Tree of the moment: Illawara flame tree

Brachychiton acerifolius, native to Australia’s east coast rainforests from Illawarra in northern New South Wales to Cape York, is suddenly making its presence known in gardens and on city streets – its common name gives some idea of the vivid scarlet-orange colour.

The flowering is enhanced by the fact that the tree is deciduous before flowering so the branches appear to be ‘burning’.

Illawarra flame tree in central Tauranga. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Brachychitons are known in Australia as Kurrajong trees and the ever-knowledgeable Stirling Macoboy tells me (in his book) that all the Kurrajongs thrive in warm, dryish climates such as South Africa, California and the Mediterranean.

With our intense periods of rainfall, Tauranga may perhaps just about be on the edge of where the tree will do well in New Zealand. I have noticed several of the Illawarra flame trees planted as street trees in the city tend to produce their bell-shaped flowers only on one side of the tree (with leaves on the other half, it looks a bit strange) but reading more leads me to believe this is fairly common with seed-grown trees. Brachychiton acerifolius for retail now tend to be grafted.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

The flowers go on to produce large leather pods which hold corn-like seeds with nutritional value. Apparently indigenous Australians toasted and ate these seeds, used the inner bark for string and bandages, made tools and rums from the trunks and used the flowering as a weather indicator. If you’re collecting the seeds, it’s advised to wear gloves as they’re surrounded by irritant hairs (toasting got rid of these).

In the wild the trees are giants of the rainforest – up to 40m tall – but rarely make that height in cultivation where they grow to more like 10m. Trees grown from seed can take up to 10 years to flower … but it’s worth the wait.

Many Australian writers wax lyrical about the sight of an Illawarra flame tree flowering beside/in front of a jacaranda in bloom but to me it sounds like optical overload!

Father of Taxonomy

Each living thing on the planet – discovered by science – has a unique Latin name, a concept known as taxonomy with the modern version credited to Carl Linnaeus, a Swede who died 241 years ago today (January 10).

This Stockholm statue of Carl Linnaeus is surrounded by flowering plants. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Born in 1707, Linnaeus was a botanist, physician, and zoologist who trained at Uppsala University. From the 1740s to the 1760s he travelled throughout Sweden to find and classify plants, animals and minerals. At the time of his death in 1778 he was one of the most acclaimed scientists in Europe.

His father, Nils, was the first in his family line to adopt a permanent surname (the Scandinavian way was for each new generation to take the father’s first name as a surname – so Carl Oleson, was the son of Ole, and Carl’s son would be, say, Ole Carlson). Nils, a keen gardener, adopted the Latinate name Linnaeus after a giant linden tree (lime tree, ‘lind’ in Swedish) that grew on their farm.

Carl Linnaeus showed a love of plants from an early age and was fortunate to meet tutors who encouraged his study of botany. From 1730, and only a second-year student, he began lecturing – up to 300 people at a time! For a time he lived with the professor uncle of Anders Celsius, the inventor of a temperature scale. (Later Daniel Solander, who travelled with James Cook to the Pacific, was one of those who lived with Linnaeus in Uppsala.)

A bust of Carl Linneaus in Leiden University’s Hortus Botanicus, one of the oldest botanic gardens in the world. Linnaeus studied at Leiden University in The Netherlands for a time. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Linnaeus obtained his doctorate from Harderwijik University in The Netherlands (in two weeks!) and published his first thesis on taxonomy, Systema Naturae, in that country in 1735.

Back in Sweden in 1738, he helped found the Royal Swedish Academy of Science and in 1741 returned to Uppsala University as a Professor of Medicine, soon becoming responsible for the Botanic Garden which he renovated and expanded.

Philosophia Botanica, published in 1751, was a complete survey of his taxonomy system, as well as containing information on how to maintain a botanic garden. Species Planatum, published in 1753 in two volumes, is considered to be the starting point of the botanical naming we use today, while the tenth edition of Systema Naturae, published in 1758, is considered the starting point for zoological naming. 

