Butterfly nation

From October 1-14 Yates NZ is giving away free seed packets of butterfly friendly plants to help attract the beautiful insects (and important pollinators) into our gardens. Register for free seeds here.

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It’s Saturday morning in the butterfly garden at Te Puna Quarry Park, near Tauranga, and while monarchs flit and flutter 83-year-old Mary Parkinson is clambering up a rock face to plant a prickly euphorbia, while 80-year-old Norm Twigge tames a wayward shrub with loppers.

The pair, who met as trustees of the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust, have for the past 2 years combined their talents in the garden, one of the many themed areas in the 32ha park, after Norm, a lifelong butterfly enthusiast, moved to Tauranga from Whakatane.

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Norm Twigge and Mary Parkinson in the Te Puna Quarry Park butterfly garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Mary, NZ Gardener’s Bay of Plenty Gardener of the Year in 2010 and long-time Tauranga Orchid Society member, started helping at the former gravel quarry at the behest of her sister and foundation volunteer, Jo Dawkins, after a large donation of Cymbidium orchids arrived.

The butterfly garden, on a terrace in the area planted with orchids, was developed in 2007 after Mary spotted a self-seeded swan plant amid 3m-high gorse. “Actually, the butterflies invited themselves,” she says. “They found the plant and laid their eggs, all I did was try and give them a home.”

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Pride of Madeira echium provide good food for monarch butterflies. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Each year she raises as many monarchs as possible which, at various times, means wasp and preying mantis patrols, as well as hauling buckets of water in summer to keep nectar-rich flowers in peak condition.

“I just keep suggesting things and then have to get stuck in and get the work done,” Mary says, recalling that her offer to stage a Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust conference in Tauranga in 2009 also meant clearing and planting more of the terrace in readiness for a conference visit.

A small hatching house was added when she and fellow volunteer Shona Purves decided to feed caterpillars inside to protect them from wasps. Thanks in part to public response – containers of caterpillars left on site – it was quickly apparent a larger house was needed.

In 2016 Mary and Norm extended the larger, second house in support of a MBNZ Trust project that saw UK conservationist Steve Wheatley and local entomologist Peter Maddison investigate the forest ringlet butterfly, in decline in lowland areas. Norm, who has been recording forest ringlet sightings in the Mt Ruapehu area for 20 years, was also be involved, particularly during the trial breeding phase.

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An admiral caterpillar on a nettle leaf. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Norm raises admiral butterflies, both red and yellow, in the quarry garden. Loss of habitat is the major problem facing these butterflies as nettles are essential to their life cycle. “This is a public garden so we can’t grow big areas of nettles,” Norm says. “Someone’s always got to touch – even if there are warning signs – which means the size of our admiral populations will always be limited.”

He’s also keen to see if any “migrants” that blow over from Australia – blue moon, painted lady and the lesser wanderer –  can be encouraged to breed.

“The biggest thing is the lack of somewhere warm for them to overwinter,” he says, adding that while living in Whakatane he tried heating a room overnight to see if he could create the right conditions for some lepidopteran visitors. “The power bill soon made me see sense.”

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A blue moon butterfly visited the Quarry Park in 2014. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Most butterflies feed on the same flowers and Mary recommends grevilleas, Montanoa (tree daisy), echiums, zinnias, wallflowers and collarette dahlias. “Any cottage garden flowers are good.”

Norm notes many lawn “weeds” are also great butterfly food, including clover and dandelion flowers. “And buddleias are fantastic,” he says. “There are several that don’t seed but sadly they’re all regarded as pest plants. It’s known that butterflies can detect food from 2km away so planting the right things means butterflies in the area will come.”

The white-flowered swan plant and the two brightly coloured Asclepias curassavica (tropical milkweed) provide nectar for monarchs, while the plants themselves play host to monarch eggs, feed the caterpillars and are often home to the resulting chrysalis. Providing enough swan plant for very hungry caterpillars stresses many people, Mary says, and over the years she’s taken in thousands of caterpillars to raise.

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A monarch feeds on Dahlia ‘Pooh’, a favourite plant in the butterfly garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

In 2016 Mary tagged and released 400 monarchs from March 1 until the end of June “when I ran out of tags”. It’s hoped that anyone who finds or photographs a tagged butterfly will go to the MBNZ Trust website and record the “white dot” number and where the insect was found so giving researchers an idea of how far the insects travel and clues to where they cluster to overwinter.

The park’s lone swan plant of 9 years ago has morphed into many more, both in the butterfly garden and beyond, although Mary accepts they need thinning to stop them spreading too far.

“If you’re worried about swan plants seeding through your garden, snip off the green pods before they burst,” she advises. “Swan plants don’t have a long life, maybe 3 or 4 years, so you want at least one new one coming on each year.”

