Land Of The Long White Cloud

Cordyline Dicksonia Rhopalostylis Cyathea just some of the wonderful 'exotics' that come from New Zealand, this country at the other end of the world. Tony 'Kiwi' King visits and reports.
Tony King, Romford, UK
Chamaerops No.26 Spring 1997

Left: A veritable forets of Cyathea medullaris
Right:Cordyline indivisa in the wild

Aotearoa, 'The land of the long white cloud' to its original Maori inhabitants, was my dream destination this February. I had long held a wish to visit this wonderful country and five years after being asked by Keith Boyer to come and stay I finally made the commitment last September and booked the flight. Unlike my only other venture across the equator, to South Africa in 1993 when I swapped summer for winter, this time I exchanged a cold London for late summer in New Zealand. It was certainly warm, but the trend of an unusually wet summer down under continued for a fair part of my stay. I guess that's why it's so green.

On arrival at 6am, a quick tour of the city and then on to Keith's house and garden, just west of Auckland in the Waitakere ranges. These represent the remnants of some original forest and a water catchment area for the ever-spreading and huge city of Auckland.

Many readers will have a copy of Keith's book, Palms and Cycads Beyond The Tropics. He is a past President and founder member of the New Zealand Palm and Cycad Society and joint owner of Opanuku Subtropical Nursery with Gordon Waddell. Having long held an interest in collecting plants his wonderful garden is home to numerous interesting species from a wide range of plant families. Through the newly formed and developing nursery a range of interesting 'exotic' plants is being introduced into New Zealand. There is currently, as in Europe, a great wave of interest in the 'sub tropical' garden and as usual the problem is making the public more aware of the vast range of plants that can be cultivated and of course then providing them for sale. New Zealand has very strict laws governing the importation of plants so fresh material arrives only slowly and much propagation and breeding of new forms has to be undertaken within the country.

With a benign climate in North Island, many introduced species can get out of hand very easily. One such is the ginger Hedychium gardnerianum. This, in flower, was a common sight during my stay, growing in large clumps amongst the native forest. It spreads rapidly by rhizomes and seed and in many areas you are required by law to eradicate it from your land. Hard to believe this is the same species I try to persuade to survive in my garden north east of London!

I will write more of the gardens I had the pleasure to visit during my stay in a later issue, but thought I would concentrate here on the native species that caught my eye, many familiar, others less so.

The Tree Ferns

Simply spectacular! The first time that I have visited anywhere that tree ferns grow in such abundance. Whilst driving to Keith's house I was immediately struck by the hundreds of huge 'Black Tree Ferns', Cyathea medullaris, which cover the sides of the valleys and lean out across many of the smaller roads. They were still replete with paler coloured new fronds which contrasted well with the crown of older, dark green foliage. When viewed from a distance these ferns stand out amongst the trees and shrubs that comprise the forest. Their colour and shape are simply unique.

Regarded as somewhat tender in Europe, this fern, known as Mamaku in New Zealand, does lose its crown of fronds to cold weather in habitat. Keith pointed out however, that it does grow a fresh set of fronds in the spring. This is the tallest native species which reportedly can reach heights of 20m, with fronds 2-6m in length and 1 .5m wide. The trunk is comprised of roots and black fibre with the new fronds emerging as coiled, black croziers until they unfurl into wonderful green leaves. It is fast growing and whilst the base appears to favour shady conditions the tops of these mighty plants were open to full sun. One has to remember though that the area around Auckland is always humid and rain occurs through much of the year. The best time to view the ferns I understand is late winter, when the benefits of cool, wet conditions leave the ferns at their best.

A common feature of all the tree fern species I encountered was their liking for moist soils, but those that are free draining. Often growing on sloping sites in humus-rich soils, the ideal growing medium would seem to be that combining organic matter, such as cocofibre, peat or compost/ pine needles, mixed well with gritty sand/ gravel to give good air circulation to the roots. Such a mix would require frequent watering in warm weather but would allow air to the roots and prevent permanently wet conditions leading to rot. A handful of slow release fertiliser, such as blood, fish and hone, to the compost mixture will repay you with better growth. If you are growing the plants bedded out' you can apply a regular mulch of organic matter around the base of the fern which will encourage the roots to grow out into the fresh material. This will ultimately provide you with a much fatter trunk and sturdier plant when it does start to reach upwards.

