What a life!

Photo: Palmerston North City Libraries

Doesn’t this look like the life? The elderly gent is sitting (or sleeping, it’s hard to tell) in a vinery with dark-skinned bunches of grapes hanging all around him. The photo is dated circa 1895-1905 and was taken in Palmerston North. He’s in a deck chair, there’s a log of wood for visitor and a table for their cuppa. Perfect.

The word ‘vinery’ could mean a vineyard as well as a glassed growing house like the one pictured. In 1894 it was reported that an Austrian immigrant in Kumeroa (near Woodville) was trying an ‘interesting experiment’ – growing his grapes outside! And not just one or two, he had 1200 vines planted.

Golden Chasselas. Image: Wikipedia

In 1889 a Manawatu newspaper reporter visited a successful vinery grower in the Foxton area, with 85m under glass, and helpfully listed the delicious-sounding grapes: Mrs Pince’s Black Muscat; Black Muscat of Alexandria; Black Hamburg; Golden Hamburg; Lady Downe’s; Black Prince; Golden Champion; Golden Chasselas.

Just 3 years later, the same man had built another glazed vinery, 13m long x 5m wide. Until the vines reached bearing age, the owner intended to grow tomatoes and had planted four rows. Sadly for him, the good life was brought to an abrupt end in 1909 at the age of 44 when he was murdered by his 21-year-old son and the property subsequently sold.

Excellent specimens

If you’re passing through the Tasman District this summer, you may notice two large trees in the main street of Motueka – one each in front of churches either side the road. Whether it was divine guidance, creating a landmark or simply a parishioner keen on trees, it’s nice to see such large specimen trees in the heart of a town.

The Araucaria bidwillii (bunya-bunya pine) outside St Thomas’ Anglican Church is thought to have been planted in about 1860 and on the NZ Tree Register is described as ‘an outstanding example of the species’.

The bunya-bunya pine has been measured at just over 23m tall and with a trunk girth of almost 4.8m. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Araucaria bidwillii is native to southeast Queensland in Australia – its common name derives from the name used by the local indigenous people. Although it has cones, it’s not a true pine, but a member of the ancient genus that includes that other non-pine, the Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla), the monkey-puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) and our own kauri (Araucaria australis).

Seeds from the huge female cones, potentially deadly if they fall on you, are edible. Read more about the tree here.

Araucaria were distributed almost worldwide during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, becoming extinct in the Northern Hemisphere toward the end of the Cretaceous and now found only in the Southern Hemisphere, with some 41 species spread across three genera.

The tree outside St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church isn’t as old or quite as big, but was imposing enough to catch my eye. Chamaecyparis lawsoniana, is also known as a Port Orford cedar or Lawson cypress. In New Zealand we tend to call them lawsonianas.

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana is native to Oregon and northern California in the US. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The timber, which apparently has a ginger-like fragrance, is light but strong and has good rot resistance. Japan values the wood for making coffins, and for shrines and temples. Thanks to its straight grain, it’s also one of the woods used to make arrow shafts. There are several hundred named cultivars.

In New Zealand, Lawson cypress has been used for house framing, roof trusses, weatherboards, roof shingles, interior panelling, furniture and joinery, as well as for reasonably fast-growing shelter.

The male cones of the Lawson cypress are bright red. Image: Wikimedia

Invisible arc to the future

Gorse (Ulex europaeus) in flower with seed pods forming. Photo: Sandra Simpson

It was late afternoon but the heat had not gone out of the day. Gorse pods still burst occasionally and their abrupt snaps seemed to split the moments in two like the halves that went on twisting, the inner sides black and shiny and the outer silky and furred as a bee, even after their seeds had whirled out in an invisible arc to the future.

  • Dan Davin, from The Gorse Blooms Pale (1947). Dan Davin (1913-1990) was a New Zealand-born author who wrote mostly about this country, even though he spent most of his life living and working in Oxford, England. The Gorse Blooms Pale was a collection of short stories set in his native Southland.

Then all in a fever myself I rushed out of the stifling house – out of the city streets and on to the gorse golden hills. A white road ran round the hills – there I walked. And below me, like a beautiful pre-Raphaelite picture, lay the sea and the violet mountains. The sky all a riot of rose and yellow, amethyst and purple.

  • Katherine Mansfield, from her poem Vignette: Through the Autumn Afternoon which is set in Wellington

Gorse was introduced to New Zealand in the early stages of European settlement – Charles Darwin recorded hedges of it in the Bay of Islands in 1835 – but it quickly became an agricultural and landscape pest. And still is.

The plant is an efficient seeder, with popping pods propelling seeds for several metres, maybe as much as 100m. And the seed can lie dormant in soil for 50 years, germinating when conditions are right.

Good news for the new year

Goodness knows we’ve all earned a bit of good news after the dreary and deadly year that was 2020, so I thought I’d start my new year of postings with some good-hearted stories from our world of plants and gardening.

When I lived in London the sight of mounted police never failed to impress – clip-clopping past my central London office or occasionally even past my west London home. But how about having them stride all over your garden? Just the ticket, say the good people at the Barbican Wildlife Garden, who invited Clyde and Iris, both cross-large horses, to wander about for 30 minutes.

“Grazing animals play an essential role in maintaining traditional wildflower meadows because their hooves create dips and furrows that help push seeds into the soil and create microhabitats. More than 97% of the UK’s wildflower meadows have been lost since the Second World War,” reports The Guardian. Read more here.

Image: Auckland University Press

Karl Maughan is one of New Zealand’s most successful contemporary artists and I’m sure most Kiwis would recognise his paintings of gardens, usually depicting rhododendrons in flower, even if they don’t know the artist. Auckland University Press last month published a coffee table book about his work, edited by Hannah Valentine and Gabriella Stead. Read a Stuff profile of Karl marking the publication (note that Gordon Collier’s garden, Titoki Point, was near Taihape and is no longer open to visitors).

Dr Peter Sergel, the driving force behind Hamilton Gardens since 1979, has resigned, although will be back for a bit this year on a part-time basis to finish off a couple of projects. Under his stewardship, Hamilton Gardens become a major visitor destination with about one million visits each year, and in 2014 won the International Garden of the Year Award. Read more here and see some stunning photos of the gardens.

Recognising the downtrodden … a Guardian report from earlier last year highlighted the More than Weeds campaign where an “international force of rebel botanists armed with chalk” have started writing the names of the flora growing in urban pavements and walls across Europe. “The idea of naming wild plants wherever they go – which began in France – has gone viral, with people chalking and sharing their images on social media.” Read more here.

And with that, I’m off to pull a few weeds! Mind how you go and take heed of any water restrictions in place at your place …