Our native plants: Toetoe

South American pampas grasses (Cortaderia) are often mistaken for native toetoe and vice-versa. But what is ‘toetoe’? According to Lawrie Metcalfe in his 2008 book, The Cultivation of New Zealand Native Grasses, there are five distinct species called ‘toetoe’ (in fact, in this book they are all listed as Cortaderia but were reclassified as Austroderia in 2011).

The North Island species are Austroderia fulvida (also in the Golden Bay area of the South Island), Austroderia splendens (Northland only), Austroderia toetoe (from about Tauranga to Wellington). In the South Island there is Austroderia richardii (also Stewart Island), and on the Chatham Islands Austroderia turbaria.

Austroderia richardii growing at Milford Sound in the South Island. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The South Island toetoe (Austroderia richardii) is smaller than the most commonly seen North Island plants and doesn’t develop the large base of their cousins (and pampas). The plant will also grow almost anywhere in all soil types and is particularly effective in massed plantings. I saw a fenceline or three planted with this toetoe in the Domes area of Southland and they looked fantastic.

Toetoe growing in Tauranga, possibly Austroderia toetoe. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Maori used the plants in various ways, including for baskets and mats (leaves), to line the walls of their homes (stems), to make kite frames (stems) and to staunch bleeding (seed heads).

Toetoe is also known as ‘cutty grass’ as the serrated leaf edge can easily cut the skin so careful handling is required.

How do you tell the difference between the exotic weed pampas and native toetoe?

  • Pampas leaves snap readily when given a sharp tug. Toetoe leaves do not.
  • Native toetoe, which have arching or drooping golden-creamy flowers and are much less promiscuous in spreading seed, flower in spring and summer (September-January). Pampas flowers in late summer and autumn (January-June) on tall, stiffly erect flower stems, looking like a fluffy duster on a wooden rod. Flowers are white-pinkish or tinged with purple.
  • The surface of a toetoe leaf is dark, shiny green and smooth, it has a distinctive secondary vein between the midrib and margin of the leaf and when the leaves die they hang down flat. Pampas has leaves that are dull and rough to touch and only have a single midrib. One of the easiest ways to identify this weed from our native plant is when pampas leaves die they curl up like wood shavings at the base of the plant.

Pampas seed carries great distances in strong wind, and was one of the weeds found invading the Poor Knights islands, 3km off the New Zealand coast!

A Garden of NZ Roses

As we sink gently further into autumn my roses are definitely past their best but I’ve stopped dead-heading to give them a rest before pruning. However, the lower part of the South Island is a bit behind our warmer climate so it was with delight that last month I found Queenstown Botanical Gardens flush with roses, admittedly not the pristine blooms of early summer but holding out against the dying of the light and still attractive.

The other charming thing to discover about the garden is that all the beds feature roses that were either bred in New Zealand or have a New Zealand connection.

Wise Woman, bred by Bob Matthews of Whanganui, was named to mark the 2004 centenary of midwifery registration in New Zealand. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Scent to Remember was released by Rob Somerfield of Tauranga in 2006 as a Hospice NZ fundraiser. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Aotearoa – known as New Zealand everywhere else – was released by Sam McGredy in 1990 to mark this country’s 150th anniversary. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Nelson Girls was bred by Chris Warner of England and named in 2006 by importer Tasman Bay Roses to mark the 125th anniversary of the school. In Australia, it’s known as Serenity. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Kate Sheppard was released in 1993 to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Kate Sheppard rose was bred by George Sherwood of Manawatu when he started his hobby and of Taranaki when this 2012 interview was conducted. George, a J-Force veteran, died on March 2 this year. He named it for the woman who spearheaded the movement to win New Zealand women the vote.

Tree of the Moment: Sorbus

Earlier in April I spent a week in the Southern Lakes area of the South Island and had my eye caught by the heavy crop of berries on ornamental trees in the area, particularly in and around Te Anau.

Sorbus hupehensis. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Sorbus hupehensis, or Chinese rowan, has deciduous foliage which darkens from pink to red in autumn, but first come the clusters of white-pink berries, lasting well into winter after the leaves have gone. The fluffy white spring flowers are attractive to bees and the pinnate foliage produces dappled shade. The tree can apparently tolerate almost any conditions, which would explain its popularity in this snowfall, sometimes wind-blasted area which, nevertheless, has hot summers.

This tree is native to Hubei (Hupeh) province in Western China, and was introduced to Britain by the renowned plant collector E.H. Wilson in 1910.