Before Linnaeus, naming practices varied. Many biologists used long, unwieldy Latin names, which could be altered by anyone. For instance, the common wild briar rose was both Rosa sylvestris inodora seu canina and Rosa sylvestris alba cum rubore, folio glabro. The need for a reliable naming system became urgent when a huge number of plants and animals were brought to Europe from Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

Linnaea borealis (twinflower) pictured in Sitka, Alaska. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Ennobled in 1761, Linnaeus chose as part of his coat of arms the twinflower, one of his favourite plants, which was renamed Linnaea borealis in his honour. Although he has been described as one of the most arrogant men in the history of science – he apparently liked to say “Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit” (God created, Linnaeus organised) – he never named a plant after himself .

During his life Linnaeus named nearly 8,000 plants, as well as many animals and gave the scientific designation for humans: Homo sapiens. Linnaeus perhaps had fun with his plant naming – the most beautiful plants were often named for his supporters, while his detractors often supplied the names of common weeds or unattractive plants!

His wife, Sara, survived both her husband and their elder son, who had kept his father’s collection despite an approach by Joseph Banks to buy it. When Sara contacted Joseph Banks after her son’s death in 1783 he was no longer interested. Instead, a 24-year-old medical student bought it – and 5 years later James Edward Smith founded the Linnean Society of London, the world’s oldest extant biological society.

In 2007 Kennedy Warne wrote a piece for NZ Geographic to mark the 300th anniversary of Linneaus’ birth, which also reflects on the future of his system. Read it here.

This statue of Linnaeus is in the Skansen Open-Air Museum rose garden on the island of Djurgården in Stockholm. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Our native plants: Kaka beak

The kaka beak (Clianthus), an endangered New Zealand native shrub, gets its name from the shape of the flower resembling the beak of the kaka, a native parrot. There are actually two red-flowered types (C. puniceus and C. maximus), plus a white-flowered variety.

Kaka beak generally flowers from early spring, although can flower year round. This was taken in Wellington’s Botanic Gardens in January. Photo: Sandra Simpson

A 2005 survey found only 153 C. maximus plants in the wild in the North Island’s East Coast and northern Hawke’s Bay, and under threat in all places from browsing animals, including sheep, cattle, deer and pigs. By 2013 that number had dropped to 109. The plants are not found naturally in the South Island.

The Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust has come up with a novel way of trying to get more plants into the wild – packing shotgun cartridges with shot and kaka beak seed, going up in a helicopter and firing the cartridges into spots inaccessible to browsers!

As you see from the foliage, they’re part of the pea family so fix their own nitrogen and can grow in relatively poor soils. The spectacular clusters of flowers attract nectar-loving birds.

Gardening with NZ Plants, Shrubs and Trees (Collins, 1988) says it was one of the few plants pre-European Maori grew simply for its beauty – or possibly for flowers to feed caged (speaking) tui. The Maori name, Kowhai ngutu-kaka, literally means parrot-beaked kowhai (Sophora, another member of the pea family). 

Photo: Sandra Simpson

Lawrie Metcalf writes in The Cultivation of NZ Trees and Shrubs (Raupo, 2011) that kaka beak was introduced into gardens in England in 1831 with the first plants selling for the princely sum of £5. Oddly, given its endangered status in the wild, plants are widely available in garden centres in New Zealand with ‘Kaka King’ the trade name for C. maximus.

Lawrie also notes that while being shown around Sissinghurst Castle Garden – by Vita Sackville-West, no less – they came upon a C. puncieus ‘Albus’ growing in an urn on a pedestal. “Its position at eye level allowed the plant to be appreciated fully, and its situation in the light shade of some deciduous trees really highlighted the beauty of its white flowers.”

