When David Brown left the world-famous Pukeiti rhododendron garden in Taranaki he took two special things with him – a love of vireya rhododendrons and a wife.
David was plant propagator and assistant curator, “two down from the top, three up from the bottom”, when Pauline, who had been born and raised near Te Puke, joined the horticultural staff.
The couple decided their future lay in vireya rhododendrons, which make up about a third of the 900-strong rhododendron species, and in 1987 bought 2.6ha at Te Puna to establish their nursery, Versatile Vireyas.
“When we were at Pukeiti we saw vireyas as the next big plant,” David says. “And we haven’t seen anything to change our minds. They tick all the boxes, the biggie being in flower year-round.
“New Zealand has always been at the forefront of collecting and hybridising plants because this is one of the few countries where they will do well anywhere.”
Hailing from southeast Asia, roughly Malaysia to Papua New Guinea, the “tropical” rhododendrons grow naturally from sea-level where temperatures may easily reach 40C to altitudes of 3048m where temperatures can fall to freezing.
“We were lucky in that collectors were bringing in plants from the 1950s,” David says, paying tribute to former Te Puna nurseryman John Kenyon who imported many hybrids. “It means hybridisers have a good range of material to work with.”
John was author of Vireyas for New Zealand Gardens, published in 1997, and had a garden centre-nursery, Te Puna Cottage Gardens, for a number of years.
Although they don’t do much in the way of hybridising themselves, the Browns do release plants for breeders, including in the past few years the purplish-pink Solar Flare, a parent to Vanilla Slice, itself a lightly scented vireya also released by the Browns, and the orange-tinted Flash Harry.
With more than 20,000 plants in their nursery, the couple don’t find much time to spend in their large garden which is heavy on vireyas, among them Red Mountain which maintains its compact shape without pruning and which, David says, is never without a flower.
“But on the upside our garden does show that these are plants that need minimal care,” David says.
For more information also see vireya.net, an online alphabetical gallery of flower photos and plant information. Sorry, but there’s no guarantee they’ll all be available in New Zealand.
This article was first published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission. It has been edited slightly.