Carnivores one and all

As a young boy in The Netherlands Cor Schipper’s class was shown a carnivorous sundew (Drosera) plant by his teacher – a spark that has ignited a lifelong passion for the retired entomologist.

Cor, now 81, and wife Hetty left their homeland in 1963, living in Australia and Samoa before coming to New Zealand and, after a stint in Wellington, settling in Rotorua in 1971.

A founder member of the New Zealand Herpetological Society, Cor kept snakes, toads and lizards in Australia – “but we started a family there so that was a different kettle of fish” – and in Samoa rescued baby fruit bats after their mothers had been killed for food. “We reared them on chocolate milk, which it turns out they like,” he says. “We taught them to fly by moving the chocolate milk further away each time. When they could fly, we let them go.”

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Cor Schipper with a Nepenthes vine. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Cor has always been interested in the natural world so it’s not surprising that his hobbies and work – mass breeding insects for research and working on biological controls – sometimes overlapped. His collection of bromeliads, which began in Holland, was thanks to a gift of tropical frogs – it turned out they would lay eggs only in a bromeliad.

Although he had sundews in Holland, his life-long passion for carnivorous plants was fully realised when he came to New Zealand, and listening to Cor describe the mechanisms used to trap prey – primarily scent, colour and nectar – it’s easy to see why he finds them so fascinating.

But why have these plants evolved in such a striking fashion? Although they can be found in a wide variety of climates and elevations in many different countries, they all have one thing in common. They grow in nutrient poor soils or water-logged conditions and so need to extract minerals and nutrients for growth from another source.

Another commonality is long-stemmed flowers, well above the plant, to protect pollinators from falling victim to their deadly “charms”.


Sarracenia pitchers. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Sarracenia (pitcher plants), found in boggy areas of the eastern United States, “dope” their nectar with coniine, a chemical found in hemlock. “If you put nectar in a petri dish with ants, the ants go all wobbly,” Cor says. “The hairs of the Sarracenia tube face downwards to guide the ants down, then there’s a slippery patch on the tube wall so they fall into the liquid at the bottom. The liquid has a surface like soapy water, so instead of floating the ants fall straight through, and the chemicals in the liquid take care of the body.”

The flowers of the Sarracenia, like many carnivorous plants, grow high above the plant so pollinators don’t fall victim.

A Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) won’t react if the hairs inside the hinged trap are touched once. Touch them twice, however, and it snaps shut in a fraction of a second. “The plant wants nitrogen, phosphate and potassium so it removes the enzymes it needs from its prey but leaves the exo-skeleton. When the process is finished the trap opens ready for the body to wash out in rain.”

Don’t be tempted to set the traps off – do it more than twice on the same trap and it will likely die.

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Nepenthes pitchers. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Nepenthes lowii (a pitcher plant vine) from Borneo exudes a sweet, fatty substance to attract small mammals – as the animals feed they excrete into the pitcher and so feed the plant.

“The variety of carnivorous plants is astonishing,” Cor says. “In the Nepenthes family alone there are well over 100 species with pitchers that range in size from 3cm long that specialise in catching falling compost from trees, often carrying insects, to Nepenthes rajah, the largest carnivorous plant in the world which has pitchers the size of a rugby ball.

“While most Nepenthes attract ants, there is one that attracts termites and some that can digest small rats and shrews if they fall in – that happens generally during a dry period when  animals come to drink from the pitchers but are a bit weak and fall in.”

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The floating trap system of Utricularia intermedia, a bladderwort. The tiny hairs in the water are sophisticated suction traps (bladders) designed to provide a nutritious animal meal for these rootless floaters. The size of the bladder is microscopic, ranging anywhere from 0.1 mm to 5 mm, depending on the species. Photo: Sandra Simpson

One of the most fascinating carnivorous plants, in Cor’s view, is also one of the smallest. The rootless Genlisea family (corkscrew plants) set their traps underground. “It’s semi-aquatic and grows in moss or mud and although it has leaves above, it also has modified leaves extending below the plant. Each ‘leaf’ has forked, hollow spirals that exude a chemical to attract prey. The prey climbs up the spiral with the hairs growing upward to guide it.

