And bees …

I had great fun observing all sorts of new plants and wildlife on my trip and discovered that even the bumblebees are different in North America! Apparently there are 50 species in the US, while New Zealand is home to 4, all of which were introduced from Britain.


Most likely Bombus californicus, which is found in western North America. This one was at work in a Seattle garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

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Possibly Bombus sitkensis, a ‘hairy’ bumblebee found from Alaska to California and as far east as Wyoming. Pictured at Icy Strait Point, near Hoonah, Alaska. Photo: Sandra Simpson

As you’ll see if you look at this 2-page North America bumblebee identification chart, you really have to study the insects to be sure of the name.


And here’s a different one again, I think! Could it be Bombus melanopygus? Pictured in a park in Wrangell, Alaska. Photo: Sandra Simpson

If any readers are able to help with ID, I’d love to hear more.


At work on orange hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum) in Wrangell, Alaska. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Orange hawkweed may look pretty but the US government lists it as an ‘invasive’ plant for Alaska and says: “A favourite flower of unwary gardeners and wildflower enthusiasts. Found along roads, riparian areas and beaches. Moves into forb [wildflower] meadows where it spreads aggressively. Forms dense mats, crowding out native plants.”

Now we’re on to the smaller bees, I’m not even going to attempt to name them!


An orange globe mallow flower attracts a bee at the Painted Hills in eastern Oregon. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Orange globe mallow (Sphaeralcea munroana) is a recognised wildflower of the Pacific northwest of the US. Read more here. And read a little about the wildflowers of the John Day Fossil Beds here.


In the same area I saw this bee diving headfirst into the flower to do its job. Photo: Sandra Simpson

I’m tentatively identifying the flower above as Linaria dalmatica as the foliage looks about the same. Linaria are, as you may have guessed from the flower, related to the snapdragon. Both this and Linaria vulgaris (butter and eggs plant, toadflax) are considered weeds in Oregon and started life as garden escapees.

The ‘mossy balls’ I spotted on briar-type rose bushes in Washington state had me scratching my head until I could spend some time with Google. Known as mossy rose galls, they are made by the plant as result of ‘injury’ by one of two wasps. The centre of the gall then becomes a nest for the wasp larvae. Apparently, the galls don’t affect the health of the rose bush. Read more here.

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Mossy rose galls on a rose bush in Port Townsend, Washington. Photo: Sandra Simpson

A Fourth of July visit to the Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve in western Oregon brought about a casual meeting with retired scientist Ron Spendal who ‘as a hobby’ is working with Montana State University to learn more about the grass-carrying wasp (Isodontia).


Ron Spendal checks one of his nesting stations. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The spindle-waisted wasps, which up until 3 years ago weren’t known to be in Oregon, are ‘pretty docile’ as they make solitary nests so don’t have a hive to defend. Their name comes from what they do – carry long strands of dry grass to stuff into small holes and create a nest. Ron’s stations are testing how deep females will go to nest – it’s further than previously thought – and observing the nesting cycle. Females lay about 30 eggs in a lifetime and paralyse drumming katydids, bringing them back for their young to feed on.

Ron says the wasps are pollinators but ‘inadvertently’ as they dip into flowers for an energy-boosting sip or two of nectar. “Bees have feathered hairs designed to collect pollen while wasps have straight hair that just a little bit sticks to.”

Great to see citizen science in action!

This video shows a nest being built (3:50).

Birds …

Plenty of amazing and interesting birds to be seen in the US. My joy knew no bounds when I was introduced to hummingbirds! I think the women standing next to me in the Chihuly Museum garden thought I was bonkers until I explained I’d just seen my first hummingbird – they understood completely.

These pocket rockets are tiny, weighing only a few grams, and make the most amazing buzzing sound as they thrum the air with their wings. They’re pretty bolshie too and drive each other off feeders, their long beaks resembling swords or bayonets! (Having one whoosh right by my ear was scary.)  I began to refer to them as ‘stealth birds’ after seeing one rise vertically above a second-floor deck rail, look around and disappear vertically below the rail!