Sorbus aucuparia. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Vying for attention with Sorbus hupehensis were the Sorbus aucuparia trees, also known as rowan or mountain ash (though they’re not related to the ash family). The tree has a wide native range in the northern hemisphere – from Madeira (off the west coast of Africa) to Iceland and through Britain and Russia to China.

Rowan was once widely planted by houses as a protection against witches, perhaps because the colour red was considered to be the best colour for fighting evil. In Wales rowan trees were planted in churchyards and in Scotland cutting down a rowan was considered taboo.

The wood was used for stirring milk to prevent the milk curdling, and as a pocket charm against rheumatism. It was also used to make divining rods. Rowan berries are edible and can be used to make a tart jam, rich in Vitamin C. Find a recipe for rowan jelly here.

The second part of its Latin name, aucuparia comes from ‘aucupor’ which means to go bird-catching, a reference to the fruit being used by fowlers (bird catchers) to make birdlime, an adhesive substance spread on a branch or twig, upon which a bird may land and be caught.

Sorbus aucuparia also have fiery autumn foliage and pretty clusters of spring flowers.

New season’s apples

I’ve had a few apples turning up on the kitchen bench recently and yesterday picked up some windfalls to add to the pile. Aren’t new season’s apples just the best? I thought I’d share a seasonal poem, a good one to read while munching a crisp apple! Bob Orr, who lives on the Thames Coast, is well known for his water- and ocean-related poetry. This one, set in a Hamilton garden, was published in Bob’s 2008 collection Calypso (AUP) and appeared in the Best New Zealand Poems anthology for that year.

Kiwitahi Way by Bob Orr                                                                                         

An orchard
silvery and green
as a sunlit breaking sea.
The season
stands aside
to allow my grandfather
his harvest.
Over seventy
he climbs a ladder
and disappears
into an apple tree.
How they bounce
into an empty bucket.
Like somebody
calling my name
out in their sleep
over and

Te Puke Orchid Show

Nice busy atmosphere this morning for the opening of the Bay of Plenty Orchid Show in Te Puke’s Memorial Hall – lots of people looking at, talking about and buying orchids. What could be better? Everyone seemed glad to be back after the cancellation of last year’s show.

There’s plenty for visitors to see with displays by the BOP, Tauranga and Whangarei orchid societies, and vendors Leroy Orchids, Ninox Orchids and Bill Liddy. Plenty to buy too, with other vendors including Conrad Coenen, Selwyn Hatrick, Thomas Brown, Philip Zhou, Patricia Hutchins who, having also been in the wars, is accompanied by her daughter, Barry and Averil Baxter (pots, stakes, etc), and Lynn and Greg Barnes (fertiliser).

Visitors had come from as far afield as Auckland and Hamilton, while Lee and Roy Neale had made it ‘come hell or high water’. We’re glad to know they’re both on the mend.

Here’s a selection of some of the smaller treasures on display (there are plenty of big ones too, don’t worry). The show is open again tomorrow (April 10), 10am-4pm, $3 entry.

Stenoglottis are terrestrial orchids native to South Africa. This one is the hybrid Stenoglottis Neptune. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Rhyncattleanthe Leroy’s Star was registered last year by Leroy Orchids of west Auckland. Rhyncattleanthe orchids were previously known as Potinara. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Dracula bella ‘Cutie’ has been imaginatively staged on the Tauranga Orchid Society display. Dracula orchids are found from southernmost Mexico to Peru. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Dendrobium lawesii is is native to Bougainville Island and northern Papua New Guinea and is named for the Reverend W. G. Lawes, a missionary who sent a plant to the Royal Botanist of Australia in 1884.  Flower colour is variable, from a solid red or orange but also including this bicolour red/white and a red/yellow. It flowers on leafless canes. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Phragmipedium Hanne Popow is an exquisite tiny orchid. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Neostylis Baby Angel is, believe it or not, a member of the Vanda family of orchids, plants which have flowers as large as those of a moth orchid (Phalaenopsis). Photo: Sandra Simpson

Frond feelings

You may have noticed a sign for Coast Palms & Cycads on the highway between Tauranga and Te Puke. Never been in? Today, we’re going to take a peek over the fence.

Janine Gray spent 20 years as a chef cooking for royalty, rock stars and on superyachts – but says that working with plants “is much nicer”. British singer Seal (Heidi Klum’s ex) was “squatmate” for a couple of years and Janine also cooked professionally for Sir Paul McCartney, Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

When her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Janine moved home to Matapihi, near Tauranga, and, after her mother’s death in 2001 and with her father’s support, opened Coast Palms and Cycads.

