Hydrangeas aplenty

Had a great visit to Te Puna Blooms this morning to hear all about their business of growing hydrangeas and selling them as cut flowers into domestic and export markets. Samantha Searle and her partner bought the business and leased the land last October from Lisa, who still works there and lives on-site, near Tauranga.

Each flower head is checked for botrytis and other damage in the packing shed. Photo: Sandra Simpson

This is New Zealand’s largest ‘hydrangea farm’ at 2.5ha and, boy, was the packing shed looking gorgeous. The girls start work early to try and avoid the heat of the day and are harvesting from mid-December until about May, and every day through the peak season of February and March. Pruning is done in June, some by hand with electric secateurs and some by machine.

Samantha knows the business well, having worked for 4 summer seasons at Te Puna Blooms while a university student – her degree is in business psychology, and she laughs that it may come in handy one day but that horticultural science might have been more useful!

Samantha Searle with a bunch of the ‘antique’ (ageing) blooms that the Japanese market adores. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The farm grows hydrangeas under shade-cloth in tints of white, pink, blue and purple, including some two-tone flowers and those with triple petals. Lace-cap hydrangreas are too hard to keep looking good so for now mopcap hydrangeas are the focus, although Samantha’s keen to try some paniculata types.

Mopcaps can stand handling, keep well and travel well. Packing shed staff are careful to keep everything clean and disinfected to ensure that the botrytis fungus can’t gain a foothold, and check all the flower heads carefully before packing.

Lisa’s top tips for making hydrangeas last in a vase:

  • Cut the stems again when you get them home, you then have 30 minutes to get them into water before the cut seals over.
  • Add a ‘smidge’ of Janola or vinegar to the vase water
  • If the heads are drooping a bit, also add some sugar to give the stems a boost of energy
  • Flower heads can also be revived by gently laying them in a bowl of water (upside down, the head in the water) as hydrangea flowers can also absorb water through their petals.
Believe it or not, this is the same hydrangea – the plant that has flowered pink was pot-grown, while the other was grown in the ground. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Plants as forecasters of weather

People have often turned to nature to predict the season ahead, for instance:

  • An extraordinary flowering of cabbage trees is a portent of a long, hot summer
  • If wattles bloom early, it will be wet spring (a favourite of my grandmother’s)
  • If the (native) clematis blooms periodically, a warm season with gentle breezes lies ahead (Te Whānau a Apanui).

However, as any meteorologist will explain, it’s just not possible for plants to foretell the future – rather they are reflecting the season that has passed. For instance, a fiery autumn display is the result of a preceding long, hot summer. Immediate weather is another matter as, for instance, pinecones and seaweed are pretty good indicators of approaching rain (or not), but they don’t ‘forecast’ months, or even years, ahead.

In 1908 newspapers around the world (including New Zealand) ran items about the ability of Abrus precatorius, the “weather plant”, a member of the bean family also known as jequirity bean or rosary pea. This clipping is from The Ashburton Guardian of January 17, 1908.

In 1888 Professor Joseph Nowack used the plant, native to tropical regions, in Vienna to “predict to the hour” a thunderstorm which wrecked a garden party given by the Prince of Wales, shortly to become King Edward VII.

The British royal was so impressed he encouraged Prof. Nowack to set up an experimental weather station in London using the plants – unfortunately, reports ‘dried up’ and so I can elucidate no further.

The plant’s seeds are commonly used to make jewellery and rosaries, and for musical instruments, but the seeds are said to be extremely poisonous if broken. An interersting digression is that in India these seeds were used to weigh diamonds and other gemstones – the word ‘carat’ is apparently traceable to the Arabic ‘qirat’, the name for a carob seed which were all, more or less, the same weight. The entry for Abrus precatorius in A Modern Herbal by Mrs M Grieve (1931), claims the famous Koh-i-noor diamond, which now forms part of the British Crown jewels, was originally weighed using these seeds.

Botanical study of Abrus precatorius by Franz Eugen Köhler, published in Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen in 1897. Image: Wikipedia

A letter writer to the Samoanische Zeitung newspaper (Samoa) in 1912 referred to Prof. Nowack and his prediction that in 1911 New Zealand would experience a major earthquake centred in Cook Strait, without commenting on the fact this hadn’t happened. The author added that “when I was in Tonga, several years ago, the Tongans informed me that when a hurricane was about to happen there, one of the species of banana plants always curled its blossom in a peculiar way several months before the gale came”.

Community knowledge gathered over generations is quite a different thing to a crackpot theory about a plant being able to predict natural catastrophes. In New Zealand today, Māori knowledge, or mātauranga Māori, is gaining a wider audience as science comes to understand the validity of this type of understanding of the natural world. Read more here.

Farewell,The Chateau Tongariro

Thank you for all the lovely stays over the years, and even though service and standards have been erratic at times – the staff member clomping around the corridors in her gumboots, for instance – and the decor has become a bit tired in places, we’ve always loved being there, always loved the atmosphere of 1930s glamour and luxury at the foot of a live volcano. Perhaps, she says with a hope-filled air, this isn’t the end, but only a pause. Read more about what’s behind the closure.

The original building was started in 1929 and finished just 9 months later. A new wing of 40 rooms was added in 2005. From 1942 to about 1947 the building was used, firstly, as a psychiatric hospital after a Porirua building was damaged by an earthquake, and then as a recuperation centre for returning air force personnel. After refurbishment, The Chateau Hotel re-opened in 1948. And, after standing steady in earthquakes and through eruptions, its doors closed on February 5, 2023.

Mt Ngauruhoe seen through the entryway at The Chateau, January 2022. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Approaching The Chateau, June 2020. Mt Ruapehu is hidden by mist. Photo: Sandra Simpson
The guest lounge at The Chateau, June 2020. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Photo: Sandra Simpson