It was love at first sight for Colin Henderson when he went to Australia in 1966 to get married in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Already in love with bride Pat, he also fell in love with Australian flora.
“When I went to Australia I had assumed the only flora was gum trees. Every time I stepped out of the car I saw another interesting plant,” he says. “While gum trees or eucalyptus are dominant in the landscape, I quickly discovered a huge diversity of flora from tiny flowering plants and grasses to fantastic trees and shrubs with interesting flowers or bark or both.
“There are more plant species in the Hawkesbury sandstone area north of Sydney than in all the United Kingdom. Australia hosts 15,000 plant species of which only about 600 are actually gum trees.”
When Pat and Colin bought a home in Brisbane in 1968 they promptly dug up the lawn and created an Australian bush garden. Colin also joined the Society for Growing Australian Plants.
“I just got stuck in and learned by growing, and that was when I first discovered the value of mulching,” he says. “I used bark extensively and have used absolutely tonnes of it since.”
Colin, an accountant, and Pat moved to Tauranga in 1973 with the intention of establishing a specialist Australian plant nursery. Jarrah Park Nurseries was developed on what is now Twelve Acre Wood in Pyes Pa, the housing subdivision developed by Colin and Pat and where they still live.
Colin also helped run the Plant Wholesalers Group in the late 1980s and early 1990s from the property. The group combined the marketing arms of several Tauranga specialist nurseries and still operates. Colin’s involvement ended as his role as the area’s specialist school accountant grew.
Then, in 2002, while felling a tree in preparation for the Twelve Acre Wood subdivision, Colin had a serious accident which resulted in the amputation of his left leg.
“You can usually find some positive outcomes from adversity,” he says. “I was advised that I shouldn’t work for six months at least. Convalescence gave me the time to focus on the Twelve Acre Wood development and I was able to preserve as much as possible of our Australian ‘landscape’ within the common parkland.”
Most of Colin and Pat’s own garden is in Australian natives, some of which are now well-known in New Zealand, such as grevillea, bottlebrush (Callistemon), kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos), bangalow palms (Archontrophoenix cunninghamiana) and banksias.
But they also have some rarities, including the black-bean tree (Castonospermum australe) with its bright orange flowers, Gymea lily (Doryanthes excelsa) and its soaring flower spikes, and the green-trunked tropical cadagi gum (Corymbia, formerly Eucalyptus, torelliana).
Several plants have surprisingly aromatic foliage with clean, sharp scents – grey mintbush (Prostanthena incana), lemon-scented myrtle (Backhousia citriodora) and lemon-scented ti-tree (Leptospermum citratum).
“It’s nice to have something surprising about a plant,” Colin says of his scented plants, “and there are a wealth of Australian plants in this category.”
Australian flora can generally withstand drought, and any with greyish foliage can handle salt-spray or wind. He has used bottlebrushes, including an unusual weeping variety, extensively in his private and public landscaping.
“They flower for long periods, are fodder for birds and bees, can handle any sort of condition and prune well.”
Colin’s favourite Australian plants are the paperbark gums (Melaleuca) which come in a variety of thick, soft, spongy barks, that peel from the tree and are traditionally used by Aborigines for building shelters, making hats, boats and containers for water and food.
“Because we were once a single land mass, many Australian native plants have relations in New Zealand,” Colin says, “especially if they are Tasmanian natives.”
The Australian ti-trees are related to our manuka, the blueberry ash (Elaeocarpus reticulatus) to the hinau, there is an Australian kauri and cordylines which are related to our cabbage tree, while plum pines (Podocarpus) are related to totara.
Most Australian plants flower from winter into spring and so set seed for a long, dry summer.
This article originally appeared in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission.