Coronavirus and us

Update March 23: New Zealand has moved into Alert Level 3 today and in 48 hours will be on Alert Level 4 (ie, lockdown). I urge everyone to follow the rules – social distancing was not being observed this morning in the supermarket, primarily by the over 70s, the group deemed most at risk! Be sensible and stay safe.

As the days, weeks and months ahead continue to looked bleaker by the hour, I wondered what I had to offer here that anyone would want to read. But having spent a good portion of yesterday afternoon in my backyard doing a bit of tidying and walking through Te Puna Quarry Park this morning, I thought that maybe just keeping on keeping on is the best any of us can do right now.

The news continues to be alarming but it’s a good idea to stay in touch with the latest instructions from the Government (and accurate information). However, it’s also a good idea – if you’re fortunate enough – to get into the garden and clip, stake, weed, plant, repot … whatever job needs doing. Completing tasks while in self-isolation will help give a sense of achievement in days that might otherwise be spent worrying. (I’ve got plenty of cupboards and shelves that need a good sorting …)

I’ve been so busy over the past few weeks that I almost missed this. It’s time to spend more time in the garden and just be (and repot this poor Hoya when it’s finished flowering, it’s really been struggling this year with hard potting mix). Photo: Sandra Simpson

Some years ago I watched a documentary that included a chap in Finland talking about his winters. Snowed in and with little daylight, he found it oppressive? No, he said, I make a list all year of things to do during the winter. Keeping busy was key. Things that need doing to the house, hobbies that he put aside at other times of the year, books he wanted to read and so on.

However, he also rated getting together with friends as high on the list of keeping his spirits up, a problem for us now. But we have telephones, video-call systems like Skype and FaceTime, email and text messaging. Our social discourse may change but it will still be there if we want it.

With many events cancelled or postponed, social distancing and self-isolation it’s more important than ever to stay in touch with others as best we can – groups that we belong to but which aren’t meeting, neighbours, colleagues, family and friends.

We can only do our best. My very best wishes to you, wherever you may be reading this.

I’ve been listening to podcasts of Desert Island Discs which made me think ‘if I was allowed only one rose to take to a new garden, what would it be?’. The answer is easy – Pink Iceberg. It’s healthy, easy to grow, covers itself in flowers and a quick repeater. I took this photo yesterday evening. It’s still going strong through all the dry weather when the others are beginning to flag and fade. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Bush tucker

Had a driving holiday in rural Victoria, Australia this month and one of the stops on the Great Ocean Road was at Cape Otway Lightstation (as they call their lighthouses in Australia). Included in the admission price to the sprawling site is the opportunity to learn something about the native plants of this part of Australia in twice-daily talks.

Our visit coincided nicely with one of these talks so off I toddled to the Talking Hut where we were informed and entertained by Brad West, a Gulidjan man whose totem is the yellow-tailed black cockatoo. Brad gave us some background into how indigenous society worked, as well as having us tasting this and that from shrubs planted around the hut.

Don’t be fooled by the seemingly grumpy exterior. Brad West, while pulling no punches about the effects of colonisation in Australia, is a dedicated conservationist who knows his plants and, as I discovered a day or so later, is also a talented wood carver. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Indigenous peoples – there are 38 language groups in Victoria alone – identified six seasons in the southwest of the state related to the movement of animals and birds. Here’s the traditional Gariwerd calender for a nearby area, and here’s one for the Melbourne area.

Brad utterly rejects the long-held Western notion that all Aboriginal people were nomadic across large areas, saying in southwest Victoria there would have to be a pretty good reason to cross into another clan’s territory (and everyone knew exactly where the boundaries were). “Where your songlines run out, you turn round and go home.” Trading, however, was not uncommon.

The spiny flowering seedhead of Lomandra longifolia (basket grass). Photo: Eric in SF (via Wikimedia Commons)

There was a craze in New Zealand 10 or more years ago to plant Lomandra longifolia in carparks and commercial sites and a terrible-looking plant it turned out to be. However, in its native environment it’s much-prized. Brad pulled out two fronds to show the white ends on them. “If you see anything glistening and you know dew or rain hasn’t been on them, then you know it’s starch or sugar. Precious.”

The fronds were used for weaving baskets and eel traps and could also be scraped back and the fibre pounded to make string and ropes, while the seed, according to Brad, can be cooked and eaten like popcorn.

