Beautiful Banksia

I always know when the Banksia trees in our street have come into flower – neighbourhood gardens fill once again with the song and whooshing flight of the tui as they return in large numbers to feed on the nectar-filled flowers.

Not sure which type of Banksia the trees in my street are. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Banksia family, named for English botanist Joseph Banks (1743-1820) who travelled on Captain James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific, ranges from low shrubs to 30m-plus trees and is native to Australia, with only Banksia dentata also found in New Guinea and the Aru Islands of eastern Indonesia.The fossil of an extinct Banksia has been found in New Zealand.

The nectar-rich flowers begin to bloom in early winter, going right through the season, so are particularly welcomed by birds and bees. The flower head is made up of hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny flowers, an attribute known as inflorescence, and is a common characteristic of many flowers in the Proteaceae family. Banksias make excellent cut flowers, as they have a long vase life and excellent range of colours and sizes. Their ‘cones’ are also widely used by florists because of their interesting forms.

The flower of Banksia robur, or swamp banksia, starts off as a dramatic blue-green but turns more yellow as it ages. This plant grows in the Tauranga area. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Australian Native Plants website has a great photo list of 67 of the 173 (perhaps even more) Banksia species. See it here. Sixty species are found in the southwestern region of the country alone and almost all of them are coastal, or near coastal, plants. They thrive in hot, dry climates but will adapt so long as drainage is good.

Although Banksias don’t need bushfires, as some Australian native plants do, to boost their life cycle, they can regenerate quickly after a fire. However, too many fires too quickly will see a loss of Banksias in that area.

A many-flowered Banskia spike in a garden near Tauranga. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Indigenous Australians soaked the blooms in water to make a honey drink or placed the flower spikes on a large leaf or piece of wood to collect the sweet nectar. The dried flower heads that remain on the plant were sometimes used to strain drinking water.

A wattlebird in a Banksia tree in coastal Victoria, Australia. The nectar-filled flowers are an important part of the Australian native ecosystem. Photo: Sandra Simpson
These striking Banksia flowers caught my eye in coastal Victoria, Australia earlier this year. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Read some advice about growing Banksias as garden plants in New Zealand.

Online courses

People have been getting inventive over lockdown and so much of our learning – whether it’s exercise in our front rooms or work meetings in the spare bedroom – has gone online. For those who make their living from running workshops and courses it seems to have been something of a lightbulb moment. Here are a few online gardening courses I’ve found that don’t fit the Events calendar because they don’t have a fixed start date.

Two online options that are in the Events list deal with propagating food plants with the free, 45-minute course taking place on June 18 and 25. Details here.

Pakaraka Permaculture, near Thames, is offering a limited-time reduced price for its online organic market gardening course or “how to make a living from a quarter acre and sell over $100,000 of produce a season”. This is a self-paced course so starts when you want it to. Various prices, starting at $345.

Plenty Permaculture, near Tauranga, is running a monthly online gardening Q&A, 9.30-11am. The sessions are free and previous videos are archived on the website. To participate in the next live discussion on July 4, please register.

Koanga Institute, near Wairoa, is also offering its workshops online, as well as on-site. All the online courses can also be combined into one package. Growing Nutrient-dense Food, for example, is $220, while Growing Great Compost is $180.

Robert McGowan, QSM

As a former priest, Rob McGowan – awarded a Queen’s Service Medal in yesterday’s Queen’s Birthday Honours – is at ease with the concept of mauri (life force) which he honours and acknowledges when entering New Zealand’s bush or handling native plants and notes matter-of-factly he always asks before he takes anything for his practice of rongoā (Māori medicine).

“Sometimes the answer is ‘yes’, sometimes ‘no’ and sometimes I’m quite clearly directed to another plant the same but over there. If you stand quietly and listen, it’s all there.”

Rob McGowan in his teaching garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

His initiation into rongoā came when he was sent by the Catholic church to Whanganui to learn te reo. “I met Aunty Rua [Henare] who was making piupiu [flax skirts] for the culture club, a very respected elder and somewhat feared. When it came time to go up the river to collect flax it turned out I was the only man available to help her.

“On another trip we went into the bush to collect bark for dye and later I found out that once you begin making the dye there are some strict tapu, one being that a man can’t sleep with his wife, so I suppose a priest was handy to have around.”

