Flowering now

Eucomis, or pineapple lily. This is a large one and so far the stalk has stayed upright. It turns out I also have a miniature one the same colour, which is flowering for the first time.

This nusery website (West Australia) has more information about eucomis. The flowers have a tendancy to sprawl all over the place because the soft stems can’t hold their weight. Te Puna plant breeder Ian Duncalf is doing a lot of work with eucomis and reckons he’s getting it sorted.

PS: They’re called pineapple lilies because of the little tuft of leaves at the top of the flower that looks something like a pineapple.

Meanwhile, here is an article about clematis wilt (we fixed it by replanting deeper so some latent buds were buried and all has been well). You can read more about Mrs Cholmondeley, the plant, here.

Clematis Mrs Cholmondeley. This is the third time it’s tried to flower this season – the first buds were lost to wilt, the second were blown off! Third time a charm, though.

Our native plants: Aciphylla

New Zealand is full of plants that have evolved in odd ways thanks to our long history of having a predominantly avian fauna rather than one ruled by mammals.

Let me introduce you to a member of the carrot family commonly known as Spaniard or speargrass, botanical name Aciphylla. Almost all of the 40 species are found only in the South Island and then generally in tussock and upland country.

The leaves are stiff with razor-sharp points and, if that weren’t enough, the flowers have spikes all over them too. New Zealand in Flower by Alison Evans (Bookmakers, 1987) says the reason for the armour is unclear, although some experts suggest it might have evolved as protection from browsing moa (although sheep, deer and rabbits graze them).


Photographed near Middlemarch in central Otago. The thin pieces protruding from the flowers are spikes. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The authors of Gardening with New Zealand Shrubs, Plants & Trees (Collins, 1988) suggest the spikes help mitigate the exposed conditions in which the plants grow. This book also notes the uses both Moriori and Maori made of the plant, including collecting a scented gum from the base of the leaves.

As you might guess from the titles of the books, some gardeners are brave enough to include them in cultivation.


Aciphylla glaucesens at Larnach Castle high on the Otago Peninsula. Photo: Sandra Simpson

As well as the large plants (flowers up to 2m), there are also small varieties, some only 40cm high. Aciphylla dissecta is one such plant, found in the Tararua Range in the North Island.

More on Aciphylla colensoi, Aciphylla squarrosa and the aptly named Aciphylla horrida.

Sunday digest

Powdery mildew is annual foe and for gardeners keen not to use chemical sprays there are some ideas for effective alternatives in this RNZIH article.

If you think it all sounds a bit airy-fairy, this article from the Royal Society of New Zealand looks at the commercial use of a milk spray.

The bush fires in Australia are a terrible thing in human terms … but at the botanical level they can be a wondrous thing, as this article about a native orchid shows. Endangered eastern spider orchids (Caladenia orientalis) began to sprout and bloom after the 2009 fires in Victoria – as a direct consequence of the flames.

Why do we garden? English writer Francine Raymond offers a few thoughts. One of them – healing – is one I have come across regularly from people I interview. When life gets a bit tough they head into the garden, not to escape so much as to calm themselves.

Heidi Herrmann is a German-born natural beekeeper in England, a “heroine” of the movement there, it seems. According to Heidi, one of the reasons for the decline of bees is that conventional beekeepers suppress the swarming urge which, she says, is a strategy for survival and diversifying the gene pool. Read some of her thoughts here, as well as about her “sun hive” structure which is taken apart and refreshed (with resident bees) in an 11-minute video here.

The documentary film Queen of the Sun showed in New Zealand a couple of years ago. An interview the director and producer may be seen here (8 mins).

Go here to read a great piece by Abbie Jury on the importance of soil to gardens.

And for all those who think February has rolled around a bit quick … this brilliantly funny column by Toby Manhire appeared in Friday’s NZ Herald (no gardening content).

Drought tolerance

Remember last summer when all we did was complain about the rain? Do you really, because this summer we’re complaining about how dry it is.

A long time ago when I used to do a bit of contract writing/editing work for the council the message was to plant drought-tolerant gardens and mulch, mulch, mulch to save the municipal water supply. Since then smart city dwellers have put in rain-water tanks to see them through the worst of the summer, thoughtful gardeners know to mulch, water meters have been introduced and give pause for thought before the hose goes on, and “spiky, stony” gardens have gone out of fashion.

Putting aside garden trends and council imperatives, there are some  remarkable plants that will do well through the hot, dry months – and plenty of advice on positive action to take is available on the net.

Pachystegia insignis is a great drought-tolerant native, read more about it at the Tawapou Coastal Natives website, a Northland business with an informative website. Note the gorgeous leaves that are stiff and tough.


