What’s been going on

Apologies for not posting in over a month, but, well, the fact is my garden is way down my list of priorities just now, what with it being a builder’s yard and all! There’s a big skip parked across part of the front garden and parts of the back garden are well and truly munted.

For some reason when I imagined what it would be like having an extension built, I didn’t picture the lawn being completely chewed up on day 1 and parts of a couple of garden beds being reconfigured by the builders (who did it as nicely as they could, but I have lost quite a bit of one large bed).

Plants I hoped to save are in pots and stored together in the back corner of the garden – the ongoing wet weather means the building is taking a lot longer than expected, but on the upside the potted plants haven’t needed watering.

Once the little digger had chewed up the lawn and the builders had erected a temporary sawbench in the back garden, I realised this might be bigger and more destructive than I’d imagined. Looking for silver linings wasn’t hard because I could see that beyond the mud, displaced plants and general chaos was a blank canvas waiting until I am ready.

The destruction and change aren’t over yet – probably months more to go – and with focus on the detail of what’s being built and the renovations to the existing house, I’m not even thinking about what a future garden may look like. The pleasure of that is still to come.

Plus I’m on the organising committe for Orchids & More at Mystery Creek from September 29-October 1. It’s a big event and we want it to be a big success so it requires attention.

My aim is to get back to regular posting here and I’ll try not to leave it as long again. Thank you for stopping by and having a read, it’s nice to know you’re there.

– Sandra

Coming Attractions in Tauranga

There’s a couple of big flower-orientated events coming up in Tauranga so hope to see you there as I will be at both! By the way, from what I know of the centrepiece of the orchid show, it should be something special.The show will be back to its usual September dates in 2024, but this year has opted for a mid-year show to leave time and energy for the National Orchid Expo at Orchids & More at Mystery Creek Events Centre from September 29-October 1.

The floral theatre event is a one-off, so don’t miss out. I have been to a ‘floral theatre’ done by Francine Thomas and it was spectacular. With Phubast’s vast experience, this should be a night to remember.

Soldier poppy

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row


Papaver rhoeas is native to many parts of the world, from west Asia to Europe and in North Africa, and has many common names including ‘soldier poppy’ and ‘Flanders poppy’. Since World War 1 it has been used in Commonwealth countries as a symbol for the fallen in the serving armed forces.

As we approach Anzac Day (April 25) – remembrance day for New Zealand and Australia – installations begin to appear, often grassed areas ‘planted’ with white crosses and red paper poppies. This year a new installation has appeared in Tauranga, thanks to Ninja Knits.

A circlet of 600 knitted and crocheted poppies has been added to one of the black walnut trees beside Fraser St to commemorate this year’s Anzac Day. Photo: Sandra Simpson

A small laminated poem on the tree is dedicated to those who served in the Vietnam War, veterans who have often had to fight for recognition.

A single soldier poppy plant can produce up to 400 flowers in a warm season, but the blooms last only one day.

Wikipedia tells us that it has most of the characteristics of a successful agricultural weed, including having an annual lifecycle that fits that of most cereals, the ability to flower and seed before the crop is harvested, and the ability to form a long-lived seed bank.

A kitchen garden resplendent with self-sown poppies. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Due to the huge ground disturbance in World War 1 caused by bombing and trench building, these poppies popped up and flowered on the battlefields.The poem In Flanders Fields by Canadian doctor John McCrae was inspired by the death of a close friend in the April 1915 battle in Belgium’s Ypres salient where, for 17 days, McCrae tended those injured in the battle.

He was transferred that year to Boulogne No.3 General Hospital and worked there until his pneumonia-related death on January 28, 1918, at the age of 45. McCrae was buried with full military honors in Wimereux Cemetery near Boulogne, France. His family home in Guelph, Ontario is preserved as a museum, and the main street in Wimereux, near Boulogne is now named Rue McCrae.

Paper poppy wreaths at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium. Photo: Sandra Simpson

If you have the time, the following video is worth a look. I was at a friend’s funeral this week and she was carried out to Howard Morrison singing Blue Smoke. In the middle of the song, he spoke a short piece about how it was written during World War 2, something I hadn’t appreciated. In 2015, musician Neil Finn sought out Jim Carter who had played in the group that made New Zealand’s first gramaphone recording in 1949, Blue Smoke. The group was led by the author of the song, Ruru Karaitiana, who had written it on a troop ship off the coast of North Africa, and the song was performed by Pixie Williams.