Because of the energy hovering takes they need nectar/sugar syrup every 10 to 15 minutes – and the rufous hummingbird still manages to migrate each year from Mexico (possibly even Panama) to southern Alaska! Read about the citizen science that is helping track the migration. I can personally confirm how far north these birds go as we were startled to have our red jackets checked out by a hummingbird while on a cruise ship at Hubbard Glacier (60 degrees north)!

This link takes you to an interesting article on what hummingbirds eat – apparently they migrate at the same time as sapsuckers (a kind of woodpecker) and feed from the same sap wells in trees.

Scientists have just released information about their flight patterns, read that here (the flight video is only 52 seconds long).


My first hummingbird, seen in the Chihuly Museum Garden in Seattle. From the corner of my eye it looked like an extraordinarily large insect! Photo: Sandra Simpson



A hummingbird on a feeder at a bed and breakfast stop in Washington. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The state bird of Washington is the American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) – and I was lucky enough to see them in all three ‘lower 48’ states I visited (Washington, Oregon and California). Read more here and listen to its call. They’re also known as the lightning bird, which is a lovely name for such a yellow bird.


American goldfinch in Mt Rainier National Park. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Stellar’s jays (Cyanocitta stelleri) look like what they are – bovver boys! Bold and aggressive, the books say, and likely to be found scavenging food around human habitation, including campgrounds. As you can see from the photo, they’re closely related to the blue jay. Read more about the Stellar jay here.


Stellar’s jay seen in Mt Rainier National Park. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The birds are named for Georg Steller (1709-46), a German-born naturalist. He  discovered them on an Alaskan island in 1741 while on an ill-starred voyage with Danish-born Russian explorer Vitus Bering. Stellar was the first European to step on to what is now Alaska. The story of the voyage, including Stellar wanting to treat scurvy with berries and leaves, is worth a read. His journals were later used by Captain Cook.

And finally, a blackbird … but with a little flash of brilliance (only for the blokes though, typical). Read more here.


A male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) in Oregon. Photo: Sandra Simpson


Butterflies …

I saw a few more butterflies than this while in the Pacific Northwest and northern California, but these are the ones I was able to photograph! The butterflies seemed to be much more fluttery and flitty than the ones I’m used to in New Zealand, which resulted in a certain amount of frustration.

I’ll post the photos in the order I took them, so first up is the Pacific fritillary (Boloria epithore), commonly found from California to British Columbia in Canada.


Pacific fritillary in a canyon in Mt Rainier National Park, Washington State. Photo: Sandra Simpson

I was so excited when I saw the beauty below clinging on like grim death to its flower at the aptly named Windy Ridge viewpoint at Mt St Helens … excited again when I managed to get some good shots of it … and really excited when I identified it as a rare form of checkerspot butterfly! But that’s the danger of the internet – one wrongly named photo becomes ‘fact’. Of course, it turned out to be a fairly common form of the Euphydryas species, but none the less beautiful for that.


Variable checkerspot, possibly (the checkerspots are quite hard to tell apart). On a yarrow flower. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Found the common buckeye (Junonia coenia), below, at a lavender farm cum winery cum olive grove in the Sonoma Valley in northern California, near Santa Rosa. My hostess confirmed the identification but said she had never seen one in the area before! Reading about them, it seems they’re found in eastern Canada and all over the US, apart from the Pacific Northwest …


Common buckeye. Photo: Sandra Simpson


New Auckland garden show postponed

The organisers of the new NZ Flower & Garden Show that was to have been held at Bastion Point in November has been pushed back by a year.

The press release says: “… upon application we have discovered that the event triggers several clauses in the Reserve Board Act which require a longer application period”. I always wonder why consenting isn’t understood well before an event is announced – we had a major music festival cancelled here this year for the same sort of reasons.

