Curious plants: Colletia paradoxa

I first ran into this plant (not literally, and you’ll understand why I didn’t want that to be the case when you see the photo) in Clive Higgie’s Paloma gardens near Wanganui but had my interest pricked (if you’ll excuse the pun) after seeing it again in the Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens.

Native to Uruguay, western Argentina and southern Brazil, Colletia paradoxa is an autumn-flowering plant that, as you might guess, doesn’t have any trouble from browsing animals and grows slowly to 2m to 3m tall. The genus name honors French botanist Philibert Collet (1643-1718), while ‘paradoxa’ is from the Greek and means ‘unexpected’ or ‘strange’. The flowers have a sweet scent.

Colletia paradoxa. Photo: Sandra Simpson

What appear to be leaves are actually flattened stems which do the photosynthesis for the plant. It does have leaves but they’re not particularly noticeable and are deciduous.

The plant has many common names including Thorn of the Cross, Anchor Plant and Jet Plane Plant.

Read some growing details here.

Charges dropped

The Herald on Sunday today reports that the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) has withdrawn criminal charges against well-known kauri (Agathis australis) expert Graeme Platt. Read the story here. Good on Cherie Howie from the HoS for regularly following up this story, most other news outlets lost interest as the case wound on.

The MPI has been left with egg on its face after a dressing down by the judge in the latest Platt hearing. I understand that Clive and Nicki Higgie, owners of Paloma garden near Wanganui, have also had the charges against them dropped (here is a link to a story from the end of last year about the case against them). Suffering a dawn raid at the same time as Graeme Platt was Jack Hobbs, curator of Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens, but he wasn’t, in the end, charged.

Here is the original Herald on Sunday story from 2012, which gives an insight into the mix-up in tree names for a Pacific kauri – legally imported from Vanuatu – that seems to have triggered the whole MPI response.

Go here to read about the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (1996).

Charged over a dead plant

In my April 30 post I referred to a news brief that said Clive Higgie of Paloma Gardens had been charged by the Ministry of Primary Industries – not over a Pacific kauri that was the reason for the raid on his property, but another plant.

Today, the Wanganui Chronicle reports that Clive and wife Nicki, a former district councillor, have indeed been charged – over a dead Ficus watkinsiana (strangler fig)! Read the full story here.

This list of “organisms” present in New Zealand causes plants people headaches on a daily basis. You’d think the MPI would do something about updating it – spend the money on that rather than raiding the Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens! I couldn’t easily find a copy of the list on the page of the MPI website that apparently contains all its lists and registers.

Garden news

Some bits and pieces from the world of gardening …

Gardener charged
Last week’s Herald on Sunday had a news brief saying that Clive Higgie, owner of Paloma Gardens near Wanganui, has been charged by the Ministry of Primary Industries – the first charge to be laid after raids on public and private property two years ago. MPI was hunting for an exotic kauri allegedly imported illegally. However, the HoS records Clive as saying the charges relate to an Australian fig tree!

Some Agathis specialists (the top specialists in the country are, ironically, the ones being raided) argue that the tree MPI is so concerned about, Agathis silbae from Vanuatu, is actually the already recognised and recorded Agathis macrophylla, which has been in New Zealand for some time. This 2012 backgrounder article on the controversy is a good read.

New fig tree with historic connections
A new fig tree from Katikati company incredible edibles may have links to some of the district’s Ulster Irish pioneers (Ulster Scots in the link) as it is thought the original cutting of Candy came from the garden at Athenree Homestead, built by Adela and Hugh Stewart in 1879.

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Candy, a new fig from incredible edibles. Photo: incredible edibles

“Someone gave us the cutting and said it came from there,” says Fiona Boylan of incredible edibles. “Fig names have been causing problems in New Zealand for years, though – the same tree can produce different fruit in different soils and climates.”

Some of Adela’s original orchard still stands and in among the trees is at least one fig, although the day I visited the paddock was full of frisky young cattle (some with horns) so discretion was the better part of valour! Volunteers at the homestead make marmalade from “Adela’s citrus trees” and sell it as a fundraiser for the restoration project.

Fig expert John Dean, a life member of the Tree Crops Association who lives near Katikati (and who has a fig variety named for him), says there is a tree in the district known as “Mrs Stewart”, supposedly descended from a fig tree Adela had. He was planning to take a sample of the homestead tree to a South Island expert to see if it could be properly identified.

Blue moon update
Mary Parkinson of the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust says there are a good number of blue moon butterflies (native to Australia) around Papamoa while someone in Whakatane has 20 or so on a couple of camellia trees. Three males and two females have been confirmed at Te Puna Quarry Park near Tauranga but apparently there have been no confirmed sightings in Auckland so it’s just our bit of the coast that has been graced with their presence!