Brand-new Plant at BOP Orchid Show

Just back from a few hours at the Bay of Plenty Orchid Show in Te Puke, your last chance to see is tomorrow between 10am and 4pm, $3 entry. Lovely displays of plants, plenty for sale and a brilliant cafe fundraising for an enterprising young Scout.

A major talking point for orchid-lovers in the room was the display of a young plant with an amazing story behind its name. Nealeara Seeing Stars, a cross between Rth. Leroy’s Star x Pcv. Key Lime Stars, was this week registered with the Royal Horticultural Society by Lee and Roy Neale of Leroy Orchids, Whenuapai.

Roy and Lee Neale at the BOP Orchid Show today with their newly registered plant. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Imagine Lee’s surprise when the RHS suggested giving the plant a new grex name and that name be ‘Nealeara’! She was naturally thrilled by the rare honour and accepted.

Nealeara Seeing Stars ‘Triumph’. This plant is only 2 years from deflasking and has three nice-size flowers on a single stem. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The system for naming orchids – like the system (taxonomy) for naming all living things was devised by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in about 1753 – and is the most ordered and complete method of naming of any of the plant families. This naming system is referred to as ‘nomenclature’ – nomen (Latin, meaning family), and cloture (derived from the Latin ‘calo’, meaning call or called). The system uses Latin as the international scientific language so anyone, anywhere can understand it

The ordering of the names of orchids goes like this:

  • Genus, or which overall family the plant belongs to, is shown in the first name, eg, Vanda, Dendrobium, Cymbidium.
  • Species or hybrid name within the genera is the second name. If this name refers to a species, it will always be written in small letters, eg, Dendrobium kingianum. If it is a grex name (see below) and refers to a hybrid, the name will always start with a capital, such as Dendrobium Big Flower.
  • A grex – which is a name designation applied only to orchids and then only for hybrids – designates all the plants that result from a particular artificial crossing of two parent plants. These may be species or other hybrids.

It’s taken me years to get to this point and I’m still not sure if I understand it properly!

Out-of-season pohutukawa

Metrosideros excelsa is a tree that doesn’t need to scream for attention in early summer, its red flowers do all the talking necessary. But here we are in autumn, so why am I posting about them? Because of two intriguing ‘instances’ of pohutukawa foiund in Wellington at the weekend.

The sun lights up exterior detail on the Supreme Court building. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Courts of New Zealand website tells me that the decorative screen surrounding the Supreme Court building was inspired by the branches of pohutukawa and rata trees, and is made from recycled bronze and red recycled glass. The building opened in 2010 and was designed by Warren and Mahoney Architects, while the screen was designed in collaboration with artist Neil Dawson to represent windblown pohutakawa and rata trees. “In Māori culture, these trees signify the protective wisdom of community elders.” Read more about the building design.

The comprehensive root system of a pohutukawa in the Wellington Botanic Gardens shows why placement of these trees should be carefully considered. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Beside a grove of pohutukawa in the Wellington Botanic Gardens is a sign that says that although there are pohutukawa in the gardens, they are not native to Wellington, having originally been found north of the line between New Plymouth and Gisborne. “But J G MacKenzie (director of parks, 1918-47) planted so many of the trees around parks and streets that he earned the nickname ‘Pohutukawa Mac’.”

John Gretton MacKenzie (1882-1953) worked in close partnership with influential botanist Dr Leonard Cockayne in gaining recognition for the native bush in the garden, as well as supporting Cockayne in the establishment of the Open-air Plant Museum at Otari in 1926. Read more about the history of the Botanic Gardens. J G MacKenzie and his wife, who lived at the Botanic Gardens, raised a family of 10 there.

Parks Week Walk

A pleasure yesterday to stroll around the Haiku Pathway Reserve in Katikati with members of the Re-naturing Katikati group, volunteers who are looking after the banks of the Uretara Stream, much of their effort concentrated on weeding and replanting with natives, particularly sedges which have the happy habit of holding their ground during a flood and popping back up when it’s all over, unlike flax (harakeke) which tends to be pulled out in a flood, taking chunks of bank with it.

