Out-of-season pohutukawa

Metrosideros excelsa is a tree that doesn’t need to scream for attention in early summer, its red flowers do all the talking necessary. But here we are in autumn, so why am I posting about them? Because of two intriguing ‘instances’ of pohutukawa foiund in Wellington at the weekend.

The sun lights up exterior detail on the Supreme Court building. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Courts of New Zealand website tells me that the decorative screen surrounding the Supreme Court building was inspired by the branches of pohutukawa and rata trees, and is made from recycled bronze and red recycled glass. The building opened in 2010 and was designed by Warren and Mahoney Architects, while the screen was designed in collaboration with artist Neil Dawson to represent windblown pohutakawa and rata trees. “In Māori culture, these trees signify the protective wisdom of community elders.” Read more about the building design.

The comprehensive root system of a pohutukawa in the Wellington Botanic Gardens shows why placement of these trees should be carefully considered. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Beside a grove of pohutukawa in the Wellington Botanic Gardens is a sign that says that although there are pohutukawa in the gardens, they are not native to Wellington, having originally been found north of the line between New Plymouth and Gisborne. “But J G MacKenzie (director of parks, 1918-47) planted so many of the trees around parks and streets that he earned the nickname ‘Pohutukawa Mac’.”

John Gretton MacKenzie (1882-1953) worked in close partnership with influential botanist Dr Leonard Cockayne in gaining recognition for the native bush in the garden, as well as supporting Cockayne in the establishment of the Open-air Plant Museum at Otari in 1926. Read more about the history of the Botanic Gardens. J G MacKenzie and his wife, who lived at the Botanic Gardens, raised a family of 10 there.

Parks Week Walk

A pleasure yesterday to stroll around the Haiku Pathway Reserve in Katikati with members of the Re-naturing Katikati group, volunteers who are looking after the banks of the Uretara Stream, much of their effort concentrated on weeding and replanting with natives, particularly sedges which have the happy habit of holding their ground during a flood and popping back up when it’s all over, unlike flax (harakeke) which tends to be pulled out in a flood, taking chunks of bank with it.

Getting ready to set out are, from left, Sharon Strong, Haiku Pathway Committee president Margaret Beverland, volunteer Dean Smith, and Kate Loman-Smith, Western Bay of Plenty District Council’s reserves and facilities volunteer co-ordinator, and previously the Re-naturing Group leader. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Led by Sharon Strong, who is a Kea (Katikati Environment Activator with Project Parore), the group works from a bit above the swimming hole at the top end of the Haiku Pathway, all the way along the river out to the harbour. As well, the volunteers also look after and work in other reserves around the town and are setting up their own nursery.

Looking upstream from the pedestrian footbridge. The flaxes were planted in the 1990s when the thinking was that they helped save stream banks in floods. However, that’s no longer considered to be the case and native sedges (Carex species) are preferred. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Sharon and Kate had us spotting weeds, large and small, as we walked, some of the real bugbears being Taiwanese cherry (Prunus campanulata), Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense) and Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). Looking downstream from the swing bridge we could see an extensive patch of Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) had re-established after previously being cleared. Someone’s garden waste either chucked on the bank, or come down in a flood.

The volunteers have different ways of dealing with weeds, ranging from hand-pulling to drilling and poisoning larger plants. Another regular task is to keep tending the new plants, ‘releasing’ them from surrounding growth, until they’re well established.

Sharon Strong gets in amongst some riverbank growth to teach plant identifcation. Photo: Sandra Simpson

We also got an interesting talk from Keith Gregor about the spawning habits of inanga (whitebait) and how they can be helped and encouraged to use the Uretara. Unfortunately, the stream has steep-sided banks, not the sloping banks inanga prefer, but planting the banks to shade the water and provide some leaves trailing in the water may help.

Click the link to see Western Bay of Plenty Parks Week events, and don’t forget that March is also Sustainable Backyards Month in the BOP, click on the Events tab in the top menu.

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

Summer’s white flowers

Last weekend – and thankfully it was last weekend with torrential rain this weekend – we took a trip into the foothills of the Kaimai Range, partly so the Vege Grower could have a site meeting for a project he’s volunteering on and partly to visit farming friends we haven’t seen for far too long.

The site meeting was held in an informal carpark off the dusty road and I parked the car so I could sit in shade while the meeting took place in the open. I was actually thinking about the gorse flowering in front of me and the blackberry when I realised what was blooming in the background, clinging on to a ponga. White rata!

