Saving the Stevens Garden

Great interview on Kim Hill’s programme today about the Jean Stevens garden in Whanganui and the attempts to save the property that was owned by one of New Zealand’s greatest iris breeders. Listen to it here.

Jean Burgess was from a plant nursery family and in 1921 her father imported tall bearded irises, 2 years later making Jean responsible for their propagation and sale, thus beginning her life-long love affair. In 1928 she sent selections of some of her own crosses overseas for assessment with ‘Destiny’ being her first cultivar to win plaudits outside New Zealand – it was released in Britain and in 1934 became the first Southern Hemisphere-bred iris to receive the British Iris Society’s bronze medal.

Jean and Wally Stevens met at a flower show in 1935, marrying a year later. Wally and his brother Frank had established Stevens Brothers Nursery in Bulls, a business which operated until relatively recently. Wally moved the nursery to Bastia Hill in Whanganui in the 1940s, seeking a better climate and soil for what he wanted to grow and sell.

Three of Jean’s irises received awards of merit from the Royal Horticultural Society in Britain between 1936 and 1939. Another, ‘Inspiration’, attracted the attention of noted American iris hybridiser Robert Schreiner, who introduced a selection of her cultivars to the American market.

She worked to expand the colour range in the amoena group of tall bearded irises – those with white standards and violet, violet-blue or purple falls – and achieved international recognition with ‘Pinnacle’, an outstanding white and yellow amoena (arguably a world first). This iris received an award of merit from both the American Iris Society (1951) and the Royal Horticultural Society (1959).

‘Sunset Snows’, a Jean Stevens-bred iris, is pictured in a Tauranga garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

In 1948 Jean was a foundation member of the Australian Iris Society and in 1949 the New Zealand Iris Society, becoming president (1949–51, 1956–57), its Bulletin editor for 10 years, and registrar of New Zealand cultivars from 1957 until her death in 1967. In 1952 her handbook The iris and its culture was published in Australia. She registered some 391 iris hybrids in her lifetime

The British Iris Society awarded Jean the prestigious Foster Memorial Plaque in 1953, but the honour she valued most was the American Iris Society’s hybridisers’ medal for 1955.

Read more at the very informative entry for Jean Stevens in the Dictionary of NZ Biography. And go here to read a more iris-focused article. The NZ Iris Society features a Jean Stevens drop-down menu.

Leucadendron ‘Safari Sunset’. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Stevens Brothers Nursery was carried on by Jean and Wally’s daughter and son-in-law, Jocelyn and Ian Bell, until recently. Ian, who was an accountant before he became a horticultural apprentice to Wally and Jean in about 1961, has to his credit the phenomenally successful Leucaodendron ‘Safari Sunset’, which annually sells in excess of 40 million stems on the international cut flower market. Ian won a RNZIH Plant Raiser’s Award in 1982 for Leucadendron ‘Safari Sunset’ and Leucadendron ‘Bell’s Sunrise’, while the same year Jean won a posthumous award for Leucadendron ‘Red Gem’.

In 2021, researchers from Te Papa Museum went to the garden to collect specimens, as many of the plants are rarely cultivated in New Zealand and not represented in the national museum’s botany collection. Read more here.

Jocelyn died in 2017 and Ian last year. Read an obituary for him here (behind a paywall, unfortunately). Back the Blooms on Bastia is desperately trying to raise the money for the deposit to buy the garden from the Bell heirs and have set up a website for donations.

Natural hybrid?

Often when we think of hybridising, we think of human intervention – someone with a paintbrush dutifully transferring pollen from one potential parent to another. But Nature is quite happy to occasionally create her own hybrids.

The two likely parents growing side-by-side in the Stewart Island garden – Pseudopanax lesonnii ‘Gold Splash’ (left) and Pseudopanax ferox in its fearsome juvenile form. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Although the hybrid doesn’t look much like the lancewood Pseudopanax ferox, keep in mind that this tree changes appearance as it matures, eventually becoming a mop-top with normal-looking foliage.

All the owner knows is that he didn’t plant a tree in the place where it’s growing and inquiries have led him to believe that he has a one-off. Natural hybrids are often sterile.