With both parents involved in horticulture, it’s no surprise that Janine has green fingers – mum Jan had her own cacti and succulent nursery (Archway Nurseries, becoming El Jakedo after its sale) and dad Peter, who died in 2017, was involved with kiwifruit for more than 35 years.

“Dad was playing round with palms at home and after my sea-change when I came home I just kind of fell into it. Then I had the opportunity to sell a property at Mount Maunganui so had the capital for a business.”

Janine says “trial and error” has honed her product lines and although she stocks the staple bangalow and queen palms is also trying to expand customers’ plant palettes.

“The key thing for a tropical-look garden is planting in layers to create depth,” Janine says, “and palms are ideal for this.” They, like Cycads, also have the advantage of staying green and lush-looking year-round.

Some of her more unusual trees are the big mountain palm or umbrella palm (Hedyscepe canterburyana) which has a silvery crownshaft and one of four palms native to Lord Howe Island (600km off the east coast of Australia); the fine-leaved Atherton palm (Laccospadix australasica) from North Queensland; and the jelly or wine palm (Butia capitata), native to Brazil and Uruguay.

The fronds of Parajubaea coccoides. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Quito mountain coconut palm (Parajubaea coccoides) is closely aligned with the true coconut palm. It produces walnut-sized edible seeds (yes, even in New Zealand) that apparently taste just like its tropical ‘sister’. It is thought that Parajubaea and Cocos nucifera were once the same plant which became geographically separated; Cocos remaining in the lowland beach shores of the hot tropics, while Parajubaea slowly and methodically climbed the Andes.

Cycads were around at the time of the dinosaurs and haven’t evolved much since which is part of their charm, according to Janine. They will develop a trunk but that takes many years.

“Encephalartos cycads from Africa are probably considered the Lamborghini of cycads,” Janine says. “They’re still quite rare in New Zealand, highly collectible and highly coveted.” They also sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

Cycas revoluta is one of the most primitive seed plants alive and has changed little over the last 200 million years. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Substantially cheaper is the Australian native Lepidozamia peroffskyana, which has softer leaves than most cycads and is reasonably frost tolerant, while Dioon spinulosum is one of the largest cycads in cultivation.

As well as palms and cycads, the nursery also stocks sub-tropical plants and bromeliads.

This piece was originally published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission. It has been updated and added to slightly.

Orchid award

Here’s a little skite (for overseas readers, a ‘skite’ is a boast) … and as it may be something that never happens to me again, I reckon I can get away with it.

Coelogyne cristata alba ‘Kotuku’, awarded a Certificate of Cultural Commendation. The plant which grows in a now-invisible basket is just over 1m wide at its widest point and about 80cm high. Photo: Sandra Simpson

In early October last year five New Zealand orchid judges turned up at my place to inspect one of my plants. I stayed out of the way and made a cuppa while they conferred, walking round the plant, looking at it closely, murmuring and making notes on official forms. Nerve-wracking.

The way the system works is that the judges who look at the plant can’t say one way or the other if an award will be given by the Orchid Council of New Zealand, as that organisation’s committee on awards (COA) has to meet and ratify all recommendations.

Last year was an unusual one for awards because not many orchid shows were held and shows are normally where the bulk of judging recommendations originate. To gain one of the several awards on offer, a plant has to achieve a minimum standard. A plant that doesn’t get the points across a variety of categories, doesn’t get a recommendation.

My plant was put forward to the COA and, after much impatient waiting from me, was given a Certificate of Cultural Commendation (CCC) which has a threshold of 80 points. My plant was given 85.5 points.

Each stem on the plant carries multiple flowers. Photo: Sandra Simpson

One of the nice things that happens when an award is made is that the owner, as well as being able to add the ‘letters’ of the award on to the plant’s name tag, can also give their plant a name that stays with that plant from then on (a cultural award is given to the grower, not the plant so the ‘letters’ stay with this plant only and don’t go with any divisions). I chose ‘Kotuku’ as the pure-white flowers with their feathery and winged look reminded me our native white heron.

Details about the plant are also sought, so fortunately I had a few records. Purchased in July 2013 at the BOP Orchid Society auction – that year it had 2 stems of flowers. After flowering last year I cut off 82 stems! For almost the entire year it grows outside, only moving under cover when the flowers start to open.

Herb Awareness Month

March is Herb Awareness Month in New Zealand and although I’m coming late to the party, there’s always time to raise a toast to these plants that offer health and healing.

In that marvellous old children’s television programme The Herbs (written by Michael Bond who created Paddington), Parsley was the shy, but friendly, lion who welcomed us along each time. So it’s no surprise that humble parsley is the 2021 International Herb of the Year.

