Tauranga Orchid Show

 September 22-24 (Friday-Sunday)

Tauranga Racecourse, Greerton
$3 entry (under-12 free)

Although orchid growers ‘invariably’ kill a few plants they should chalk it up as part of the learning process, according to Tauranga Orchid Society president Conrad Coenen.

He won’t let on how many plants he’s sent to the great compost heap in the sky – or what their total value might be – but says he keeps the name labels to remind him of his mistakes. “It’s like gardening in general. You grow with your plants.”

Hundreds of years of orchid-growing experience will be available at this year’s Tauranga Orchid Show and Conrad invites people to take advantage of it. “Come and ask questions, look at the plants on display, watch our repotting demonstrations and buy some plants to take home and try.”

Conrad Coenen with his Zygolum Louisendorf ‘Conrad’s Star’, which in 2013 won an Orchid Council of New Zealand award. Photo: Sandra Simpson

A qualified nurseryman who works as a landscape gardener, Conrad is a ‘born-again’ enthusiast after letting his membership lapse as a young family and work took up his time.

“I remember buying an Anguloa clowesii, or tulip orchid, for $40, a huge sum for me back then. It flowered once in 5 years – but for me getting something a little bit difficult to flower is the whole excitement of orchids. We try things out, we look things up, we talk to people more knowledgeable than ourselves.

“What I love about belonging to an orchid society is the camaraderie, the people you meet and the plant collections you get to see.”

His favourites are Lycaste orchids, a close cousin to the Anguloa type. “They’re big, they’re bold and I can’t get them to flower,” he laughs. “I get one flower on a plant and think it’s amazing but I know they can throw 40 to 60 flowers at once.”

The theme for this year’s show is ‘Alice in Orchidland’ which is allowing society members to show off plants in a fun setting.

“The show is a chance to let people see some stunning flowers as well as letting them know that orchids aren’t always ‘hot-house flowers’ that need special equipment and demand lots of attention. There are plenty of people in Tauranga growing orchids outside and there are many cool-growing varieties that will do well here.”


Clinging to spring

In New Zealand the calendars tell us that spring begins on September 1. So here we are halfway through the month and still getting four seasons in one day – some of those ‘seasons’ including hail and a day in the past week when I was back in full winter dress code. Today has been alternate rain and sun, some quite high temperatures and some very chill wind.

Feel like getting in some early vege? I was amused to read recently that soil scientist ‘John’ Walker, otherwise known as ‘the Prof’ to many gardeners, reckoned the best way to judge if it was warm enough to start planting out was to drop your trews and sit on the ground. If you ended up with a cold seat, then it was still too cold for planting. And apparently he readily demonstrated this! Read an obituary for him here.

My Vege Grower has some of his little darlings under a cloche in the garden and the rest waiting in their trays on the shed windowsill. He’s trying to get a headstart on the tomatoes this year as he reckons they cropped too late this past summer (and so we didn’t get the harvest we should have).

I think I’ve spied a couple of random garlic bulbs shooting up in a flower bed so we’ll see what eventuates there. The main garlic crop is otherwise doing well.

Because of this knockabout weather I thought I’d share some spring images from the recent Van Gogh & The Seasons exhibition in Melbourne. We were there for the second-to-last weekend which was, as you might expect, crowded (the show was extended by a few more days). Thankfully most people kept their good humour as we shuffled around the paintings like a giant conga line – mostly silent and without the high kicks!

How serious we all are! Photo: Sandra Simpson

Riverbank in Springtime, painted in Paris in 1887. Photo: Sandra Simpson

A Patch of Grass, also painted in Paris in 1887. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Tree Trunks in the Grass, painted in St Remy in April 1890. Van Gogh was in the local asylum and it’s thought this is the first painting he made when he was well enough to venture from his room. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Self-portrait 1887, painted in Paris. Suffering from breakdowns, selling nothing in his lifetime and committing suicide, ironically Van Gogh is now considered a ‘master’. Photo: Sandra Simpson


Tree of the moment: Japanese plume cedar

Mostly I see Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans’ (Japanese plume cedar) planted individually – there’s even one at the end of my street I realised the other day – but there’s a group planting in the grounds of Government Gardens in Rotorua that was the first to catch my eye.