I recorded my sighting at the Quarry Park on the Monarch Trust website and Margaret Topzand of the trust has been in touch to say that “many sightings of blue moons are coming in, all blown over from Australia via Cyclone Ita”.

Seeds of success
Tomato seeds brought back from Italy by a solider after World War 2 have been distributed in the Timaru area with great success, thanks to Albert Peattie of the Timaru Horticultural Society. Read more here. (No “approved organisms” list then, obviously!)

The Big Dry

Xeriscaping – or landscapes that need little water – is a trend that’s well-established across the Tasman and is something that Kiwis living in the northern half of the North Island should consider as climate patterns change.

Melbourne has recently come out of a 10-year drought but, experts say, the respite is the anomaly and residents should get used to the idea of water conservation as a way of life.

The city’s renowned Royal Botanic Gardens, rated among the top five in the world, is restoring and expanding upon a water recycling system that was established in 1876 with “Guilfoyle’s volcano”, a reservoir that gravity feeds irrigation systems that run into wetlands and lakes before water is pumped back to the reservoir.

The Victorian folly is now the centrepiece of an “arid garden” that includes cacti, succulents and bromeliads mass planted, some of them to resemble flowing lava down the lower slopes of the volcano.

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A Crassula succulent flowers madly on a scree slope of Guilfoyle’s volcano in the Melbourne Botanic Gardens. Photo: Sandra Simpson

For home gardeners the trick is to select plants that will withstand everything your climate can throw at them – from frosts to drought and from strong winds to a high winter rainfall – and still bring you pleasure.

Group plants together that have similar water requirements and get serious about mulching as this will help the soil retain its moisture.

There’s no point creating a cactus garden if your heart isn’t in it, but there’s no harm in doing some research to extend your plant horizons.

The well-illustrated Succulents by Wanganui plantswoman Yvonne Cave (2002, revised in 2009 published by Godwit) is a good place to start or if you’re in the Tauranga area schedule a visit to El Jakedo Cactus Nursery and Garden in the Welcome Bay Hills (phone 07-544 1178) or Paloma Gardens near Wanganui to see how plants can be used.

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Eremophila glabra pictured in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne. Commonly known as tar bush, the plant is native to Australia. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Award-winning Kiwi landscape designer Xanthe White includes a chapter on dry gardens in her 2012 book The Natural Garden (published by Godwit) and she makes the good point that “a dry garden does not need to resemble a desert”. At the end of the chapter is a series of design considerations that include water storage and distribution and shade, as well as a plant list.

“Closed rooms can become sensual sanctuaries from a harsh environment,” she writes. “Colour, fragrance and water are all carefully embraced as essential elements. Efficiency is paramount, though. Where water is scarce, not a drop should be wasted, nor used but once.”

Hear Xanthe talking about the book (9 minutes, 44 seconds).

Renowned English gardener Beth Chatto has created a gravel garden in harmony with the environment – Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden was published in 2000 or visit her website for a plant list. Here is a little more about the gravel garden from a knowledgeable visitor.

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The flowers of a Libertia – the plants are more commonly grown for their strappy, golden foliage. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Plenty of New Zealand natives are drought-tolerant – among them cordylines, flax, astelias, corokias, lancewoods, pohutukawa and the native iris (Libertia) – and there is a wide choice of tough Australian and South African natives, including Eremophilia glabra (red flowers or the yellow-flowered Kalbarri Carpet), kangaroo paws (use full-sized Anigozanthos for a longer-lasting plant) ti-trees, Oldenbergia grandis with its outstanding foliage and clivia, which are also shade tolerant. The plants of the coastline of Chile, Peru and Brazil might be worth investigating too.

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The new growth of Banksia speciosa is striking. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The palette is widened by plants from similar Northern Hemisphere climates such as the shores of the Mediterranean, Canary Islands, California (southern California has a dry climate, while northern California is a bit wetter) and Mexico.

  • Further reading: Colorado State University’s useful website on xeriscaping.

Some of this article was first published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission.

On the road: Paloma Gardens

Paloma is at Fordell,  20km from Whanganui and 70km from Palmerston North, $10 entry. If you would like a guided tour, please arrange in advance. The garden is open seven days year-round. There are B&B and camping options. For more information see the website.

Hand-made signs – very well-made signs but clearly hand crafted – point the way to Paloma Gardens from the road through Fordell, giving a hint of the passion Clive and Nicki Higgie have for their one-of-a-kind garden.

The sheep farm has been in Clive’s family for generations, while his half-French, half-Kiwi wife Nicki was introduced to the property in the hinterland of Wanganui and a “typical Kiwi farm cottage” 35 years ago.

“She’d been educated in Belgium, had studied at university in New York, spoke several languages and had servants when she was growing up,” Clive says. “When I brought her here I decided I’d better spruce things up a bit and it has just snowballed.”