You’d need to pick an awful lot of the small berries of Leucopogon parviflorus to feel like you’ve had a feed. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Brad encouraged us to dig into the berries of coastal bearded heath (Leucopogon parviflorus), found throughout Australia, describing them as lemonade berries. Not much flesh, a relatively large pip and, according to my palate, not much of a citrus flavour. However, if you’re living off the land all edibles would be welcome and maybe they’re more lemony earlier/later in the season.

The berries of the seaberry saltbush shrub (Rhagodia candolleana subsp candolleana) are edible, although bitter, and also make a good dye. Photo: Sandra Simpson

A related plant to seaberry saltbush is old man saltbush (Atriplex nummularia) which is being grown commercially in South Australia – good for stock food (flavours the meat), good to marinate meat and, according to this 2019 article, possibly Australia’s best herb. It also helps reinvigorate over-used land.

Kangaroo grass at Cape Otway. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The final plant I want to introduce you to is kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra) which was used to make flour that is four times better than the modern wheat equivalent, Brad said. Firestick farming produced two crops a year from the plant and indigenous Australians have been grinding the seeds to make flour and porridge for at least 30,000 years. Read more here.

He recommended making bread using kangaroo grass flour, Lomandra as the sweetener and wattle seed as the ‘butter’. The seeds of the coastal wattle (Acacia longifolia var. sophorae) are full of fat and very sweet. In fact, Brad got quite animated about the roasted seeds, describing them as tasting of chocolate, coffee and/or hazelnut! The trees are considered a weed in some environments. Read more here.

As with any foraged food, wherever you are in the world, make sure you know for sure what it is that you’ve picked before you eat it.

Further reading: Etiquette of bush-tucker foraging by Mark Tureck, published on GardenDrum in February.

Rose hunters of Hawke’s Bay

A keen band of Hawke’s Bay ‘rose hunters’ are combining their heritage rose knowledge with plenty of detective skills to preserve some of the region’s living history.

Initially funded by a year-long Heritage Rose scholarship, the Rose Hunter project has been running since 2014 and is led by Georgina Campbell who, with her husband Gary, moved to near Hastings from Eketahuna in 2005, buying an organic feijoa orchard.

View of the McGredy Rose Garden at Cheops Gardens. Photo: Paul McCredie

Since then Georgina has created Cheops Garden (open to groups by appointment) which includes the McGredy Rose Garden, a world-first collection of roses bred by the renowned McGredy family of Northern Ireland and, from 1972, New Zealand. Cheops Garden features about 2000 roses, both heritage and modern, and Georgina is a longtime member of Heritage Roses NZ.

“I thought it would be a fun thing to do as a group – go and scout and, hopefully, find some old roses,” she says. “Initially, I wanted to visit marae and coastal areas but didn’t get any reply to my letters to iwi, but that may be because the roses just aren’t there anymore.”

The group did visit a property that once formed part of the extensive Waimarama land-holdings of Princess Morehu. “Apparently, many Maori women grew, and took pride in, roses,” Georgina says. “The current owners told us that the now-gone roses were old by the 1960s, but it was just as fascinating to realise how well the family lived – there was a platform for arriving coaches, staff galore and a large house.”

The Rose Hunters turned to the region’s homesteads and sheep stations. “We got the word out and the responses started rolling in.” The group – which on outings can number from three or four to 20-plus – started visiting properties, collecting stories, and taking photos and cuttings.

“The stories are just as important as the plant material,” Georgina says. “We were delighted to hear rose-connection stories from before the 1931 earthquake.”

Keen to hear about roses known to have been in place for more than 40 years or plants grown from cuttings taken from old bushes, group members aren’t hung up about ‘real’ names.

Part of the original Hawke’s Bay Rose Hunting team. Photo: Georgina Campbell

“It’s incredibly hard to identify a rose,” Georgina says. “David Austin came to New Zealand and couldn’t name his own roses! Soil and climate can have a marked effect on flower colour, size of the plant and growing habit and in the 19th century they had a habit of getting as many plants out of the same seed pod as possible so you can get some that are very alike, but not quite the same.

“Early settlers often didn’t bring roses with a ‘real’ name, instead calling them things like ‘Mum’s Rose’. There are plenty of heritage roses in New Zealand that have had the wrong name forever. We’d rather hear the stories and the family name for the plants than worry about taxonomy.”