White rata (akatea, Metrosideros perforata). Photo: Sandra Simpson
Photo: Sandra Simpson

White rata, which germinates on the ground, climbs trees with its fine clasping roots. Once the plant reaches the canopy it branches out and becomies bushy. The trunk thickens, the roots break away from the tree and the vine can hang off the tree. White rata can be a bushy shrub when a tree is not available to climb. Read more here.

Our friends took us for a ride around their property which is farmed with guardianship principles in front and centre. We’d stopped to look at a trial of regenerative pasture, but I was just as interested in a piece of fenced off native bush on the other side for there was white rata flowering all over the place.

Our hostess said it was a common plant hereabouts and she also got a kick out of seeing its prolific white flowers in summer.

Read an earlier post about white rata.

Māui’s Anchor Chain

At the dawn of the day, in the great Southern Ocean
When the world’s greatest fish was being landed
And the boat they were pulling it into was sinking
And the sea was quite lumpy, and the weather was foul

– From We Don’t Know How Lucky We Are, lyrics by John Clarke aka Fred Dagg

A visit to Bluff last year resulted in an encounter with what I think must be one of New Zealand’s best artworks – it’s clever, witty and well thought-out. And although I was at the mainland end of the chain, the story actually started on Stewart Island, which was my next port of call.

The anchor chain ‘goes into’ Foveaux Strait at Stirling Point, Bluff. Photo: Sandra Simpson
And ‘comes out’ of’ Foveaux Strait at Lee Bay, Stewart Island. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Rakiura National Park, which covers most of Stewart Island, was established in 2002 with the chain sculpture that marks its entrance in Lee Bay being unveiled a year later. The sculpture symbolises the anchor chain of the demigod Māui who, by tradition, anchored his canoe (Te Waka a Māui, the South Island) with Te Punga a Māui (Rakiura/Stewart Island) as he fished up Te Ika a Māui (the North Island). Stirling Point at Bluff didn’t get its piece of the chain until 2009, and there the sculpture includes a shackle to connect it to the stern of the canoe.

Someone had got into the spirit of the anchor chain and plaited a flax frond beside it at Lee Bay. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Southland local Russell Beck (1941-2018) was the creator of both pieces of chain – the one ‘going into the sea’ at Stirling Point is shiny, while the piece ‘coming out of the sea’ at Lee Bay is rust-coloured. I love the thought that went into that. Russell was an archaeologist, museum curator and artist. What a full life he led. Wikipedia notes that the chain sculpture was made with the help of his three sons, one of whom is Peter Beck of RocketLab, and his wife.

Just for fun, here’s the much-lamented Fred Dagg (John Clarke) performing We Don’t Know How Lucky We Are with some famous (to New Zealanders of a certain age) faces helping out.

Celebrating Sarah Featon

A new exhibition and book shine a spotlight on one of our leading botanical artists, whose name and achievements since her death in 1927 have largely been forgotten by the wider world.  

Watercolourist Sarah Featon, who undertook her most well-known work in the 19th century, is the focus of a major new exhibition at Tairāwhiti Museum – Colours Deluxe: The Art Album of Sarah and Edward Featon of Gisborne

The Art Album of New Zealand Flora.  Collection Tairāwhiti Museum (1995-112-3).

Gisborne historian Jean Johnston, who has written a book to accompany the show and who worked with museum director Eloise Wallace on exhibition research, says she too had never heard of Sarah who was at one time a local heroine until, when researching another book, coming across a reference to The Art Album of New Zealand Flora saying that a delegation led by suffragist Margaret Sievwright asked Premier Richard Seddon when he visited Gisborne in 1894 for a copy of the Featons book to be put in every New Zealand school.

“So I went to Gisborne Library to see their copy of the book and realised what a treasure it is,” says Jean. “When I looked at old copies of the Poverty Bay Herald, I realised how proud Gisborne was of them. It was very touching to read.”

Sarah and her husband Edward were both born in England, migrated separately and married in New Zealand before moving to Gisborne in 1875. Their crowning glory was the 1889 publication of The Art Album, using 40 of Sarah’s paintings of flowering plants and Edward’s descriptions, the couple wanting to dispel ‘the mistaken notion that New Zealand is particularly destitute of native flowers’.

Oleari angustifolia, watercolour by Sarah Featon, purchased 1919. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (1992-0035-2277/24).

The book was so highly regarded that in 1897, on behalf of the citizens of Gisborne, Louisa Seddon, wife of the New Zealand Premier, presented a copy to Queen Victoria to mark her diamond jubilee. The special edition had a new frontispiece painted by Sarah and came in a wooden box commissioned by Gisborne mayor J Townley, himself a cabinet-maker. The presentation copy then went on display in London with other jubilee gifts.

