Heartfelt hydrangeas

Roger Allen has been involved with growing a commercial crop of hydrangeas for about 18 years, although more recently has taken a step back with his daughter taking charge of the business that grows hydrangeas for export as cut flowers, with one of the biggest markets being Dubai.

Roger’s been involved with growing flowers for a lot longer though, starting out at Whakamarama with mainly carnations and chrysanthemums, before moving to Plummer’s Point about 24 years ago and moving into hydrangeas.

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Roger Allen with some hydrangea stems. Photo: Sandra Simpson

We’d got talking at a couple of funerals recently (as you do) and Roger invited me to see a some of his new hybrids that he’s so pleased with he will go through the PVR process (plant variety rights) and release them to commercial growers.

“There’s probably three I will release, one of them an improved version of ‘Sensation’, but I haven’t named them yet. I think a flower name has to have a little bit of music in the mouth.”

The business grows all but a few of its hydrangeas in bags and Roger pointed out the difference his aluminium-rich soils make – a vivid pink flower in a grow bag becomes a lustrous purple in the ground. “You can change the colour of a hydrangea by adding aluminium to the soil, but it takes a long time,” he says.”

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One of Roger’s as-yet unnamed seedlings. Photo: Sandra Simpson

In the early days of hydrangea exporting people were picking them from the old bushes that can be found beside many roads in New Zealand. “People were getting good money,” Roger says, “but the flowers looked horrid. We’ve come a long way since then.

“I started with hydrangeas primarily because there was money in it, but now it’s turned into a bit of a love affair. It’s a really nice bloom and I’m absolutely in awe of it – a flower changes on the bush daily until it goes to ‘antique’ and changes completely.”

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Hydrangea ‘Irene’, hybridised by Roger Allen. Photo: Sandra Simpson

He has already released two hybrids – ‘Bush Fire’ and ‘Irene’ – and is thrilled that the latter, a soft pink, has proved so popular exporters now request it by name, rather than colour.

An intriguing note to hydrangea breeding is that seedlings can throw either way – mophead or lacecap – no matter what their parentage, but up until 2 years ago Roger had never had a lacecap result from his work.

Roger is opening his garden for this year’s Bay of Plenty Garden and Artfest from November 15-18. Read about his garden in this earlier post.


On the road: Hotere Garden Oputae

We stumbled across this small garden by accident while visiting Port Chalmers, near Dunedin. Heading up the hill to see the Robert Scott Memorial (unveiled May 30, 1914), I spotted a sign for ‘Hotere Garden’ and requested a detour.

The garden opened in 2005 ‘fulfilling the wishes of Ralph Hotere‘ (1931-2013) to return four sculptures to Observation Point. They had previously been displayed in Mr Hotere’s nearby studio, but in 1993 it was demolished, along with some of the bluff on which it stood, despite local protests, to make way for port development. Apparently the garden was part of the settlement between the two parties.

In 2008 the garden by Design and Garden Landscapes Ltd won the Landscape Industries Association of NZ premier award for the best use of native plants, a gold award for landscape horticulture and a silver award for landscape design.

Company owner Wayne Butson said the planting had been deliberately kept simple to enhance the sculptures and the views.

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Aramoana, by Chris Booth, was originally constructed in 1982 and decorated with more beach flotsam and jetsam. Aramoana, a beachside settlement south of Port Chalmers, was to be the site of an aluminium smelter – this piece was by way of a protest. Photo: Sandra Simpson

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Black Phoenix II by Ralph Hotere uses part of a fishing boat that burned in a yard in 1984. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Another part of the boat’s timber was used in Black Phoenix held at Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand. Renowned actor Sam Neill helped prepare some of the wood for Black Phoenix: Not long after beginning, Ralph said he had to slip away. Something pressing. Three or four hours later, he returned; casually mentioned he was sorry, he’d got caught up in the pub. Read more from Remembering Ralph Hotere.

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Brick Column by Russell Moses is made from a kiln once used by Coromandel potter Barry Brickell, while the iron bar is recycled from the port. Photo: Sandra Simpson

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This photo doesn’t do justice to They do cut down the poles that hold up the sky by Shona Rapira Davies but the vegetation has grown since it was put it place and it wasn’t a sunny day.


Read more about the sculptures here.

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Finally, a bumblebee busy in harakeke (flax) in the garden. Look at that articulation between head and body! Photo: Sandra Simpson



On the road: Otari-Wilton’s Bush

Otari Wilton’s Bush is 5km from the centre of Wellington at 160 Wilton Rd (off-street parking at two spots or take a 14 bus from Lambton Quay). It is open every day, all day and is free. For more information see the website.

