Shedloads of style

Something that seems to be ‘on-trend’ is having a smart little building or caravan in your garden – less a shed than a day room. Here are some I’ve seen over the past few months …

This cute little caravan was set up in a Katikati-area garden for Tauranga’s Garden and Artfest. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The interior had homely touches without being cluttered. The crisp green-and-white colour scheme is a winner too. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The same property also had a cute ‘working’ shed. Photo: Sandra Simpson

This property owner has painted her garage cum storage shed barn red and decorated the walls with old implements. Looking surprisingly good against the wall is Top Shelf. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Lynda Hallinan’s ‘shepherd’s hut’ at Foggydale Farm. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Lynda has written about her property and says this about the hut: … our shepherd’s hut – aka the bric-a-brac shack, a repository for my junk-shop finds – has had four paint jobs. It started slate grey with a skirt of snow-white chrysanthemums then morphed into a cheery cherry with beds of beetroot-red zinnias before an ill-advised autumnal experiment in electric orange. As winter gave way to spring, the tangerine tones clashed so badly with my candy-pink star wars magnolias that it was hastily repainted a tasteful shade of sage green.

A peek into the hut’s interior (green and white!). Wouldn’t it be lovely to have somewhere to nap in between tending the beds? Photo: Sandra Simpson

This pavilion at the Hunua property called Addenbrooke can lift its skirts, be hitched to a vehicle and head off. Kind of a café de wheels without the café! Photo: Sandra Simpson

The large Addenbrooke garden is open to visit, by arrangement.

Plant People: Springheel Jack

When a place of settlement experiences a period of rapid and prolonged growth – as Tauranga has done since about 1990 – folk memory can be pushed to one side and, worse, lost.

The names of people and exploits from the past mean nothing to newcomers who are busy trying to establish themselves in their new home, and with the passing of the generations the stories vanish.

I had heard mention of Springheel Jack (1902-65), but no more than that and it wasn’t until researching the life of Frank Sydenham that I traced more of the story of Michael Hodgkins, nephew of the artist Frances Hodgkins, who lived much of his life in Tauranga.

People who knew Frank said Hodgkins called around from time to time to read his books but wasn’t allowed in the house because of his smell – I heard from a long-time Tauranga resident last week that Frank called on his mother occasionally but she wouldn’t let him smoke his pipe in the house because of the smell!

“Unwashed, clad in ragged clothes, with unkempt shoulder-length hair, ‘sun-blackened skin’ and piercing blue eyes, [Hodgkins] walked great distances in search of botanical specimens, once going to the top of the Kaimai range to see a flower bud open as the sun rose. He said he did not like treading on plants and that he could hear weeds scream as they were pulled out.”

The quote is from an entry for Springheel Jack in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, which appears on Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. The entry was written by Alister Matheson, who himself had a fascinating life story tied up with a family garden, and historian Jinty Rorke. Hodgkins was, by all accounts, a talented artist himself although seemingly only made pencil drawings and sketches.

“Specimens held by the Auckland Institute and Museum and the DSIR’s Botany Division herbarium in Christchurch show that Hodgkins collaborated closely over a long period with these institutions and with Canterbury Agricultural College. He identified plants for the Department of Agriculture, assisted the police to identify the first Cannabis sativa plants in the Tauranga area and had a good knowledge of New Zealand orchids. As well as writing newspaper articles on botany, he gave radio talks in his ‘mild, patient and cultivated voice’.”

Reading elsewhere, it seems that although Hodgkins was a generous teacher, his outbursts at the children who baited him resulted in him being banned from visiting schools.

Artist John McLean has painted a series called The Springheel Jack, see one of the paintings here.  “… the series is based on an eccentric, ascetic figure from McLean’s Tauranga boyhood … Renowned as a naturalist, he was a distinctive character with long grey hair – in an era of short back and sides – invariably shirtless in an old pinstripe suit, with horny toenails protruding from his sand shoes. He shared his knowledge with interested children and dispensed nature specimens from a sack.”

After his death it was discovered that Hodgkins had several of his aunt’s works in his hut by a salt marsh!

His small headstone, placed by the Tauranga Historical Society in 2009, describes him as “Solitary Gentleman, Botanist and Lover of Nature, Helpful to Young and Old”.