“In Brazil in the last 5 years they’ve found Philcoxia minensis, a carnivorous plant that flowers above the soil but has all its sticky leaves underground where it catches nematodes.”

Over the years Cor has done some of his own breeding, particularly of Sarracenias. “I’ve been working on one for about 25 years, but when you work on your own it’s not always done as scientifically as it should be in terms of record keeping. I lose patience sometimes.”

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Sundews coat themselves in drops of nectar. Once an insect is stuck, the leaf  rolls up around it to digest it. This is Drosera cisitflora, native to southern Africa. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Living on a hill above Rotorua, his home cops some decent frosts but the Sarracenias and Venus flytraps stay outside year-round. “They can both freeze but will come back in the spring, no problem,” he says. “And most of the sundews have a winter dormancy, although Drosera auriculata, a New Zealand native, has a summer dormancy

“There’s a huge temperature-tolerance variation among all the families so it’s worth researching – for instance, most Nepenthes are tropical and need to be kept inside but there’s one from a mountain in New Guinea that can stand a bit of frost.”

His rare Darlingtonia californica, still a tiny plant, requires special attention. Closely related to Sarracenias, it grows only in northern California and Oregon on the sides of streams fed by meltwater. “It’s very difficult to grow because it likes warm leaves and cool roots, maybe a difference of 15°C. I have to feed it ice cubes every day.”

Unfortunately, carnivorous plants aren’t the answer to a garden’s whitefly, ant or mosquito problem. “Research has shown they collect about 5 per cent of what’s around,” Cor says. “So they’re not a great biological control – instead, enjoy them as another example of nature’s wonder.”

Growing Tips:

  • Pot in a mix of peat moss and coarse sand, or peat moss and pumice (perlite) or plant in plain sphagnum moss; plants generally prefer a low pH mix.
  • They don’t like hard tap water so use rainwater whenever possible. Many grow in swampy areas so like to be kept moist and prefer to stand in water (hanging pots should have a fitted saucer).
  • Check whether your plant needs summer-level watering over winter (most don’t, but some do).
  • Before putting a plant outside, check whether it is frost tolerant – many are, but many aren’t.
  • Plants outside don’t need to be fed. But for indoor plants catch flies and cockroaches to feed the plant. Don’t use flyspray to kill insects you intend to feed to the plant.
  • Cor keeps small, delicate plants, such as sundews, inside “otherwise blackbirds peck them out of the pots and I lose the plant”.

This article was first published in NZ Gardener and appears here with permission.

Good winter tea

Making your own herbal tea is as simple as walking to your nearest rosemary bush, snipping a 2cm sprig, standing it in your tea cup, pouring boiling water over and removing after 2 minutes.

“There are many simple teas made from just one, fresh herb,” Helen Loe says. “For instance, three leaves of lemon verbena or one 3cm sprig of lemon balm or three heads of camomile will all make nice teas and honey can be added if a sweetener is needed.”

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Helen in her drying room. The collection of embroidered pictures has been collected via family members and op shops. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Helen, who lives near Tauranga, has been drinking herbal teas since she was 16, inspired after buying a book by Jethro Kloss, an American who promoted herbal remedies. “I couldn’t believe you could achieve so much healing and wellbeing through herbs,” Helen says. “It opened my eyes to a whole new world.”

Coming from a family of gardeners and vege growers, it seemed natural for Helen to head to Lincoln University and study for a diploma in horticulture management – after graduating she headed overseas and on her return in 1990 for about 7 years grew flowers commercially and herbs for restaurants, all the while making her own herbal teas on the side.

“But I came to realise that growing flowers wasn’t compatible with what I wanted,” she says. “I also withdrew from supplying restaurants and began growing herbs fulltime for teas.

