Touch of the tropics

A verandah that’s cool on even the hottest days thanks to the shade of palm trees, a garden dotted with bright flowers and bananas fresh every morning – sounds like a tropical paradise, doesn’t it?

This slice of the tropics is, however, on the outskirts of Te Puke, which means the owners are working in a sub-tropical climate that experiences winter frosts. The 0.2ha piece of paradise has been created by Pat and Ron Howie who over the past 14 years have filled their garden with unusual plants – including Ficus dammaropsis, native to Papua New Guinea; a Queensland bottle tree (Brachychiton rupestris); a New Caledonia puka (Meryta denhamii), a Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis), a cassava (Manihot esculenta) and Davidsonia jerseyana, a tree native to New South Wales that has edible ‘plums’ growing directly from the trunk.

Also known as the dinner-plate fig, Ficus dammaropsis is native to the rainforests of Papua New Guinea. The fruit is called a synconium and the flask-shaped floral cavity contains unisexual flowers. A minute wasp pollinates the seed-bearing female flowers. There are up to 1000 different species of Ficus worldwide and virtually each one has its own particular wasp pollinator. Pat loves the sound of rain hitting the large leaves. Photo: Sandra Simpson

A 2-year working holiday in Australia 56 years ago left the couple with a love of tropical plants that has, over the intervening years, been fed by holidays to the Pacific, including Fiji, Rarotonga and Samoa.

After living 213m above sea level in Pongakawa for 30 years, they are thrilled to be able to indulge their interest in tropical plants.

“It’s getting harder to find something different for the garden,” Pat says, although Ron chips in with, “it’s getting harder to find the space for something different”.

Bulbs of Arisaema sikokianum are more recent additions to the garden. The Japanese native can be increased only by growing from seed and differs from many other Arisaema in that it holds its flowers above the foliage. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Pat spent 3 years potting up plants before they moved and all the wooden furniture in the garden has been made by Ron from timber milled on their Pongakawa property, including a version of a Chinese moon-gate.

They’ve been fortunate to have had a micro-climate created by high hedges all round their own property and neighbouring properties, although more recently some of their own hedging has come out but this is a couple that sees gardening as an opportunity so while some beds have had to be remade they are enjoying trying some different plants for their new conditions.

A Brugmansia flower. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The garden features several varieties of perennial hibiscus, night-scented Brugmansia, bromeliads (including Pat’s favourite Acanthostachys strobilacea or pinecone bromeliad), Scadoxus lilies and pineapple lilies (Eucomis).

Grown for their foliage are Hypoestes, Calathea, Ligularia, the striking Euphorbia cotinifolia Artropurpurea (Caribbean copper plant) and Oxalis tetraphylla, known as the iron-cross plant because of the markings on its leaves.

“There was a lot of oxalis when we came here,” Pat laughs, “but those were ones we didn’t want.”

Halimium lasianthum, or woolly rock rose, is native to the southern Iberian peninsula. The family is a cousin to the Cistus family, commonly called rock roses. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Over the years the couple have got to know the best places to source the unusual plants they enjoy – Russell Fransham’s Subtropicals nursery and catalogue being one of their favourites.

And with the recent addition of a spacious, new plastic house you can bet that Pat and Ron will be extending their plant collection even further.

The blooms of a Campsis radicans vine, native to the eastern US. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Go to an earlier Sandra’s Garden posting to read Ron and Pat’s tips for opening a garden to the public.

This article first appeared in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission. It has been updated slightly.

Happy Birthday Quarry Park!

Volunteers old and new gathered for lunch today at Te Puna Quarry Park to mark 20 years since the first work day – with people who were at that first event recalling how daunting the task seemed with blackberry, gorse, pampas grass and wilding pines everywhere (not to mention the goats, rabbits and possums)!

But start they did, and now – 20 years later – the park is “the jewel in the Western Bay crown”, according to Cr Don Thwaites who was standing in for Mayor Garry Webber, and all built on volunteer labour.

