A meadow in captivity

Excerpts from a book I have read recently and loved – Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel (Penguin Random House, 2014). Just the thing to while away a pleasant summer’s afternoon or to curl up with beside the fire. The book ambles its way through a calendar year in a meadow on the England-Wales border, however the quotes I’ve chosen are not in chronological order.

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I fell in love when I was fourteen with a flower meadow, perfectly set off by a wooden field gate beside the Wye … John Clare found his poems in a field. Sometimes I find words. There is nothing like working the land for growing and reaping lines of prose.

Stepping into the field is to step on to a vast square stage in which I am the last person on earth. There is not a house or person or car to be seen. It is the sort of field where, as you step in, you breathe out.

To stand alone in a field in England and listen to the morning chorus of the birds is to remember why life is precious.

There are days in desolate November when you still hear the hollering of fighting men, of horses’ hooves pounding on the shingle of the Ecsley. And where are the dead men buried? In this brookside field, probably, where the clay is relatively easy to dig into … The gentle pasture of England is tomb after tomb of animals and men, roofed with green.

A lawn, when you come to think of it, is nothing but a meadow in captivity … Alas, modern lawns have little wildlife value. Most are green deserts, marinated in chemicals comprised of only a couple of grass species and shorn stupid once a week in summer. But in the Middle Ages a lawn was more like a meadow; it was a ‘flowery mead’; and bursting with perfumed wildflowers and herbs and grasses.

Fantail fun

Okay, so not all birds are garden-friendly – pukeko and blackbirds are notorious for pulling out seedlings, for instance – all of the time but many have their uses to us as gardeners and they all make a garden a much more interesting place to be.

We’ve been intrigued and delighted in equal measure to observe fledgling fantails the past few evenings. They flit around in a pack (maybe five or six, it’s hard to tell) and sit in a line on the badminton net or perch together on a plant obelisk, but then one gets antsy with another and they’re off in a flurry of feathers and chirping until they settle again.

The fantail at the front is older (white eyebrow and a longer tail) so may be a parent of the younger ones. Photo: Sandra Simpson

At this stage they’re little puffballs of feathers without those ‘angry’ white eyebrows and their distinctive tails are still quite short. They also don’t yet know enough, or aren’t strong enough, to stay off the ground in their hunt for insects – adults usually stay in the air hunting, zipping this way and that to capture insects on the wing. Happily, they’ve discovered the whitefly, etc in the orange tree and are also happy hunting in there.

So hard to photograph well – coming on dusk and boy, do these little birds flit! Photo: Sandra Simpson

A fantail inside the house is, supposedly, an omen of a death – my grandmother was always desperate to shoo out any that came in, generally in the heat of summer when the front door was left open. We’d dash about with brooms and long-handled dusters to try and herd it back the way it had come.

This superstition probably derives from the Maori legend that the fantail is responsible for the presence of death in the world. The demi-god Maui believed he could eradicate death by passing through the body of the goddess of death, Hine-nui-te-po. He planned to enter the goddess’s sleeping body through her birth canal and had warned the fantail to be quiet. However, the little bird began laughing (its cheep-cheep call) and woke Hine-nui-te-po, who promptly killed Maui.

But in case you think from this that the fantail is a foolish bird, the tale above is actually the second act in a revenge drama. Act One went like this:

Maui wanted to keep his family warm while Mahuika, the goddess of fire, was trying to keep them in the dark and cold through the long winter months. After discovering the piwakawaka had the information he needed, Maui caught the bird and demanded the location of the fire. “Tell me or I’ll squeeze you to death.” As he squeezed harder, the bird’s tail fanned out and his eyes bulged from the pressure – resulting in piwakawaka’s characteristic appearance today. The bird revealed where the fire was hidden … but didn’t forget his rough treatment at the hands of Maui.

Read more about the fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa, piwakawaka) at NZ Birds Online (includes audio recordings of their song).

Three more sleeps …

Bethlehem, once a village on the outskirts of Tauranga, is now part of the city. Not sure if they still do it, but the Post Office used to offer a hand-franking service that featured a star and ‘Bethlehem NZ’ clearly marked. The area is known as Peterehema in Maori. Photo: Sandra Simpson

For anyone needing last-minute ideas, here’s how to make a Christmas tree from succulents and a DIY Christmas wreath, instructions courtesy of Palmers.

Plant stories: Poinsettia

Chances are – if you live in the northern hemisphere – you’ll be given, or have been given, a poinsettia for Christmas. They are the go-to pot plant for anyone buying a gift at this time of year and have a long and proud history in the United States where they’ve been popular for almost 190 years. A Christmas story for Christmas week!

Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851), the first US ambassador to Mexico, sent some of these plants with their winter-red bracts to the greenhouses at his home in South Carolina in the 1820s – an amateur botanist, he was later a founding member of what is now called the Smithsonian Institute. His gardeners propagated the plants and gave them to Poinsett’s friends and botanical gardens. The plants were introduced at the debut Philadelphia Flower Show in 1829 and were an immediate hit.

The plant was given the botanical name Euphorbia pulcherrima in 1833 but about four years later was renamed Poinsettia pulcherrima – the Aztecs, however, knew it as cuetlaxochitl and extracted a purple-red dye for textiles and cosmetics from the plant’s bracts, while the milky white sap (latex) was used to treat fevers. It was highly prized by both King Netzahualcoyotl and Montezuma, but because of the high-altitude climate of their capital (now Mexico City), the plant had to be brought in especially.

During the 17th century, Franciscan priests settled near Taxco, in southern Mexico, generally considered the home of the poinsettia in Mexico. They began to use the plant in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, a nativity procession. Juan Balme, a Spanish botanist of the same period, mentioned the poinsettia, which has insignificant flowers, in his writings.

Modern Mexicans call it Flores de Noche Buena or Flowers of the Holy Night, and have a sweet story that brings together poinsettias and Christmas.

There was once a poor Mexican girl called Pepita who had no present for the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve services. As Pepita walked to the chapel, her cousin Pedro tried to cheer her up. ‘Pepita’, he said ‘I’m sure that even the smallest gift, given by someone who loves him will make Jesus happy.’

So Pepita picked some weeds from the roadside and made them into a a small bouquet. She felt embarrassed because she had only this small gift for Jesus. As she walked through the chapel to the altar, she remembered what Pedro had said. She began to feel better, knelt down and put the bouquet at the base of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into bright red flowers, and everyone who saw them was sure they had seen a miracle. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena.

The shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves are sometimes considered a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem which led the Magi to Jesus. The red leaves symbolise the blood of Christ, or the white-leafed variety his purity.

According to The American Phytopathological Society website, the modern era of poinsettia culture in the US began with the introduction of the seedling cultivar Oak Leaf, reportedly grown originally in Jersey City (New Jersey) by a Mrs Enteman in 1923. From 1923 until the early 1960s, all the principal cultivars of commercial importance were selections or sports from this original seedling.

A Christmas display in Wanganui’s Winter Gardens – the poinsettias ‘forced’ to colour in summer. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Potted plants are sprayed to dwarf them. In their natural state poinsettias are tall, woody shrubs – my great-uncle had one in a garden in the lee of his home in Tauranga that was reaching up to the second-storey eaves (they become lankier in shade).

However, the name most associated with the commercialisation and high-profile of poinsettias in the US is Paul Ecke (three generations of the same family with the same name).

German immigrant Paul Ecke and his parents began growing and selling poinsettias as landscape plants and cut flowers in Hollywood, before being pushed out by the new-fangled movie industry and shifting in 1923 to Encinitas, southern California. Over the years they moved from landscaping plants into potted plants and in the 1960s, Paul developed a grafting technique that produced an unusually high number of blooms per stem, a more compact plant and one that was tough enough to withstand shipping. However, in 1991 a researcher stumbled on the technique and published it in an industry journal – meaning the family’s market share of poinsettia sales in the US dropped from about 90% to 70% (and eventually, indirectly, leading to the demise of the business, see below).