This isn’t the first showing of Sarah’s watercolours – 18 were exhibited at Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in 2019, an event that coincided with the release of a set of NZ Post stamps featuring her artwork – but it is the largest with 28 of Sarah’s botanical studies on show until June 25, 2023. Some, held by the family, have not been on public display before. Colours Deluxe also includes three copies of the Album, letters, original print blocks and family memorabilia.

Untangling Sarah’s life hasn’t been easy, says Jean, although she has been able to correct some published ‘facts’, including discovering Sarah’s birth year to be 1847. “There’s also been confusion around the fact that both her parents, who weren’t related to one another, had the surname of Porter.”

No images of Sarah and Edward had been known, but Jean was delighted to find photographs in family hands and was, at long last, able to put faces to the names and to have the photos in the exhibition.

“Edward was certainly a man about town in Gisborne,” Jean says, “and much more is known about him but I’ve tried to dispel the notion that he was the dominant partner – they worked very much as a team and appreciated each other’s skills. Sarah was completely au fait with botanical terms and corresponded with eminent botanists of the day, such as John Buchanan.

“The Featons purchased plant specimens from other collectors or plant nurseries, all sent to their home in Gisborne, even from some of the sub-Antarctic islands. In one letter to John Buchanan, who was planning a trip to Stewart Island, Sarah asked him to find someone who might post specimens to her, while in another letter she describes receiving a box from the island that had taken just 10 days to arrive, and remarking on how well packed everything was.”

Colensoa physaloides (koru) by Sarah Featon. Watercolour, purchased 1919. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (1992-0035-2277/4).

In 1919 Sarah wrote to the ‘Nature Notes’ column of the NZ Herald about the rare plant Colensoa physaloides (koru). It was first brought under my notice by Mr [William] Colenso himself. He sent me a lithographed copy of a drawing from a specimen grown in Kew Garden. … Later, 25 or 30 years ago, I obtained a specimen from beyond the Bay of Islands, paying 16s for it. It was very rare then, but I believe that specimens were growing on the Great Barrier Island. My specimen had a cluster of beautiful mauve leaves. I was surprised to learn that it had been found in this district. It must have been before Bishop [Leonard] Williams’ time, as he greatly helped me in producing my book, and if he had known of it here, he would have told me.

The same year, widowed for a decade and apparently in need of money, Sarah sold her collection of 134 paintings for £150 to what is now Te Papa Tongarewa. “It might seem like a sad ending,” Jean says, “but she was very purposeful over a long period in keeping the collection together and intact.”

This article first appeared in NZ Gardener magazine and is published here with permission. It has been amended slightly.

Summer solstice activies in Aotearoa

Picked up an unusual volume at a recent book fair, Celebrating the Southern Seasons: Rituals for Aotearoa by Juliet Batten (Tandem Press, 1995) and, since it’s the summer solstice in New Zealand, I thought I’d share some of the information from that section as an alternative to Christmas tinsel and jolly, fat blokes with white beards.

Not a kaka, but a bellbird amid flax flowers (Phormium tenax)  at Lake Manapouri. Photo: Sandra Simpson

By now [Maori] people … went out to gather honey, known as wai korari, from flax flowers, a great delicacy in a land without honey beesThe nectar was said to ebb and flow in the flowers in unison with the tide; at low tide it receded but at a spring tide it overflowed the edges of the flowerThe flowers would be picked at full tide and gently tapped on the sides of a gourd so the nectar would flow out. It was used for soaking and flavouring fern root, and in the South Island was mixed with para ti, the cabbage tree ‘sago’ (made from its roots and stems). An added bonus was that the kaka was now growing fat on flax honey, and could be caught for good eating.

In a footnote the author explains that while New Zealand has native bees, they are solitary and do not swarm like Euopean honeybees so don’t provide a collection point for honey.

Another summer activity was the gathering of raupo pollen. In the early morning or late evening, when the pollen was moister and less likely to blow away, a large group of adults and children would go down to the swamps. After picking, they would gently shake the flowering spikes into bark vessels to collect the fine, fluffy powder. The yellow pungapunga or pua (pollen) had a light, sweetish taste and was mixed with water or gently steamed to make gingerbread-like cakes.

The male flower at the top and the female seed-head beneath on a raupo stem (Typha orientalis). Photo: Harry Rose, via Wikipedia

The NZ Herb Federation clarifies that it’s the male flowers at the top of the spike that have the pollen, while the female spike develops below on the same stem and is tightly packed seeds with dense parachute hairs (pappus) facing outwards, to produce the distinctive velvety chocolate-brown seed head. Read more here. These downy seeds could be used to light a fire, while early Europeans also used them for stuffing pillows and mattresses.

