A good fit

Hopefully you won’t have missed me while I was away recently – 2 months in northern Europe. As I’m settling back in (and it’s raining today), it seemed a good chance to start sharing some photos.

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This grape vine in Bruges (Belgium) was quite healthy despite growing out a tiny hole in the pavement cobbles. Photo: Sandra Simpson

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Even a tiny balcony can be enhanced with window boxes. Seen in the central area of the coastal city of Klaipeda, Lithuania. Photo: Sandra Simpson

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Squash growing on tee-pees at the northern Netherlands at Hoogland Open-air Museum, which sets put to re-create 19th century life. Photo: Sandra Simpson

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Working in a Stockholm community garden (notwithstanding interruptions by nosy foreigners). The few beds in this square near the National History Museum were set up by the Swedish National Property Board in association with the Swedish Allotment Association. The ‘holders’ working here said they can grow what they like.  The signboard says: ‘This project is a reminder of the country house that was located in this area from the 17th century until 1830 when the land was taken over by the military.’ Photo: Sandra Simpson

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Also in Stockholm, in the Larkstaden district, a clematis carefully contained. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Earlybird offer running out

If you’ve been thinking about going to this year’s New Zealand Flower and Garden Show in west Auckland, a reminder that the Earlybird Any Day offer ends on August 31.

Running over five days at The Trusts Arena from November 28 to December 2, the show offers visitors the chance to experience award-winning garden exhibits, floral art installations and displays, indulge in a spot of retail therapy and enjoy gourmet food and beverages.


Favourites from last year’s debut show will be back, including the FLONZI Apprentice Florist of the Year Competition and Yates Community Gardening, as well as Ray White Austar Realty Meet the Experts.

I went to the media day last year and can say it was a pretty good fist for a first event – the show is helmed by the indefatigable Kate Hillier who, shall we say, knows her onions when it comes to flower shows! Read my reports here, here, here and the Best in Show garden here.

For more information on the NZ Flower and Garden Show see the website.

Bears are not the only danger

Pausing at the garden in front of Wrangell Museum, our guide teaches us that it’s not only bears we need to look out for in southeast Alaska, some of the plant life is scary too.

Britany Lindley, a member of the local Tlingit (Klingit) people and an Indian Affairs law student, is a fount of information about her hometown of some 2500 people.

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Britany Lindley at the Chief Shakes Tribal house in Wrangell. Photo: Sandra Simpson

She points to a large-leafed plant with warnings about its hooked thorns that require a hospital visit for removal. The roots and root bark of Devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus) have been used as a natural medicine by native Alaskans for years and this cousin to ginseng is being researched as a possible treatment for tuberculosis.

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Devil’s club berries – look nice, don’t they? Photo: Sandra Simpson

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But this is what’s lurking underneath the leaves. The barbs are shaped so that they break off in the skin when one attempts to remove them! Photo: Sandra Simpson

Read a fascinating story about harvesting Devil’s club.

And then there’s what Britany calls Indian celery but in other parts of Alaska and ‘the lower 48’ (mainland US) is known as cow parsnip. The stems and leaves are covered in fine hairs which irritate the skin, while sap that touches the skin causes painful blisters when the skin is exposed to sunlight. (The plant’s botanical name is still evolving and is either Heracleum maximum or H. lanatum.)

“Still got the scars,” our bus driver says, unrolling his shirt sleeves. He was using a weed trimmer on a sunny day to clear an area, without realising it contained cow parsley – and ended up hospitalised as his hands, arms and chest began to react.

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Indian celery. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Local Tlingit are, however, immune to the plant which, Britany theorises, may be because cooked, peeled stems are a traditional food, even for small children.

But there are benign plants too – particularly the berries that crop in the all-too-short Alaskan summer, although picking wild berries brings its own dangers as hungry bears want a share too!