Our native plants: Bushman’s mattress

Lygodium articulatum or mangemange is a creeping fern, the woody stems of which, according to John Dawson and Rob Lucas in their book Nature Guide to the New Zealand Forest, are technically fronds.

These twining growths head up for the light and often reach the forest canopy, while the true stems remain low.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

Leaves are shiny and green – the leaflets that fork many times are fertile, while the ones that fork 2 to 3 times are sterile. Leaves can be anywhere along the vines but there’s often a mass up out of sight.

Bushman’s mattress is found from North Cape to the Bay of Plenty in the North Island, but take care not to confuse the common name with the shrub Muehlenbeckia complexa, sometimes called mattress plant.

Lygodium articulatum vines – not hanging down but scrambling up. All photos taken at Puketoki Reserve, Whakamarama, near Tauranga. Well worth a walk through. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The NZ Plant Conservation Network entry for Lygodium articulatum explains its common name: “These interwoven tangles make an excellent mattress and many a tramper has used these when caught out in the northern forests for the night. The only problem is that they are also a favoured home of tree weta, as many-a-tramper-caught-out-in-the-northern-forest-for-the-night comes to appreciate!”

Early writers recorded Maori using the vines in a variety of ways – to bind thatch securely on roofs; lashing in storehouse construction; to construct fish traps and eelpots; naturally curved stems, hardened by fire, as fish hooks; and to tie the necks of sacks used for soaking fermenting corn (after maize was introduced to New Zealand Maori developed a method of preserving it by soaking cobs in running water for 6 weeks to 3 months – the resulting (stinky) kānga pirau was made into porridge).

Photo: Sandra Simpson

From an article at the Oratia Native Plant Nursery website: “Mangemange is the only New Zealand species in the genus, but about 30 or 40 related species occur throughout the tropics and some such as mangemange grow into the temperate zone. Many have been declared noxious weeds overseas, where they have been taken out of their natural environment and introduced into other parts of the world without their natural predators.”

A meadow in captivity

Excerpts from a book I have read recently and loved – Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel (Penguin Random House, 2014). Just the thing to while away a pleasant summer’s afternoon or to curl up with beside the fire. The book ambles its way through a calendar year in a meadow on the England-Wales border, however the quotes I’ve chosen are not in chronological order.

I fell in love when I was fourteen with a flower meadow, perfectly set off by a wooden field gate beside the Wye … John Clare found his poems in a field. Sometimes I find words. There is nothing like working the land for growing and reaping lines of prose.

Stepping into the field is to step on to a vast square stage in which I am the last person on earth. There is not a house or person or car to be seen. It is the sort of field where, as you step in, you breathe out.

To stand alone in a field in England and listen to the morning chorus of the birds is to remember why life is precious.

There are days in desolate November when you still hear the hollering of fighting men, of horses’ hooves pounding on the shingle of the Ecsley. And where are the dead men buried? In this brookside field, probably, where the clay is relatively easy to dig into … The gentle pasture of England is tomb after tomb of animals and men, roofed with green.

A lawn, when you come to think of it, is nothing but a meadow in captivity … Alas, modern lawns have little wildlife value. Most are green deserts, marinated in chemicals comprised of only a couple of grass species and shorn stupid once a week in summer. But in the Middle Ages a lawn was more like a meadow; it was a ‘flowery mead’; and bursting with perfumed wildflowers and herbs and grasses.

Fantail fun

Okay, so not all birds are garden-friendly – pukeko and blackbirds are notorious for pulling out seedlings, for instance – all of the time but many have their uses to us as gardeners and they all make a garden a much more interesting place to be.

We’ve been intrigued and delighted in equal measure to observe fledgling fantails the past few evenings. They flit around in a pack (maybe five or six, it’s hard to tell) and sit in a line on the badminton net or perch together on a plant obelisk, but then one gets antsy with another and they’re off in a flurry of feathers and chirping until they settle again.