Pachystegia insignis, the Marlborough rock daisy, is not only tolerant of drought conditions, but also salt-laden winds. Photo: Sandra Simpson

One topic that doesn’t get a lot of play is how unsustainable lawn is – water-hungry (but with high rates of evaporation), energy-hungry, spray-hungry and noise polluters (especially on a Sunday morning!). Would you be less happy with less lawn?

Plectranthus ornatus flowers in my garden for months over the hottest part of the year. It forms a spreading mat so can be used as a groundcover or in a rockery (and doesn’t mind being cut back). It covers itself in sky-blue flowers that are attractive to bees and butterflies and can be easily grown from cuttings.


Plectranthus ornatus (dog bane). Photo: Sandra Simpson

One of my cuttings ended up at the butterfly garden at Te Puna Quarry Park (always on the lookout for floriferous plants that are a bit tough) and volunteer Shona Purves says it has a bit of a funny odour (hence the common name of dog bane, supposedly it keeps cats and dogs away) if you happen to stand on it.

The Fragrant Garden Nursery in Feilding offers it for sale, along with a number of other Plectranthus and the show garden is home to the North Island Plectranthus collection.

And here’s a useful list of fire-resistant plants (mostly trees) – natives and exotics.

Postcard from Sydney

Just back from a long weekend across the Ditch where one of my ports of call was the Royal Sydney Botanic Gardens.  The gardens occupy a prime position in the central city, running around the edge of Farm Cove and almost to the Opera House. Needless to say, they’re popular with joggers, walkers and office workers on lunch breaks.


Kids find a way to cool off in the central city. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Thankfully, the record 45.8degC ocurred the day before we arrived and we had something of a cool change – early to mid-20s and overcast skies. And despite spending several hours at the gardens I didn’t see all of it (it’s always motivating to leave something for next time). There are also two other branches of the gardens. One is at Mt Annah, about a 45-minute drive from Sydney (the Australian Botanic Garden), and the other, known as the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, is a 2-hour drive at Mt Tomah.

In the “downtown” garden there are several glass houses and various theme areas, including a “First Contact” garden and a Rainforest Walk which is punctuated by a small group of Wollemi pine, discovered in 1994 and rated as one of the world’s oldest and rarest plants.

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Frangipani blooms were being used for a lei-making activity. Photo: Sandra Simpson

There was a frangipani show on in the entry to the glass houses and a guest speaker had attracted a good audience. Potted trees and seeds were for sale and with blossoms in all sorts of rich colour combinations, I was left thinking it’s a shame our climate isn’t better suited for them. Visit the Frangipani Society of Australia website to find out more.


I have seen frangipani grown here (there’s at least one outside the Tropical Display House in Cliff Rd) but a touch of frost leaves them looking tatty, while a good cold snap can kill them.

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A Xanthorrhoea in a hotel entry. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Xanthorrhoea (Australia grass tree) species, which aren’t seen too often here, are popular as corporate and hotel plantings in Sydney, and cycads are all over the place – there’s a mass planting outside the arrivals terminal and  they’re even being combined with marigolds and salvias as temporary street plantings!

Butterfly notes

Don’t have any monarch butterfly caterpillars on your swan plants? I haven’t for a while, which has given the plant a chance to recover, but neither have I seen wasps which predate on every stage of the butterfly’s life.

Mary Parkinson, who founded and runs the butterfly garden at Te Puna Quarry Park, tells me that wasps are probably the culprits though – they don’t change their diet until about the end of February.

Passion-vine hoppers (fluffy bums) will also eat the caterpillar and chrysalis and although they’re about in smaller numbers than last year, they’re still about.

Mary advises moving potted swan plant indoors or covering the plant (mosquito netting, fine-mesh shade cloth, old net curtain) as there are likely to be eggs on it. “The trick is to protect caterpillars as much as possible. I have even seen an ant carry off a tiny caterpillar.”


The fine seeds of a swan plant – if you snap off the pods before they open you won’t have plants coming up everywhere. Photo: Sandra Simpson

If you suspect you have too many eggs for your swan plant to support, wipe some off and cover the plant – it won’t stop more eggs being laid but it will reduce the number able to be laid.

Pumpkin shouldn’t be used for supplementary feeding until the caterpillars are in the end part of that stage of their life (2cm long or more). Younger caterpillars fed pumpkin will emerge from the chrysalis with deformed wings.

“It’s easy to underestimate how much a caterpillar will eat,” says Mary, a member of the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust. “But the faster they eat, the faster they’ll go into the chrysalis stage.”


A monarch feeds on cherianthus (wallflowers). Photo: Sandra Simpson

Any garden that wants to support a butterfly population must be spray free and must provide nectar all year round – old-fashioned flowers in strong colours is the general rule of thumb.

The butterfly garden at the Quarry has a new butterfly house – much roomier. Mary moves her caterpillars indoors so they build their chrysalis and emerge inside before being released into the garden.