Getting ready to set out are, from left, Sharon Strong, Haiku Pathway Committee president Margaret Beverland, volunteer Dean Smith, and Kate Loman-Smith, Western Bay of Plenty District Council’s reserves and facilities volunteer co-ordinator, and previously the Re-naturing Group leader. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Led by Sharon Strong, who is a Kea (Katikati Environment Activator with Project Parore), the group works from a bit above the swimming hole at the top end of the Haiku Pathway, all the way along the river out to the harbour. As well, the volunteers also look after and work in other reserves around the town and are setting up their own nursery.

Looking upstream from the pedestrian footbridge. The flaxes were planted in the 1990s when the thinking was that they helped save stream banks in floods. However, that’s no longer considered to be the case and native sedges (Carex species) are preferred. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Sharon and Kate had us spotting weeds, large and small, as we walked, some of the real bugbears being Taiwanese cherry (Prunus campanulata), Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense) and Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). Looking downstream from the swing bridge we could see an extensive patch of Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) had re-established after previously being cleared. Someone’s garden waste either chucked on the bank, or come down in a flood.

The volunteers have different ways of dealing with weeds, ranging from hand-pulling to drilling and poisoning larger plants. Another regular task is to keep tending the new plants, ‘releasing’ them from surrounding growth, until they’re well established.

Sharon Strong gets in amongst some riverbank growth to teach plant identifcation. Photo: Sandra Simpson

We also got an interesting talk from Keith Gregor about the spawning habits of inanga (whitebait) and how they can be helped and encouraged to use the Uretara. Unfortunately, the stream has steep-sided banks, not the sloping banks inanga prefer, but planting the banks to shade the water and provide some leaves trailing in the water may help.

Click the link to see Western Bay of Plenty Parks Week events, and don’t forget that March is also Sustainable Backyards Month in the BOP, click on the Events tab in the top menu.

Hydrangeas aplenty

Had a great visit to Te Puna Blooms this morning to hear all about their business of growing hydrangeas and selling them as cut flowers into domestic and export markets. Samantha Searle and her partner bought the business and leased the land last October from Lisa, who still works there and lives on-site, near Tauranga.

Each flower head is checked for botrytis and other damage in the packing shed. Photo: Sandra Simpson

This is New Zealand’s largest ‘hydrangea farm’ at 2.5ha and, boy, was the packing shed looking gorgeous. The girls start work early to try and avoid the heat of the day and are harvesting from mid-December until about May, and every day through the peak season of February and March. Pruning is done in June, some by hand with electric secateurs and some by machine.

Samantha knows the business well, having worked for 4 summer seasons at Te Puna Blooms while a university student – her degree is in business psychology, and she laughs that it may come in handy one day but that horticultural science might have been more useful!

Samantha Searle with a bunch of the ‘antique’ (ageing) blooms that the Japanese market adores. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The farm grows hydrangeas under shade-cloth in tints of white, pink, blue and purple, including some two-tone flowers and those with triple petals. Lace-cap hydrangreas are too hard to keep looking good so for now mopcap hydrangeas are the focus, although Samantha’s keen to try some paniculata types.

Mopcaps can stand handling, keep well and travel well. Packing shed staff are careful to keep everything clean and disinfected to ensure that the botrytis fungus can’t gain a foothold, and check all the flower heads carefully before packing.

Lisa’s top tips for making hydrangeas last in a vase:

  • Cut the stems again when you get them home, you then have 30 minutes to get them into water before the cut seals over.
  • Add a ‘smidge’ of Janola or vinegar to the vase water
  • If the heads are drooping a bit, also add some sugar to give the stems a boost of energy
  • Flower heads can also be revived by gently laying them in a bowl of water (upside down, the head in the water) as hydrangea flowers can also absorb water through their petals.
Believe it or not, this is the same hydrangea – the plant that has flowered pink was pot-grown, while the other was grown in the ground. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Plants as forecasters of weather

People have often turned to nature to predict the season ahead, for instance:

  • An extraordinary flowering of cabbage trees is a portent of a long, hot summer
  • If wattles bloom early, it will be wet spring (a favourite of my grandmother’s)
  • If the (native) clematis blooms periodically, a warm season with gentle breezes lies ahead (Te Whānau a Apanui).

However, as any meteorologist will explain, it’s just not possible for plants to foretell the future – rather they are reflecting the season that has passed. For instance, a fiery autumn display is the result of a preceding long, hot summer. Immediate weather is another matter as, for instance, pinecones and seaweed are pretty good indicators of approaching rain (or not), but they don’t ‘forecast’ months, or even years, ahead.