The fantail at the front is older (white eyebrow and a longer tail) so may be a parent of the younger ones. Photo: Sandra Simpson

At this stage they’re little puffballs of feathers without those ‘angry’ white eyebrows and their distinctive tails are still quite short. They also don’t yet know enough, or aren’t strong enough, to stay off the ground in their hunt for insects – adults usually stay in the air hunting, zipping this way and that to capture insects on the wing. Happily, they’ve discovered the whitefly, etc in the orange tree and are also happy hunting in there.

So hard to photograph well – coming on dusk and boy, do these little birds flit! Photo: Sandra Simpson

A fantail inside the house is, supposedly, an omen of a death – my grandmother was always desperate to shoo out any that came in, generally in the heat of summer when the front door was left open. We’d dash about with brooms and long-handled dusters to try and herd it back the way it had come.

This superstition probably derives from the Maori legend that the fantail is responsible for the presence of death in the world. The demi-god Maui believed he could eradicate death by passing through the body of the goddess of death, Hine-nui-te-po. He planned to enter the goddess’s sleeping body through her birth canal and had warned the fantail to be quiet. However, the little bird began laughing (its cheep-cheep call) and woke Hine-nui-te-po, who promptly killed Maui.

But in case you think from this that the fantail is a foolish bird, the tale above is actually the second act in a revenge drama. Act One went like this:

Maui wanted to keep his family warm while Mahuika, the goddess of fire, was trying to keep them in the dark and cold through the long winter months. After discovering the piwakawaka had the information he needed, Maui caught the bird and demanded the location of the fire. “Tell me or I’ll squeeze you to death.” As he squeezed harder, the bird’s tail fanned out and his eyes bulged from the pressure – resulting in piwakawaka’s characteristic appearance today. The bird revealed where the fire was hidden … but didn’t forget his rough treatment at the hands of Maui.

Read more about the fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa, piwakawaka) at NZ Birds Online (includes audio recordings of their song).

Three more sleeps …

Bethlehem, once a village on the outskirts of Tauranga, is now part of the city. Not sure if they still do it, but the Post Office used to offer a hand-franking service that featured a star and ‘Bethlehem NZ’ clearly marked. The area is known as Peterehema in Maori. Photo: Sandra Simpson

For anyone needing last-minute ideas, here’s how to make a Christmas tree from succulents and a DIY Christmas wreath, instructions courtesy of Palmers.

Plant stories: Poinsettia

Chances are – if you live in the northern hemisphere – you’ll be given, or have been given, a poinsettia for Christmas. They are the go-to pot plant for anyone buying a gift at this time of year and have a long and proud history in the United States where they’ve been popular for almost 190 years. A Christmas story for Christmas week!

Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851), the first US ambassador to Mexico, sent some of these plants with their winter-red bracts to the greenhouses at his home in South Carolina in the 1820s – an amateur botanist, he was later a founding member of what is now called the Smithsonian Institute. His gardeners propagated the plants and gave them to Poinsett’s friends and botanical gardens. The plants were introduced at the debut Philadelphia Flower Show in 1829 and were an immediate hit.

A Christmas display in Wanganui’s Winter Gardens – the poinsettias ‘forced’ to colour in summer. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The plant was given the botanical name Euphorbia pulcherrima in 1833 but about four years later was renamed Poinsettia pulcherrima – the Aztecs, however, knew it as cuetlaxochitl and extracted a purple-red dye for textiles and cosmetics from the plant’s bracts, while the milky white sap (latex) was used to treat fevers. It was highly prized by both King Netzahualcoyotl and Montezuma, but because of the high-altitude climate of their capital (now Mexico City), the plant had to be brought in especially.

During the 17th century, Franciscan priests settled near Taxco, in southern Mexico, generally considered the home of the poinsettia in Mexico. They began to use the plant in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, a nativity procession. Juan Balme, a Spanish botanist of the same period, mentioned the poinsettia, which has insignificant flowers, in his writings.

Modern Mexicans call it Flores de Noche Buena or Flowers of the Holy Night, and have a sweet story that brings together poinsettias and Christmas.

There was once a poor Mexican girl called Pepita who had no present for the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve services. As Pepita walked to the chapel, her cousin Pedro tried to cheer her up. ‘Pepita’, he said ‘I’m sure that even the smallest gift, given by someone who loves him will make Jesus happy.’