The Rose Hunters have had the assistance of D&S Nurseries in Central Hawke’s Bay in budding plants but with retirement looming for nursery owners Sue and Doug Pacey the group will now concentrate on growing from cuttings.

“We’ve made a place at Cheop’s Garden where we’re growing cuttings. It turned out, completely by accident, we’d planted side by side roses that looked different but when they flowered we could confidently say they were the same.”

One of those unnamed mauve-flowered cabbage roses is linked to Hugh Ross, who worked as a gardener/nurseryman at a large castle in his native Scotland before emigrating to Dunedin. He then moved north and in 1880 established the first nursery in the Te Aroha area.

The remnants of the garden around the grand Ben Lomond home, which dates from the 1850s and is today a B&B, on Napier Hill yielded two roses of interest – followed by the thrill of discovering 1921 photographs showing a long pergola with roses growing over it and a portion of the pergola garden.

John A MacFarlane and Jean Williams in the pergola of the garden of ‘Ben Lomond’ on the hill, Napier in October 1921. Photo: Harold Hislop (Alexander Turnbull Collection)

“One of the roses is Nancy Hayward, a perpetual climber bred in southern Australia which would make sense for our climate,” Georgina says. “It was released in 1937 by Alister Clark, who had a New Zealand-born wife.

“The other is a creamy-flowered climber – the rose was huge at the base so I had to climb a ladder, stand on tip-toes and stretch out to try and nip a piece off. I lived up to ‘intrepid rose hunter’ that day.”

The group is keen to see if Turamoe 4, named for the sheep station where it was found, has potential for Hawke’s Bay gardeners. “It’s had no formal pruning, no sprays, no watering in Hawke’s Bay’s heat – total neglect,” Georgina says “and there it was flowering madly and looking great. We want to see what happens when we put it in a garden.”

Georgina is happy to hear from anyone about roses in the area between Wairoa and Woodville,  phone 06 870 9905 (evenings preferred) or email her. The group prefers to visit when roses are in bloom but can come at any time.

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

Postscript: After this piece was in the NZ Gardener, Georgina was contacted by three people offering rose leads to the group, plus the NZME LocalFocus video reporter went out with them and made this video about their work.

Davidson’s plum

Found this interesting tree in a local garden recently, not the first time I’ve seen it in this area, but the first time I’ve seen it with ripe fruit – and although I know the fruit is sharp, couldn’t resist a nibble.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

As you can see, the fruit of Davidsonia jerseyana, a tree native to New South Wales, grows straight off the trunk. The fruit of the NSW tree, also called Mullumbimby plum, ripens in summer, that of Davidsonia pruriens, native to Queensland, in winter. While the NSW tree is cultivated commercially, it is endangered in the wild. Apparently the hairs on the leaves of both these trees can irritate the skin.

The plums, known as ooray by the area’s original inhabitants, have been a staple in their diet for tens of thousands of years. As well as eating the raw plums – which have 100 times the vitamin C found in oranges and also contain lutein, a compound that plays an important role in eye health (significantly more than avocados), along with magnesium, zinc, calcium potassium and manganese – Aborigines traditionally used the fruit for medicinal purposes too, while the tree trunks made harpoons for catching turtles and dugongs.

A few of the tiny flowers can be seen here, small and reddish. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Early European settlers used Davidson plums for jams and sauces and more recently the flavour has popped up in everything from chocolate to tea. Not surprisingly, they have never caught on as a fresh fruit.

The genus was named for John Ewen Davidson (1843-1921), an England-born pioneer sugarcane grower who lived and worked in Queensland from about 1866 to 1900.

Tree of the moment: Schizolobium parahybum

An almost perfect garden tree in the height of summer, the Brazilian fern tree provides airy, dappled shade and, as a member of the legume family, also handily fixes nitrogen in the soil.

Native from Brazil to southern Mexico, the fern tree is one of the first to grow in the forest after a mature tree falls and doesn’t branch for a few years, allowing it to put on height rapidly (up to 3m a year) and take control of the available light. It is also known as the yellow jacaranda.

Sitting under this tree on a hot day was bliss. Photo: Sandra Simpson

You may have noticed its tall, slender trunks in winter with the spoke-like branches devoid of leaves. The tree hasn’t died but is simply deciduous. New leaves and bright yellow, fragrant flowers appear in spring. (In discussion with the owner it was agreed that the fern tree is nowhere near as messy as the similar-looking silk tree or Albizia julibrissin).