And what is thought to be the resulting offspring. The owner is watching it with interest. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Literary plant fanciers

A week to the winter solstice and, given the weather of May around New Zealand, who knows what else is in store for us? Having a cosy nook, a hot drink and a good book are pretty much a full-proof list of ingredients for a stormy or wet day. And while I enjoy reading books from the ‘Gardening’ section of a bookstore or library, there are other ways in which gardening and plant stories can be told.

By the time Orwell’s roses flowered that summer, the Spanish civil war had broken out. As they grew, Europe spiralled closer to conflict. But the buds would still swell and the petals would still fall, and in the midst of death there would be new life, a cycle that helps explain why gardens and nature more generally have been such a comfort to so many through the grief and loss of the pandemic.

Gaby Hinsliff

Reviewing Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit for The Guardian newspaper (read the full piece here), Gaby Hinsliff notes that the writer George Orwell (1903-1950, real name Eric Blair) is often considered a dour and austere man who took on serious subjects – poverty, worker exploitation, anarchy, totalitarianism – but that Solnit’s book reveals him to be someone who also enjoyed gardening, both vegetable and ornamental, and who, knowing he was dying from tuberculosis, asked for a rose to be planted on his grave.

The cottage in Wallington, Hertfordshire where George Orwell lived and gardened from 1936 to 1940. Photo: Wikimedia

“Orwell’s readers at the time, it should be said, did not always appreciate his favourite pastime. Having written about his roses in Tribune, he noted in a subsequent column that ‘an indignant lady wrote in to say that flowers are bourgeois’.”

American crime writer Rex Stout (1886-1975) penned a series of books featuring the overweight and eccentric New York private detective Nero Wolfe, a dedicated orchid grower with 10,000 plants in growing rooms on the rooftop of his brownstone building. He visits the plants twice a day, 2 hours at a time, and employs a knowledgeable and careful gardener.

Not much can get Wolfe to leave home, but a rare black orchid lures him to a flower show (Black Orchids, 1942). Unfortunately, the event is overshadowed by a murder.

In 1963 Stout penned a piece for Life magazine about Nero Wolfe’s love for orchids. “If he ever talks to himself he keeps it strictly private, but I have often heard him talk to orchids. He’ll cock his head at a bench of Miltonias in full bloom and say distinctly, ‘Much too loud. Why don’t you learn to whisper?’ Not that he ever whispers.”

Read the full piece here (scroll to the bottom), and see a list of orchids registered with the Royal Horticulture Society that have been named for Nero Wolfe and other characters.

Roald Dahl – a man of many talents – was another orchid fancier. His widow Felicity (Liccy) is on record as saying that onions and orchids were his horticultural passions and growing them appealed to his competitive nature. Read more here.

The homes of two of New Zealand’s most famous writers – Katherine Mansfield (Wellington) and Dame Ngaio Marsh (Christchurch) – are both open to the public, although the Marsh one not on a regular basis. Read more about the Marsh home and garden here and Mansfield’s childhood house and garden here.

Step-by-step: Teacup arrangement

Floral artist and teacher Francine Thomas enjoys making teacup arrangements as gifts. Cups are sourced from op shops, florist’s foam online and plant material from her garden, “whatever’s going on the day, just look for a colour theme”.

1: Lay out all your plant material. Cut the florist’s foam to fit the cup and soak in water until it sinks (about 1 minute).

2: Place the wet foam in the cup and make a ‘collar’ of foliage (eg, Pelargonium leaves) around the edge of the foam.

3: Use a textural, upright form (eg, Leucadendron), put one in the centre and make a small grouping to one side.

4: Mentally divide the foam into thirds and add contrasting foliage at these three points. Add textural contrast (eg, Sedum) in the gaps between, aiming to have it sitting up a little.

5: Add a flower (eg, rose) for volume and height, using buds to bring the same colour through the design. By this stage, the arrangement should be a half-sphere (ie, higher in the middle).

6: Add another flower (eg, dahlia) for a bigger, round form in the thirds, stepping buds up into the design for unity.

7: Add a little colour (eg, tightly closed Alstroemeria), also for scale and proportion.

8: The finished product, with a version in pale yellows and whites alongside. A beautiful, easy to make, gift or table centrepiece.

See Francine’s floral demonstration videos here.

Saying it with flowers

Embracing life’s opportunities is second nature to award-winning floral artist Francine Thomas so when Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions saw her demonstrating work dry up, she taught herself how to make videos on her phone, built a bench in her shed and carried on.

