African violet Queen

It was almost 60 years ago that Betty Enticott saw her first African violet, commenting to her husband that she rather liked the neat-looking compact plant. Now, Betty has one of the largest collections of African violets in New Zealand.

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Betty Enticott in her growing room. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Back in 1959 Betty was newly married and living at Massey, near Auckland. Her husband, Brian, listened to her praise of the plant and she duly received one as a Christmas gift. “From then on I was interested and picked up leaves from other people, putting them in water until they rooted – I ended up with about 30 plants. Then I got a book about them and started to work out the light they needed and a potting mix – I used garden soil mixed with coarse sand.”

Once a week she put them on her concrete deck and fed them. “In Massey at the time we were surrounded by farms so I’d pick up cow manure from paddocks and put it in a bucket of water to break down. I’d use a dilution of that to feed the plants then spray them with fresh water.”

When the couple set off for England Betty’s treasured African violets were moved to her mother’s home in Tauranga but unfortunately, none survived the change of conditions.

A year later, back in New Zealand with an adopted child and a baby, Brian and Betty settled in Mt Maunganui, later adding two more children to their family. “When I had the time I started again – and this time learned much more.”

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Happy Trails is a semi-miniature ‘trailing’ African violet, a type of plant first developed in 1957. Photo: Sandra Simpson

She recalls reading articles in some of the American Sunset Books series and joined, as a correspondent member, an African violet club in Hamilton. She also got to know the late George Laurenson who had a large greenhouse of African violets at his Cambridge home. “I visited George often to buy plants and he would give me notes on their care.”

When the Hamilton club folded, Betty and George joined the Wanganui African Violet and Gesneriad Club, with Betty occasionally penning articles for the newsletter. At the time, there was also a club in Auckland but that later went into recess. The Wanganui club was the country’s only African violet club left when it closed about 3 years ago.

“It’s the same old story,” Betty says. “Members were ageing, numbers were dwindling and the young ones weren’t coming on.”

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Valencia is a ‘chimera’ type – flowers with striped petals arranged as wide spokes are also termed ‘pinwheels’. Photo: Sandra Simpson

She has been a long-time member of the African Violet Society of America, particularly enjoying its magazine which includes information on other members of the Gesneriad family. “I found out I had four or five plants that belonged to the same family although they were plants I’d bought just because I liked them.”

One plant you won’t see in Betty’s home or garden is a cyclamen, a potential carrier of spider mites which also enjoy infesting African violets. Thrips can be another pest but Betty now uses a potting mix which contains neem oil and thinks it is helping.

With the sudden death of African violet hybridiser Daphne Snell of Pukekohe on Christmas Day 2016 and the dispersal of her collection, Betty believes she now has one of the largest collections in the country – about 250 plants comprising 150-plus named varieties.

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Kiwi Carnival was bred by the late Daphne Snell of Pukekohe. Photo: Sandra Simpson

One of Daphne’s plants – Kiwi Dazzler – has been especially popular in Japan and, Betty says, is “one of the best”.

When she and Brian built a home at Mount Maunganui 53 years ago, they included a conservatory for Betty’s African violets featuring fluorescent lights (to encourage flowering) and fans for good air movement (plus she also took over part of the laundry for her miniature plants and ‘plant hospital’). When they moved to Papamoa in 1999 the violets went into a new conservatory, ‘leaked’ into the laundry – and expanded again!

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Betty thinks she may have the only plant of Tineke in New Zealand. She is trying to grow some more on to share it round. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“African violets like the conditions you and I like,” she says. “Probably the biggest mistake is to overwater them – they have to have air round their roots but if you overwater them they can’t get that air and develop root rot. If you put plants in a pot that’s too big you increase the risk of overwatering as the roots are surrounded by much more wet potting mix.”

The holy grail for hybridisers is a yellow flower. Some small amounts of yellow have been introduced into white flowers over the past few years, but it has proved difficult to obtain clear, solid yellows.