“It was all study, trial and error and tasting. It’s important to me that herbal teas taste nice, whether using dried or fresh plants. Then I thought I’d better get some training so went and studied for a diploma in herbal medicine under the amazing Isla Bennett.”


Photo: Sandra Simpson

Helen blends her teas under the Herbal Health Clinic label and usually supplies them only to humans but for about a decade had an elderly client in Matamata who wanted a particular herbal tea to feed his racing pigeons.

The medicinal properties of herbs are more potent when the plant is in flower, so although flowering herbs can be used in teas, steeping times should be shorter, otherwise the drink will be bitter. Helen uses only Lavandula angustifolia ‘Pacific Blue’ for teas, preferring its milder flavour.

Camomile tea tends to divide people but Helen reckons that’s down to not knowing how to make it. “It’s a wonderful, relaxing tea that is especially good in the evenings – but infuse it for only 2 minutes. There’s a misconception that to ‘have it stronger, infuse it longer’, but all that happens is it gets bitter and people get turned off. If you want it stronger, use more tea.”

The camomile used for tea is Matricaria recutita, an annual – and Helen emphasises it’s vital to correctly identify plants intended for consumption. “Calendula flowers are quite different to the French marigolds, or Tagetes, that most people have in their gardens so knowing your plants is imperative – joining a herb society is by far the best way to learn.”

She grows her culinary herbs in pots near the kitchen door. “If you don’t grow them near the kitchen you tend not to use them and container growing is just as good, with some herbs, like mint and nettles, needing to be constricted.

“There are some that also do well by a tap – mint, horse radish and valerian all like being grown by water so a bit of spray or a few drops from an outside tap is perfect.”

Among her more unusual plants (not all used for tea) are Vitex agnus-castus (chasteberry tree), Viburnum opulus (cramp bark), Salvia apiana (white sage), Filipendula ulmaria (meadowsweet) and Echinacea. She’s on the lookout for a lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora) tree and also wants a witch-hazel.

As well as recently installing a still to extract essential oils to make hydrosols, or floral waters, from plants such as lavender, rosemary and lemon verbena, Helen is also remaking her large garden this winter. Beds are being retired and new ones laid for planting with cuttings taken in late summer.


Simple Winter Tea. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Simple Winter Tea (makes 2 cups)

Helps the blood flow and boosts the immune system.

Fresh herbs: 1 sprig of rosemary, 2 sprigs lemon verbena, 3 sprigs thyme, 1-2 kawakawa leaves. Dried herbs: 1 tablespoon each of lemon verbena, thyme and kawakawa, 1 teaspoon rosemary. Infuse for 3-5 minutes before drinking.

To dry herbs Helen advises picking only after they’ve had three fine days on them and to pick in the morning once any dew has dried. “I’m really fussy about harvesting herbs,” she says, “because it makes such a difference to how they dry and store. Pick only the best leaves, and flowers just as they’ve opened. If you have the best plant material you’ll have the best end product – the only exception is kawakawa because it’s been proven the eaten leaves have better medicinal properties.”

Helen checks her picked crop carefully for insects before laying herbs and flowers on cardboard (opened-out boxes) on the floor of her “herb room”. You’re aiming to have herbs dry green, not black, so keep an eye on conditions and check for bugs through the drying process.” Tying large bundles of the same herb together and hanging them upside down is a common practice but Helen believes she gets a better result with each stem or flower-head drying separately.

“You need dry heat, so don’t dry herbs near a kitchen, bathroom or laundry, and keep them out of direct sun. If there’s a nice breeze I open a window at either end of my room to get a one-way airflow.” Touching is the best way of determining when drying has finished – if the herb feels crisp it’s done.

The dried herbs are stored in paper bags, shoe boxes or tins (never glass), with the container named and dated. Most dried herbs will retain their taste for up to a year if kept out of direct light and where temperatures are constant. She keeps precious crops, such as dried rose petals, calendula flowers or liquorice root, in air-tight containers in the freezer.