Paul Ecke Jr came up with clever ways of marketing the plants until, in 1998, poinsettias became the top-selling potted plant in the US, nudging aside the chrysanthemum. The family, by the way, was never a retailer of plants but sold to others to grow on. Paul Jr brought cultivation into greenhouses and as his swansong in the business in 1992 introduced Eckespoint Freedom – of the more than 100 poinsettia cultivars grown commercially today, Eckespoint Freedom represents more than 50% of the red market worldwide and 70-75% of the red poinsettia market.

The Ecke Ranch in Encinitas was the world’s largest grower of poinsettias, at one time having an international market share of more than 50%. Paul III, who took over in 1992 and started a growing operation in Guatemala to try and stay competitive on price, sold the business in 2012 to the Dutch company Agribio which, the following year, merged with German company Dümmen, the latter taking over the poinsettia business. See the 2017 Dümmen digital catalogue of Ecke poinsettias.

A poinsettia Christmas ‘tree’ in San Diego, California. Photo: Jon Sullivan, via Wikimedia

According to this 2011 story about the three generations of the Eckes, between 70 and 80 million poinsettias are on display in American homes and stores during the festive season! (I saw one this week beside the fireplace of Marge and Homer Simpson.)

Garden writer George Wiegel details some of the difficulties in getting poinsettias to produce their Christmas colouring at the right time – or even again. (If you click on the link to read the full story I’m not sure why Paul Ecke senior is called ‘Albert’.)

“Pigments in the bracts react to seasonal light changes, taking their cue when nights start becoming longer than days.

“This is what drives poinsettia growers crazy because the plants are very picky about that light, especially when they’re being coerced to colour in time to meet store orders. Ideally, they want 14 hours of interrupted darkness each night for 8 to 10 weeks.

“Mess up and they won’t fully colour. Quality Greenhouses near Dillsburg verified that years ago when a crop of finicky poinsettias was traced to stray light entering the greenhouse from nearby dock lights.

“This is also the reason why home gardeners have trouble getting their summered-over poinsettia to turn red again the following year. Forget to turn off a light at night, and you’re stuck with a greenish poinsettia.”

Poinsettias have been developed over the years to now include, as well as red and white, pink bracts, salmon, purple and multi-coloured. Photo: Yinan Chen, via Wikimedia

Poinsettia Day is marked in the US on December 12, the date of Dr Poinsett’s death and, coincidentally, the Day of the Virgin in Mexico when the plants are traditionally displayed.

Flowering now

This post has the subtitle, ‘or has been recently’ as I haven’t posted any photos from my garden for a while.

I finally got a Leonotis leonurus last year, after admiring it for some time, particularly the orange-flowered variety (it also comes with white flowers). Native to South Africa, this perennial should be cut back in winter. Mine’s a year old and already quite large for its spot (although striking) so I’ll look at dividing it in autumn and having two!

Leonotis leonurus is native to South Africa. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The flowers, which grow like pom-poms on stems as tall as 1.8m, produce copious nectar that attracts birds, bees and butterflies. Its common names include lion’s ear (for the leaves) and wild dagga.

The excellent PlantZ Africa website (also linked to above) says that in its native setting the plant is primarily pollinated by birds and is an example of co-evolution – the flowers contain nectar to attract birds but have also developed as a tubular shape to accommodate the curved beaks of the nectar-feeding birds. The website also goes into the plant’s medicinal properties, both as folk remedies and some modern testing that’s been done.

Leonotis leonurus, the website says, is mentioned in European gardening literature as early as 1673.

Mrs Cholmondeley clematis (her name is pronounced Chumley) is putting on her best show yet. I grow her in a pot under a climbing frame, partly because I’ve never been able to decide where to plant her permanently and then because I rather liked the arrangement. Read more about her here. I agree that she’s an early, but also an extended bloomer. Another website notes that her registration was in 1873 so she’s been popular for a while.

Mrs Cholmondeley. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Here are some clematis notes from the wonderful Monty Don (northern hemisphere seasons). Given that I’ve killed several (expensive) clematis over the years I always approach pruning with caution!

