Plant stories: Leonard Messel

Bursting forth over the past week or so have been gorgeous magnolia blooms, borne on bare branches and a sure sign that the sap is rising and spring is on the way.

The Wairere Nursery website has a fascinating little story about magnolias, so ancient they were on the Earth before the honey bee. As a result, magnolias are usually pollinated by a beetle. Named for an 18th century French botanist Pierre Magnol, magnolias are divided into two main types – deciduous (from Asia) and evergreen (mostly from America).

The flowers of Magnolia Leonard Messel are a deeper colour on the back … Photo: Sandra Simpson

The tree we’re looking at today was named for Leonard Messel, the owner of Nymans garden in Sussex, England where this ‘star’ magnolia was found in the 1950s. It was a sport of Magnolia × loebneri Kache, which itself is a hybrid of the Japanese Magnolia kobus and Magnolia stellata. The hybridiser was Garteninspektor Max Löbner of Pillnitz, Germany, who made the cross shortly before World War I. Ironically, Leonard Messel, who wanted to fight for Britain, was refused active service because of his German name and the fact his father had been German (the family were Jewish).

Nymans was developed by three generations of the Messel family with Leonard (son of the original purchaser Ludwig) and his wife Maud thought to have brought it to its peak – along with their heard gardener James Comber, who started at Nymans in 1895 aged 29, and was a keen hybridiser. Comber’s son Harold undertook seed-collecting expeditions to South America in the 1920s and was a well-known plantsman in his own right, later emigrating to the US.

… and are almost white on the inside. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The garden is part of the National Trust and open to the public. There are other plants named for the family, including Camellia Leonard Messel and Camellia Maud Messel.

By way of a digression, photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, the former husband of Princess Margaret (and the first Earl Snowden), is a grandson of Leonard and Maud Messel. His ‘royal’ children also display artistic talent – furniture designer David Linley (Viscount Linley) and Lady Sarah Chatto, a painter. Lord Snowden also has three more children from three other relationships, Lady Frances von Hoffmanstahl (nee Armstrong-Jones, who has set up the Snowden Archive to catalogue her father’s work), Jasper Cable-Alexander and Polly Higson (nee Fry).

Pride of NZ

Shirley Sparks, doyenne of the Te Puna Quarry Park, is a finalist in the Pride of NZ Awards – and needs your vote to win the People’s Choice Award (not that I’m biased or anything!).

Go here to see a lovely short video of Shirley, 85, talking about how and why she started the project to reclaim 32ha of abandoned quarry for the community. If you’re so inclined, you can follow the Vote Now tab at the bottom of the page and cast your vote for Shirley.

Or, click on the People’s Choice tab at the top of the page and see all the most worthy and deserving finalists.

Eating thistles

British author and blogger Tom Cox has gone a bit Tiggerish on a forage and tried eating a thistle.

There can be a tendency to force your mind open when you eat a thistle, prepare yourself for it tasting surprisingly different to your preconceptions, but what it actually tastes like is a thistle. At best, you might say it tasted like a fibrous, angry cucumber, which doesn’t really work for me as someone who’s always believed cucumber to be redolent of many of the most disappointing parts of British life.

Read the rest of the yarn here. It sent me happily back to the bookshelf to hunt out one of my favourite authors, A. A. Milne and the Pooh story In Which Tigger Comes to the Forest and Has Breakfast. Pooh, who meets Tigger first, kindly offers him some honey and tries to be Sad and Regretful when Tigger decides he doesn’t like honey.

After going to Piglet’s and trying haycorns they set off for Eeyore’s patch of the woods … So he took a large mouthful, and he gave a large crunch.
Ow!” said Tigger.
He sat down and put his paw in his mouth.
“What’s the matter?” asked Pooh.
Hot,” mumbled Tigger.
“Your friend,” said Eeyore, “appears to have bitten on a bee.”
Pooh’s friend stopped shaking his head to get the prickles out, and explained that Tiggers didn’t like thistles.
“Then why bend a perfectly good one?” asked Eeyore.


 The flower of the Carduus acanthoides (welted thistle). Photo: © David Pérez (DPC), Wikimedia Commons, License cc-by-sa-4.0

On her Saveur blog, Mirielle Johnston recalls the delights and traditions of eating cardoon, a thistle relative, in Provence:

“The cardoon, Cynara cardunculus, a member of the thistle family … is also the ancestor of the globe artichoke … Food scholar Clifford Wright, among others, believes the artichoke is merely a cultivated cardoon that debuted in Europe in the 15th century.

“The cardoon itself apparently became domesticated around the same time, in Italy. In its cultivated form, it grew to a height of as much as seven feet (wild, the plant was rarely more than three feet high) and had fewer thorns but fleshier leaves and stalks. Legend has it that all of these improvements were achieved by early agriculturalists simply soaking cardoon seeds in a mixture of rosewater and lavender and bay oils. Experimental gardeners were able to refine the vegetable still further by tying the plant at the top and shielding it from the sun for several weeks, thereby obtaining more delicate white centre stalks.”