“If you haven’t used dried herbs within a year, compost them and start again,” she says.


Pick-me-up Tea. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Pick-me-up Tea (makes 2 cups)

Helps clear the chest and reduces postnasal drip.

Fresh herbs: 2 sprigs of peppermint, 3-4 sprigs lemon balm, 1 liquorice root teabag. Dried herbs: 1 tablespoon of everything. Infuse for 3-5 minutes before drinking. Make sure the bought tea contains liquorice root and isn’t just ‘liquorice flavoured’.

Note: 2 teaspoons of dried Echinacea may also be added.

To make “tea leaves” Helen coarse chops the dried plants so they’re a similar size to the smallest leaf in the mix. “Understanding how much of each herb should be used is complex,” she says. “For instance, too much St John’s wort will dry up your mouth, or if you use nettle as a base it’s good to add three lemon herbs to complement it and then finish with a few rose petals or red clover flower.

“Five to seven herbs is plenty for any tea.”

For those who can’t access fresh herbs or dry herbs, Helen is happy to recommend commercial herbal teas. “Ten years ago herbs in packaged tea would be 3 to 4 years old and taste like old gumboots but now in New Zealand we have great organic companies who grow good-quality plants using sustainable production methods.”

Sage Infusion/Gargle

Good for coughs and sore throats.

Infuse 3-4 tops of fresh sage in 1 cup of boiling water for 4-5 minutes. Gargle warm or cold (it can be swallowed but will be bitter).

Ginger, Honey & Lemon with a twist (makes 1 cup)

2 sprigs peppermint, 1 teaspoon grated ginger, juice of ½-1 lemon, 2 teaspoons honey.

What is a tisane? Strictly speaking, all herbal teas are tisanes – that is fresh or dried herbs (or bark, roots, berries, seeds or spices) steeped in boiling water and used as a beverage, often for medicinal effect. Unlike tea, tisanes do not contain caffeine.

For more information contact Helen Loe, phone 07 543 0369.

This article was first published in NZ Gardener and appears here with permission.

Plant Stories: Singapore Botanic Gardens

Apart from curiosity about the gardens themselves and the opportunity to see the National Orchid Garden, I had a more personal reason to make sure Singapore Botanic Gardens were at the top of my list for my first visit to the city-state last year.

Many years ago I had the pleasure of meeting a Tauranga resident named John Ewart, a former member of staff at the garden before and after its most tumultuous years. John generously shared his story with me, so being able to visit the Gardens in person felt like completing that circle.

John left New Zealand in 1934, aged 25, bound for Kew Gardens where he furthered his training in horticulture. In 1937 he was posted with the Colonial Agricultural Service to Singapore as assistant curator of the Botanic Gardens, a year later spending 12 months working at the Straits Settlement Botanic Gardens in Penang (Malaysia), before returning to Singapore.

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Singapore Botanic Gardens’ rotunda. Photo: Sandra Simpson

With war on the horizon many senior staff were assigned to other duties and demonstration plots of vegetables were started in the Gardens to encourage food production among the public.

Fortunately, John was on leave in New Zealand in 1942 when Singapore fell to the invading Japanese. He was posted to Ghana with the task of increasing cocoa production but 2 years later joined the British Army and served in India before returning to Malaya.

The Gardens had been pitted with shell craters and trenches during the fall of Singapore but fighting had spared the priceless Herbarium. Despite the terrible conditions during  the Japanese occupation, the invading force did however, look after the Gardens, mostly thanks to the quick-thinking Professor Hidezo Tanakadate of Tohoku University, a vulcanologist, who immediately assumed control of the Gardens and evicted the military. Prof. Tanakadate, one of whose fellow officers was related to the Emperor, retained the British directors to administer and assist in repairs. Other staff members were not as fortunate, sent to work on the Siam-Burma Railway, where many lost their lives.