Of the other species, the Ponga or silver fern, Cyathea dealbata was very common in the understorey of the local woodland. The emblem of New Zealand, the silvery undersides of the fronds are quite remarkable. This species is practically a weed in many gardens, it emerges from spores quickly after an area is cleared of vegetation. What a weed! Slower growing than other tree ferns, perhaps, but well worth cultivating.

In wetter areas growing in clumps and suckering freely is the smaller Dicksonia squarrosa the 'Wheki'. An ideal species for those who would like to cultivate a tree fern in a pot but don't have the room for one of the much larger species. The 'trunk' covered in the batons of the old leaf bases and fronds 1-2m in length.

The fourth species was only encountered at higher altitude and is more common in the cooler climate of southern North Island and South Island. This is the stately Dicksonia fibrosa, the 'Wheki Ponga' of the Maori. A single, large, chestnut coloured fibrous trunk on which sits a crown of large leaves 1-2m long. Beneath the new growth hangs a skirt of the dead foliage which gives a pleasing, symmetrical appearance of a full crown. The retained dead leaves help to conserve moisture for the roots that weave their way through the fibrous trunk and help the plant to survive drier periods. It is possibly the hardiest of the New Zealand tree ferns, though also slow growing. It loves cool, rainy growing conditions and does not perform well in the warmer Auckland area. A truly majestic plant, worthy of trial in cool, damp gardens of the western seaboard of Europe... indeed I would imagine our friends in western Portugal could experiment with many species of tree fern.

A visit, on an appropriately wet day, to fern specialist Noel Crump provided an insight into what I hope will be an exciting future for tree fern collectors. He is introducing and trailing new tree fern species from all over the world, as well as native species. Among the delights were Cyathea brownii with a 'furry' trunk of silky white hairs, also unidentified plants from New Guinea and China. Even more species originate from Madagascar, South America, Hawaii and India ... .I never knew there were so many!

The Cordylines

The familiar Cordyline australis is a common sight and some massive old specimens are to be seen. It is frequently left growing in fields cleared for grazing and most plants are multi headed. A disease, similar to lethal yellowing in palms, has been wiping out many of the large plants. It strikes rapidly, with plants being killed within a few months of showing the signs of infection. Perhaps this is a natural phenomenon. Not all plants are affected and a dying plant can exist next to a healthy one that never becomes infected.

Another species often encountered growing along roadsides is C.hanksii, which is a more open plant that only seems to make a small, thinner trunk. I find this species rather untidy in appearance as it lacks the overall architectural stature of the other Cordyline species.

A quick visit to the Agricultural Research station at Mt. Albert to see the Isotype specimen of C. kaspar which is a lovely broad leaf plant. It has formed a large multi headed specimen since collection from habitat and is a favourite plant of mine.

The crowning glory of the Cordyline family that I had the fortune to see in habitat was C. indivisa Rather like Dicksonia fibrosa, this Cordyline has a preference for cooler regions and does not grow at all well in the lower altitude, warmer gardens of Auckland and Northern North Island.It favours higher elevations, especially on the slopes of the volcanoes, such as Mt. Taranaki, where I first encountered it. Driving up the winding road that climbed the slopes of this national park I was eager to see this awe inspiring plant. Once its favoured altitude was reached, the plants started to appear, leaning out from the vegetation edging the road. Quite simply, breathtaking. They are tall, majestic plants with large crowns of long, broad leaves. It was quite misty during my visit and this added greatly to the atmosphere.

The plants have a preference, it seemed, for good light and fresh air. Whilst I did see some plants growing in relatively open forest, which also was home to the tree Fuchsia, F. excorticata, with stunning, tan peeling bark and curious flowers, most showed a liking for the open skies.