A visit to the botanic garden at Otari-Wilton’s Bush in Wellington is a chance to meet some of our native plants that otherwise inhabit remote or difficult locations, or are endangered in the wild.

The 5ha gardens, which comprise several collections numbering about 1200 plants, is the country’s only botanic gardens dedicated to native plants and continues to collect rare and common species, including those from offshore islands.

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A section of the rockery showing Chionochloa flavicans grass. The green-coloured early summer flowers will age to brown. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The gardens form a small, but significant, part of what began as a 7ha bush lot fenced off by Job Wilton but which today is a 105ha reserve that includes some original trees.

Renowned botanist Leonard Cockayne, along with J G McKenzie, established the Otari Open Air Native Plant Museum in 1926 – and Dr Cockayne and his wife  remain there today, buried in the grounds.

Plants are grouped by theme, including plants for the home garden, Wellington coastal plants, threatened species, the rainshadow garden and a fernery.

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Helichrysum bellidioides is a native straw flower found in alpine areas. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The ’38-degree garden’ is named for the latitude which delineates the southern natural range of kauri – Tauranga, more or less. This area is for those plants that naturally grow only in the top half of the North Island, such as taraire and puriri.

There are several fierce Aciphylla plants around the gardens, including the blue-foliaged A. squarrosa and the orange A. ferox, while an area is given over to lancewoods, especially Pseudopanax ferox, named for its ferociously toothed juvenile foliage. The lancewood is probably the native tree that differs most markedly from juvenile to adult forms and seeing a garden of them at their various ages is fascinating.


A white-flowered Chatham Island forget-me-not. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Other plants of interest include white-flowered Chatham Islands forget-me-nots (Myosotidium hortensia),  brown-leafed native dock (Rumex flexuosus), mountain foxglove (Ourisia macrophylla) and a hybrid of what was once the world’s rarest tree, Pennantia baylisiana, from the Three Kings Islands.

Oddly, given that the tree is difficult to pollinate, in cultivation it readily cross-pollinates with its cousin the kaikomako, Pennantia corymbosa, and this garden in 1982 produced a hybrid named Otari Debut.


Pennantia corymbosa Otari Debut. Photo: Sandra Simpson

2018 Dahlia of the Year

by Sandra Simpson & Garfield Andrew

In 2018 the New Zealand Dahlia Society celebrates its 80th anniversary with a national show in Blenheim from February 17-18 and has chosen as its 2018 Dahlia of the Year Tauranga Jubilee.

To help celebrate the anniversary, a couple of South Island growers have made sure there has been a stock of Tauranga Jubilee – which, for reasons no one’s quite sure of, has dropped in popularity over the years and isn’t widely available – for NZ Dahlia Society members to plant.

Back in February 1998 – the society’s 60th birthday – the national show was hosted by the Bay of Plenty Dahlia Circle (no longer in existence) and held in Tauranga. An unnamed seedling bred by Elaine Fenton of the South Island was put into competition and won its class.

The flower went to the top table and was named Tauranga Jubilee by the well-known dahlia grower from Britain, Dave Reid, who was visiting the show.

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Tauranga Jubilee. Photo: John McLennan

Mrs Fenton’s success in hybridising began when she obtained seed from Cyril Higgo, a fimbriated dahlia specialist in South Africa. She later honoured Mr Higgo by naming what has become one of the most recognisable large fimbriated dahlias in New Zealand in his honour. Three of her other dahlias are still grown and exhibited by members of the Dahlia Society – Kaka Beacon, Kaka Copper Queen and Kaka Lindy Lou.

Mrs Fenton served the national society for many years, including on the national management committee and as South Island secretary. She is a long-standing member of Christchurch and Districts Dahlia Club and in 2001 received the prestigious National Dahlia Society of New Zealand silver lapel badge.

Now living in aged care in Christchurch, Mrs Fenton still grows a few dahlias.

Bitter oranges

For me, oranges are an apt festive topic as I always received one in my childhood Christmas stocking. Although I’ve never been big on the fruit’s flesh, I have always loved the colour and shine of the skin, as well as the fruit’s scent. And now I have an orange tree in my garden I love the perfumed blossom season as well.

During my visit to Iran earlier this year I noticed a small tree used extensively in the gardens – primarily lining the avenues alongside the long, narrow rectangular pools. At the time we were told it was “a kind of citrus” and further investigation reveals it to be Citrus x aurantium.

But the fruit is sour or bitter, although all citrus were bitter originally. Native to southeast Asia, the trees moved along the trade routes and there is clear written evidence that bitter orange preserves were being made in Persia by about 1300.