I had parked nearby and wondered both at the unusual shape of the trees and their mahogany-purple colour. Could it be a reaction to the sulphur-ish air and ground?

Photo: Sandra Simpson

Well, no. The trees were wearing their winter coats (in summer the soft foliage is a blue-green). Now that I know what to look for – they have quite a distinctive growing shape – I’m beginning to see them when they’re ‘just’ green too. The winter colour is so unusual that it makes them a magnificent specimen tree.

The Great Plant Picks website says the juvenile foliage, which the tree retains all its life, is more needle-like and softer, giving the tree its common name of plume cedar and that the cultivar ‘Elegans’ was introduced to the US from Japan in the mid-1800s.

It can apparently be successfully grown in a pot, and there’s also a smaller-growing, more pendulous form – Cryptomeria japonica ‘Sekkan-sugi’ – that has cream-tipped green foliage that turns almost white in winter.

Interesting bark too! Photo: Sandra Simpson

Cryptomeria japonica proper is the national tree of Japan and often planted in numbers around temples and shrines (and don’t change colour). In 2012 I was driven along part of the 35km Cedar Avenue of Nikko, lined on both sides by 13,000 Japanese red cedar, some of them original to the planting 400 years ago, although they are replaced as they’re lost.

Read an article about C. japonica being used for shelterbelt/plantation trees in New Zealand. They’ve all been cloned from one tree and registered as C. japonica ‘Egmont’.

Plant stories: Rhubarb

This is the time of year that southern hemisphere gardeners are getting ready for their rhubarb plants to start springing back into action.

But did you know that rhubarb is a vegetable, a close relative of garden sorrel, and both are members of the buckwheat family? (And we know not to eat the poisonous leaves, don’t we?)

The Rhubarb Compendium website is a fascinating read and lists many species of rhubarb, which originated from China, Tibet and Siberia. See the list here.

Rheum officinale was cultivated for its rhizome which was taken in autumn from plants at least 6 years old, dried and used in Chinese medicine. “When taken internally in small doses, rhubarb acts as an astringent tonic to the digestive system, when taken larger doses rhubarb acts as a very mild laxative.” The list of what it can be used to treat is extensive, including acne. Read more here.

Rhubarb for sale in Tajrish Bazaar, northern Tehran. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The rhubarb I saw in Iran is likely to be Rheum ribes which grows wild from Turkey through to Armenia and including Lebanon and Syria. In these countries, the root is also used medicinally, as well as the stalks eaten raw or cooked in sweet and savoury dishes. I can heartily recommend Koresh Rivas (Lamb & Rhubarb Stew).

Marco Polo is credited with bringing medicinal rhubarb to Europe in the 13th century, called Rhacoma root. The drug was so highly regarded that in 1657 in England it could command three times the price of opium.

The popularity of rhubarb as a pudding took off in the old British Empire for two reasons – the 1837 coronation of Queen Victoria which saw the introduction of the ‘Victoria’ variety by nurseryman Joseph Myatt (still available) combined with a significant reduction in sugar taxes in the mid-19th century, which made the sweetening of cooked rhubarb far more affordable.

In his 2011 book, Forgotten Fruits, author Christopher Stocks calls Myatt “the godfather of modern rhubarb”, and credits him with popularising as a food a plant that had previously been grown for medicinal purposes.