Easy to grow (try and stop it) and useful in many dishes my only beef with parsley isn’t its fault – the bits that, in some cafes, are popped on everything savoury as a garnish. I always pick it off, put it to one side and feel sorry that the plant gave itself up for this.

A parsley flower head. Image: Wikimedia Commons

My grandmother said a woman of child-bearing age should not buy a parsley plant so was horrified when my mother (her daughter-in-law, who had never heard this tale) had done just that. The problem was solved when my grandmother passed some coins to my mother and took the pot off her. Whew! I have since read that ‘plant parsley and get pregnant’ …

Here’s the Herb Federation of NZ sheet on parsley for some factual information!

The other herbs being honoured this month are lichen (Usnea species), used both for medicinal purposes and dyeing; pennyroyal (Mentha Mentha pulegium), a distinctive scent when crushed, is used externally only for healing; and the New Zealand native makomako/wineberry (Aristotelia serrata; A. fruticosa) used for medicinal purposes, food and for dyeing. Click on the links to read the fact sheets.

Tree of the moment: Corymbia ficifolia

Just a month late posting this … at present the gold dust that is time seems to be leaking away from me like I’m a greenhorn prospector of the worst type! I once worked with a man who always worked on deadline, not towards a deadline. He said he just threw all his balls in the air and dealt with them, or not, as they landed. I didn’t think it was a very good way of working, but it appears I have officially become that man!

Anyway, on to the much more interesting topic of the red-flowering gum. What a showstopper of a tree it is. This one was spotted beside Heads Road in Whanganui, possibly on hospital land. There was another nice one across the road too.

Red-flowering gum tree in Whanganui. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The trees are native to the southwest of Western Australia and are one of the most widely planted ornamental ‘gums’ with flower colour varying – orange, pink or red. The Trees of Stanford website, posits of the varying flower colour that “it is almost certain that the ornamentals in commerce are hybrid, having an admixture of C. calophylla (syn. Eucalyptus calophylla), a distinctly different, but related, larger tree with the same large fruit but little or no pink in the flowers.” 

The genus Eucalyptus was named in 1792 by a French botanist and refers to the cap that protects the flower before it opens (eu = well; kalyptos = covered in Greek). However, botanists have since determined that the genus should be divided and today the name ‘Eucalyptus’ covers three genera: Eucalyptus (about 760 species), Angophora (10) and Corymbia (93). Corymbia wasn’t split until 1995. There is still controversy! (This information is from a magnificent 2012 book, Eucalypts: A Celebration by John Wrigley and Murray Fagg.)

The name Corymbia, by the way, is a botanical term chosen because of the way the flowers present – a terminal arrangement forming a hemispherical dome (corymb).

The large ‘nuts’ of the red-flowering gum are popular with floral artists. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The tree will grow to a rounded specimen of about 9m in a temperate climate with low summer rainfall and low humidity.

The world’s largest single-trunk specimen of Corymbia ficifolia is claimed to be in Hamilton, New Zealand at nearly 19m high and a trunk girth of 6.8m. It is believed to be 111 years old. See more details at the NZ Tree Register.

The large nuts on Corymbia calophylla are credited with being the inspiration for May Gibbs (1877-1969) when she created her gumnut babies for the Snugglepot and Cuddlepie stories that have now achieved ‘iconic’ status in Australia. Read more at the May Gibbs website.

The world of plants

Botanists in Cambridge, England are waiting for a rare cactus to bloom and have a live webcam running so anyone can see the bloom on the Selenicereus wittii (moonflower) open. It’s believed to be the first time the Amazonian cactus, with flowers that last for one night only, has bloomed in the UK. Read more, and find the livecam link, here.

The Australian Landscape Conference, always a belter in terms of its lineup, is preparing for any eventuality, given recent Covid outbreaks in Australia and New Zealand and the ongoing difficulty of international travel. An email yesterday said of the March event: ‘A range of options has been developed including live for those who can attend, virtual for those who can’t and satellite meetings in Sydney, New Zealand, and Tasmania for those who would like to gather with others and watch in a conference-like setting but may not be able to travel to Melbourne. More information will be provided about these options shortly.’

The Chelsea Flower Show in London has been postponed for the first time in its 108-year history – moving from May to September. Read more here.

For some people living with dementia, gardening can be a therapeutic and calming outlet. Read about a care home in Christchurch (NZ) that incorporates gardening into its care for patients with dementia – and employs an 83-year-old gardener!