In full bloom

Miss Mandy is who Amanda Gilbertson would be, she says, if she didn’t have a husband or children. And yet Amanda’s own life has become just as exciting as that of her pink-haired, gin-drinking alter ego!

In 2020, for instance, she “accidentally” purchased a lifestyle block in Pyes Pa on the outskirts of Tauranga, along with 2,500 calla lily bulbs and three caravans, and at the tail end of 2020 started Miss Mandy’s Flower Emporium, a pick-your-own flower farm on the outskirts of Tauranga. It’s about as far from Amanda’s previous corporate life as you can get.

Miss Mandy in one of her flower sheds. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“We didn’t move here with a plan,” she says. “The property had been a commercial orchid operation but it was going to cost as much to demolish the sheds as it was to renovate them so we started to think …”

Inspired by a venture she saw online, Amanda prepared a business plan to convince husband Roger. “The Facebook page I saw had 9,000 likes which seemed to me to validate the idea. We’re in a tourism area, not far from town and this combines a lot of our skills. But ‘suck it and see’ is our daily mantra.”

Roger, “an active relaxer”, renovated the buildings, and their two teenage sons provide muscle as needed. “The inputs and learning were in 2020, we took the feedback and reviewed after the season was over in 2021.”

A pink flower in the Cosmos Sea Shells range. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Her parents find her career pivot from corporate to compost more than a bit amusing. “They had Top Trees Nursery in Clive, and were the first to do a mop top, and Mum’s good at marketing. So here I am, at long last, fulfilling my genetic destiny.”

Plants flowering for summer included cosmos, strawflowers, sweet peas, zinnias, hydrangeas, dahlias, snapdragons, alstroemerias and some callas, with a bed of nasturtiums and marigolds for children to enjoy.

Although the property has three rainwater tanks and a stream to draw on, Amanda says a long dry spell in late January and into February of 2021, her first year in business, was tough. “What have I learned? That hydrangeas are water intensive,” she laughs. “We’ll be doing fewer of them in the future.” The ones that stay have had an orchid drip-irrigation system fitted, while the ones that came out have gone into her garden.

A bed of snapdragons. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“I learned that there are snapdragons that will do well in the heat – unfortunately, they weren’t the ones I planted. We’re quite hot and sheltered so finding out about heat-tolerant snapdragons means I can try again next summer.

“And I have totally fallen in love with zinnias. I didn’t know they were so amazing.”

For the first season everything was grown in raised beds or, for the hydrangeas, in plastic grow bags. Then she had an idea to dig up a grassed area beside a growing shed and plant shorter, pollenless sunflowers in a range of colours.

“Oh yes, I’m going to expand. More perennials and beds of everlasting flowers such as statice, pincushion flowers [Scabiosa] and tall verbena. And I quickly learned to put succession planting into practice.”

Growing everything in a commercial garden mix for her first season gave Amanda time to build up a mulch heap and an informal composting system.

“I learned so much in a year,” she says. “I couldn’t talk about gardening like this when I started.

“I think we’ve missed a generation who know how to grow flowers,” she says. “But I tell people with small sections or with balconies that you can grow cosmos in a pot, dahlias in a pot – you don’t need the space you think. It’s been lovely seeing the joy that wandering flowerbeds and picking a bouquet can bring.”

“If you want perfect flowers in a florist-quality bouquet, this is not the place for you,” Amanda says. “These are garden flowers that you can throw into a vase and enjoy, redoing and replacing them as needed.”

Strawflowers. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Amanda has trained as a marriage celebrant to host micro-weddings (fewer than 20 people) among the covered flower beds, and a smaller shed is now a gift shop where Amanda’s tapped into her creative side to make jasmine vine wreaths and repurpose vintage embroidery, as well as showcase her range of hand-made crayons, another new business.

“I want everything to be as natural as possible and as local as possible,” says Amanda, who has sourced offcuts of New Zealand wool used in rug making to tie picked flowers.

She would be delighted if others were to use her business as inspiration. “There’s plenty of room in the market and it’s the sort of thing that’s perfect for a woman. We’re all part of a Facebook group and support one another.”

For more information or to book a visit to Miss Mandy’s Flower Emporium see the website. Opening in 2022 is likely to be mid-December.

A shorter version of this piece was first published in NZ Gardener and appears here with permission.