“Once we get a solid yellow, we’ll get all sorts of other colours too,” Betty says, smiling at the thought of orange and apricot African violets.


A Potted History: 

African violets, or Saintpaulia, belong to the Gesneriad family, which also includes Gloxinia, Streptocarpus and Achemines.

The botanical name honours the first European to successfully collect seed – Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire, district commissioner of Tanga province (now in Tanzania). In 1892 he sent seed to his father in Germany. The next year the world’s first commercially produced plants were offered in Germany.

Saintpaulias are native to Tanzania and southeast Kenya and can be found growing on shaded cliffs and mountainsides, on moist rocks along rivers and on the shaded forest floor. Altitudes range from 100m to 2,000m. Species plants have tiny flowers in mainly blue, white and pale violet.

German company Optimara is the world’s largest grower of the plants – recently it has developed many new varieties which can be found in New Zealand’s garden centres, hardware stores, etc.

Plants can live for up to 40 years.

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Jenny’s Ruffled Star was hybridised by Jenny Brungar of Tuakau. Photo: Sandra Simpson

To keep African violets happy, mimic how they grow in nature – use shallow pots with a free-draining mix so air can get round the roots (add pumice, perlite and/or vermiculite to ordinary potting mix).

Keep moist, but not soggy, and feed regularly with weak fertiliser.

Good, indirect light (not bright sunlight) triggers flowering.

If you are feeling hot, an African violet will need ventilation. If you feel cold, an African violet will need warmth.

They enjoy good ventilation, as in the wild, but need to be sheltered. They will not thrive in stuffy, hot closed-up homes.

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



On the road: Hobbiton

Although Hobbiton is only a 40-minute drive from Tauranga, for some reason I’ve put off going. However, seeing the lovely Best in Show garden at last year’s inaugural NZ Flower and Garden Show was the push I needed and we got online and booked a tour, navigating ourselves to the Shire’s Rest in the countryside near Matamata (but you can also pick up tours from Matamata, Rotorua and Hamilton).

A fleet of mini-buses rolls around between Shire’s Rest and Hobbiton all day – our guide told us there are 75 to 100 tours a day in summer – but the system has been well planned and we didn’t feel like the site was overly crowded or that we were being rushed through.

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Hobbit holes dot the hillside. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson first saw the 120-acre drystock farm from the air in 1988 while scouting potential locations. He was looking for, we were told, a pond with a big tree beside it in rolling countryside. Next thing, he was knocking on the farmhouse door – another source told me he was sent packing because a rugby final was on the telly!

Sir Peter persisted and a deal was struck with the Alexander family, but The Shire seen in LOTR was made to be dismantled, which duly happened at the end of filming, although 17 facades remained and guided tours began in 2002 …. but then Sir Peter decided to make some more movies.

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Bagend, the home of Bilbo Baggins – and the only Hobbit hole with any depth to it so it could be filmed from the inside showing the front door. Photo: Sandra Simpson

For the Hobbit trilogy The Shire was made from permanent materials and an agreement hammered out to leave the 12-acre set intact when filming finished in 2009. Now, one Alexander brother runs the farm and one brother runs Hobbiton (in which Sir Peter is a 50 percent partner).

All the animals used in The Shire were brought on to set, including the sheep – the farm runs Romneys (and is the biggest sheep farm in Waikato) but Sir Peter wanted black-faced sheep.

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Photo: Sandra Simpson

Visitors can view 44 Hobbit holes, all but Bagend a facade only, but what facades! Pretty gardens, smoke curling from some chimneys, beehives, a large, central vege garden and orchard area, and the enormous fake tree that sits above Bagend (the home of Bilbo Baggins). This tree, which looks marvellously real, has a steel frame covered in expanding foam and silicone and 200,000 individual fake leaves (made in Taiwan) handwired on over 6 months.