Still widely known as Pa Ropata, Rob says “at some point” Aunty Rua decided to teach him rongoā, although she had taken her time sizing him up. “She was testing me to see if I would learn properly and keep the knowledge safe – you can ask to be taught, but they choose who they will teach.”

All hebes (this is Hebe stricta), including garden hybrids, have medicinal properties – eat unopened tips to ease diarrhoea; boil small branches for 10 minutes, cool and use to ease chafing or nappy rash. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Rob’s mother, the daughter of Dalmatian gumdiggers, used herbal medicine for her family based on rongoā knowledge shared through the marae next door, and as a child Rob spent much time in the Northland bush. “So Aunty Rua would ask for something and I could go and get it. That helped her open up to me.”

When Rob was transferred to Hastings in 1977, Aunty Rua instructed him to share his knowledge only with those who could whakapapa back (tie their genealogy) to the Whanganui River. She  connected him with Paul Mareikura who continued Rob’s education in Hawke’s Bay, an introduction that was doubly valuable when Aunty Rua was killed a few months later.

“They said, ‘we don’t have to teach you anything – if you get to know the plants they will teach you everything’. I always thought it was an excuse not to tell me something, but actually that’s how it is.”

The holed leaves of kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum) are the most effective as medicine. Scrunch older leaves and rub on as an insect repellent or make a leaf wad and chew on it gently to numb toothache or ease a sore throat. Photo: Sandra Simpson

After moving to Te Puke to tend to Catholic Māori in the Bay of Plenty Rob found himself burning out and in 1989 took sick leave, before deciding to leave the ministry.

A short time later he met Vic Smith, a leader of Ngāti Hangarau in Bethlehem, who urged him to share his knowledge with young Māori so Rob went back to Whanganui and sought permission, which was granted.

Since the opening of the hapu’s Ngamanawa Waitaia Lodge in 1992, Rob has taught there regularly, seeing it as a chance to reconnect the people to the whenua (land), as well as taking courses open to everybody. He now works for Ngā Whenua Rāhui, a unit within the Department of Conservation, which provides funding for the protection of indigenous ecosystems on Māori-owned land. There is now more than 170,000ha under covenant (kawenata).

Rob, who lives on a 2.4ha rural property in Welcome Bay, near Tauranga, with his wife Lyndel Crisp, a medical herbalist and former nurse, and daughter Ella, was delighted to be made a life member of the New Zealand Association of Medical Herbalists at their annual conference in 2017.

He helps run a small nursery for the neighbourhood Waitao Landcare Group and he and Lyndel participate in the fortnightly planting bees – in 2016 the Waitao Stream won the Morgan Foundation National River Story award.

Pomaderris kumerahou is also known as bushman’s soap. A few crushed and moistened leaves rubbed between the hands are said to remove even the worst of embedded grease and sticky substances. Photo: Sandra Simpson

A founding member of Tāne’s Tree Trust in 1999 and still a trustee, Rob is helping the bush on his land regenerate and has also planted a rongoā garden on his property to help students learn plant identification.

“Most New Zealanders see the landscape as a blur of many shades of green, not noticing the incredible diversity that’s present,” he says. “Taking people into the bush is often like teaching blind people to see.”

Many important rongoā plants grow on the fringes of the bush, he says, or in regenerating bush. “They buffer the forest from wind, suck up heavy rainfalls and stop the forest floor drying out, they keep the forest safe and strong. The plants that heal the land are also the ones that heal the people on the land.”

Rongoā Māori: A practical guide to traditional Maori medicine by Rob McGowan is a 70-page book of rongoā practice (no recipes) and is available from Karen Tindall.

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

Queen’s Birthday Honours

Congratulations to Jo Dawkins and Rob McGowan, both of Tauranga, who were acknowledged in today’s Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

I’ve previously written in this 2015 post about Jo, who still works tirelessly at Te Puna Quarry Park, and her sister Mary. Jo has become a Member of the NZ Order of Merit (MNZM). Here is today’s story from the Bay of Plenty Times.

Rob McGowan, a rongoā Māori expert, receives a Queen’s Service Medal for services to Māori and conservation. I will post about Rob tomorrow (his Bay of Plenty Times piece is behind the paywall).

Also recognised as an MNZM for his services to horticulture is botanist Murray Dawson of Christchurch, a member of the Royal NZ Institute of Horticulture and a researcher at Landcare.