Read the full press release here. Disappointing but the venue choice was always going to throw up some special obstacles. The good news is that everyone sounds committed to bringing the show to fruition.

Plant of the Week: Elettaria cardamomum

I know that saffron is the most expensive foodstuff by weight in the world, and so the most expensive spice by weight. So what do you suppose numbers two and three on that spice list are?

Vanilla and cardamom. Vanilla I can understand as it’s not an easy plant to crop, but cardamom? The spice that’s used extensively in Indian food around the world?

The Kew Gardens website reveals that until the 19th century, the world’s supply of cardamom came mainly from wild plants in the Cardamom Hills of the Western Ghats of India and India remained the world’s largest producer until about 1980, when Guatemala took the title. Cardamom is also grown in Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea and Tanzania. Outside India, the main consumers are Middle Eastern countries where it is added to tea and coffee and Scandinavian countries where it’s a popular flavouring for baked goods.

Elettaria cardamomum is a member of the ginger family and is sometimes known as the ‘queen of spices’ alongside black pepper (Piper nigrum), the ‘king of spices’. The dried ripe fruits of cardamom have been used in food and medicine since the 4th century BC – the ancient Greeks and Romans considered it an aphrodisiac!

A cardamom plant growing in the Peter Black Conservatory in Palmerston North. It is flowering from the base. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Bill Laws includes cardamom in his 2011 book Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History.

“The best of the crop went to the royal courts [in India],” he writes. “It was customary to present guests with the gift of cardamom stored in tiny, handcrafted silver or golden barrels and offered in the palm of the hand to the guest … Once the nicotine habit reached India, the silversmiths would prepare for their nawabs green cardamoms covered in silver leaves that had been dipped in rose water laced with tobacco.”

The beautiful orchid-like flowers of Elettaria cardamomum. Photo: Sandra Simpson

See recipes (from well-known British cooks and chefs) that use cardamom here.

Postcard from Mt Rainier

Have been having some glorious weather in Washington State’s national parks, much to the surprise of the locals who reckon a “run” of fine weather is a rarity, even in summer (rains a lot in these parts). We’ve had beautiful clear days to view Olympic National Park, Mt Rainier and Mt St Helens.

Spent the night at Paradise on the slopes of Mt Rainier – arrived in bright sunshine but by 7pm the cloud was rolling in. Oh well. But next morning was bright and clear again so we went for a pre-breakfast walk to nearby Myrtle Falls and the ‘alpine meadows’, although the top of the latter track was still snowed in.

Delighted to see glacier lilies and avalanche lilies, both among the first wildflowers to bloom. Erythronium grandiflorum (glacier lilies) are found from southwestern Canada to New Mexico and because they’re among the earliest to flower come up through the snow. The deep bulbs have been consumed by native people in the past but these days mostly provide food for bears, deer, squirrels and other animals.


A glacier lily with the snowy slopes of Mt Rainier in the background. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Glacier lilies appear to like it a bit higher, while avalanche lilies (Erythronium montanum, their common name coming from their profusion and colour, as well as the fact they flower in avalanche season) grow with them and a little bit further down the mountain.


Avalanche lilies make a pretty sight on the springtime meadows of Mt Rainier. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Their natural range is a bit more restricted, the plants being found from Vancouver Island to northern Oregon.

We feel blessed to have seen both these bulbs in full bloom.

Colour, colour everywhere

To plant and maintain a flower border, with a good scheme for colour, is by no means the easy thing that is commonly supposed: Gertrude Jeykell

A garden full of colourful flowers is a delight to behold – but for it to be a pleasure and not a pain for viewers requires some talent.

English plantswoman Gertrude Jeykell, whose Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden was published in 1914, is considered an authority on the subject while she, in turn, based her theories on the palette used by 19th century painter JMW Turner, renowned for his misty, cloudy seascapes.