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The amazing fake tree above Bagend. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Some Hobbit holes are oversize to make the Hobbits look small (no one over 5’3″ was cast) and some are small to make Gandalf look big! The same logic was applied to plum trees used in a scene – dwarf apple trees were planted, the fruit picked off and plums wired on. All for 3 seconds on screen, our guide said.

The walking tour finishes at the Green Dragon Inn where groups are served beer or gingerbeer in pottery mugs, all great fun.

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Hobbiton successfully makes it look as though the inhabitants will be back at any moment. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The site gardens are immaculately kept thanks to the efforts of 5 full-time gardeners and 5 part-time – and the attention to detail includes hosing even the grassy/weedy areas to keep the site lush and green during the summer (surrounding farm pastures were drying off to brown).

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Gardeners work while tourists gawp. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Scent of a landscape

Yesterday I was lucky enough to hear some of the story of Queenstown Natural Perfumiers, a business founded by Serena and Harold Jones (she a botanist, he a poet) which has set out to capture some very specific scents from the Queenstown area landscapes and create them as naturally as possible – of the four scents, three are Ecocert-certified as 100% natural, while the fourth uses ‘synthetics’ as an environmentally conscious choice.queenstown

Both Harold and Serena, whom I’ve known for years, are passionate about the wild places of this country and our beautiful landscapes. I was able to sample each of the scents, picking out Lakeland Flora and Wilderness Berries as the two with most ‘nose appeal’ for me.

For a sense of what the perfumes invoke – and for much better writing than you’ll get from me – try these reviews by novelist Laurence Fearnley.

Queenstown Natural Perfumiers’ products are not available in stores or by mail order, just at two outlets, so far, in Queenstown.

Ngāi Tahu has a project under way to re-create a perfume known by the South Island iwi and which used the bayonet-like leaves of the plant known as taramea (Aciphylla spp, Spaniard or speargrass). Leaves were gathered, plaited and heated to extract resin with a fragrant oil made by mixing the resin and animal fat. The perfumed oil was highly valued and used in trade for food, pounamu (greenstone/jade) and as gifts between chiefs. Read more here.

Another ingredient in this ‘grand Māori perfume’, is pātōtara (Leucopogon fraseri, dwarf mingimingi), a prickly, low shrub that grows at altitude throughout New Zealand. According to Te Karaka website, it has been reported that, when the plant was more plentiful, the fragrance of its profuse flowering filled whole alpine valleys – and  with an offshore wind, apparently the perfume was perceptible to mariners, even before land was within sight.

In Traditional Lifeways of the Southern Māori, Ngāi Tahu ethnographer Herries Beattie records that the bark of the mountain toatoa tree (Phyllocladus alpinus) was carried by southern Māori as a scent, with one informant saying the bark was used to make a scent similar to the highly-prized taramea perfume.

The leaves of the lemonwood tree (Pittosporum eugenioides) were bruised and mixed with fat to use as a perfume, as were the scented flowers, and Eldon Best also mentions the resin being used for perfume making.

Read much more on this topic of native perfumes at Forest Lore of the Maori: Various Scents and Gums by Elsdon Best (1856-1931).

Heartfelt hydrangeas

Roger Allen has been involved with growing a commercial crop of hydrangeas for about 18 years, although more recently has taken a step back with his daughter taking charge of the business that grows hydrangeas for export as cut flowers, with one of the biggest markets being Dubai.

Roger’s been involved with growing flowers for a lot longer though, starting out at Whakamarama with mainly carnations and chrysanthemums, before moving to Plummer’s Point about 24 years ago, then moving into hydrangeas.

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Roger Allen with some hydrangea stems. Photo: Sandra Simpson

We’d got talking at a couple of funerals recently (as you do) and Roger invited me to see a some of his new hybrids that he’s so pleased with he will go through the PVR process (plant variety rights) and release them to commercial growers.

