Tag Archives: Pachystegia insignis

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: Pachystegia insignis

Pachystegia insignis - one of our loveliest native plants

Pachystegia insignis – one of our loveliest native plants

We do a good line in native daisies in this country but few, if any are lovelier than this Marlborough rock daisy. The flowers are pristine white, but even when it is not flowering season, the leaves are big, rounded and heavy textured – glossy green on the upper side and felted white on the under side. That felting is called indumentum (sometimes tomentum).

In the wild, P. insignis grows on the eastern side of Marlborough. Apparently you can see it as you drive down the state highway but the only times I have driven it in recent times, I have been behind the wheel with my eyes fixed firmly on the road. It hangs onto the rocky banks, coping with drought and salt spray. This means it is not the easiest of plants to grow in a lush garden situation. It needs perfect drainage and an open, exposed site. Even then, we find mature plants can keel over and suddenly die from time to time.

To our ongoing embarrassment, our particularly good form here was stolen by my late mother from the Dunedin Botanic Gardens. She died 12 years ago (almost to the day), but her legacy lives on here. Pachystegias are small shrubs belonging to the asteraceae family. The “insignis” seems to mean distinguished or remarkable in this context.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

In the garden this fortnight: April 12, 2012

A fortnightly series first published in the Weekend Gardener and reproduced here with their permission.

Celmisia (New Zealand's mountain daisy) are not within their normal climatic range here

Celmisia (New Zealand's mountain daisy) are not within their normal climatic range here

We have a garden where we are constantly trying to push the climatic boundaries and grow plants which are not naturally adapted to our conditions. For us it is what makes gardening really interesting. But we had a wry smile at the suggestion from Christchurch paeony growers that anywhere south of Auckland should be able to grow these herbaceous beauties. There are reasons why Taranaki gardens do not have paeonies and it is not for want of trying. We can grow some of the tree paeonies but those beautiful, over the top rose paeony types simply don’t perform. As they are not even successful in inland gardens where winters are much colder, it seems more likely that our high rainfall and high humidity levels are the problem. If we could grow them we would.

Pachystegia insignis (the Marlborough rock daisy) is also used to somewhat different conditions

Pachystegia insignis (the Marlborough rock daisy) is also used to somewhat different conditions

We have to work at plants which prefer drier, open conditions. The Marlborough rock daisy (Pachystegia insignis) can keel over for us but generally we keep it going on an exposed bank. To our ongoing embarrassment, the excellent form we have is one stolen by my late mother from the Dunedin Botanic Gardens. She was a fine gardener but she was also one of those old ladies to be feared with her handbag and secateurs when a normally strong moral code deserted her entirely. We only succeed with the celmisias (mountain daisies) and meconopsis (Himalayan blue poppies) because of the work Mark does to bring some level of hybrid vigour into his seed strains. It takes constant effort to keep them going.

We continue experimenting with orchids as garden plants. Cymbidiums are easy and we have a great deal of success with dendrobiums, calanthes and pleiones. The masdevalleas have not been successful and Mark is still working on the disas to see if we can naturalise them by our stream. Similarly, we push the boundaries with heat loving plants. While most sub tropicals will grow here, without real summer heat, the genuine tropicals are a challenge. We dream of a big solar heated glasshouse.

Top tasks:

1) Autumn planting. We are hoping for our usual long, mild autumn when conditions are perfect for gardening, particularly for planting out. Plants then get a chance to settle in and establish before the rush of spring growth.

2) Finish getting the piles of firewood under cover. We rely entirely on wood for winter heating and we get through a large quantity. Fortunately we are entirely self sufficient but the winter firewood does not cut itself up and get itself in. Free it may be, but it is not without effort.