Californian landscape designer Nancy Power describes the general theory as using yellow flowers to create a sense of light, with cool blue flowers and grey foliage for contrast and “ending with the brights”.

“I adore colour,” she says. “There is no bad colour – it’s just how you use it.”

Nancy Power. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Nancy Power’s courtyard garden. Photo: Nancy Power

Because her own garden near Venice Beach is relatively small, Nancy uses flowering plants in pots to bring in additional colour. She has also painted a wall a vibrant blue, copied from colour she saw on the Spanish island of Majorca. “As the light changes, the hue of the wall changes and it changes how the garden looks.”

Rosemary Alexander, author, garden designer and principal of The English Gardening School in London, is a regular judge at The Chelsea Flower Show and has seen colour come and go and come into the show gardens, mentioning in particular Luciano Giubbilei’s gold medal garden at the 2009 Chelsea Flower Show.

“It was a very austere garden,” she recalls. “Minimalist with green, clipped hedging and pleached trees. But there was one little patch of wine-red peonies, purple irises, blue sage and astrantias in purple-red colours. It was a slight opening of the door to more.”

Interestingly, Luciano himself says it was that garden that inspired him to begin using flowers in his designs and to seek training at Great Dixter where he was given his own border to play with.

Rosemary Alexander. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Rosemary’s views on colour were confronted when she visited Le Jardin Plume created by Patrick and Sylvie Quibel on an orchard property in Normandy, France. The summer garden is described as a “modern knot garden” with beds enclosed by clipped box hedging and each bed filled with grasses and perennials in hot colours.


Le Jardin Plume. Photo: Rosemary Alexander

“Nothing was staked and everything was mixed in together – dahlias, sunflowers, grasses, red-hot pokers,” Rosemary says. “For anyone from England it was a huge step away from the Rosemary Verrey garden with a touch of pink and a touch of silver.”

But she warns that done without plant knowledge such a garden can look like “an upturned tin of fruit salad”.

Rosemary’s own 0.4ha garden in Hampshire – Sandhill Farm House Garden – which she took on after 11 years as a tenant in a National Trust property where she renovated a 6ha garden, comprises a series of rooms, including a walled garden, a grass border that is “a joy in winter” and a “pretty English garden border” of pinks, mauves and whites.

Rosemary Alexander’s own garden, Sandhill Farm House. Photo: Rosemary Alexander

Tauranga landscape designer Michelle McDonnell points out the light in New Zealand is so clear that colours appear to be much stronger than in Europe, which is why, she says, so many Kiwis prefer cooling green and white gardens.

“Our growing season is also much longer than in Europe – they celebrate their short summer and hazy light with abundant, blowsy colour. Yes, it’s lovely to have colour in the garden, but we have to be careful how we do it.”

Tauranga landscape designer Michelle McDonnell. Photo: Michelle McDonnell

The yellow border at Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens. Photo: Sandra Simpson

In his 2009 book Colourful Gardens, Dennis Greville says in the preface that he wants emotion, passion and an interplay of light and shadow in a garden, things he believes are missing from the majority of the nation’s plots.

The book is divided into colour scheme sections with each containing a double-page photo spread of suggestions for each season. He also introduces readers to colour theory use in gardens – harmonies, optical effects and the difference between warm and cool colours.

“You shouldn’t be afraid of colour,” Michelle says, “but its use does need to be thought through. If there’s too much colour in a garden then it looks spotty and loses something. It’s always best to group colours for impact.”

This garden owner chose her plants first and the paint for her table second. Photo: Sandra Simpson

And she believes a garden should reinforce the house it surrounds. “Take a colour from the house, say the roof or joinery or even paving, and bring that colour into the garden to make the building look as though it should be there. And don’t let anyone tell you that green isn’t a colour – it’s the best one of the lot.”

To read Colour Scheme for the Flower Garden, go here for the list of chapters.

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