“You can’t put a monetary value on everything,” Francine says of her videos which have continued beyond lockdowns. “It was about people’s state of mind and doing something to cheer us all up. I’ve had feedback from all around the world. Overseas, people were really struggling with the lockdowns and fears.”

Francine Thomas with one of her teacup arrangements. Step-by-step instructions for making one of these are in the next post. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The videos – which give full rein to Francine’s bubbly sense of humour when ‘Fred in the Shed’ shares hands-on construction tips – have led to Zoom presentations to groups in Pakistan and Singapore.

“Being creative settles my mind so it’s helping me as much as it’s helping them,” she says.

Flowers, floristry and floral art have been part of Francine’s life for as long as she can remember. Her aunt, Betty Budge, was the first florist in Whangarei and Francine’s mum Glenys, and in turn Francine, both helped out.

“I can remember peering over the bench watching them at work – all the old-fashioned way with toothpicks and wire, treating flowers by crushing the stems and scalding them with boiling water, and flowers being gathered from gardens.”

When the family moved to Tokoroa, Glenys did floristry from home while working as a nurse matron at the local hospital, with Francine wiring flowers for wedding bouquets and arrangements.

Eventually Glenys moved to Tauranga and started a flower wholesalers that Francine, who by then was married and doing wedding flowers on her own account, took over. She also, finally, gained qualifications in horticulture and floristry and joined the local floral art group.

Francine has been the Bay of Plenty Floral Art Society Designer of the Year five times, won the New Zealand Designer of the Year (2016) and the Australian Designer of the Year (2018), and been national demonstrator for the Floral Art Society since 2010. She was this country’s official demonstrator at the World Association of Floral Artists show in Dublin in 2014 and will be demonstrator/convenor for the world show in Auckland in 2024.

At the 2024 show she will also perform one of her renowned floral theatres. “When you do a national certificate in demonstrating, you have to make a portfolio of how you would do a floral theatre, working out a theme, lighting, special effects and so on. I thought, ‘well, I’ve planned it all, why not do it’?” One of the biggest was Symphony of Flowers, performed in Virginia in the US, including a symphony orchestra playing live and 55 students on stage, the whole thing also being a chance to promote New Zealand and the Bay of Plenty.

“There are no real boundaries in floral art,” Francine says. “You have to use the fundamentals of design to make it pleasing to the eye and make sure plant material dominates the design, but other than that you can let your imagination run free.”

  • As a special treat there will be an extra post tomorrow giving Francine’s step-by-step instructions for making a small floral arrangement in a teacup. Visit Francine’s website, which includes a shop.

This article was originally published in New Zealand Gardener and appears here with permission.

Hadrian’s Wall herbs

I’m reading the 1984 edition of A Walk Along the Wall by Hunter Davies, something I picked up at a bookfair and have had in my bedside pile for a while. Now I’ve broached it, I’m thoroughly enjoying reading about his end-to-end walk beside Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England, all 117km of it, in 1974. The coast-to-coast Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail opened in 2003.

An intact section of the wall snakes into the distance. Photo: Wikipedia

Mostly the book is history, archaeology and people – all very interesting topics in their own right – but this passage particularly caught my eye. The 16th century spelling that Davies quotes has been changed to make it easier to read, and note also that a “Surgeon” was someone we would consider to be a general practitioner doctor.

I did look hard for chives and other signs of herbs amongst the crevices of the Wall. In the 16th century [English historian William] Camden wrote that it was the practice for Scottish surgeons to come down once a year to replenish their supplies from the Wall crevices. “The Roman soldiers of the marches did plant here everywhere in old times for their use certain medicinal herbs to cure wounds; whence it is that some … practitioner of the Surgery in Scotland flock hither every year in the beginning of summer to gather such simples and wound herbs; the virtue whereof they highly commend as found by long experience, and to be of singular efficacy.” To which Mr Davies adds, “The Romans did introduce many herbs and spices to Britain but I could see no sign of them”.

A reconstructed temple at Vindolanda, the largest archaeological site along the wall with a fabulous museum. The site is privately owned. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Despite Mr Davies not being able to find any herbs, this 2017 article about re-creating a rare grassland in the area of the Wall indicates that “wild thyme” is a known plant from Hadrian’s Wall. The excellent Vindolanda website has a section on food and drink and notes that many Mediterranean herbs were brought to Britain, which had a native mint and wild chives, by the Romans, including dill, fennel, marjoram, sage, rosemary, rue, thyme and the spearmint type of mint, and quotes this recipe for a type of pesto from the Roman writer Columella.