The Vege Grower was the park society’s foundation treasurer and I occasionally help out with publicity so we’ve known the place since its inception. Today, the Vege Grower recalled hearing blasting from his childhood home when the site was still a working quarry and he was also able to clarify why there aren’t many photos from the first work days – there was nowhere to get a shot from, the place was a jungle!

Te Puna Quarry Park Society president Ian Cross and patron Shirley Sparks cut the anniversary cake before lunch. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Shirley Sparks, who got neighbours interested in redeveloping the site as a public park and is now the society’s patron, recalled how she and husband David would often be milking when blasting took place. “You can imagine the animals’ reaction to the noise. Unfortunately for us we were standing below the cows’ tails …”

Society president Ian Cross paid tribute to “the three ladies of the quarry” – Shirley, Jo Dawkins (who seems to spend every waking moment working at the quarry, bar Wednesdays (golf day) and who is a plantswoman par excellence) and Dulcie Artus, longtime secretary, former longtime treasurer, until recently longtime QuarryFest organiser, website worker, brochure designer … what he didn’t mention was writer of funding applications which I know from experience is a tedious, and often thankless, task.

I apologise for the quality of the photos, taken on my phone (won’t do that again).

Amid much banter two kauri trees were planted by Tauranga Mayor Greg Brownless (left) and Western Bay of Plenty District councillor (and quarry neighbour) Don Thwaites. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The two council representatives called on 99-year-old Alf Rendall, who is still a regular volunteer, to lend a hand with the second tree. (Photo-bombing the shot at bottom left is Bay of Plenty Times photographer George Novak.) Photo: Sandra Simpson

The formalities concluded with a release of monarch butterflies. Pictured from left are Greg Brownless, Don Thwaites, Jo Dawkins, Mary Parkinson (founder of the butterfly garden, orchid garden and sister to Jo) and George Novak. Photo: Sandra Simpson

To hear an interview with Alf Rendall, a longtime Tauranga photographer, go here. Or go here to read more about his 2015 book Historic Tauranga From Above.

Loving lichen

During a recent visit to the Miranda area we stumbled upon the Waharau Regional Park. We found a map of walks beside the unstaffed visitor centre and chose one of the loop tracks, careful to use the disinfectant and brush on the soles of our shoes as we entered and left the walk (in an effort to prevent the spread of kauri dieback disease).

Not far along the track were ‘fluffy clouds’ of lichen growing on the ground, so I took a photo and in an effort to identify the lichen found a superb NZ Geographic article (undated) by Derek Grzelewski, The microscopic world of lichens.

Cladina confusa in Waharau Regional Park. It’s related to the reindeer lichens of the Arctic Circle. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Writing for Te Ara, Maggy Wassilieff describes a lichen’s unusual parentage: A lichen is an amalgamation of a fungus and one or more photosynthetic organisms (those that make food from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide). No fungi can make their own food, but they have evolved ways to barter or steal it from other living things. A fifth of the world’s fungi do that by partnering with photosynthetic algae and/or cyanobacteria – their partnership is called a lichen. Read more here.

From the Grzelewski article: They not only become soil and humus, they actively create it. In some species the hair-like ‘roots’ can penetrate rock and oxalic acid within them reacts with most minerals and metals until it’s impossible to tell where the lichen ends and rock begins!

Waharau park is in the Hunua district which, as one local resident told me late last year (while it was raining), had a madly wet winter and spring – so wet her seed potatoes had rotted in the ground. The high rainfall may well account for the beautiful crop of lichen growing across, through and around her scoria walls.

Stereocaulon corticatulum envelops the top of a scoria wall. It is the only species of lichen known to occur from sea level to 3000m. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The tiny brown tips are the lichen’s fruiting bodies, called apothecia, which produce spores. Photo: Sandra Simpson

A stroll through the historic Bolton Street Cemetery in Wellington is always worthwhile and on this occasion produced …

Possibly Rimelia reticulata on the railing around Richard John Seddon’s grave. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Last year in southeast Alaska we were told that the ‘beard’ lichens hanging from trees were an indicator the air was 98% pure as these lichens, Usnea species, otherwise won’t grow.