Thursday Digest

Mary from the Hamilton Dahlia Society has been kind enough to send a link to her Flickr page – lots of photos of blooms at the Waihi Dahlia Show on January 16. Enjoy! It turns out my article about Peter Burrell from last Saturday’s paper is available online – they don’t usually put the gardening up but apparently had a request or two for it.

Plant Variety Rights are supposed to act like a patent and stop a breeder’s hard work being ripped off by others, but sometimes it can all go wrong. Abbie Jury has made an interesting post about the case of a well-known Jury-bred plant, Cordyline Red Fountain.

Finally, something productive to do with gorse – a recipe for gorse flower cordial.


Food on the wild side

Some “ornamental” plants are already part of our plate – crystallised angelica, violet flowers and rose petals – but there are plenty of other choices in your yard and one of the easiest ways to use them is to toss them together in the salad bowl.

Oddly, many fall under the category of “weeds”, although herbalist Jenny Ager-Pratt defines a weed as “only something you’re not using, or don’t know how to use”.

Jenny, who is president of the Katikati Herb Society, acknowledges that others might find her garden a bit on the wild side, but loves it because it is overgrown, surprising and useful.

“I can make medicine from my plants, eat, drink, smell them and enjoy their beauty, and that excites me.

“And frankly, life is busy enough without having to plant everything in rows. You pick these so-called weeds from your garden, make a salad and five minutes later you’re eating them, getting all that wonderful vitality.”

She is interested that some of our wild plants were once used in herbal medicine but have fallen out of favour.

“Broom was for raising blood pressure, but honestly how many need that these days? We all want our blood pressure reduced.”

Jenny has heard that gorse flowers were once used to treat diabetes and wants to find out more.

She also uses her garden to teach people interested in herbalism and sustainability, and says learning to identify plants is paramount in herbalism yet one of the hardest skills to master.

“For instance, a dandelion has a single yellow flower on a single stem. The stem is quite thick and hollow with a milky white sap. The leaves are serrated, hairless and shiny. However, younger leaves are not necessarily as indented.


Dandelion. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“Hawkbit also has yellow flowers but has many flowers on one thin, solid stem. Its leaves can be serrated but they are hairy. And you mustn’t eat it.”

Chickweed can be a hard one to identify, but Jenny points out that its flower resembles a small, white star and that its single line of hair travelling up the stem changes sides between each pair of leaves.


Chickweed. Photo: Sandra Simpson

If you’re willing to try, there are many plants that can be eaten – but examine it first to see if it has any red markings.

“Nature has given many poisonous things red spots and they should act like a stop sign, so check something unknown carefully.”

If you’re still unsure, Jenny advises smelling it and, if that doesn’t throw up a warning, pick a very small piece of leaf and nibble it between your front teeth.

“Keep nibbling for a while and see how it goes – the poisonous ones tend to start off all right, but get stronger and stronger until you spit it out because it’s so awful.

“The amount you’ve had should be so small that it can do no harm, but you’ve learned from it.”

Think about where you are collecting wild plants – for instance, not from beside a busy road (exhaust fumes) – and being very sure of a farmer’s spray regime before picking from a paddock (and, of course, asking permission first).

But despite finding uses for cooch and plantain grasses (the running roots of the former treat urinary infections while the latter draws out bee stings and is good for the upper respiratory system), there are some plants at which she draws the line.

Milk thistle (Silybum marianum), widely used in over-the-counter herbal preparations, is a pest plant.

It has a “nice crunchy leaf” for eating but is not worth the effort of growing, Jenny says.
“Milk thistle is a prolific plant and could potentially ruin an entire agricultural area. Some herbs just don’t help themselves.”

First, catch your weed

Italian-born cook Antonio Carluccio advises using only the young, tender leaves of dandelion in a salad and tossing them with a handful of anchovy fillets, some hard- boiled egg and vinaigrette. When picking leaves choose very bright, fresh-looking leaves, he says, avoiding any that are yellowed, look coarse or have sturdy stems.

Tessa Kiros in her Twelve cookbook advises wearing rubber gloves to pick and process nettles – washing them removes the sting. She suggests using “vitamin-rich” nettles like spinach in a gnocchi sauce or in a frittata made from the tips of nettles (substitute silverbeet). You’ll find nettles used in traditional Gouda cheese in The Netherlands and, Kiros says, they are prized for their healing properties.

The aptly named Susun Weed offers some useful growing and eating tips on her website,  while closer to home chef Charles Royal has recipes on this website.