 Put into a mortar savoury, mint, rue, coriander, parsley, chives, rocket leaves, green thyme or catmint, pennyroyal and salted cheese. Pound together and mix a little peppered vinegar with them. When you have put the mixture into a small earthenware vessel pour a little oil on top of it. 

With military forts an integral part of the Wall and its management, it’s likely that medicos attached to the larger forts would have had a garden for the herbs they used as medicine. The Arbeia Roman Fort website contains a list of herbs and how they were used (Activity 1), including sleeping on thyme to cure melancholy or home-sickness for soldiers, and rosemary as an antiseptic.

If you’ve read this far you may be interested in an earlier post about the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, a meticulous re-creation of a Roman home and garden.

Rarities at our feet

Our first sighting of Euphorbia glauca was in a public space in Oban on Stewart Island and we agreed that it was nice to see a rare-ish plant being used in a way that made it accessible to all.

A seed head on Euphorbia glauca in Oban, Stewart Island. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Then on a guided trip to nearby Ulva Island, a bird sanctuary, we saw it growing naturally on a beach, its favoured native habitat which gives rise to its common name of shore splurge. The plant is native to all of New Zealand’s main islands and is found nowhere else in the world. Read more here.

Euphorbia glauca growing on Ulva Island. Photo: Sandra Simpson

When we mentioned we’d seen E. glauca growing in Oban, our Ulva Island guide said we should look for the native Gunnera, also planted in a public bed. Back in Oban we scratched our heads until we used Google and realised the Gunnera we were seeking wasn’t a version of giant rhubarb (G. manicata, which can reach 3m high), but something much, much smaller.

Gunnera hamiltonii growing in a public bed in Oban, Stewart Island. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The ground-hugging Gunnera hamiltonii is a true rarity – probably New Zealand’s rarest wild plant – found naturally in only one place on Stewart Island, the sand dunes of Mason Bay, according to Stewart Island Plants by Hugh D Wilson (Manuka Press, 2009). In his excellent profile of the plant, Phil Bendle says that six separate natural plants are known at four locations. Five plants exist on Stewart Island and one on the Southland coast. Although each known population is only a single plant, they extend via underground rhizomes and cover a large area and maintain themselves vegetatively. Natural fertilisation is now difficult as the male and female plants are separate, but the plant has been propagated for sale.

A sign of the plant’s rarity is that it doesn’t have a common name with its botanical name honouring William Stewart Hamilton, a member of the Southland Institute in the 19th century. The plant’s natural habitat is damp sand dune hollows near the sea, although it can be found growing well in many botanical gardens around the world, including in the Alpine House at Kew Gardens, England.

New Zealand has five native Gunnera and not one of them exceeds 15cm in height.


Turning the tide

The good people of Whanganui – and summer visitors from all over – have been enjoying Castlecliff Beach since the late 1880s when trains and trams carried day-trippers from the city to the black sands and swells of the Tasman Sea. Bachs were built, a campground opened and in 1911 a Life Saving Club was formed. 

These days, outside the peak of summer, Castlecliff is the epitome of a sleepy, seaside suburb which, paradoxically, has led to a pioneering garden project.

“The council had neglected the suburb for a long time,” says Progress Castlecliff member Ivan Vostinar, “so when a chunk of money was finally allocated we decided to have community meetings for input on how to spend it.”

Rangiora Street, Castlecliff. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The clear choice was to beautify Rangiora Street, the main street leading to the beach. “The council did a concept design and the artist sketched an aloe leaf as a motif – he planted the seed with me that we needed to have something that in 20 years, or 100 years, could look iconic.”

Ivan, who has been a fulltime artist since the age of 23, moved to Whanganui in 2012 where, thanks to making all the pottery for The Hobbit films, he was able to buy a building two blocks from Castlecliff beach, the premises for a studio and gallery, as well as a home shared with his partner Simone Higgie and their 2-year-old daughter Zoe.

“I very naively thought I would grow purely edibles,” he says of his own garden behind the building, ‘but quickly realised I had sand for soil and was up against salt-laden winds. The fruit trees got scorched until I could get native hedging up.”