Usnea lichen growing in a Sitka spruce in Wrangell, Alaska. Photo: Sandra Simpson


Flowering now

The strong winds we’ve had in December and January kind of took the fun and enjoyment out of the summer garden – even the plants have been hunkering down a bit. But some have still been some flowering ….

The first flowering of my Hoya Jungle Garden – had it about 3 years – but it has been worth the wait. Photo: Sandra Simpson

So lucky I photographed this white Oriental lily when I did – a few days later it was suffering from windburn and a day or so after that was flattened by the wind! Photo: Sandra Simpson















Hoya fusca is covering itself in flowers this year … but note the yellow oleander aphid thriving at the heart of the bloom. The plant’s been hanging in the orchid shadehouse for a few months so it’s now back outside where our ‘stiff breezes’ should keep the aphids off. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Every spring the Thunia veitchiana orchid sends up new canes at a great rate of knots with about three of these striking flowers at the top of each cane. Photo: Sandra Simpson

I’ve struggled with my little Promenaea orchids (all divisions of one plant). They seem pretty reluctant to grow so I was thrilled when one actually put up a bud which actually came into flower (the other bud withered). Some people in the Tauranga Orchid Society grow them beautifully! Photo: Sandra Simpson


Richard Orjis at The Apron garden

Tauranga Art Gallery brought Auckland artist Richard to Orjis to the city on January 21 to give a free talk about The Apron, an installation garden for the Tauranga Garden and Artfest in November, commissioned by the gallery and the festival.

As you may recall, I visited the garden – planted on a lawn in front of Baycourt Theatre (hence the name, The Apron) – the day the festival closed and wasn’t mightily impressed but am always open to learning more and maybe having my opinion changed. Having the chance to hear an artist talk about his/her work is always valuable.

Richard walked our small group up to The Apron for his talk – being on site was a great way for us all to understand his vision, ask questions and learn more.

Richard Orjis. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The brief was wide open but he felt an area near the gallery would be good [Baycourt is a 2-minute walk from the gallery]. He wanted the garden to be “authentic”, make people think about the everyday and communicate something a traditional garden designer wouldn’t necessarily think about.

He believes the project should be considered land art or environmental art rather than gardening, but for ease of description I will call it a garden here.

Richard has used what most people would think of as weeds (he calls them wildflowers) and describes them as “international citizens that are robust and hardy, part of an ecosystem that’s too complex for scientists to understand”.

“They provide food and habitat in the most unpromising places – the side of the road, empty lots – and establish quickly, much faster than our native plants can.”

Wild verbena. Photo: Sandra Simpson

He has a “genuine love” of pastures and meadows and wanted to develop something that was in the context of Tauranga – seeds were all sourced locally – and the age in which we live.

Richard chose to have subtle paths mown through the garden, liking the idea of not using any hard landscaping, partly because it is a temporary site.

“There’s a feeling that urban is bad and rural good, and people in a city romanticise about living in the country when the reality of rural life is quite different – the traditional chocolate box meadow we all know has been created by agriculture, not nature.

“The Apron offers a comparison of urban gardens right in the middle of town – this looks unkempt and messy but it changes fortnightly as it grows.

A bumblebee feeds on red clover. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“There are so many lessons from a garden – nothing will stay the same, no matter how much you trim and prune. The idea of controlling a plant or garden is pointless.”

It’s not a struggle, he says, to consider a garden as art, although the ones we’re used to seeing in traditional art are frozen in time – paintings, sculpture, video etc.

“With the garden we have here we’re working with the elements and have to let go that sense of freezing.” Richard mentioned the founder of the Arts and Crafts  movement, William Morris, as having a looser idea of what a garden might be.

Plants in The Apron include Verbena bonariensis (several common names), red clover, barley, rye, Achillea millefolium (yarrow), Anthriscus sylvestris (cow parsley, Queen Anne’s lace), Sinapis arvensis (wild mustard), Leucanthemum vulgare (oxeye daisy) and Oenothera biennis (evening primrose).