Feeding notes:

See a list of nectar plants to feed butterflies at the MBNZ Trust website.

When buying swan plants from garden centres check they are spray free and keep your garden spray free.

Keep some swan plants under wraps (old net curtains, mosquito nets) so not all have eggs on them and/or are eaten.

Pumpkin can be used as food only at the end stage of a caterpillar’s life (2cm+). Any earlier and the butterfly will emerge deformed.

Wasps, ants, preying mantis and passion-vine hoppers all predate on one stage or another of the butterfly life cycle.

Lend a Hand: Mary and Norm are always looking for helpers. To volunteer simply turn up at Te Puna Quarry Park at 9am on a Tuesday, taking your own smoko.

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

Farewell Heather Young

It’s with great sadness that I farewell one of the Western Bay’s champion gardeners – and a great friend.

Heather Young, who for the past few years had been living in suburban Katikati, got to grips with gardening after husband Francis took up a post at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana in the late 1960s. During the Kiwi couple’s stay, Heather gained a bachelor’s degree in ornamental horticulture and a master’s in extension education. After teaching in the university’s plant biology department for 7 years, Heather began teaching ‘master gardeners’ botany and composting.

Although there was only a very short growing season in Illinois, Heather remembered the “jungle-like” growth when it did happen.

When Francis retired in 2000, the couple moved to their harbourside property south of Katikati and began developing the boggy paddock into a garden that, when they sold it, featured five ponds and several dry stream beds (wet in winter), all feeding into the main drain beside the harbour.

“We raised some beds with truck loads of horse manure but anywhere there was a wet patch we made a pond,” Heather told me in 2008. “It’s no use fighting it.”

Heather Young in the herb garden at Te Puna Quarry Park. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The couple ran the garden on sustainable lines but Heather noted that plenty around the garden – which featured many artworks and a palisade-type fence around an extensive vege garden – was there purely for pleasure. They enjoyed planting unusual trees and shrubs, particularly those from the US.

Heather and Francis opened Matangirau for several Tauranga Garden and Artfests, and Heather was also instrumental, while president of the Katikati Herb Society, in opening the (now-gone, sadly) society’s potager at Aongatete, designed to be a teaching place for those interested in herbs.

Francis and Heather both volunteered at Te Puna Quarry Park for a number of years before stepping away to pursue other interests.

This is only a once-over-lightly of a busy life that included preserving, amateur theatre and generally having fun. Heather was unflappable, always smiling, a wealth of knowledge and will be much missed. Kia kaha Francis and family.

Happy Birthday Quarry Park!

Volunteers old and new gathered for lunch today at Te Puna Quarry Park to mark 20 years since the first work day – with people who were at that first event recalling how daunting the task seemed with blackberry, gorse, pampas grass and wilding pines everywhere (not to mention the goats, rabbits and possums)!

But start they did, and now – 20 years later – the park is “the jewel in the Western Bay crown”, according to Cr Don Thwaites who was standing in for Mayor Garry Webber, and all built on volunteer labour.

The Vege Grower was the park society’s foundation treasurer and I occasionally help out with publicity so we’ve known the place since its inception. Today, the Vege Grower recalled hearing blasting from his childhood home when the site was still a working quarry and he was also able to clarify why there aren’t many photos from the first work days – there was nowhere to get a shot from, the place was a jungle!

Te Puna Quarry Park Society president Ian Cross and patron Shirley Sparks cut the anniversary cake before lunch. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Shirley Sparks, who got neighbours interested in redeveloping the site as a public park and is now the society’s patron, recalled how she and husband David would often be milking when blasting took place. “You can imagine the animals’ reaction to the noise. Unfortunately for us we were standing below the cows’ tails …”

Society president Ian Cross paid tribute to “the three ladies of the quarry” – Shirley, Jo Dawkins (who seems to spend every waking moment working at the quarry, bar Wednesdays (golf day) and who is a plantswoman par excellence) and Dulcie Artus, longtime secretary, former longtime treasurer, until recently longtime QuarryFest organiser, website worker, brochure designer … what he didn’t mention was writer of funding applications which I know from experience is a tedious, and often thankless, task.

I apologise for the quality of the photos, taken on my phone (won’t do that again).

Amid much banter two kauri trees were planted by Tauranga Mayor Greg Brownless (left) and Western Bay of Plenty District councillor (and quarry neighbour) Don Thwaites. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The two council representatives called on 99-year-old Alf Rendall, who is still a regular volunteer, to lend a hand with the second tree. (Photo-bombing the shot at bottom left is Bay of Plenty Times photographer George Novak.) Photo: Sandra Simpson

The formalities concluded with a release of monarch butterflies. Pictured from left are Greg Brownless, Don Thwaites, Jo Dawkins, Mary Parkinson (founder of the butterfly garden, orchid garden and sister to Jo) and George Novak. Photo: Sandra Simpson

To hear an interview with Alf Rendall, a longtime Tauranga photographer, go here. Or go here to read more about his 2015 book Historic Tauranga From Above.