After nearly a month’s reparation work on houses and grounds, “the Gardens regained its calm centre of research activity”.

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A joey palm (Johannesteijsmannia altifrons) at a Garden entry. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Botany professor Kwan Koriba, from the Imperial University of Kyoto, took over as director in December 1942, immersing himself in research on the growth habits of selected Malayan trees and producing a scientific paper on the topic. Eric Holttum and EJH Corner, previously in charge of the Gardens and who remained at liberty throughout the war, also devoted their time to research.

Mr Corner had chosen to stay in Singapore (although his wife and son had escaped) seeing it as his duty to protect the Gardens’ scientific collections. Just five days after the fall of Singapore, he was appointed secretary and interpreter to Prof Tanakadate. Read more about this period of Mr Corner’s life here (he has sometimes been accused of collaboration).

During the war a set of brick steps, still in use today, were built down to the Plant House  using bricks made and installed by Australian prisoners of war. In August 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the war’s end, a group of veteran PoWs from Australia visited the Gardens to see the steps they’d built.

After demob, John Ewart was one of the first to return to Singapore Botanic Gardens and was in charge of the gardens until the director, Mr Henderson, returned in 1946. John then assumed responsibility for the day-to-day running of the gardens. In 1946 he was also appointed Agricultural Officer for Singapore (increasing crop production to feed the colony) and carried out those duties alongside his work at the gardens. Under moves to nationalisation he was compulsorily retired in 1957.

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Part of the Ginger Garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

While in Singapore John bred an orchid, naming it for his son – Aranda Peter Ewart (registered by the Gardens in 1951) – and apparently there were also two more, also named for his children, Gillian and Andrew. John returned to Singapore in 1986 for the 50th anniversary of the Singapore Gardening Society.

When he and his wife Mary and their family came to Tauranga, John grew carnations for the cut flower market for a time, as well as avocados. He was also a well-respected member of the International Dendrology Society. John died in Tauranga in 2001.

Read the full history of Singapore Botanic Gardens, from 1822 to the present day. The Gardens became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015.

Our native plants: Celery pine

The celery pine (Phyllocladus) is a member of a small genus of conifers that, although they appear to have leaves, don’t! Three celery pines are native to New Zealand and one each to Tasmania (Australia) and Malesia. What appear to be leaves are short, flattened twigs called phylloclades and give the trees their common name as they’re thought to resemble celery leaves. The phylloclades do, however, function as leaves and carry out photosynthesis.

The trees don’t flower but have pollen cones that produce seed. The seeds are consumed by birds which in passing dab on a piece of fertiliser and spread.

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Celery pine ‘foliage’. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The three types found in New Zealand are Phyllocladus trichomanoides (tānekaha), Phyllocladus toatoa (toatoa) and Phyllocladus alpinus (mountain celery pine, mountain toatoa).

Tānekaha (strong man), which can reach 20m, appears early in the growth of a forest and regenerates well in the shelter of mānuka and kānuka. Its white timber is the strongest and most flexible of the New Zealand conifers. Māori used it for canoes and houses, and for koikoi (double-pointed spears). They also produced a red dye from its bark, which contains 20-25 percent tannin. Early settlers used the timber for marine piles, bridges, railway sleepers, and props in the coal and gold mines.

The Meaning of Trees entry for celery pine includes this nugget: Unsurprisingly, tānekaha trees were highly valued, particular in areas were they were scarce. In Ruatuhuna, the few large specimens of celery pine were so highly prized that they had their own names, and only those with direct ancestry to the area were allowed to take bark from them.

Toatoa grows up to 15m, with distinctly whorled branches – trees that grow in the open are conical in shape. It regenerates freely in cut-over or damaged forests, and can live for 500 years.

Mountain toatoa ranges in size from a small shrub in alpine scrub, where it is most common, to a tree of up to 9m in upland forest.

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Photo: Sandra Simpson

They are considered to be Gondwana plants with fossil pollen and the look of the trees indicating they were present when Zealandia separated from Australia.

