa, Pennantia baylisiana and the kakabeak (clianthus).

Divaricating plants are not unusual in this country – divaricating being that tight criss crossing of the branches, often combined with tiny leaves. The ever-handy internet advances two botanical theories for the prevalence of divaricating plants here. I like the first theory which is that plants evolved this way to protect themselves from moa grazing on them. The second theory is that the plants have adapted to withstand harsh climatic conditions, particularly wind and dryness found in exposed coastal conditions and maybe hard frosts.
Muehlenbeckia astonii (7)
M. astonii will be deciduous in hard conditions but retains some of its tiny leaves in Auckland. The orange and red tones in the wiry zigzag branches add interest. It clips well and is apparently not difficult to strike from cutting or raise from fresh seed. We don’t have M. astonii in our garden but we do grow a comparable tiny-leafed divaricating coprosma which has a natural form of mounding layers that is often described as cloud form.

Muehlenbeckia astonii, featuring prominently at Auckland Botanic Gardens

Muehlenbeckia astonii, featuring prominently at Auckland Botanic Gardens