Rheum palmatum (Chinese rhubarb, Turkish rhubarb, Indian rhubarb, Russian rhubarb) is both a medicinal and food plant. Image: Zahnradzacken via Wikipedia

The forcing process – an earlier crop with a sweeter stalk – was discovered by accident in 1817 in the Chelsea Physic Garden in London but 60 years later the main growing area moved to Yorkshire. The Rhubarb Triangle in West Yorkshire once produced 90% of the world’s winter-forced rhubarb, an astounding statistic. This story says that the area is a frost pocket, good for the main crop that’s grown outside, while the high-value ‘forced’ rhubarb is grown in the dark in heated sheds – and apparently the sound of the buds breaking open is audible!

This is a tremendous video (and commentary) about what goes on in a forcing shed (3.24 minutes).

In 2010 Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb became the 41st British product to be added to the list of European Union legally-protected names which includes Swaledale Cheese, West Country Farmhouse Cheddar and Cornish Sardines. Read more here.

John Bartram is the first person known to have grown rhubarb in the United States, after being sent two species in the 1730s by Peter Collinson and another by Benjamin Franklin in 1770. Intriguingly, although it was still considered a medicine, Collinson in 1739 wrote to Bartram that it made excellent eating in tarts. Read more at the Philadelphia Historic Plants Consortium website.

It wasn’t until 1829 that rhubarb appeared in American seed catalogues, and has been a popular garden product ever since, known as ‘“pie plant’” by many housewives.

And what of the name, rhubarb? According to an online dictionary of etymology, English takes it from old French (rubarbe) which came from Latin which took it from the original Greek, which was Rha barbaron, a combination of two words meaning “not from around these parts” (barbaron also gives us barbarian). Rha comes from the ancient Greek name of the Volga river (and Rha was itself a loan from Scythian, the ancient Persian language), perhaps simply meaning “a faraway place we know nothing about” rather than indicating the plant came from Russia; or perhaps rhubarb was imported into the Roman Empire from China via Russia (and remember we’re talking about the root at this time, not the stalk).

Plant stories: Sitka spruce

One of the positive things about having to go back through posts and photos is the realisation of how many things I’ve meant to write but haven’t. So, harking back to my trip to southeast Alaska last year brings this post about the Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis).

According to A Brief History of Trees by Gertrude Briggs (Max Press, 2016), there are 35 species of spruce, all part of the pine family. Found widely in North America and northern Europe, spruce typically grow high in mountainous regions with poor soil.

The word spruce came into the English language in the 16th century from ‘Pruse’, a name for Prussia (now part of modern Germany). Spruce seems to have been a generic term for commodities brought to England by Hanseatic merchants (especially beer, boards and wooden chests, and leather) For a time Prussia equated in English minds as a land of luxuries. Leather jerkins became fashionable and by the end of the 1500s, the association between Prussia and fashion was strong enough that ‘spruce’ was used generally of anyone who was fashionable or smart in appearance. The trees were so named because they were thought to come from Prussia.

French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1536 learned from Iroquois to treat scurvy with tea made from spruce needles – and saved many men on his expedition along the St Lawrence River in Canada from dying of scurvy. Spruce beer, made from the tips of branches, boiled for hours, strained and sweetened with molasses became a medicine for sailors on long journeys. Native Americans and Canadians used all parts of the tree as medicine, for food or building materials.

Sitka spruce growing on Betton Island, near Ketchikan, Alaska. Photo: Sandra Simpson

This is a tree that can withstand wet feet – Sitka Island in southeast Alaska has an annual rainfall of 2286mm (90 inches) a year! But they also grow in even wetter places like Ketchikan where the average annual rainfall is a whopping 3835mm (151 inches) – and which explains why locals wear gumboots as everyday shoes! The name Sitka, by the way, comes from the native Tlingit word Shi-attika, which means ‘the community on the outside [seaward side] of the island’.

