Weeds, pests & a new hero

I spent last weekend in beautiful Wanaka at the Aspiring Conversations festival. I was very excited to hear Tim Flannery (scientist and founder of Australia’s independent Climate Council), climate researcher Suzi Kerr and science communicator Veronika Meduna talk about climate change.

Relevant to gardeners and farmers was that in New Zealand we can expect more dry days in winter and spring although the rain that does fall will do so in heavier and more intense bursts which will mean more flooding.

More insect pests will make it through milder winters, meaning populations will not make a slow gain as spring continues but already be strong and in good numbers at the start of spring. As someone who doesn’t spray, this was worrying. Personal experience tells me that a cold snap in winter really knocks back pests that would otherwise over-winter in good numbers. Balance will be lost.

Another comment was that the planet doesn’t need us to save it – in fact, it doesn’t need us at all!


The fruit of Cornus capitata are, apparently, edible, although can be bitter. The birds were certainly leaving them alone. Photo: Sandra Simpson

I stayed in the Wanaka Hotel, which featured a Pye radio fitted to the wall above the bed (I didn’t try it). Saw an interesting tree from my balcony so nipped down to photograph it and on the morning I was leaving was lucky enough to meet the knowledgeable owner(?) who this weekend is at the Dendrology NZ conference at Eastwoodhill Arboretum.

Cornus capitata, he said, strawberry tree. Although native to the Himalayas, India and China, the Waiere Nursery says it tolerates only light frosts, while the Weedbusters website lists it as a pest, although doesn’t stipulate whether that is New Zealand wide.

The fruit, which is what I spotted, forms at the centre of a ‘flower’ that is in reality four pale petal-shaped bracts. The Missouri Botanical Garden website notes that it is not reliably evergreen and in colder areas may drop foliage.

A weed that’s been making the news – and sounds rather alarming – is velvetleaf. It has been found in fooder beet crops in both the North and South Islands and the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) is asking for help.

Search and destroy activities have been conducted on more than 600 properties since March when velvetleaf was discovered in several regions with the weed found on 215 properties in 11 regions to date.

Dr Veronica Herrera, director of investigations, diagnostics and response, says MPI is continuing to investigate how contaminated fodder beet seed entered New Zealand and has beefed up border inspections.

“MPI has already established that some lines of fodder beet seed grown in Italy and pelletised in Denmark were contaminated with velvetleaf. These lines have been banned from entry into New Zealand.” MPI’s velvetleaf hotline is 0800 80 99 66.

I know some people don’t take our biosecurity very seriously – and it can be jolly annoying not to be able to buy bulbs in Schiphol Airport or to leave flower seed or a cutting in a foreign garden – but this is why we should. Farming, forestry, horticulture and floriculture are how some families earn their living so every incursion is a threat to someone being able to put bread on the table for their kids or a roof over their heads.

Meanwhile, Honshu white admiral butterflies (Limenitis glorifica) have been released to combat the pest plant Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). “The big issue with Japanese honeysuckle is that because it’s a climber it’s really hard to kill with herbicides without killing the thing it’s climbing on at the same time. Biocontrol is seen as a friendlier way to control it,” says Landcare Research scientist Quentin Paynter.

And with nothing to predate on it – until now – the plant has became a major problem in some areas.

The white admiral butterfly was chosen after field surveys in Japan indicated that it is found in a variety of habitats from hot lowland sites to cool mountain areas, suggesting it should be able to adapt to New Zealand.

The release of the first butterflies in 2013 in Wellington and the next year in Waikato was a milestone after numerous setbacks including disruption to the research programme because of the Canterbury earthquakes and the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

Japanese honeysuckle was introduced to New Zealand as a garden plant but has become firmly established in bush environments – and grows up to 15m a year in ideal conditions. White admiral caterpillars feed exclusively on Japanese honeysuckle.

The latest newsletter from Te Puna Quarry Park reveals that they’re trying to establish a white admiral colony there. It appears they’ve succeeded in establishing a yellow admiral population, but no luck yet with the red admirals.

News Digest

Chelsea Flower Show favourite UK designer Dan Pearson has started an online magazine called Dig Delve which will “feature stories about gardens, horticulture, plants, landscape, nature, food growing and eating, and will also look at inspirational growers, producers, farmers, makers, cooks, florists, artists and craftspeople”. Read the first issue here.