Ivan Vostinar in his corner garden, open to the public. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Inspired by a visit to Paloma Gardens near Whanganui, Ivan’s next garden was much tougher. “I was moved to tears on my first visit to Paloma,” he says. “I’ve been an artist for a long time and was awed by what was possible – and I fell in love with agaves and aloes.”

He turned the corner site at one end of his building – half his land, half the council’s – into an unfenced garden, complete with brick pathway leading through it so anyone can enjoy it. Here are masses of succulents, cacti and other plants suited to the conditions, including Echium candicans (Pride of Madeira) and a prickly pear trained as a standard. Ivan has also planted his own land on the other side of the building frontage to add further public colour.

When money became available to plant Rangiora Street, he turned to Paloma’s plantsman – and Simone’s father – Clive Higgie. His advice was to use native nikau palms, Aloe bainessi and Dracaena draco (dragon tree) as statements. “The nikau was a complete gamble,” Ivan says. “We’re usually very dry in summer but they all survived and we knew people would love them.”

A waxeye enjoys an aloe flower in the street plantings. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Community meetings approved the planting plan of mainly succulents and aloes with the only requirement from Whanganui District Council being that there be no dangerously spiky plants. The project has unfolded at the rate of a block a year with the council providing soil for planting into. “The street plants grow three times as fast as the ones I put in sand in the corner garden.”

Ivan applauds the council for being open to a community-led project. There has only been one bad theft of plants and not all ‘hooning’ has stopped but, overall, Ivan says the goodwill and respect for the gardens have been “outstanding” and includes gifts of plants and even some cash donations.

“The plants look good in summer but really come into their own in winter when the aloes are in flower and the nectar-eating birds arrive.”

An aloe in flower in Rangiora Street, Castlecliff. Photo: Sandra Simpson

At the same time as the project started, sea-theme murals by Dan Mills went on to some street-facing walls and locals bought a block of buildings, one of which is now a popular café. A library opened 2 years ago, its lawn featuring Cliffy Mokonui, a dinosaur made by Jack Marsden Mayer from driftwood collected on Castlecliff Beach, plus more gardens.

It seems the tide may be turning for Castlecliff.

This article was first published in New Zealand Gardener and appears here with permission.

McCahon’s Kauri

An intriguing fundraiser is taking place with 300 kauri saplings sourced from the garden of New Zealand artist Colin McCahon (1919-1987) on offer.

In 2010, all the kauri trees on the artist’s property in Titirangi tested positive for kauri dieback disease, with two felled immediately. Four years later cones were harvested, under strict hygiene conditions to try and avoid the possibility of disease transfer, from high in the 27 remaining trees. Propagation, by staff at Auckland Botanic Gardens, was also carried out under conditions of strict hygiene.

Photo: McCahon House

Cones were placed in paper bags, stored at room temperature and allowed to ‘pop’ open naturally. Throughout the process the seedlings have been regularly inspected and sampled to rule out the presence of kauri dieback.

The saplings will raise funds for the Kauri Project, to raise awareness about die-back and potential ways to deal with it, and McCahon House, which includes an artist residency.

The saplings are $100, plus courier within New Zealand. Read more here.

Our native plants: Green-flowered mistletoe

On a recent visit to Rakiura Stewart Island, I had the good fortune to see a garden in Oban made by people who enjoy plants. Stepping out of the van, the owner made a throwaway remark about watching out for the mistletoe. And when I looked up, sure enough, there were the berries.

The native New Zealand mistletoe Ileostylus micranthus growing in a garden at Halfmoon Bay on Stewart Island. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Apparently it will grow on almost any host, not just native trees, with our guide mentioning rhododendrons as something he’s grown it on. His advice was to take a berry or two, squeeze them, smear the mush over the host tree’s trunk and wait to see what happens. In nature, the seeds are distributed by birds.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

Ileostylus micranthus has a small green flower so it’s the display of bright orange berries in summer and autumn that makes it visually interesting. It’s our most common mistletoe found from Northland to Stewart Island and is one of the least host and pollinator specific, although possum browsing and habitat destruction is affecting it. It is the only native mistletoe that is also found outside New Zealand, on Norfolk Island.

Although mistletoes are parasitic plants, the New Zealand species do not generally harm their hosts and this one gains its food partly from its host and partly through photosynthesis.