Ronald M Lanner in his 2013 book Conifers of California (Cachuma Press) says that the tree’s 2900km (1800 mile) range down the Pacific coast is restricted to a narrow, fog-bound belt that dwindles to 48km (30 miles) wide in California. Two-thirds of a Sitka spruce’s year is likely to be cloudy but from Vancouver south they’ll have at least seven frost-free months for growing. 

sitka spruce cones2 - Copy

Cones on a Sitka spruce in Alaska. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Sitka spruce is the tallest growing of it genus – the tallest recorded is in British Columbia at 97.5m (320 feet). Old-growth forests produce trees with narrow but evenly spaced rings making the timber very strong and useful for such things as aeroplane construction (Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose flying boat contained some Sitka spruce but was mainly birch wood), boat building, and sound boards in grand pianos and violins.

The three main tree varieties in Tongass National Forest (the largest temperate rainforest in the world at 69,000 square kilometres, and which more or less covers the coast area of southeast Alaska) are Sitka spruce (identified by its pebbly bark), western red cedar (stringy bark) and western hemlock (bends at the top). Sitka spruce trees blown down in storms act as ‘nurse’ trees as they decay for germination and growth of new seedlings

David Douglas (of Douglas fir fame) introduced Sitka spruce to Britain in 1831.

Tree of the moment: Eucalyptus caesia

Strolling through the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne last month and spotted this  beauty with its scarlet flowers and white bark and looking especially striking against the blue sky.

The flowers of Eucalyptus caesia. Photo: Sandra Simpson

An entry on the Gardens website recommends this tree for home gardens and says: There are two distinct growth forms which have been previously described and sold as E. caesia subsp. caesia, which is a small tree, growing from 6-9m tall, and the other is E. caesia subsp. magna (also sold in nurseries as ‘Silver Princess’), which may grow up to 12m tall, with narrow wispy stems and long weeping side branches.

In both forms, the large rich pink or reddish flowers occur in drooping bunches in autumn and winter. The new shoots and leaves start reddish in colour then, like the flower buds and fruit, develop a grey waxy coating which adds a ghostly appearance to this very attractive species. The bark of mature trees is minni-ritchi type, rolling and peeling off in slender ribbons, adding further character to the tree.

 It prefers well drained soils and full sun, and is very drought tolerant once established. The leaves may get fungal leaf spot during damp winters or if there is poor air movement around the plant. The trees can be coppiced to ground level to encourage new stems.

The silvery-white trunk and gumnuts. Photo: Sandra Simpson

I shouted myself a beautiful, large book – Eucalypts, a Celebration by John Wrigley and Murray Fagg (Allen & Unwin, 2012) which says:

“This species is probably the best known of the small ornamental eucalypts in cultivation. In nature it is rare, always associated with granite outcrops in the eastern wheatbelt of Western Australia … The silvery-grey branches are pendulous and often weighed down in late winter and spring by the large pink flowers and urn-shaped gumnuts. A subspecies (subsp. magna), often sold as ‘Silver Princess’, has larger flowers and fruits, with the pendulous branches often touching the ground. Both subspecies thrive in well-drained soil on sunny sites in areas of winter rainfall.”

This eucalyptus is of the mallee type, which means it grows several stems from an underground lignotuber and will grow no higher than 10m. There are areas in Australia where shrubby mallee eucalypts are the dominant form.

Back again!

Sorry for the long silence – it started with being overwhelmed by the amount I had to do to replace all the missing photos. The easiest thing was to do nothing but I knew that wouldn’t last and I have made a start on getting the images back in place. There will still be posts with big, grey rectangles in them but I’ll just carry on with the work now as I have time. (Even while I was avoiding posting, I was keeping the Events calendar up-to-date.)

A family death meant that instead of being away from home for a few days in Melbourne I was away for the best part of a week as we set off down country as soon as we arrived home. And I didn’t feel much like garden fun for a bit.

And then there was a flurry of paid employment to be getting on with – one of the results of that has been the launch of the 2017 Tauranga Arts Festival, plus I’ve been combating a particularly nasty lurgy that’s going around …

Heading towards spring seems like a good time to get back into it so postings will begin again. Best wishes to you all, Sandra