Didn’t make it to last month’s Melbourne Flower Show? Never mind, Catherine Stewart from Garden Drum was there as our eyes, ears and inquiring mind. Read her thoughts and see photos – Trends, Trophies & Tidbits and Avenue of Achievable Gardens by student landscapers.

Various plants in my garden have struggled with this summer’s extended humidity – and yes, some have died. Kate Wall at Garden Drum explains why growing in the subtropics isn’t just about the heat. Read her post here.

Just for garden tourists, The Guardian offers a list of 10 of the best gardens … that you’ve probably never heard of.

Don’t be alarmed myrtle rust has not arrived in New Zealand – yet. However, the Ministry of Primary Industries is asking gardeners to remain alert and have prepared a webpage showing what it looks like and what to do if you think you’ve spotted it. See it here.

Box tree moth (Cydalima perspectalis), a native of East Asia is spreading through England after first being spotted in 2008, while one Dutch grower reports that Switzerland is buying very little box now “due to the blight and the moth”. Read the full story here.

It’s a long and winding road, but the nub of the story about the latest “buzz band” is that its members are 40,000 bees, and their activity forms the basis of One, “a transcendental drone symphony between man and bee that is surely one of the year’s most beguiling offerings”. The “soundscape” was created especially for an art pavilion designed to represent a hive. Read the whole story here.

And while on the subject of bees: Newly published research shows that bees looking for nectar need to be able to spot flower petals and recognise which coloured flowers are full of food. Professor Beverley Glover, of Cambridge University’s Botanic Gardens and who is also Head of the Evolution and Development Group at the university’s Department of Plant Sciences, and Dr Heather Whitney from the University of Bristol found that iridescence – the shiny, colour-shifting effect seen on soap bubbles – makes flower petals more obvious to bees, but that too much iridescence confuses bees’ ability to distinguish colours. Read more here.

And just one more … while the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were in Bhutan last week they presented the Queen with a gift – a rose named for her. King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema founded the annual Royal Bhutan Flower Show last year and have created an English garden.

The Daily Mail reports: The red flower, named the Queen of Bhutan Rose, was developed as a special gesture for the King and his wife, who has been dubbed the ‘Kate Middleton of the Himalayas’. (Don’t you hope the last bit of that sentence has been made up? Maybe we should dub Kate the ‘Jetsun Pema of the Home Counties’.) Read the full report here.

Orchids ahoy!

Apologies for not getting this posted sooner but I found myself exhausted after two half-days at the Te Puke Orchid Show – obviously, not getting any younger!

Despite a strange growing season – very hot and very humid for a long period – there was a nice display from both Bay of Plenty and Tauranga orchid societies, plus displays from commercial growers.

The champion orchid was last year’s reserve champion, so well done to Carl Christensen of Napier.

Oncidium trulliforum, grown by Carl Christensen of Napier. Photo: Sandra Simpson.

The plant also received an award from the national Orchid Council and Lee Neale was delegated to count the flowers!

Reserve champion went to Thomas Brown of Whangarei with his delicately coloured Ascocenda orchid.

Ascocenda Charlie Barg x Ascocenda Varot Gold, grown by Thomas Brown of Whangarei. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Thomas Brown was for a number of years head grower at the Eric Young Orchid Foundation on the island of Jersey but these days runs Kentia Palms in Whangarei, a business that also includes orchids.

With orchid enthusiasts visiting from Auckland, Taranaki, Whakatane and Hamilton, the show was a great place for good advice! For your enjoyment, here are some of the beauties that were in the displays.

Ornithophora radicans. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Cattleya Lulu x Cattleya Summerland Girl was on the display table of Lee and Roy Neale (LeRoy Orchids). Photo: Sandra Simpson

Attracting attention on the Neales’ display was Epidendrum Snow Cocktail x Pacific Sunset x Pacific Darling. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Dracula chimaera, grown by Conrad Coenen of Apata (near Tauranga), is also known as the monkey-face orchid. Photo: Sandra Simpson


Little jewels

“Orchids keep me sane,” says Wilma Fitzgibbons of her plant collection, “but I think they drive my husband insane.”

Wilma has had Parkinson’s disease since 2007, diagnosed when recovering from breast cancer, and enjoys retreating to the peace of her plants, although problems with a knee meant husband Tony had to take over watering for a long while, hence the “insane” comment.


Wilma Fitzgibbons in her orchid house. Photo: Sandra Simpson

She is this week getting ready for the annual Bay of Plenty Orchid Society show in Te Puke on Friday and Saturday (April 8 and 9) from 10am-4pm. Wilma not only has orchids in the judged section but also puts plenty of plants on the sales table.