Later on the trip, I saw many more C. indivisa, common at altitude on Mt. Ruapehu and the high plateau of the Tongariro National park, home to three volcanoes, of which Ruapehu at 2797m is the highest. It was cold and drizzly on Mt. Ruapehu and the area where they were growing had been visited that previous winter by Keith, when the plants were surrounded by snow. Indeed, the roads here are often blocked by snowfalls each winter and the ski fields are not much further along the track.

It would seem then that cold is not the enemy of this species in cultivation. So many accounts in the literature recount it is the slower growing and more tender cousin of C. australis This cannot be so. A few individuals do occur at lower altitude but it is perhaps just a plant that is very adapted to its chosen niche in life. Good light, frequent rain and mist, good drainage and moving fresh air. I have tried on three occasions to cultivate this plant and failed each time. Its enemy seems to he the dry and hot summer weather. No real surprise then that it grows well in Ireland and the airy conditions of the Isles of Scilly. No doubt the cooler, maritime climate with frequent rain go some way to mimic its preference in habitat. I keep my fingers crossed that when Mt. Ruapehu erupts again it does not bury these wonderful plants in its ashes!


Much has been written in Chamaerops about the Nikau, so I shall not really expand much upon that here. Suffice to say it is a very variable plant indeed. The typical form around the Auckland area has a relatively thin trunk and upright, small crown comprised of narrow leaflets. Examples from other areas have robust, fat trunks with crowns consisting of many leaves. Each leaflet being five times or so wider than the Auckland form.

A number of plants were just producing ripe fruit during my stay and the clusters of red fruits are an added bonus to the appeal of these attractive plants. Whilst numerous individual specimens push there characteristic bulbous crownshafts out above the surrounding forest, the most spectacular by far were those that grew near the west coast in a patch that was almost pure Nikau forest! Easy whilst inside this palm jungle to imagine a giant Mon lurking just around the next bend in the trail. A pity these giant birds survive no longer.

Phormium, Toe Toe And Kauri

The New Zealand flax, Phormium tenax, is well known to most of us. In its green and purple forms it is a hardy wind resistant plant. Very commonly encountered, often by the coast and in wet soils it is a tough plant indeed. This confirmed by its occurrence at higher altitudes on the plateau of the Tongariro National Park.

In similar situations, though at the coast clinging to windswept cliff faces or binding the sand, is the Toe Toe, pronounced 'toy toy'. It is a native and graceful relative of the familiar Pampas grass from South America which itself has become an invasive weed. With white, soft flower heads and a more graceful habit this is a desirable grass for our gardens, Cortaderia richardii is its botanical name.

I was some 2-3 months late for the great flowering of the Metrosideros trees, known locally as Christmas trees, since this is when most of them flower. The typical colour of the 'fluffy' flowers of the 'Pohutukawa' is scarlet and they must be one of the stunning sights of the natural world when they cover the tree with blooms. The many species and varieties of Metrosideros are well worth cultivating and in coastal areas with little severe frost or in pots in the conservatory they come highly recommended.

Kauri's are massive trunked conifers, related to the familiar monkey puzzle, Arancuria. The bark exudes copious amounts of resin which itself has uses in the varnish industry and a valuable business in re covering lumps of solid resin from the soil and dead trees in the swamps developed in earlier times and to an extent continues on a smaller scale.The stout branches of the trees emerge high above, from the fat, patterned, trunk and reach out to carry the small, scale-like leaves and male and female cones. The forks of the massive branches are home to many temperate epiphytes, such as Freycinetia, a climbing member of the more tropical Pandanus family, Orchids, ferns and much more.

Great trouble and expense was taken to ensure that a new road through the reserve did not damage these noble trees. Where it came into proximity of a Kauri's feeding roots, the road has been raised upon mesh like structures in order that roots below could continue to breath.

I could go on about the many other plants I encountered, the country is a fern lover's paradise! but I hope you have gained some idea of its treasures from this brief account. A follow-up article in the future will elaborate on the many other exciting plants.


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