A wooden fence on one side of the drive carries an eclectic collection of neatly painted slogans and thoughts – those supplied by Nicki, a former district councillor, are in French and Latin, while a bridge in Paloma carries a musing on the creation of Frenchwomen, Clive’s tribute to his wife and mother-in-law.

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Part of the welcome fence. Photo: Sandra Simpson

And although the garden’s name is Spanish (meaning dove) it was Clive who named what had been known as “the garden over the road” after his youngest child was born 22 years ago. “We had a son, Guy, not a daughter so I couldn’t use the name I’d chosen so carefully. I didn’t want to waste it and ‘the garden over the road’ wasn’t doing much for anyone, so it became Paloma.”

The extensive garden is in two parts – surrounding the house and in a valley across the driveway – but is now all called Paloma.

“I love trees and I love planting,” Clive says simply. “And I’ll buy plants for their species name – mexicana, chilensis. It’s the names that turn me on.”

They opened the garden to the public in the mid-1990s and have since featured in many magazines and books, thanks to the unique collection of plants Clive has gathered, some of them rare in New Zealand, and since 2008 a “Garden of Death”.

“Wanganui is the fourth-most temperate climate in the world,” he says, “and although we can’t grow everything, we can grow most things – that’s a hell of a wide range of plants.”

Paloma does cop frosts, including in 2009 the second-coldest night recorded in Wanganui, but Clive says most plants will shrug off their frost damage in the spring.

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The Red Bridge is a popular spot for wedding photos. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The aloes and cacti aren’t bothered by cold and provide bright spots of winter colour in Paloma proper, which features a lake, picturesque red bridge and a spot for weddings.

On the banks around the Red House cottage Clive has tried to re-create a Mediterranean garden, which he explains as the things he saw growing in France, Italy and Spain, not necessarily things that are native to those countries.

And for anyone who shudders at the thought of bamboo, Clive reckons his large grove of Phyllostachys edulis is less work than having six roses. “Sure it’s a running bamboo, but I control it with trenches and groom it once or twice a year. It’s just a magical place to be, quite spiritual.

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Clive Higgie in a grove of Phyllostachys edulis, a bamboo with edible shoots. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“I started with a love of palms and bamboos, then it moved to tree aloes and dragon trees … and so it goes. You join societies and learn more and begin to have access to unusual things. We have over 5000 different species and cultivars on the property.”

Paloma is inspired by the Auckland garden created by Noel Scotting that combined palms, succulents and orchids. Noel died in 1997 – read a 2010 story about her garden and its new owner here.

“We were lucky enough to meet her and she was so generous,” Clive says. “We’re quite a few years behind, but our garden is in a similar vein.”

He has taken the slow route with some plantings – his stand of 32-year-old Washingtonia robusta palms have been grown from seed – and several trees have been grown from cuttings, including one from Wellington Zoo and one Clive begged 20 years ago from a tree he spotted in Wanganui.

“It was a Cussonia sphaerocephala, a South African tree they call a cabbage tree. As far as I know there are only two of the sphaerocephala in New Zealand, one here and, if it’s still there, that one in Wanganui.

“The elderly lady who came to the door was a little startled but she let me take a cutting. She had bought the tree as a little house plant from McKenzie’s [department store] 30 years before that.”

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Clive loves the colour of new foliage on Lobelia gibberoa, so much so he had a paint made to match for an outside wall. Photo: Sandra Simpson

An area of garden was “demolished” by a storm in 2004, including bringing down an old elm tree, but the event proved to have an upside. “There was the heartache of losing a big tree in the garden, but it was the best thing that ever happened because it suddenly showed me what my style of gardening was – and an elm, despite being a lovely tree, wasn’t it.”

CLIVE HIGGIE’S PLANT PICKS:

  • Daphne bholua for its sweet winter scent … but note Abbie Jury’s comments on its tendency to sucker and seed freely in her New Plymouth garden.
  • Colletia paradoxa has vanilla-scented flowers from late summer
  • Agave chiapensis for its unusually marked leaves
  • Chusquea coronalis (a South American bamboo) has delicate foliage and arching stems
  • Schefflera Condor for its “spellbinding” new foliage – this plant was introduced to New Zealand by Dick Endt
  • Lobelia gibberoa (tree lobelia) for its pink-purple ribbed leaves
  • Ceroxylon quindiuense (wax palm) from the Andes is the tallest palm in the world and can grow up to 70m
  • Jubaea chilensis (Chilean wine palm) for its splendid trunk – the largest diameter of any in the world. (There is a large tree at The Domain in Tauranga.)

This article first appeared in the Bay of Plenty Times and is reproduced with permission. It has been edited slightly for relevance.