Hadrian’s Wall herbs

I’m reading the 1984 edition of A Walk Along the Wall by Hunter Davies, something I picked up at a bookfair and have had in my bedside pile for a while. Now I’ve broached it, I’m thoroughly enjoying reading about his end-to-end walk beside Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England, all 117km of it, in 1974. The coast-to-coast Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail opened in 2003.

An intact section of the wall snakes into the distance. Photo: Wikipedia

Mostly the book is history, archaeology and people – all very interesting topics in their own right – but this passage particularly caught my eye. The 16th century spelling that Davies quotes has been changed to make it easier to read, and note also that a “Surgeon” was someone we would consider to be a general practitioner doctor.

I did look hard for chives and other signs of herbs amongst the crevices of the Wall. In the 16th century [English historian William] Camden wrote that it was the practice for Scottish surgeons to come down once a year to replenish their supplies from the Wall crevices. “The Roman soldiers of the marches did plant here everywhere in old times for their use certain medicinal herbs to cure wounds; whence it is that some … practitioner of the Surgery in Scotland flock hither every year in the beginning of summer to gather such simples and wound herbs; the virtue whereof they highly commend as found by long experience, and to be of singular efficacy.” To which Mr Davies adds, “The Romans did introduce many herbs and spices to Britain but I could see no sign of them”.

A reconstructed temple at Vindolanda, the largest archaeological site along the wall with a fabulous museum. The site is privately owned. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Despite Mr Davies not being able to find any herbs, this 2017 article about re-creating a rare grassland in the area of the Wall indicates that “wild thyme” is a known plant from Hadrian’s Wall. The excellent Vindolanda website has a section on food and drink and notes that many Mediterranean herbs were brought to Britain, which had a native mint and wild chives, by the Romans, including dill, fennel, marjoram, sage, rosemary, rue, thyme and the spearmint type of mint, and quotes this recipe for a type of pesto from the Roman writer Columella.

 Put into a mortar savoury, mint, rue, coriander, parsley, chives, rocket leaves, green thyme or catmint, pennyroyal and salted cheese. Pound together and mix a little peppered vinegar with them. When you have put the mixture into a small earthenware vessel pour a little oil on top of it. 

With military forts an integral part of the Wall and its management, it’s likely that medicos attached to the larger forts would have had a garden for the herbs they used as medicine. The Arbeia Roman Fort website contains a list of herbs and how they were used (Activity 1), including sleeping on thyme to cure melancholy or home-sickness for soldiers, and rosemary as an antiseptic.

If you’ve read this far you may be interested in an earlier post about the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, a meticulous re-creation of a Roman home and garden.

Rarities at our feet

Our first sighting of Euphorbia glauca was in a public space in Oban on Stewart Island and we agreed that it was nice to see a rare-ish plant being used in a way that made it accessible to all.

A seed head on Euphorbia glauca in Oban, Stewart Island. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Then on a guided trip to nearby Ulva Island, a bird sanctuary, we saw it growing naturally on a beach, its favoured native habitat which gives rise to its common name of shore splurge. The plant is native to all of New Zealand’s main islands and is found nowhere else in the world. Read more here.

Euphorbia glauca growing on Ulva Island. Photo: Sandra Simpson

When we mentioned we’d seen E. glauca growing in Oban, our Ulva Island guide said we should look for the native Gunnera, also planted in a public bed. Back in Oban we scratched our heads until we used Google and realised the Gunnera we were seeking wasn’t a version of giant rhubarb (G. manicata, which can reach 3m high), but something much, much smaller.

Gunnera hamiltonii growing in a public bed in Oban, Stewart Island. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The ground-hugging Gunnera hamiltonii is a true rarity – probably New Zealand’s rarest wild plant – found naturally in only one place on Stewart Island, the sand dunes of Mason Bay, according to Stewart Island Plants by Hugh D Wilson (Manuka Press, 2009). In his excellent profile of the plant, Phil Bendle says that six separate natural plants are known at four locations. Five plants exist on Stewart Island and one on the Southland coast. Although each known population is only a single plant, they extend via underground rhizomes and cover a large area and maintain themselves vegetatively. Natural fertilisation is now difficult as the male and female plants are separate, but the plant has been propagated for sale.

A sign of the plant’s rarity is that it doesn’t have a common name with its botanical name honouring William Stewart Hamilton, a member of the Southland Institute in the 19th century. The plant’s natural habitat is damp sand dune hollows near the sea, although it can be found growing well in many botanical gardens around the world, including in the Alpine House at Kew Gardens, England.

New Zealand has five native Gunnera and not one of them exceeds 15cm in height.


Turning the tide

The good people of Whanganui – and summer visitors from all over – have been enjoying Castlecliff Beach since the late 1880s when trains and trams carried day-trippers from the city to the black sands and swells of the Tasman Sea. Bachs were built, a campground opened and in 1911 a Life Saving Club was formed. 

These days, outside the peak of summer, Castlecliff is the epitome of a sleepy, seaside suburb which, paradoxically, has led to a pioneering garden project.