Citrus x aurantium. Photo: A Barra

Tim Entwisle, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, blogged about the fruit in September this year, saying: This is a hybrid between a pomelo (a large grapefruit-like fruit) and a mandarin … Within this hybrid group are both bitter and sweet oranges. Those at the bitter end have more of the pomelo (C. maxima), and those at the sweet end, more mandarin (C. reticulata) and sometimes called Citrus x sinensis. Read the full post here.

Known as ‘narenj’ in Iran (very close to the Spanish word ‘naranja’), the fruit can be used as a substitute for lemons and limes (salad dressings) and are often paired with fish and rice dishes, to marinate chicken and for pickles.

Sugar was known very early in Persia, having been encountered in about 500BC in India by the soldiers of Darius I, and by those of Alexander the Great (who invaded Persia) in about 300BC. Anne Wilson, in The Book of Marmalade, postulates that “the Persians may have been the first people to have employed sugar as a foodstuff” (as opposed to a medicine). Read more about Scottish marmalade here.

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Sour orange trees flank a pool (empty) at the Eram Garden in  Shiraz, Iran. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The bitter orange tree has long been used in many ways. In Chinese herbal medicine, for instance, preparations made from leaves and fruit rinds were used to treat intestinal problems, including constipation, while in the West the flowers are still used to produce essences for aromatherapy.

Moorish poets from North Africa lauded the tree’s fruit and its blossom during Spain’s Islamic history (711-1492) and this orange has been cultivated around Seville since the end of the 12th century and, yes, this is the orange used in the famous marmalade (read more here) while the flowers are used to make orange-flower water. Bitter oranges – terrible for eating (as I can attest after whipping one from a tree in Seville and trying it) – have a higher pectin content than sweet oranges so are perfect for marmalade.

Another sour orange, Bergamot (Citrus bergamia, which confusingly turns yellow when ripe), is primarily grown for its essential oil which is used in natural medicines and perfumes and to flavour Earl Gray and Lady Gray teas. According to legend, Christopher Columbus introduced this tree to Italy from either the Canary Islands or the West Indies. While many believe the common name is linked to the Italian city of Bergamo in Lombardy, Pierre Laszlo in his 2008 book Citrus: A history, reckons it derives from a Turkish word, ‘beg-armudi’, which means ‘lord’s pear’ and adds that the French word ‘bergamotte’ was first used in 1536 for a variety of pear, before being applied to a citrus variety in 1699.

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The lovely Narenjestan Garden (or The Orangery) in Shiraz. The trees lining either side of the walkway are bitter oranges. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Sir Walter Raleigh took sour orange seeds to England; they were planted in Surrey and the trees began bearing regular crops in 1595, but were unfortunately (or predictably) killed by cold in 1739.

For 500 years, the bitter orange was the only orange known in Europe and was the first orange to reach the New World, being naturalised in Mexico in the mid-16th century.

But in the first half of the 17th century, sweet orange trees arrived in Portugal by ship and these quickly superseded the bitter ones.

Yet another bitter orange, the deciduous Poncirus trifoliata (or Citrus trifoliata) which is  native to China and Korea and sometimes called the Chinese or Japanese bitter orange, has been one of New Zealand’s favourite citrus rootstock trees for decades.

One nurseryman told me that it can stand 3°C more cold than any other rootstock, and it seems to help produce high-quality fruit that don’t dry out – but it is thorny.

NSW Christmas Bush

Until they flower I don’t ‘see’ my local Ceratopetalum gummiferum trees but every summer they cover themselves in the colours of Christmas – the profuse flowers are white (if you scrinch your eyes it could be snow), followed by red calyx that change hue as they age.

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One of my neighbourhood Ceratopetalum gummiferum trees. First it’s white …

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…  then it’s red. Photos: Sandra Simpson

Also known as the NSW Christmas bush, this plant can grow to 12m in its native range so ‘bush’ is a bit of a trap for the unwary. The ever-reliable Stirling Macoboy reports that the small genus is native to eastern Australia and New Guinea.

In the coastal bushlands of New South Wales, and in many gardens of Australia, the summer Christmas season is announced by a small, slender tree, Ceratopetalum gummiferum, he writes in ‘What Tree is That?’ (1979). Although it has no practical use, it is beloved throughout its home state and picked lavishly for Christmas decoration.

He goes on to note that the slender tree is hardly noticeable without its flower colour (whew, I haven’t been inattentive). The tree is hardy to -2C. Read more here.

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Photo: Sandra Simpson