Blush Babe’s second flowering. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Intrigued to see that our Blush Babe apple is flowering again! Some fruit has set from the first flowering, which was relatively meagre and during poor weather, so I’m pleased the tree is having another try, but I’m not sure how common a second blossoming is. Blush Babe is a dwarf (to 2m) mop-top tree. Read more about growing apples in small spaces.

Now I know Feijoa Bambina is bird pollinated I promise I won’t shoo the blackbirds off it! (Live and learn, live and learn.) Photo: Sandra Simpson

Read more about Feijoa Bambina, another dwarf plant.

Closing with another flower in the orange range – Rosa Charles Austin. I’ve had my bush for 20 years or more and it’s so reliable (at least 4 flowerings if you keep the water up) and stays healthy in our hot and humid summers and wet winters. Multiple flowers on one stem – reasonably orange in the bud and fading to a pale apricot in full bloom – and a light, pleasant fragrance.

Rosa Charles Austin. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The plant is named for the father of the renowned rose breeder David Austin. It was released in 1973 but, I read, has been ‘retired’ in favour of newer, better varieties. I don’t think I could get much better than this. Read more about Austin roses.

Our native plants: Spinifex

Spinifex sericeus is that small ‘tumbleweed’ commonly seen on North Island beaches during summer. It is a native sand-dune grass commonly seen on the seaward face of dunes through most of the North Island and the upper part of the South Island. It produces strong, long runners that creep across the dunes both above ground and under.

Spinifex seed heads found last summer on the ocean beach at Ohiwa. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Dune Restoration Trust website says spinifex is also called silvery sand grass or kowhangatara. “Where stands of spinifex are vigorous, runners will trail over recent erosion scarps caused by storms and high seas … [and] encourage the build-up of wind-distributed sand along the scarp and eventually a return to a low-angle dune face…”

The plant thrives in strong winds, salt spray, full sun, shifting sands and drought. Spinifex sericeus is also found in Australia.

Spinifex seed heads waiting to roll. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Spinifex plants are either male or female, the latter’s flowers being those tumbleweed seed-heads that are released in late summer. When the wind blows, they roll along the beach until they lodge against an obstacle, trap sand in their spines to bury the seeds which then have a chance to germinate. The Terrain website notes that seeds can also be carried by the tides and still germinate when they come to rest.

The always-informative Oratia Native Plant Nursery website says: “The individual sexes [of spinifex] can often cover huge areas of a beach, and it is not unusual to find all of one sex dominating an entire beach. The male flowers are erect spikelets producing masses of wind-blown pollen, while the female plants … form the distinctive spiny tumbleweed seen wheeling along the beach later in the season. Each spine contains a single seed at its base, but many are infertile, having not been pollinated. The miracle is how the female manages to collect the wind-blown pollen when the individual sexes are often at opposite ends of the beach, or even on separate beaches.”

This could be a male flower (upright) surrounded by female flowers, taken at the Tay St entrance to Mount Maunganui’s Main Beach. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Coastlands Plant Nursery at Whakatane, which is the national Dune Revegetation Centre, notes differences between spinifex plants from the east coast and the west coast even when grown in identical conditions in the nursery.

The entry for spinifex in The Cultivation of New Zealand Native Grasses by Lawrie Metcalf (Random House, 2008) mentions that spinifex lost much of its habitat to the introduced marram grass (Ammophila arenaria). However, it has transpired that marram grass created steep dunes more prone to wind erosion. Spinifex and its partner pingao (Desmoschoenus spiralis, another native) bind dunes in a lower profile.

NZ Rose Trial Winners

By Hayden Foulds

Quintessential, a free-flowering, healthy pink rose has taken the top award at the New Zealand Rose Society International Rose Trial Awards in Palmerston North.

Rob Somerfield with his award-winning rose Quintessential. Photo: Hayden Foulds

Bred by Tauranga’s Rob Somerfield (Glenavon Roses), Quintessential not only received the Gold Star of the South Pacific last weekend, it was also the pick of invited guests who voted it the best-looking rose in the trial before the awards were announced.