“There’s probably three I will release, one of them an improved version of ‘Sensation’, but I haven’t named them yet. I think a flower name has to have a little bit of music in the mouth.”

The business grows all but a few of its hydrangeas in bags and Roger pointed out the difference his aluminium-rich soils make – a vivid pink flower in a grow bag becomes a lustrous purple in the ground. “You can change the colour of a hydrangea by adding aluminium to the soil, but it takes a long time,” he says.”

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One of Roger’s as-yet unnamed seedlings. Photo: Sandra Simpson

In the early days of hydrangea exporting people were picking them from the old bushes that can be found beside many roads in New Zealand. “People were getting good money,” Roger says, “but the flowers looked horrid. We’ve come a long way since then.

“I started with hydrangeas primarily because there was money in it, but now it’s turned into a bit of a love affair. It’s a really nice bloom and I’m absolutely in awe of it – a flower changes on the bush daily until it goes to ‘antique’ and changes completely.”

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Hydrangea ‘Irene’, hybridised by Roger Allen. Photo: Sandra Simpson

He has already released two hybrids – ‘Bush Fire’ and ‘Irene’ – and is thrilled that the latter, a soft pink, has proved so popular exporters now request it by name, rather than colour.

An intriguing note to hydrangea breeding is that seedlings can throw either way – mophead or lacecap – no matter what their parentage, but up until 2 years ago Roger had never had a lacecap result from his work.

Roger is opening his garden for this year’s Bay of Plenty Garden and Artfest from November 15-18. Read about his garden in this earlier post.

On the road: Hotere Garden Oputae

We stumbled across this small garden by accident while visiting Port Chalmers, near Dunedin. Heading up the hill to see the Robert Scott Memorial (unveiled May 30, 1914), I spotted a sign for ‘Hotere Garden’ and requested a detour.

The garden opened in 2005 ‘fulfilling the wishes of Ralph Hotere‘ (1931-2013) to return four sculptures to Observation Point. They had previously been displayed in Mr Hotere’s nearby studio, but in 1993 it was demolished, along with some of the bluff on which it stood, despite local protests, to make way for port development. Apparently the garden was part of the settlement between the two parties.

In 2008 the garden by Design and Garden Landscapes Ltd won the Landscape Industries Association of NZ premier award for the best use of native plants, a gold award for landscape horticulture and a silver award for landscape design.

Company owner Wayne Butson said the planting had been deliberately kept simple to enhance the sculptures and the views.

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Aramoana, by Chris Booth, was originally constructed in 1982 and decorated with more beach flotsam and jetsam. Aramoana, a beachside settlement south of Port Chalmers, was to be the site of an aluminium smelter – this piece was by way of a protest. Photo: Sandra Simpson

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Black Phoenix II by Ralph Hotere uses part of a fishing boat that burned in a yard in 1984. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Another part of the boat’s timber was used in Black Phoenix held at Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand. Renowned actor Sam Neill helped prepare some of the wood for Black Phoenix: Not long after beginning, Ralph said he had to slip away. Something pressing. Three or four hours later, he returned; casually mentioned he was sorry, he’d got caught up in the pub. Read more from Remembering Ralph Hotere.

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Brick Column by Russell Moses is made from a kiln once used by Coromandel potter Barry Brickell, while the iron bar is recycled from the port. Photo: Sandra Simpson

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This photo doesn’t do justice to They do cut down the poles that hold up the sky by Shona Rapira Davies but the vegetation has grown since it was put it place and it wasn’t a sunny day.


Read more about the sculptures here.

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Finally, a bumblebee busy in harakeke (flax) in the garden. Look at that articulation between head and body! Photo: Sandra Simpson



On the road: Otari-Wilton’s Bush

Otari Wilton’s Bush is 5km from the centre of Wellington at 160 Wilton Rd (off-street parking at two spots or take a 14 bus from Lambton Quay). It is open every day, all day and is free. For more information see the website.