Fluttering by

UK conservationist Steve Wheatley has landed at Te Puna Quarry Park to work with Katikati entomologist Peter Maddison and Tauranga butterfly expert Norm Twigge on an investigation of the rare native forest ringlet butterfly.

Norm Tiwgge (left) and Steve Wheatley enjoy a cuppa at Te Puna Quarry Park this morning. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust has brought out Steve, who works for the Butterfly Conservation Trust and is on a 3-month sabbatical, especially for the project. He will be based in the Tauranga area until Christmas, then moves on to Auckland and the South Island.

Norm has been recording forest ringlet sightings in the Mt Ruapehu area for 20 years and says there are six or seven areas nationwide where the butterfly is found but not a lot is known about breeding patterns or why Dodonidia helmsii is declining in numbers in lowland areas, so it’s hoped this project will fill in some of those gaps. According to the Nature Watch website, the butterfly has become “significantly rarer over the last 50 years”.

The park’s butterfly garden features in the December issue of NZ Gardener and includes interviews with the garden’s founder Mary Parkinson and, since he moved to Tauranga from Whakatane a year ago, her right-hand man Norm.

Flowering now

Not in my garden, alas, but Te Puna Quarry Park yesterday. I hope you like the photo gallery (which seemed to sort itself into colours).

The park’s Cymbidium orchids are flowering, always a gorgeous sight. Photo: Sandra Simpson

A monarch butterfly basking on a still-to-open flower on a tree grevillea. The park was full of butterflies enjoying the sun and the opening flowers. Photo: Sandra Simpson

And now for the pinks …

The only redeeming features of the seedy and weedy Prunus campanulata (Taiwanese cherry) – many would say – are its colour and being a food source for birds, like this one-eyed tui. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The park’s magnolia garden is starting to come into its own – and the trees are still young enough so the flowers are at eye level. Photo: Sandra Simpson

A stellata-type magnolia. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The pretty flowers of a Dombeya tree, native to Africa. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Te Puna Quarry Park is off State Highway 2, about 15 minutes north of central Tauranga. It’s open seven days from early to dusk and admission is free, although donations for the volunteer project are always welcome (donation bin is by the main entry gate) – as are helping hands. If you’d like to meet new people and are reasonably active (age no barrier), volunteers work on Tuesdays from 9am (take morning tea) on various tasks, but weeders are always welcome, and quit at noon. To find out more  phone Ian Cross, 07 578 8735, or email society secretary Dulcie Artus.

Weeds, pests & a new hero

I spent last weekend in beautiful Wanaka at the Aspiring Conversations festival. I was very excited to hear Tim Flannery (scientist and founder of Australia’s independent Climate Council), climate researcher Suzi Kerr and science communicator Veronika Meduna talk about climate change.

Relevant to gardeners and farmers was that in New Zealand we can expect more dry days in winter and spring although the rain that does fall will do so in heavier and more intense bursts which will mean more flooding.

More insect pests will make it through milder winters, meaning populations will not make a slow gain as spring continues but already be strong and in good numbers at the start of spring. As someone who doesn’t spray, this was worrying. Personal experience tells me that a cold snap in winter really knocks back pests that would otherwise over-winter in good numbers. Balance will be lost.

Another comment was that the planet doesn’t need us to save it – in fact, it doesn’t need us at all!

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The fruit of Cornus capitata are, apparently, edible, although can be bitter. The birds were certainly leaving them alone. Photo: Sandra Simpson

I stayed in the Wanaka Hotel, which featured a Pye radio fitted to the wall above the bed (I didn’t try it). Saw an interesting tree from my balcony so nipped down to photograph it and on the morning I was leaving was lucky enough to meet the knowledgeable owner(?) who this weekend is at the Dendrology NZ conference at Eastwoodhill Arboretum.

Cornus capitata, he said, strawberry tree. Although native to the Himalayas, India and China, the Waiere Nursery says it tolerates only light frosts, while the Weedbusters website lists it as a pest, although doesn’t stipulate whether that is New Zealand wide.

The fruit, which is what I spotted, forms at the centre of a ‘flower’ that is in reality four pale petal-shaped bracts. The Missouri Botanical Garden website notes that it is not reliably evergreen and in colder areas may drop foliage.