“The council had neglected the suburb for a long time,” says Progress Castlecliff member Ivan Vostinar, “so when a chunk of money was finally allocated we decided to have community meetings for input on how to spend it.”

Rangiora Street, Castlecliff. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The clear choice was to beautify Rangiora Street, the main street leading to the beach. “The council did a concept design and the artist sketched an aloe leaf as a motif – he planted the seed with me that we needed to have something that in 20 years, or 100 years, could look iconic.”

Ivan, who has been a fulltime artist since the age of 23, moved to Whanganui in 2012 where, thanks to making all the pottery for The Hobbit films, he was able to buy a building two blocks from Castlecliff beach, the premises for a studio and gallery, as well as a home shared with his partner Simone Higgie and their 2-year-old daughter Zoe.

“I very naively thought I would grow purely edibles,” he says of his own garden behind the building, ‘but quickly realised I had sand for soil and was up against salt-laden winds. The fruit trees got scorched until I could get native hedging up.”

Ivan Vostinar in his corner garden, open to the public. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Inspired by a visit to Paloma Gardens near Whanganui, Ivan’s next garden was much tougher. “I was moved to tears on my first visit to Paloma,” he says. “I’ve been an artist for a long time and was awed by what was possible – and I fell in love with agaves and aloes.”

He turned the corner site at one end of his building – half his land, half the council’s – into an unfenced garden, complete with brick pathway leading through it so anyone can enjoy it. Here are masses of succulents, cacti and other plants suited to the conditions, including Echium candicans (Pride of Madeira) and a prickly pear trained as a standard. Ivan has also planted his own land on the other side of the building frontage to add further public colour.

When money became available to plant Rangiora Street, he turned to Paloma’s plantsman – and Simone’s father – Clive Higgie. His advice was to use native nikau palms, Aloe bainessi and Dracaena draco (dragon tree) as statements. “The nikau was a complete gamble,” Ivan says. “We’re usually very dry in summer but they all survived and we knew people would love them.”

A waxeye enjoys an aloe flower in the street plantings. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Community meetings approved the planting plan of mainly succulents and aloes with the only requirement from Whanganui District Council being that there be no dangerously spiky plants. The project has unfolded at the rate of a block a year with the council providing soil for planting into. “The street plants grow three times as fast as the ones I put in sand in the corner garden.”

Ivan applauds the council for being open to a community-led project. There has only been one bad theft of plants and not all ‘hooning’ has stopped but, overall, Ivan says the goodwill and respect for the gardens have been “outstanding” and includes gifts of plants and even some cash donations.

“The plants look good in summer but really come into their own in winter when the aloes are in flower and the nectar-eating birds arrive.”

An aloe in flower in Rangiora Street, Castlecliff. Photo: Sandra Simpson

At the same time as the project started, sea-theme murals by Dan Mills went on to some street-facing walls and locals bought a block of buildings, one of which is now a popular café. A library opened 2 years ago, its lawn featuring Cliffy Mokonui, a dinosaur made by Jack Marsden Mayer from driftwood collected on Castlecliff Beach, plus more gardens.

It seems the tide may be turning for Castlecliff.

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

McCahon’s Kauri

An intriguing fundraiser is taking place with 300 kauri saplings sourced from the garden of New Zealand artist Colin McCahon (1919-1987) on offer.

In 2010, all the kauri trees on the artist’s property in Titirangi tested positive for kauri dieback disease, with two felled immediately. Four years later cones were harvested, under strict hygiene conditions to try and avoid the possibility of disease transfer, from high in the 27 remaining trees. Propagation, by staff at Auckland Botanic Gardens, was also carried out under conditions of strict hygiene.

Photo: McCahon House

Cones were placed in paper bags, stored at room temperature and allowed to ‘pop’ open naturally. Throughout the process the seedlings have been regularly inspected and sampled to rule out the presence of kauri dieback.

The saplings will raise funds for the Kauri Project, to raise awareness about die-back and potential ways to deal with it, and McCahon House, which includes an artist residency.

The saplings are $100, plus courier within New Zealand. Read more here.

Our native plants: Green-flowered mistletoe

On a recent visit to Rakiura Stewart Island, I had the good fortune to see a garden in Oban made by people who enjoy plants. Stepping out of the van, the owner made a throwaway remark about watching out for the mistletoe. And when I looked up, sure enough, there were the berries.

The native New Zealand mistletoe Ileostylus micranthus growing in a garden at Halfmoon Bay on Stewart Island. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Apparently it will grow on almost any host, not just native trees, with our guide mentioning rhododendrons as something he’s grown it on. His advice was to take a berry or two, squeeze them, smear the mush over the host tree’s trunk and wait to see what happens. In nature, the seeds are distributed by birds.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

Ileostylus micranthus has a small green flower so it’s the display of bright orange berries in summer and autumn that makes it visually interesting. It’s our most common mistletoe found from Northland to Stewart Island and is one of the least host and pollinator specific, although possum browsing and habitat destruction is affecting it. It is the only native mistletoe that is also found outside New Zealand, on Norfolk Island.

Although mistletoes are parasitic plants, the New Zealand species do not generally harm their hosts and this one gains its food partly from its host and partly through photosynthesis.