“There were things I was not permitted to use because of their weed status,” Richard said, “and at times it got really tense in our discussions with the Tauranga City Council. I love wild carrot and wild fennel but wasn’t permitted to use them. The irony is that there are a couple of things in here that weren’t planted – they’ve blown in and established themselves.

Several chicory plants have self-established in the garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“We can have wildness even in the most built-up areas by letting things go and trusting in the intelligence of nature, a stance that might be interesting for urban planners to pick up. It’s a cheaper option for councils to leave certain areas to their own devices but the city’s residents have to get behind it and signage is key to letting people know what’s going on.”

The gallery is taking school groups through The Apron in February, something that Richard considered, thinking about the height of young children when he was planning the planting.

He’s thrilled with the many seed heads, saying that although people might dismiss the garden as dead and dying, it’s providing food to wildlife and is full of movement thanks to our constant winds.

A mustard seed-head. Photo: Sandra Simpson

He’s also enjoyed the change of colour in the garden since flowering began – first it was the yellow of mustard and white daisies, moving into reds and now purple is dominant, thanks to wild verbena.

Richard has undertaken “plant projects” before, including creating a garden of native and exotic medicinal plants, and constructing a scaffolding bridge between two large Moreton Bay figs so people could experience the canopy.

“You can create art just by the way you mow your lawn.” Read about Richard’s 2011 grass art project.

He is taking up an arts residency in Malaysia at the end of this month and will be looking at green spaces there, planning a publication that will also include a photo record of The Apron.

Richard has a garden at his home that he says is closely planted so weeds aren’t a problem. “It looks wild, but it’s structured,” he said.

The Apron will be mowed at the end of February and the Baycourt lawn reinstated.

Dying or full of life? Messy or a welcome relief from a strictly controlled garden? Photo: Sandra Simpson


A butterfly life

We’ve nurtured three monarch butterfly caterpillars through their final bulking up and into the chrysalis stage and it’s been fascinating watching it all – one of them attached itself to the handle of a teapot in the kitchen so we got an up-close view of proceedings.

We moved the caterpillars inside because of wasp predation which doesn’t seem to be the complete extermination it was last year, as a few caterpillars have been making it through to chrysalis without our help. Wasp predation should finish at about the end of February.

To find out more about monarch butterflies, visit the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust website.

Eggs on a swan plant leaf. Hatching will be 4-8 days, depending on temperatures. The egg will turn grey when it’s ready to hatch and a black dot (head) will be visible. Females lay up to 400 eggs at the rate of about 40 a day. Photo: Sandra Simpson

A tiny, very hungry, caterpillar … Photo: Sandra Simpson

… turns into a large, very hungry caterpillar. In 2-3 weeks it grows to 2700 times its birth weight! To accommodate this growth it moults 5 times. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Now we follow the story through photos of a single caterpillar …

When the caterpillar weighs about 1.5g it sets off to find somewhere to hang its chrysalis – in this case the handle of a teapot! Rear ‘protolegs’ attach to a silk ‘mat’ it’s secreted and the caterpillar begins turning itself inside out to form the chrysalis, with plenty of wriggling involved. The process took no more than 10 minutes. Photo: Sandra Simpson

With a final wriggle the chrysalis is complete and the black bit left sticking out the top (we wondered what was going to happen to it) falls off – excess skin. The chrysalis kept wriggling for a little bit. Within 2 days what’s left of the caterpillar becomes a pupa. No one yet knows what the beautiful gold spots are for. Photo: Sandra Simpson

It takes about 10 days for hatching – just before the butterfly emerges the chrysalis turns black (still with gold markings) and the butterfly inside becomes visible. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The newly hatched butterfly rests quietly near what's left of the papery chrysalis.

The newly hatched butterfly (a male) rests quietly near what’s left of the papery chrysalis. When it emerges it has an abdomen full of fluid that pumps into its wings before it can fly. During summer monarchs live for 60-70 days. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Many thanks to the University of Waikato’s monarch butterfly life cycle page for extra information. This overview page about monarch butterflies is also worth reading.