Raised in Mount Maunganui – and recalling as a teenager catching the ferry to work in Tauranga (sitting by the funnel in winter to stay warm) – Wilma lives in Papamoa where, because of frosts and salt-laden winds, she grows her orchids under cover.

She prefers smaller orchids, some of them extremely miniature, and has an array of magnifying glasses for visitors to view and appreciate the flowers. Small plants means she can fit more into her greenhouse and grows them both in pots (on layered shelves) and mounted on wood, ranging from hard wood to cork (hanging in tiers on racks). There are another three shade houses in the back yard, containing mostly bromeliads and tillandsias with an orchid here and there, plus more bromeliads outside.


Aerangis hyaloides mounted on a piece of cork. This orchid, grown by Helen McDonald, is native to one area in Madagascar and is included in Wilma’s collection. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Wilma joined the Bay of Plenty Orchid Society in 1980, taken along by friends who later dropped out, and since then has been newsletter editor, secretary, president and is now treasurer.

She is also a member of the Tauranga Orchid Society (which meets in the evening; the BOP society has daytime meetings) and when she spent 15 months working in Auckland Wilma joined a subtropical plant group and a cycad group. “I’ll grow anything,” she says. “Anything that tickles my fancy.”

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Aerangis mystacidii is found from Tanzania to South Africa, including Swaziland. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The highlight of her involvement with orchids was a 1996 trip to South America that included the world conference in Brazil and a night’s stay at the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru.

“As a collector I prefer species orchids over hybrids so to see them in their natural environment among the ruins was a dream come true. The day-tourists left at 3pm and then the mist came down. It was magic.

“The plants can be interesting in their own right – their roots, the way they hang, their new growths – even without flowers,” Wilma says. “But you have to keep looking at them, a flower spike can appear almost overnight.”

This article was first published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission.

Cropping now

There’s nothing I like better than picking a crop of food. Our magic beans – probably flat Italian runners – have been enjoyed throughout the summer as well as packed into freezer bags for enjoying later in the year with some pods dried for seed for next year’s plants. King’s Seeds stock flat Italian runners.

Flat Italian runner beans, possibly. They can be eaten raw, pod and all, and don’t need much cooking. Full of flavour. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Down on the farm over Easter I spied enough walnuts on the young tree to be worth picking – next year the top of the tree may be beyond my reach. The green outer skins were splitting so easy enough to prise off (and an indication that it was about time to harvest them). We’re air drying them in the shell now, according to this website it will take about 2 weeks.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

My great-aunt had a massive walnut tree next to her home and harvested the nuts every year. I seem to think she had a wire-wove mattress base (or two) in a shed that she laid them out on to dry. Even if I’m mis-remembering, it’s a good idea because air can circulate under the shells as well.

The Vege Grower and I wandered around the paddocks a couple of times hunting for mushrooms and were rewarded with a meagre supply, although enough for buttered mushrooms on toast for lunch. Delicious. Freshly picked field mushrooms bear as much resemblance to supermarket mushrooms, in terms of taste, as champagne does to Adam’s ale!

With more steers than sheep now in the paddocks and several paddocks having been turned over and resown, mushrooms were hard to find – although we may have been a bit early in the season too. In the end, we took just as many from the farm house lawn as from the nearby paddocks. On our way home we saw a woman with huge bags of “field mushrooms” selling from the side of the road near Hunterville and had heard of a property near the farm where the paddocks were “white” with mushrooms. Ah, well.

Other images from the farm …

This buttercup has positioned itself between the boards of the fence, resulting in an odd shape and the problem of how to remove it. Photo: Sandra Simpson

As far as I know, the farm’s crabapples have never been anything other than ornamental. My mother once tried to use quinces but gave it up as a bad job. Photo: Sandra Simpson

At home we’ve collected 8 pumpkins off our vines (grown from saved seed) and have white onions galore.

All the tomato plants have come out now but as a last hurrah the Vege Grower made another batch of his delicious tomato relish (Edmond’s cook book). Photo: Sandra Simpson

And finally, our apples. We moved the Blush Babe tree from the front garden to a more open aspect in the back yard and this year have had our best crop of apples yet – thankfully, as the two columnar trees (Waltz and Polka) decided not to bear at all this year! Here’s a webpage about growing apples in smaller spaces, well worth a read.

Blush Babe apples. Photo: Sandra Simpson