Our native plants: White rata

Strolling through Pukekura Park in New Plymouth and  there in front of me was a breaking wave of white flowers, foaming all the way up a tree trunk and being much enjoyed by bees. A glorious sight.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

Metrosideros perforata is part of the pohutukawa-rata family, one of 12 species native to New Zealand. It has the typical small leaves of many plants native to the under-storey of Aotearoa and you’ve probably passed it in the bush without necessarily realising what it was as the vines make a distinctive ‘mosaic’ pattern as they ascend tree trunks. Read about Metrosideros and some of the family members at the informative O2 Landscape website.

White rata (akatea) can be found throughout the North Island in the west of the South Island and as far south as Banks Peninsula in the east. It can apparently form a small shrub if it’s not allowed to climb and my copy of Gardening with New Zealand Plants, Shrubs & Trees (Fisher et al, 1988) even recommends it as an alternative to box hedging! In fact, botanist Allan Cunningham (1791-1839) at one point named this plant Metrosideros buxifolia after noting its similarity to the common Buxus. The O2 Landscape website includes a photo of Metrosideros perforata growing in a shrub-like manner and suggesting that, indeed, it might be a useful hedging plant for anything from 40cm high to 1.5m. The Native Plant Centre in Albany, north Auckland, lists white rata for sale, as does Oratia Native Plant Nursery in west Auckland. Both appear to deliver around the country.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

Quoting Elsdon Best from The Pa Māori (1927), the website author says: “Metrosideros perforata had a valuable practical purpose for Māori, as it was one of the primary species used for lashing (of weapons as well as palisades). The thin young stems were tied in a green state, when they were still pliable, and subsequently dried to become very hard and rigid”.

Figs & honey


Our first summer figs. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Vege Grower came in the other night with an armful of figs. Yum. Believe it or not, this is our first-ever crop of summer figs – the forming figlets usually get blown off in the spring gales but with the winds about 3 weeks late the figlets were that bit bigger and able to hold on. We’ve still a lost a few in the interim, but reckon an armful is pretty good for a tree on a town section grown in a half wine barrel.

And it looks like we’ll have an autumn crop as well (that’s the one we usually get to enjoy). Technically, the autumn crop is the crop, the earlier one is known as a breba crop [from a northern hemisphere source]: A breba (breva in Spanish) is a fig that develops in the spring on the previous year’s shoot growth. In contrast, the main fig crop develops on the current year’s shoot growth and ripens in late summer or fall.

Our tree is a Mrs Williams, but there are plenty of fig varieties available in New Zealand, start your search at incredible edibles.

And with another 9kg of honey harvested yesterday, guess what we’re having for dinner?

Taranaki Orchid Show

Slipped off to New Plymouth for a long weekend with the excuse that it was about time I visited the Taranaki Orchid Society Summer Show. I talked myself out of the stress of trying to transport a flowering orchid in the heat of summer – I haven’t moved a flowering orchid any distance to a show before – and instead brought back photos, 4 small plants and some supplies!

Champion of the show was Dendrobium Gerald McCraith grown by Jenny Walsh. The hybrid was registered in 1995 and is named for the co-founder of the Australian Orchid Foundation. Read more about the plant here.

Dendrobium Gerald McCraith grown by Jenny Walsh of the Taranaki Orchid Society was adjudged the best in show. Photo: Sandra Simpson

About half-a-dozen Tauranga Orchid Society members were there, some showing, and among those with sales tables outside were people from Auckland, Wellington, Napier and Whakatane. Attending a summer show meant I was introduced to a whole lot of plants that I almost never see in flower. Lots of fun with the camera.

Disa Pukekura Park ‘Red Grandeur’ bred by the late George Fuller and named after his beloved Pukekura Park, a well-established city greenspace. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Read more about George Fuller here; he passed away last year. Disa Pukekura Park was first shown in 2011.

One of the champion orchids – Epidendrum Pacific Sparkle x Pacific Senorita – has its vital details recorded. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Another orchid on the champions’ table was Cattleya guttata, grown by Helen McDonald of Tauranga. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Bulbophyllum pecten-veneris has a striking flower. Another from the champions’ table. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Bulbophyllum pecten-veneris is native to part of China, Hong Kong, south Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. It grows in evergreen lowland forests at elevations of 800 to 1200m and is classed as a warm to cool-growing plant.

And I couldn’t resist this one shown below, Encyclia alata makes a pretty picture.

Apparently the flowers of Encyclia alata are lightly fragrant. Photo: Sandra Simpson


Tree of the moment: Grevillea robusta

I’ve been promising myself for years to photograph a Grevillea robusta when the trees are in flower and, finally, in the dying days of 2015 I got round to it!

Native to Australia, the tree’s common name is Silky Oak. Stirling Macoboy says in his handy What Tree is That? book that Grevillea robusta has been “an outstanding success as a street tree, a garden specimen and a source of hard, beautifully grained timber”, adding that it grows all over the tropical and sub-tropical world and has been mass planted for timber in Hawaii.

Kew Garden’s entry for the tree updates the situation in Hawaii, saying that the tree is now considered a serious weed, although is still used as a shade tree in coffee plantations there, as it is in Brazil and India. Grevillea robusta performs the same purpose in tea plantations in China, India and Sri Lanka. Read more here.

It’s even been given ‘weed’ status around Sydney and in the Blue Mountains in its native Australia! You can read more about that here. “It is so easy to grow from seed,” Macoboy says, “you wouldn’t think of propagating it any other way.” And therein lies its danger.

It grows to up to 50m as a tree but oddly enough, is grown as an indoor plant in temperate regions.

The tree’s flowers are attractive to nectar-feeding birds. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Grevillea family of plants was named for Charles Francis Greville (1749-1809), Earl of Warwick, Lord of the Admiralty, founder member of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1804 and vice-president of the Royal Society.

Greville, who never married, lived for a long time in London where he indulged his passion for gardening, including having glasshouses in which he grew many rare tropical plants, aided by his friendship with Sir Joseph Banks, and where he coaxed the Vanilla planifolia orchid to flower for the first time under glass, in the winter of 1806-07.

Greville Harbour forms part of D’Urville Island, at the very northern tip of the South Island (New Zealand), and was named to honour his memory  in 1820.

Our native plants: Dawsonia superba

Another gem from my visit to Maungatautari restoration project, a ‘mainland ecological island’, also known as Sanctuary Mountain, was spotting Dawsonia superba, one of the world’s tallest mosses. It also grows in Australia and Papua New Guinea, according to the Nature Guide to the New Zealand Forest by John Dawson and Rob Lucas (Godwit, 2000).

dawsoniasuperba - Copy

Dawsonia superba. Photo: Sandra Simpson

It can grow up to 50cm tall but its spores are only 6 to 10 micrometres, and are among the smallest of moss spores. They are spread by raindrops falling on the moss.