“It’s been a favourite of mine for a while” Rob says of the rose, which will be released in New Zealand within the next two or three years.

Rob,  who now has seven Gold Stars, also received a Certificate of Merit for the patio rose Purple Pizzazz.

Purple Pizzazz, bred by Rob Somerfield. Photo: Hayden Foulds

The Nola Simpson Novelty Award went to Eye of the Tiger, a single yellow bloom with a striking red ‘eye’ bred by Chris Warner of England and entered by Tasman Bay Roses of Motueka.

Eye of the tiger

Eye of the Tiger. Photo: Hayden Foulds

Wanganui rose breeder and grower Bob Matthews (Matthews Nurseries) won a Certificate of Merit for an un-named cluster-flowering pink rose with very good health.

This unnamed pale pink rose bred by Bob Matthews is showing great health characteristics. Photo: Hayden Foulds

Matthias Meilland, a member of the renowned Meilland rose-breeding family of France, presented an interesting lecture on how new roses are developed and commercialised around the world and spoke of the importance of rose trials for testing and promoting new rose varieties. Mr Meilland planted a Peace rose (bred by his grandfather) close to the trial beds in the Dugald Mackenzie Rose Gardens, part of the city’s Victoria Esplanade Gardens.

The New Zealand Rose Society trials are now into their 46th year and test new varieties from New Zealand and international rose breeders and are assessed over two years by a panel of 20 judges. Those roses which have gained an average of 70% are recognised with awards to reflect the consistently high performance they have achieved during the trial period.

If you’re interested in how new roses do in your part of the country, get hold of a copy of the New Zealand Rose Review – this year’s edition includes reports on 91 newer-variety roses, the most ever.

Produced by the New Zealand Rose Society with leading rose nurseries and breeders advertising their latest releases, the full-colour guide also features the favourite roses of NZRS members, as well as the winning roses from trials in Palmerston North and Hamilton.

The New Zealand Rose Review 2016-17 is $9.50 (including postage). For purchase details go to the New Zealand Rose Society website or contact the society’s secretary, Heather Macdonell, phone/fax 06 329 2700.

Tree of the moment: Stewartia

Saw this Stewartia pseudocamellia growing in the Chihuly Garden in Seattle, a tree I hadn’t come across before but catching my attention with its pretty flowers.

Stewartia pseudocamellia. Photo: Sandra Simpson

As you can tell by the tree’s name and the photo, when in flower it looks like a camellia and is, apparently, related to the tea camellia.

The foliage emerges bronzy purple in spring, develops into a dark green by summer, and turns red or orange in autumn. The white camellia-like flowers come in summer, though the tree is noted for successive flowering rather than one big display.

Another attractive attribute of this tree is its bark which exfoliates year round in strips of gray, orange, and reddish brown.

The tree eventually reaches up to 13m tall and 7m wide and prefers moist, acidic, well-drained soil in full morning sun or partial shade. It apparently does not do well in areas where night temperatures remain high.

There are other members in the Stewartia family, read more about them here. Most are native to East Asia, but there are some native to the southeasterrn US.

Stewartia monadelpha pictured in the VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver (Canada). Photo: Sandra Simpson

Stewartia monadelpha has the common name orangebark tree (you can guess why),  has smaller flowers than S. pseudocamellia, and doesn’t like being pruned. However, it is believed to be more heat tolerant.

The genus was named in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus to honour John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute (1713-92), a Scottish nobleman who was Prime Minister of Great Britain for a year from 1762 (and not a very good one, by all accounts!).

John Stuart was a tutor to George, Prince of Wales (later George III), and his brother Prince Edward, and had a lifelong interest in botany, culminating in the publication of Botanical Tables Containing the Families of British Plants in 1785.

Owing to an error, the name emanated from Linnaeus as ‘Stewart’ and although it used to be more commonly ‘Stuartia’, the name is now officially recognised as ‘Stewartia’.