Elie-Abel Carrière (1818-96), a French botanist, described a live plant in cultivation in the 1850s at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, most likely the Tasmanian species. At the time Carrière was a leading authority on conifers.

Bucket list: Butchart Gardens

World-renowned Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island in Canada draw almost a million visitors each year, testament to the creative couple that transformed a limestone quarry and cement works – and the ongoing care from subsequent generations of the same family.

The million or so bedding annuals make this garden something of a rarity – an old-fashioned display garden. Packed with colour and immaculately kept, Butchart Gardens is a crowd-pleaser at any time of year – thousands of bulbs in spring, flowers galore in summer (including roses), maples in autumn and heathers and snowdrops in winter.


The Sunken Garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Attracted by rich limestone deposits, Robert and Jennie Butchart opened a quarry and cement works on Vancouver Island, off Canada’s west coast, in 1904 before building a home on the site two years later and beginning a Japanese garden. The property is 12 miles from Victoria, the island’s main city.

Robert was born in Canada, though his parents were Scottish migrants. He married Jennie Kennedy, who had been planning to study art in Europe, in New York state in 1884. She was an adventurous young woman who enjoyed ballooning and flying and later became a qualified chemist, working for her husband’s business.

As the limestone was exhausted, Jennie saw the potential for a sunken garden – in 1909 there was a 1.4ha hole left the bottom of which Jennie, with the help of quarry staff, clothed with tonnes of topsoil.

Between 1906 and 1929, the Butcharts created a Japanese Garden on the seaside (so visitors arriving by boat at the cove would have a pleasant walk to the house), an Italian Garden on their former tennis court and a beautiful Rose Garden. Robert collected ornamental birds from all over the world, keeping ducks in the Star Pond, peacocks on the front lawn and with elaborate birdhouses throughout the gardens.


The Rose Garden includes a beautiful ‘tunnel’ walk. Photo: Sandra Simpson

It’s said that by 1915 Jennie had 18,000 visitors annually to Benvenuto (‘welcome’ in Italian), although refused to charge admission. She also served all her visitors – invited or not – tea, until the sheer number of people arriving made it impossible! On occasion, Jennie served the tea herself, sometimes not being recognised, and on one occasion received a tip from a visitor.

In 1930, in appreciation of her generosity, she was named Victoria’s best citizen.

The area’s Mediterranean-type climate made gardening a pleasure for Jennie, who continued to develop the grounds until the couple gifted the 22ha property to their grandson, Ian Ross, in 1939 for his 21st birthday. Ian spent the war years in the Royal Canadian Navy and by 1945 realised Benvenuto needed urgent attention.

He decided to turn the garden into a self-sustaining tourist attraction and for more than 50 years was involved with every aspect, including planting annuals, initiating outdoor symphony concerts, and devising a billboard campaign that attracted tourists from as far south as California.

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Jennie Butchart’s private garden isn’t open to the public. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Since Ian’s death in 1997 the property has been under the stewardship of firstly his son, Christopher (who produced elaborate summer fireworks shows from 1977 until his death in 2000), and now his daughter, Robin-Lee Clarke, with some 70 staff working at the property.

Butchart Gardens is regularly named one of the best gardens in the world and was designated a National Historic Site of Canada on its centenary in 2004.


Flowers everywhere. Photo: Sandra Simpson

In a 2011 interview, Rick Los, the gardens’ horticultural director, said:

“When people come here I want them to be overwhelmed by the beauty of what is possible in a garden. As soon as you turn on to our property, we want your first impression to be that the garden is clean and spotless and meticulous with lots of colour.

“If people go away happy and inspired, then I feel we have done a good job. But my first goal is to get them to say ‘Wow!’ We want them to have a wonderful experience from start to finish.”

All borders are planted at least twice during the year, some five times. A faded or decaying flower is not allowed to linger on a plant. Read more here, including his defence of the extensive use of “municipal” bedding plants.