A weed that’s been making the news – and sounds rather alarming – is velvetleaf. It has been found in fooder beet crops in both the North and South Islands and the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) is asking for help.

Search and destroy activities have been conducted on more than 600 properties since March when velvetleaf was discovered in several regions with the weed found on 215 properties in 11 regions to date.

Dr Veronica Herrera, director of investigations, diagnostics and response, says MPI is continuing to investigate how contaminated fodder beet seed entered New Zealand and has beefed up border inspections.

“MPI has already established that some lines of fodder beet seed grown in Italy and pelletised in Denmark were contaminated with velvetleaf. These lines have been banned from entry into New Zealand.” MPI’s velvetleaf hotline is 0800 80 99 66.

I know some people don’t take our biosecurity very seriously – and it can be jolly annoying not to be able to buy bulbs in Schiphol Airport or to leave flower seed or a cutting in a foreign garden – but this is why we should. Farming, forestry, horticulture and floriculture are how some families earn their living so every incursion is a threat to someone being able to put bread on the table for their kids or a roof over their heads.

Meanwhile, Honshu white admiral butterflies (Limenitis glorifica) have been released to combat the pest plant Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). “The big issue with Japanese honeysuckle is that because it’s a climber it’s really hard to kill with herbicides without killing the thing it’s climbing on at the same time. Biocontrol is seen as a friendlier way to control it,” says Landcare Research scientist Quentin Paynter.

And with nothing to predate on it – until now – the plant has became a major problem in some areas.

The white admiral butterfly was chosen after field surveys in Japan indicated that it is found in a variety of habitats from hot lowland sites to cool mountain areas, suggesting it should be able to adapt to New Zealand.

The release of the first butterflies in 2013 in Wellington and the next year in Waikato was a milestone after numerous setbacks including disruption to the research programme because of the Canterbury earthquakes and the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

Japanese honeysuckle was introduced to New Zealand as a garden plant but has become firmly established in bush environments – and grows up to 15m a year in ideal conditions. White admiral caterpillars feed exclusively on Japanese honeysuckle.

The latest newsletter from Te Puna Quarry Park reveals that they’re trying to establish a white admiral colony there. It appears they’ve succeeded in establishing a yellow admiral population, but no luck yet with the red admirals.

Ringmaster Barry back in action

Barry Curtis could be called the voice of the Tauranga Orchid Show, thanks to the popular repotting demonstrations he has been running for several years – and he will be back again at this year’s show from Friday to Sunday at Tauranga Racecourse.

“I saw it as something I could do,” says Barry, who has been president of the Tauranga Orchid Society for about 10 years. “Having been a school principal, I am confident speaking to groups.”

After retiring from teaching in Auckland, Barry and wife Elizabeth moved to Tauranga to run a motel and also grew callas commercially in Pyes Pa. The couple shifted to just south of Katikati about 11 years ago.

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Barry Curtis with some of his beloved cymbidiums. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“My Dad grew a few cymbidiums in his tomato house and, when he was no longer able to care for them, I took them on,” Barry says. “I’ve always liked taking a plant and seeing what will come out of it – it doesn’t have to be the biggest or the best to interest me.”

Most hobby orchid growers start with cymbidiums and move on to more exotic plants but Barry has hundreds of the easy-to-grow beauties in his collection.

“The great thing about cymbidiums is that you don’t need an orchid house – they’re happy in the garden, particularly under trees. I keep mine in pots and growing bags so when they flower I can move them to the front door and enjoy them for months.”

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Cymbidiums love the outdoor conditions at Te Puna Quarry Park. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Barry, who is also a volunteer in the orchid garden at Te Puna Quarry Park, says that when it comes to growing orchids outside the only no-no is full (burning) sun. Filtered light is perfect.

“Pot them in bark, not soil, and put them in a pot that is only just big enough for the roots, otherwise it takes too long for the plant to feel happy. Orchids need repotting when the bark starts to break down because the soil-like crumbs suffocate the roots – in the wild, the vast majority of orchids don’t grow in soil so need air round their roots.”

In his talks, Barry also shares easy-to-understand information on how a cymbidium grows, including what the pseudo-bulbs do (food storage) and how to split a mature plant.

He says people often worry about which fertiliser to use but “you can use any house plant fertiliser if it is mixed below half the strength it says on the container”. Otherwise, his recommendation is to throw on a handful of slow-release fertiliser twice a year. Barry makes up a special slow-release mix for orchids that is available at the show for a reasonable price.

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Whakatane grower Andy Price specialises in unusually coloured cymbidiums. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Read my story about orchid shows from this month’s New Zealand gardener.

To find a New Zealand orchid show in an area near you, go here. September and October are prime months for shows. Orchid shows around the North Island are on the Events page on this website.