A visit to the botanic garden at Otari-Wilton’s Bush in Wellington is a chance to meet some of our native plants that otherwise inhabit remote or difficult locations, or are endangered in the wild.

The 5ha gardens, which comprise several collections numbering about 1200 plants, is the country’s only botanic gardens dedicated to native plants and continues to collect rare and common species, including those from offshore islands.

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A section of the rockery showing Chionochloa flavicans grass. The green-coloured early summer flowers will age to brown. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The gardens form a small, but significant, part of what began as a 7ha bush lot fenced off by Job Wilton but which today is a 105ha reserve that includes some original trees.

Renowned botanist Leonard Cockayne, along with J G McKenzie, established the Otari Open Air Native Plant Museum in 1926 – and Dr Cockayne and his wife  remain there today, buried in the grounds.

Plants are grouped by theme, including plants for the home garden, Wellington coastal plants, threatened species, the rainshadow garden and a fernery.

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Helichrysum bellidioides is a native straw flower found in alpine areas. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The ’38-degree garden’ is named for the latitude which delineates the southern natural range of kauri – Tauranga, more or less. This area is for those plants that naturally grow only in the top half of the North Island, such as taraire and puriri.

There are several fierce Aciphylla plants around the gardens, including the blue-foliaged A. squarrosa and the orange A. ferox, while an area is given over to lancewoods, especially Pseudopanax ferox, named for its ferociously toothed juvenile foliage. The lancewood is probably the native tree that differs most markedly from juvenile to adult forms and seeing a garden of them at their various ages is fascinating.


A white-flowered Chatham Island forget-me-not. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Other plants of interest include white-flowered Chatham Islands forget-me-nots (Myosotidium hortensia),  brown-leafed native dock (Rumex flexuosus), mountain foxglove (Ourisia macrophylla) and a hybrid of what was once the world’s rarest tree, Pennantia baylisiana, from the Three Kings Islands.

Oddly, given that the tree is difficult to pollinate, in cultivation it readily cross-pollinates with its cousin the kaikomako, Pennantia corymbosa, and this garden in 1982 produced a hybrid named Otari Debut.


Pennantia corymbosa Otari Debut. Photo: Sandra Simpson

2018 Dahlia of the Year

by Sandra Simpson & Garfield Andrew

In 2018 the New Zealand Dahlia Society celebrates its 80th anniversary with a national show in Blenheim from February 17-18 and has chosen as its 2018 Dahlia of the Year Tauranga Jubilee.

To help celebrate the anniversary, a couple of South Island growers have made sure there has been a stock of Tauranga Jubilee – which, for reasons no one’s quite sure of, has dropped in popularity over the years and isn’t widely available – for NZ Dahlia Society members to plant.

Back in February 1998 – the society’s 60th birthday – the national show was hosted by the Bay of Plenty Dahlia Circle (no longer in existence) and held in Tauranga. An unnamed seedling bred by Elaine Fenton of the South Island was put into competition and won its class.

The flower went to the top table and was named Tauranga Jubilee by the well-known dahlia grower from Britain, Dave Reid, who was visiting the show.

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Tauranga Jubilee. Photo: John McLennan

Mrs Fenton’s success in hybridising began when she obtained seed from Cyril Higgo, a fimbriated dahlia specialist in South Africa. She later honoured Mr Higgo by naming what has become one of the most recognisable large fimbriated dahlias in New Zealand in his honour. Three of her other dahlias are still grown and exhibited by members of the Dahlia Society – Kaka Beacon, Kaka Copper Queen and Kaka Lindy Lou.

Mrs Fenton served the national society for many years, including on the national management committee and as South Island secretary. She is a long-standing member of Christchurch and Districts Dahlia Club and in 2001 received the prestigious National Dahlia Society of New Zealand silver lapel badge.

Now living in aged care in Christchurch, Mrs Fenton still grows a few dahlias.