Here’s some information about Cynara cardunculus, also the cardoon eaten in Sicily. The Libaliano Kitchen blog shares information and a recipe for a’kkoub (Gundelia tournefortii),  a prickly plant and another in the sunflower family, that is consumed in Lebanon, while the Backyard Farmer blog (NZ) shares cardoon experiences – good and not so great.

An interesting footnote about Gundelia tournefortii is that its pollen was discovered on the Shroud of Turin in 1998, leading to speculation that this was the Crown of Thorns plant.

Chris Hope has written an article about the edible thistles of Britain (all of them, apparently). Read it here.


I picked up a copy of The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories (1992) for $1 at a recent book sale and have been steadily working my way through the short stories, arranged in chronological order. When I got to Thornapple by Ruth Rendell, which was towards the back of the book, I had the odd experience of immediately recognising the plant being described, even though I previously hadn’t known its name.

“The plant, which was growing up against the wall between the gooseberry bushes, stood about two feet high and had pointed, jaggedly toothed, oval leaves of a rich, dark green. It bore, at the same time, a flower and a fruit. The trumpet-shaped flower had a fine, delicate texture and was of the purest white, while the green fruit, which rather resembled a chestnut though it was of a darker colour, had spines growing all over it that had rather a threatening or warning look.”

The fruit of the thornapple. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Rendell goes on to name the plant as Datura stramonium or thornapple or Jimson’s weed, native to Asia, and highly poisonous (and goes on to make this toxic trait a key plot point).

Why did I recognise it? Because one popped up in my garden not so long ago and I let it grow to flowering size to see what it was. Goodness knows where the seed came from, perhaps deposited by a bird, although the TERRAIN website suggests seeds may be carried in the hair of animals. It is also poisonous to livestock.

Once the spiky fruit arrived it clearly wasn’t a plant I wanted to let seed, so after a few pictures, out it came (while wearing gloves, it had alarmed me that much, some sort of primitive response). The flowers seemed to last for about 24 hours, but there were plenty of them – which is why weeds are weeds, I suppose. They’re good at reproduction and not minding where they grow.

Unfortunately, the flowers were closed when I took this (and then I pulled it out) but were white and trumpet-shaped. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Thornapple is, according to Te Ara Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, the second most likely plant to cause severe poisoning in this country (behind the castor oil plant or Ricinus communis).

On the road: Osmanthus Garden

On a recent visit to Hastings I spied “Chinese garden” on a driving tour pamphlet and so made a point of seeking it out.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

The garden is a tangible reminder of the sister-city link between Hastings and Guilin in China – the first such link in New Zealand.

The garden project began in 1989 when the Hawkes Bay Chinese Association raised $14,000 for the building of a Chinese pavilion in Cornwall Park. This pavilion later became an integral piece of the Osmanthus Garden designed by Zhao Jian of the Guangxi Institute of Botany, who spent a year in Hastings on the project.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

The garden, which opened in 1996, features many plants traditional to Chinese gardens, including bamboo, camellia, maples, ornamental blossom trees and the Osmanthus fragrans trees the garden is named after. There are water features (including the sound of water), a full moon gate that leads into the garden from the main road (typically, we approached it through the back entry), a zig-zag bridge and a rock that has come from Taihu Lake near Shanghai.

The garden is lit at night during an autumn festival in March that has run for the past five years, and features lanterns especially imported from Guilin.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

The sister-city link was initiated by fruit crop research scientist Dr Don McKenzie who visited Guilin in 1977 and established professional links with the Guangxi Institute of Botany. After the respective mayors had visited each other’s cities, the formal sister-city agreement was signed in 1981.

Dr Don, as he was known, also re-established the Hawke’s Bay branch of the New Zealand-China Friendship Society (and was founding president) in 1985, as well as setting up a horticulture technician placement scheme. After his death in a car crash in 1988, the Guilin Ribao newspaper described him as a “friendship messenger”. He was hailed nationally and internationally as a leader in pipfruit research – in 1965 he had named the Gala apple variety (although the natural cross had been known since 1934 it didn’t have an official name).

Tree of the moment: Gordonia axillaris

Gordonia axillaris has the common name fried egg tree – and it’s not hard to see why, especially as the flat, white flowers with their generous yellow centres don’t die on the tree, but fall and land face up on the ground beneath. As you might guess from the flowers, camellias are closely related. Almost the nicest thing about this tree, for me, is that it flowers in winter – plus the evergreen leaves develop red tips in the colder seasons.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

Native to southern China, G. axillaris grows to about 3-5m high and wide. It can be pruned to promote bushiness. The genus is named for James Gordon, an 18th-century London nurseryman; while some of the flowers grow in the leaf axils, hence the species name, axillaris.

The Burke’s Backyard website (Australia) recommends planting in full sun to part shade in well-drained, slightly acidic soil. Fertilise in spring with azalea and camellia food or any all-round fertiliser.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

There are about 40 species in the Gordonia family, with only two not native to Asia.

A cousin to Gordonia, the deciduous US native Franklinia alatamaha (Franklin tree, named for Benjamin Franklin) has been extinct in the wild since 1803 – the only member of that family. Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens has one specimen growing on in its nursery. Read more about the Franklin tree here by the always-entertaining Tim Entwisle.