In 1908 newspapers around the world (including New Zealand) ran items about the ability of Abrus precatorius, the “weather plant”, a member of the bean family also known as jequirity bean or rosary pea. This clipping is from The Ashburton Guardian of January 17, 1908.

In 1888 Professor Joseph Nowack used the plant, native to tropical regions, in Vienna to “predict to the hour” a thunderstorm which wrecked a garden party given by the Prince of Wales, shortly to become King Edward VII.

The British royal was so impressed he encouraged Prof. Nowack to set up an experimental weather station in London using the plants – unfortunately, reports ‘dried up’ and so I can elucidate no further.

The plant’s seeds are commonly used to make jewellery and rosaries, and for musical instruments, but the seeds are said to be extremely poisonous if broken. An interersting digression is that in India these seeds were used to weigh diamonds and other gemstones – the word ‘carat’ is apparently traceable to the Arabic ‘qirat’, the name for a carob seed which were all, more or less, the same weight. The entry for Abrus precatorius in A Modern Herbal by Mrs M Grieve (1931), claims the famous Koh-i-noor diamond, which now forms part of the British Crown jewels, was originally weighed using these seeds.

Botanical study of Abrus precatorius by Franz Eugen Köhler, published in Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen in 1897. Image: Wikipedia

A letter writer to the Samoanische Zeitung newspaper (Samoa) in 1912 referred to Prof. Nowack and his prediction that in 1911 New Zealand would experience a major earthquake centred in Cook Strait, without commenting on the fact this hadn’t happened. The author added that “when I was in Tonga, several years ago, the Tongans informed me that when a hurricane was about to happen there, one of the species of banana plants always curled its blossom in a peculiar way several months before the gale came”.

Community knowledge gathered over generations is quite a different thing to a crackpot theory about a plant being able to predict natural catastrophes. In New Zealand today, Māori knowledge, or mātauranga Māori, is gaining a wider audience as science comes to understand the validity of this type of understanding of the natural world. Read more here.

Farewell,The Chateau Tongariro

Thank you for all the lovely stays over the years, and even though service and standards have been erratic at times – the staff member clomping around the corridors in her gumboots, for instance – and the decor has become a bit tired in places, we’ve always loved being there, always loved the atmosphere of 1930s glamour and luxury at the foot of a live volcano. Perhaps, she says with a hope-filled air, this isn’t the end, but only a pause. Read more about what’s behind the closure.

The original building was started in 1929 and finished just 9 months later. A new wing of 40 rooms was added in 2005. From 1942 to about 1947 the building was used, firstly, as a psychiatric hospital after a Porirua building was damaged by an earthquake, and then as a recuperation centre for returning air force personnel. After refurbishment, The Chateau Hotel re-opened in 1948. And, after standing steady in earthquakes and through eruptions, its doors closed on February 5, 2023.

Mt Ngauruhoe seen through the entryway at The Chateau, January 2022. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Approaching The Chateau, June 2020. Mt Ruapehu is hidden by mist. Photo: Sandra Simpson
The guest lounge at The Chateau, June 2020. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Photo: Sandra Simpson

Summer’s white flowers

Last weekend – and thankfully it was last weekend with torrential rain this weekend – we took a trip into the foothills of the Kaimai Range, partly so the Vege Grower could have a site meeting for a project he’s volunteering on and partly to visit farming friends we haven’t seen for far too long.

The site meeting was held in an informal carpark off the dusty road and I parked the car so I could sit in shade while the meeting took place in the open. I was actually thinking about the gorse flowering in front of me and the blackberry when I realised what was blooming in the background, clinging on to a ponga. White rata!

White rata (akatea, Metrosideros perforata). Photo: Sandra Simpson
Photo: Sandra Simpson

White rata, which germinates on the ground, climbs trees with its fine clasping roots. Once the plant reaches the canopy it branches out and becomies bushy. The trunk thickens, the roots break away from the tree and the vine can hang off the tree. White rata can be a bushy shrub when a tree is not available to climb. Read more here.

Our friends took us for a ride around their property which is farmed with guardianship principles in front and centre. We’d stopped to look at a trial of regenerative pasture, but I was just as interested in a piece of fenced off native bush on the other side for there was white rata flowering all over the place.

Our hostess said it was a common plant hereabouts and she also got a kick out of seeing its prolific white flowers in summer.

Read an earlier post about white rata.