In cultivation C. maximus can grow up to to about 4m tall (6m in the wild) and C. 
puniceus about half that size. Common knowledge has it that they tend to be short-lived in the garden (2-4 years), although a prune after flowering will stimulate new growth and keep the plant going longer (hedgecutters are okay). However, Fiona Eadie, head gardener at Larnach Castle on the Otago Peninsula, says in her 2008 book, 100 Best Native Plants (Godwit), that a specimen there lasted 25 years surviving “moderately severe frosts and many a snowfall”. She emphasises a dry site above all and vigilance with chewing and sucking insects.

Otari Wilton’s Bush in Wellington has trained a Clianthus maximus against a trellis – one way of ensuring the flowers are shown off. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Glyn Church reports that he grew them well in the full blast of Wellington’s winds which seemed to keep pests at bay too.

The Plant Conservation network listing suggests siting plants in fertile, well-drained, sunny sites free from surrounding shrubs to combat pest and disease problems. Galls, caused by a mite, should be removed as soon as they appear.

Recent honours

Val Burrell, of Te Puke, has been made a Member of the NZ Order of Merit (MNZM) for services to the community and horticulture in the 2019 New Year Honours List.

As well as being active with the NZ Women’s Institute for 57, at local, regional and national levels, Val has also been involved with the National Dahlia Society for 33 years and has been northern secretary, national secretary/treasurer, and privacy officer.

She has been national treasurer since 2010 and over the years has assisted with producing the society’s magazine and various fundraising efforts. Her 40-year involvement with the Floral Art Society of New Zealand has included being regional and local treasurer.

Her husband, Peter Burrell, is a well-known breeder of dahlias, claiming he only got involved because he was driving Val to shows.

Fiona Hyland of Dunedin was recognised with the World Rose Award for services to the rose at this year’s World Rose Convention in Denmark in July.

Fiona is a long-standing member of Heritage Roses New Zealand and has an impressive record as an editor, researcher and speaker at a local, national and international level. She has a strong interest in the collection of heritage roses at the Dunedin Northern Cemetery and played a key role in Dunedin’s 2005 hosting of the International Heritage Roses Conference.

Fiona has edited booklets featuring the writings of well-known NZ Heritage Rose experts Nancy Steen and Ken Nobbs, been editor of the quarterly Heritage Roses NZ journal, and was also editor of the electronic journal for the World Federation of Rose Societies from 2006–2010.

An Award of Garden Excellence was given to the Christchurch Botanic Gardens at the same convention. The Central Rose Garden dates from 1910 and the Heritage Rose Garden from 1952 (redesigned in 1999). Read more here.

Derek and Jenny Beard from the Western Bay of Plenty Camellia Society won Grand Champion and Best Hybrid at this year’s NZ Camellia Show in August with Jamie, an Australian hybrid. Derek and Jenny won a total of 10 first places,  four seconds and one third.

Kawerau arborist Scott Forrest was last month named the nation’s best tree climber for the fifth time, at the NZ Arboriculture Association Husqvarna National Tree Climbing Championships (NTCC) in Dunedin. After his win he gave away his haul of prize gear to his fellow competitors.

Scott won the same national title in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2016, and won the International Tree Climbing Championships (ITCC) in 2011, 2013 and 2014. His Dunedin win qualifies him for next year’s ITCC in the US.

2018 Pacific Rose Bowl winners at the Rogers Rose Garden in Hamilton in November: NZ Rose of the Year & Best Floribunda: Little Miss Perfect, bred by Rob Somerfield (Tauranga). Best NZ-raised Rose & Children’s Choice Award: Strawberry Blonde, bred by Rob Somerfield. Best Hybrid Tea & Most Fragrant: Hi Ho Silver, bred by Mike Athy (Gisborne). Best Climbing Rose:
Lady of Shallot, bred by David Austin (England). Best Shrub Rose: Rhapsody in Blue, bred by Frank Cowlishaw (England).

It’s not too late!

A very Merry Christmas to all my readers, near and far, and my best wishes to you for a peaceful, safe and happy festive season.

Each year I find myself more and more reluctant to engage in the conspicuous consumption that retailers encourage or, as the headline in today’s paper said, make the “sleigh tills jingle”. I’m at the point in my life where I want for very little if, indeed, anything so having my family about me for a lovely meal and a relaxing day of fun is a true gift.