Wild berries include salmonberry (bramble), bunchberry (groundcover dogwood), thorn-free thimbleberry, wild blueberry, cloudberry (found in bogs) and huckleberry. When in leaf, huckleberries are almost indistinguishable from blueberries but our guide in Sitka advised feeling the stem – blueberries have a round stem, huckleberries square.

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A patch of fireweed, seen in Haines. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Summer also means pink spires of fireweed flowers (Chamaenerion angustifolium) on any patch of open ground – its common name comes from the fact that it’s one of the first plants to appear in burned ground.

The plant’s young leaves can be used as salad greens, and fireweed flavouring is used for syrups, sweets, jellies and ice-cream. Fireweed tea, popular in Russia before the introduction of tea from China, is still available.

The plant blooms from the bottom of the stem prompting an Alaskan saying that when  the fireweed flowers have reached the top of the stem, summer is coming to an end.

Plant stories: John Sharp

The first plant nursery in Waikato was established by John Sharp at Cambridge in the 1870s.

He was the originator of ‘Sharp’s Early’ plum and in 1884 showed 400 varieties of apples at an Auckland show. In 1885 he had a jam factory built on his property and in 1895 was chairman of the Waikato Fruit Growers’ Association.

Sharp’s Early is described as a medium to large, oval, red-fleshed, deep-red-skinned plum that is soft and juicy and has good flavour. It bears heavily on a rather low, spreading tree that is self-fertile. The chapter on ‘New Horizons in Diversification of Temperate Food Crops’ in the 2016 book Plant Biodiversity: Monitoring, Assessment and Conservation lists Sharp’s Early as good for ‘mid-hills’.

John arrived in Cambridge in about 1873. He married Eliza Vincent in Hamilton in February 1875 and they had nine children, though not all of them survived to adulthood. They established an orchard on the Hamilton Road just out of the borough and John became well known as a nurseryman. Many of Cambridge’s trees, hedge plants and shrubs have come from his nursery.

He was a nurseryman when he became an Honorary Member of the Duke of Cambridge Lodge on October 17, 1874, while on November 9, 1876 John joined the Cambridge Cavalry Volunteers. In 1879 he joined the Cambridge & Waikato Reed Band.

Newspaper reports from the time show auction sales in Piako, Te Awamutu, Ohaupo and Huntly, as well as Cambridge and in July 1888 a major auction was held – the entire stock of the nursery, including 5000 fruit trees, pines, camellias and ‘fancy shrubs’, was for sale ‘as the nursery is being shifted’ – as well as 50 acres of land and the Sharp family home. It’s unclear as to where the family shifted, but in 1900 trees from Sharp’s nursery were still being offered for sale in Cambridge.

In 1889, the ‘regular spring clearing sale’ listed 1000 assorted apple trees, 200 plum, 100 peach, 1000 Pinus insignis and 1000 Cupressus macrocarpa.

The Waikato Horticultural Society’s show for that year, held in Cambridge on March 16, featured a ‘splendid display’ of apples, according to the newspaper report – 200 varieties from HE Sharp of Waikomiti (it’s unclear whether he was a relation), 160 from John Sharp and 107 from Mr Keeley. John Sharp won the fuchsia, coleus, balsam, begonia and fern classes in the pot plant section, and the aster, zinnia, antirrhinum and dahlia in the cut flower sections, while recording two firsts and a second for his apples, a second for his peaches, three commendeds for his plums and a commended for his tomatoes!

In May 1895 the running of the Hautapu cemetery was given to Cambridge Borough Council and all the poplar trees were grubbed out and burned with the fern and debris. A vocal debate on whether the cemetery should be a park or garden was well documented in the Waikato Advocate newspaper. The garden won, and all the Cupressus lawsonia along both sides of the main avenue (which were meeting overhead) were reluctantly removed.

John Sharp suggested suitable shrubs and planted a number of ornamental and flowering varieties. (Along with the camellias at Woodlands the old trees in the cemetery are among the oldest in the Waikato.)

John died in 1915 and Eliza in 1937 and they are both buried at Hautapu.