Nasturtium. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Edible garden (and lawn)

  • Dandelion: Young leaves are a strong diuretic (an old English name is “wet the bed”) that nonetheless replaces potassium. Flowers also edible.
  • Heart’s ease (Viola tricolour): Flowers for capillary strength, useful for varicose veins.
  • Red clover: Flowers for clear skin and a blood purifier (don’t use white clover).
  • Chickweed (Stellaria media): Leaves good for skin complaints like eczema (macerate in oil and apply externally too).
  • Violet & evening primrose: Leaves soothe mucous membranes.
  • Borage: Flowers for Omega 6 fats; in folklore borage flowers were eaten for courage.
  • Biddybid (cleavers, Galium aparine): Leaves (cut very finely so they don’t stick to your mouth) are a lymphatic tonic.
  • Hawthorn: Flowers and young leaves are a heart tonic, berries less so but also good.
  • Marigold (Calendula officianalis): Flower petals.
  • Nasturtium: Leaves and flowers.

This article was first published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission. It has been edited slightly.

Brachyglottis greyi Sunshine

Dunedin Botanic Gardens are the oldest in the country and this year are celebrating 150 years of bringing pleasure to visitors.

The gardens were originally where the university is, but after a flood in 1868 washed away part of the gardens they moved to the present 28ha site between the campus and North East Valley. The flood-prone Waters of Leith has since been canalised but during our recent visit, my husband said he could remember it topping its high walls in the 1970s.

I’ve visited the gardens a couple of times in recent years and while they’re not as obviously outstanding as, say, Christchurch Botanic Gardens, which are also 150 this year, they do have a certain charm. I haven’t been in Dunedin during rhododendron season and this is a collection of plants for which the gardens are renowned (the International Rhododendron Conference will be in Dunedin in 2014).

Both my visits have been in summer and both times I’ve been slightly disappointed at the number of weeds in the large and interesting rock garden but have excused it on the basis that it’s holiday season for staff, just like it is for everyone else, and, who knows, it may be policy to let it be a little wild. (Councils have very particular policies about things like how often reserve lawns are mowed, how short the grass is to be and how often weeding is to be carried out.)


Brachyglottis greyi Sunshine. Photo: Sandra Simpson

This time we entered through a side gate that led into a native plant area and this was well worth seeing, even if all the plants weren’t named.

There were swathes of Brachyglottis greyi Sunshine in flower, huge bushes that really did look like sunshine on an overcast day. Sunshine is one of a set of Brachyglottis hybrids known as the “Dunedin Group”.

Lawrie Metcalf’s book The Cultivation of New Zealand Trees and Shrubs (Raupo, revised 2011) says that in the early part of the 20th century Otago (with Dunedin as the centre) was a prominent area for the cultivation of native plants with the botanic gardens leading the way.

However, crosses weren’t recorded and names weren’t kept and there is a lot of confusion as to what’s what among Brachyglottis. In 1980 a British publication coined the term Dunedin Group to cover the hybrids from crosses of B. greyi, compacta and laxifolia, and possibly monroi.

Summer Gold, Sunshine and Otari Cloud are three of the best known.

In my garden

I was given two hoya plants a couple of years ago – the first was to see if I could grow it and, once I proved I could, I received the second which is a family heirloom.

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Sylvia Walker’s Hoya carnosa. Photo: Sandra Simpson

It belonged to Sylvia Walker, a first cousin to my grandfather. Sylvia was the librarian in Bulls for many years, dying in 1960. My grandfather, who died in May 1961, is buried next to her in Bulls cemetery. Sylvia hadn’t married and her hoya was given to her niece, Judith, who as a child had stayed for holidays with her aunt. And now Judith has given it to me. We have no idea how old the plant really is but hoya can live to be a great age.

We repotted Sylvia’s hoya this year and, although it has taken two seasons, it is coming into flower. A piece broke off during the repotting process so we potted that up too and it is putting on new growth. The first one I was given flowered beautifully for months last year and is now in flower again, albeit a bit later.

To see some beautiful photos of the many different types of hoya flower, go here.

My 16-year-old son was given a sundew carnivorous plant before Christmas with the advice to put it in full sun in a container of rainwater – it must never dry out. So far, he’s been tending it carefully and the plant is doing well. We tried it out on an annoying patch of whitefly and it caught some for us.

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My son’s sundew. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Considering it is such a showy plant, it has odd flowers – pink and rather “normal” looking. I much prefer its red “tentacles”.

When I took down a hanging basket to check the orchid in it, I was surprised to see something bright green in among the Spanish moss curled up in the basket. A closer look revealed some tiny flowers.

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Tiny flowers hiding in the Spanish moss. Photo: Sandra Simpson


This is about my third go at growing the airplant (it’s a tillandsia) – previous plants have been snatched by birds for nest making hence it being tucked into the basket instead of hung from it.

Read all about Spanish moss and its commercial uses in Louisiana here.

PS: My heliotrope is still going great guns, I posted a picture of its flowers on November 18. Not bad, eh?