But for those who are really stuck for a gift, there’s always the garden! Garden centre vouchers are not the easy way out – the recipient will be delighted to be able to choose rather than having another trowel or kneeling pad or pot of marigolds foisted upon them.

A gift to be remembered might be to ask what job really needs doing … and doing it! I overheard a woman say of her husband the other day, “he doesn’t like gardening so doesn’t do anything”. How selfish, I thought then (and still do). Getting off his chuff occasionally to dig a bed, help tie up a climber, pull a few weeds, etc., won’t cost a penny but will be a big deposit in the bank of relationship happiness!

If you’re good with your hands, there’s always the possibility of making something …

Like the idea of topiary but not all the work to keep them in shape? A topiary-ball effect created from low-cost succulents is an eye-catching alternative. Photo: Sandra Simpson

This bean frame offers use of otherwise-unused vertical space and is a simple construction of bamboo poles lashed together with twine/thin rope. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Art for the garden is very much down to personal taste – what, how much of it and where – that a gift of impermanent beauty, made all the more special because it is impermanent, might be a safer way to go. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Make a mundane job – like hanging out the washing – more fun with a little creativity. Here, a variety of plumb bobs have been hung from the end of a washing line. Photo: Sandra Simpson

And finally I want to introduce you to two inspirational young men – Oscar and Luca, both 18 and both university students (neither studying horticulture but both involved with community gardening), who last month entered the Balcony Garden competition at the NZ Flower & Garden Show in Auckland, presenting the Bronze-medal Reconnection + Recollection.

Oscar Perress in the Reconnection + Recollection garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Their aim in being at the show, Oscar said (Luca was busy hoeing into lunch as only a teenage male can so was incommunicado), was to humanise the garden – show it as a space to live in but also that it has its own needs. “A garden is a place where ecological cycles and human spaces overlap. It’s a place to be and a place to watch.”

Hessian sacks from a coffee roaster acted as a windbreak/divider from the next garden; plants had almost all been grown from seed – some were edible, some pollinator friendly; compost and topsoil had come from the community garden they work in (and would go back there); recycled pallets provided flooring and planter boxes; plant stakes were found in a skip two days previously .. everything was reclaimed or recycled. Their biggest cost? “Transport. Neither of us has a licence.”

They made sure they were showing a regenerative garden – seed could be collected to start the next growing cycle and spent plants dug back in to provide nutrients. Oscar says they wanted to convey how easy a garden was to construct (ie, anyone can do it) and that all life forms are brought together in a garden.

If these are the hands I’m passing the planet on to, I’m happy. So if you have a young person in your life maybe your gift to them will be encouragement to garden – and plenty of practical advice.

  • During 2018 Oscar has presented a weekly radio show called Community Garden where he talks to people involved in community gardening in Auckland. See the programme list here.

Message in a garden

When is a garden more than a collection of plants? Perhaps when it’s making a political statement, or when it speaks to the local culture – we saw a couple of interesting gardens on our travels this year that make just these points.

The red star of geraniums planted outside the Cecilenhof in Potsdam. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Cecilienhof, a 20th century palace (built 1914-17) in mock Tudor style, was home to Kaiser Wilhelm’s oldest son, Wilhelm, and his wife, Cecilie, a German Duchess, and their 6 children and forms part of the sprawling Sanssouci Park in Potsdam, Germany.

The building’s most important role came at the end of World War 2 when the Potsdam conference – Churchill/Atlee, Roosevelt/Truman and Stalin – met to decide the terms for the vanquished nations. There were 3 conferences in all – in the Russian embassy in Tehran (Iran), at Yalta (Crimea) and in Potsdam, officially the Berlin conference (the two are about 36km apart and while Berlin was heavily damaged, Potsdam had escaped lightly).

Held between July 17 and August 2, 1945, the Potsdam conference was conducted along strict lines of protocol – each leader had his own entry door and study; and no one entered the conference room before anyone else (so no one was first and no one was last).