The Wharepuke Tropical Garden website (Kerikeri) suggests that if the tree has got larger than you want, cut it down to ground level and let it come away again.

Mature Schizolobium parahybum trees are hardy to almost -4C.

Plant stories: Beaumontia grandiflora

The synchronicity of the world sometimes surprises me. I had first noticed this vine at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore but couldn’t find a name for it. Last weekend I was visiting the Plummer’s Point (near Tauranga) garden of a friend who loves unusual plants – and not only was it there, but it was named! Well done, that man.

Beaumontia grandiflora is a vigorous, woody vine, sometimes known as the Nepal trumpet flower, Easter lily vine or herald’s trumpet. Apparently the young twigs can be used to make fibre and the young branches for a coarser rope. The seed-pod hairs, meanwhile, are said to be not only the most lustrous and most purely white of all the so-called ‘vegetable silks’, but also possess a remarkable degree of strength.

Beaumontia grandiflora. Photo: Sandra Simpson

And the plant’s roots and leaves can be used in the treatment of fractures and other injuries, while also relieving backache and leg pain caused by rheumatism.

The fragrant white flowers are borne from early spring right through summer and the plant is apparently hardy down to -2C, although may be semi-deciduous in cold years. In the wild, Beaumontia climbs impressively through trees and over rocks and shrubs. Native from India to Vietnam, it grows in the eastern foothills of the Himalayas at altitudes from 150m to 1400m.

Wikipedia tells me that the genus was named for Mrs Diana Beaumont (1765-1831) of Bretton Hall, Yorkshire who was described in the Curtis Botanical Magazine Volume 7 (1833) as “an ardent lover and munificent patroness of Horticulture” (her gardener was one of the few with anything decent to say about her, click on the link to read about her life). It was described by Dr Nathaniel Wallich (1786-1854) in 1824 from plants sent to him from Bretton Hall. Wallich, a Danish surgeon, became superintendent of the botanic garden in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and so the leading botanist in India at the time, having replaced the famed Scottish surgeon and botanist William Roxburgh (1751-1815). Roxburgh had previously named this plant Echites grandiflora from plants found in the forests of Eastern Bengal (India) near Chittagong and Sylhet but it had not been validly published and so Wallich’s name took precedence.

If you are going to grow it, all the advice is to start it off on a strong support – this vine goes for it.

Kaipara Coast Scupture Gardens

Spent Auckland’s Anniversary weekend lazing around at a friend’s home in Murray’s Bay, some very welcome downtime after a few weeks of middling health. Our hostess treated us to a trip to the Kaipara Coast Sculpture Gardens which include a lovely garden centre and cafe.

Owners David and Geraldine Bayly – he is a horticulturalist and she a landscape designer – began planting the extensive gardens in 1994 with the sculpture trail opening in 2008. The exhibition changes in November each year. The gardens are full of interesting plants, including sugar cane, the parapapa or bird-catching tree (Pisonia brunoniana), cork oaks and all sorts of fruit trees. Opening hours and admission charges here.

And with Sculpture in the Gardens on at the Auckland Botanic Gardens until March 1, it’s a good excuse to visit the City of Sails.

My Big Elephant Bum by Auckland artist Christian Nicolson is the first major piece to ‘find’ on the trail. Photo: Sandra Simpson
A favourite for our little group was The Loves of Antheia by Andrew Leary from Kerikeri – interactive and astonishingly beautiful. The central garden can be turned and each viewpiece displays a different kaleidoscopic view using different-shaped prisms and different numbers of prisms. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Another favourite was the lovely surprise of Time and Tide, a wooden bridge that began to ‘make music’ as we walked across it. This permanent installation was made by John Mulholland, Doug Makinson and garden owner David Bayly.

Artistic firewood stacking is an ‘in’ thing. This is styled as a hive (there’s an opening on the other side). Photo: Sandra Simpson
The point of this picture isn’t the metal cow (which comes complete with eyelashes) but the purple pond ‘weed’. A helpful sign noted that Azolla fern can double its biomass every few days, makes its own nitrogen fertiliser, reduces mosquito larvae in ponds, can be used as a nutritious stock food and biofuel and makes a good mulch in the garden. And it captures carbon dioxide from the air! Read more here. Photo: Sandra Simpson
A glimpse of the Kaipara Harbour from the garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Amid the flower garden is The Worker, a metal bee by Glen Colechin, from Hawke’s Bay. Photo: Sandra Simpson