Touch of the tropics

A verandah that’s cool on even the hottest days thanks to the shade of palm trees, a garden dotted with bright flowers and bananas fresh every morning – sounds like a tropical paradise, doesn’t it?

This slice of the tropics is, however, on the outskirts of Te Puke, which means the owners are working in a sub-tropical climate that experiences winter frosts. The 0.2ha piece of paradise has been created by Pat and Ron Howie who over the past 14 years have filled their garden with unusual plants – including Ficus dammaropsis, native to Papua New Guinea; a Queensland bottle tree (Brachychiton rupestris); a New Caledonia puka (Meryta denhamii), a Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis), a cassava (Manihot esculenta) and Davidsonia jerseyana, a tree native to New South Wales that has edible ‘plums’ growing directly from the trunk.

Also known as the dinner-plate fig, Ficus dammaropsis is native to the rainforests of Papua New Guinea. The fruit is called a synconium and the flask-shaped floral cavity contains unisexual flowers. A minute wasp pollinates the seed-bearing female flowers. There are up to 1000 different species of Ficus worldwide and virtually each one has its own particular wasp pollinator. Pat loves the sound of rain hitting the large leaves. Photo: Sandra Simpson

A 2-year working holiday in Australia 56 years ago left the couple with a love of tropical plants that has, over the intervening years, been fed by holidays to the Pacific, including Fiji, Rarotonga and Samoa.

After living 213m above sea level in Pongakawa for 30 years, they are thrilled to be able to indulge their interest in tropical plants.

“It’s getting harder to find something different for the garden,” Pat says, although Ron chips in with, “it’s getting harder to find the space for something different”.

Bulbs of Arisaema sikokianum are more recent additions to the garden. The Japanese native can be increased only by growing from seed and differs from many other Arisaema in that it holds its flowers above the foliage. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Pat spent 3 years potting up plants before they moved and all the wooden furniture in the garden has been made by Ron from timber milled on their Pongakawa property, including a version of a Chinese moon-gate.

They’ve been fortunate to have had a micro-climate created by high hedges all round their own property and neighbouring properties, although more recently some of their own hedging has come out but this is a couple that sees gardening as an opportunity so while some beds have had to be remade they are enjoying trying some different plants for their new conditions.

A Brugmansia flower. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The garden features several varieties of perennial hibiscus, night-scented Brugmansia, bromeliads (including Pat’s favourite Acanthostachys strobilacea or pinecone bromeliad), Scadoxus lilies and pineapple lilies (Eucomis).

Grown for their foliage are Hypoestes, Calathea, Ligularia, the striking Euphorbia cotinifolia Artropurpurea (Caribbean copper plant) and Oxalis tetraphylla, known as the iron-cross plant because of the markings on its leaves.

“There was a lot of oxalis when we came here,” Pat laughs, “but those were ones we didn’t want.”

Halimium lasianthum, or woolly rock rose, is native to the southern Iberian peninsula. The family is a cousin to the Cistus family, commonly called rock roses. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Over the years the couple have got to know the best places to source the unusual plants they enjoy – Russell Fransham’s Subtropicals nursery and catalogue being one of their favourites.

And with the recent addition of a spacious, new plastic house you can bet that Pat and Ron will be extending their plant collection even further.

The blooms of a Campsis radicans vine, native to the eastern US. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Go to an earlier Sandra’s Garden posting to read Ron and Pat’s tips for opening a garden to the public.

This article first appeared in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission. It has been updated slightly.

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