With Potsdam in the Soviet sector of Berlin, a red star of geraniums was planted on the front lawn just before the conference, suspiciously Soviet to the guests but the hosts were admitting nothing – and the star is still there. 

From left, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman and Josef Stalin in the garden of Cecilienhof on July 25, 1945. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Cecilienhof has been a Unesco World Heritage site since 1990 and since the 1960s has, besides the museum rooms, also housed a hotel (closed for renovation when we were there). Our guide told us that the marriage of Wilhelm and Cecilie, who had six children, was not happy and the palace ended up with his apartments on one side and hers on the other.

Wilhelm, by the way, was ever only a crown prince. Exiled to a Dutch island after the fall of the German empire in 1918, this great-grandson of Queen Victoria remained there until 1923 when he was allowed to return to Germany after giving assurances he would stay out of politics. He didn’t – and Hitler visited Cecilienhof three times, although when Wilhelm realised Hitler had no intention of restoring the monarchy, the relationship cooled. In early 1945, Wilhelm and Cecilie separately fled their home (and didn’t live together again) and at the end of the war the property was seized by the Soviets. Wilhelm died in 1951 and Cecilie in 1954, both in West Germany.

For something a little more benign, let’s go to Tallinn in Estonia and this rather striking bedding display.

Bedding display in Kadriorg Park, Tallinn. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Nela, our guide, saw me taking a photo of the bed of annuals and mentioned that it was based on a traditional pattern used in the Estonian national dress.

The diamond pattern can be seen on this Estonian woman’s belt.

Read more about Kadriorg Palace, built by Peter the Great of Russia, in an earlier post. And read more about Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam, built by Frederick the Great of Prussia, in an earlier post.

Our native plants: Winika orchid

If you go into the bush this summer you might be lucky enough to see a Winika in flower. Native to New Zealand, it is an epiphytic orchid with the sole species Winika cunninghamii (syn Dendrobium cunninghamii). It is commonly found in rainforest in the North, South, Stewart and Chatham islands and usually flowers in summer and early autumn. Its common names are winika, pekapeka (confusingly, also the word for a bat in te reo), Christmas orchid and bamboo orchid (owing to the bamboo-like stems).

Winika cunninghamii was first catalogued by Daniel Solander (who voyaged with Cook and Banks) as Epidendrum pendulum.

Botanist Richard Cunningham (1793-1835) collected a specimen in the Whangaroa area in 1833-34, and it was subsequently named Dendrobium cunninghamii by botanist and orchidologist Professor John LindleyRead more about Richard Cunningham and his botanist brother Alan here.

Australian scientists Mark Clements (M A Clements) and David Jones have more recently (about 2007) removed it to form Winika cunninghamii. Read more about the re-naming of NZ orchids here.

Winika cunninghamii

Winika in bloom in East Harbour Regional Park, Wellington. With a diameter of 2.5cm, the flower is the largest of New Zealand’s epiphytic orchids. Image: Kotare (Wikipedia)

The orchid gave its name to a Waikato war canoe – legend has it that in 1838 once the totara for the hull was felled “masses” of the orchid was found on the tree.

Te Winika, which was buried during the Land Wars, was restored in the 1930s by a team including carving student – and later renowned opera singer – Inia Te Wiata. The waka, again refurbished in 1972, was used ceremonially from 1938 to 1973. Now on display in Waikato Museum, Te Winika was gifted to Hamilton city in 1973 by the Maori Queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu.

New Zealand Post released a native orchid miniature sheet to mark the 1990 World Stamp Exhibition in Auckland. Winika was a 40c stamp, alongside the sun orchid (Thelymitra pulchella), spider orchid (Corybas macranthus), greenhood orchid (Pterostylis banksii) and odd leaved orchid (Aporostylis bifolia).

orchid stamps2

Te Papa Museum’s Herbarium has various specimens of Winika cunninghamii, several with images.