So Pepita picked some weeds from the roadside and made them into a a small bouquet. She felt embarrassed because she had only this small gift for Jesus. As she walked through the chapel to the altar, she remembered what Pedro had said. She began to feel better, knelt down and put the bouquet at the base of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into bright red flowers, and everyone who saw them was sure they had seen a miracle. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena.

The shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves are sometimes considered a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem which led the Magi to Jesus. The red leaves symbolise the blood of Christ, or the white-leafed variety his purity.

According to The American Phytopathological Society website, the modern era of poinsettia culture in the US began with the introduction of the seedling cultivar Oak Leaf, reportedly grown originally in Jersey City (New Jersey) by a Mrs Enteman in 1923. From 1923 until the early 1960s, all the principal cultivars of commercial importance were selections or sports from this original seedling.

Potted plants are sprayed to dwarf them. In their natural state poinsettias are tall, woody shrubs – my great-uncle had one in a garden in the lee of his home in Tauranga that was reaching up to the second-storey eaves (they become lankier in shade).

The colour of Christmas. Photo: Sandra Simpson

However, the name most associated with the commercialisation and high-profile of poinsettias in the US is Paul Ecke (three generations of the same family with the same name).

German immigrant Paul Ecke and his parents began growing and selling poinsettias as landscape plants and cut flowers in Hollywood, before being pushed out by the new-fangled movie industry and shifting in 1923 to Encinitas, southern California. Over the years they moved from landscaping plants into potted plants and in the 1960s, Paul developed a grafting technique that produced an unusually high number of blooms per stem, a more compact plant and one that was tough enough to withstand shipping. However, in 1991 a researcher stumbled on the technique and published it in an industry journal – meaning the family’s market share of poinsettia sales in the US dropped from about 90% to 70% (and eventually, indirectly, leading to the demise of the business, see below).

Paul Ecke Jr came up with clever ways of marketing the plants until, in 1998, poinsettias became the top-selling potted plant in the US, nudging aside the chrysanthemum. The family, by the way, was never a retailer of plants but sold to others to grow on. Paul Jr brought cultivation into greenhouses and as his swansong in the business in 1992 introduced Eckespoint Freedom – of the more than 100 poinsettia cultivars grown commercially today, Eckespoint Freedom represents more than 50% of the red market worldwide and 70-75% of the red poinsettia market.

The Ecke Ranch in Encinitas was the world’s largest grower of poinsettias, at one time having an international market share of more than 50%. Paul III, who took over in 1992 and started a growing operation in Guatemala to try and stay competitive on price, sold the business in 2012 to the Dutch company Agribio which, the following year, merged with German company Dümmen, the latter taking over the poinsettia business. See the 2017 Dümmen digital catalogue of Ecke poinsettias.

A poinsettia Christmas ‘tree’ in San Diego, California. Photo: Jon Sullivan, via Wikimedia

According to this 2011 story about the three generations of the Eckes, between 70 and 80 million poinsettias are on display in American homes and stores during the festive season! (I saw one this week beside the fireplace of Marge and Homer Simpson.)

Garden writer George Wiegel details some of the difficulties in getting poinsettias to produce their Christmas colouring at the right time – or even again. (If you click on the link to read the full story I’m not sure why Paul Ecke senior is called ‘Albert’.)

“Pigments in the bracts react to seasonal light changes, taking their cue when nights start becoming longer than days.

“This is what drives poinsettia growers crazy because the plants are very picky about that light, especially when they’re being coerced to colour in time to meet store orders. Ideally, they want 14 hours of interrupted darkness each night for 8 to 10 weeks.

“Mess up and they won’t fully colour. Quality Greenhouses near Dillsburg verified that years ago when a crop of finicky poinsettias was traced to stray light entering the greenhouse from nearby dock lights.

“This is also the reason why home gardeners have trouble getting their summered-over poinsettia to turn red again the following year. Forget to turn off a light at night, and you’re stuck with a greenish poinsettia.”

Poinsettias have been developed over the years to now include, as well as red and white, pink bracts, salmon, purple and multi-coloured. Photo: Yinan Chen, via Wikimedia

Poinsettia Day is marked in the US on December 12, the date of Dr Poinsett’s death and, coincidentally, the Day of the Virgin in Mexico when the plants are traditionally displayed.