Treasures of North Island: A Gardener's Paradise

Part 2 of Tony King's trip to New Zealand where he meets other palm enthusiasts and visits their wonderful gardens
by Tony King
Chamaerops No.28 Autumn 1997

Left: Keith Boyer's garden in Auckland. Note Caryota, Archontophoenix, Syagrus and Sabal
Middle, top left: male cone of Lepidozamia peroffskyana.
Middle, top right: Ochagavia carnea.
Middle, below: Aloe polyphylla
Right: Dick Endt with Parajubaea cocoides

Issue 26 of Chamaerops carried the first part of my article covering my visit to New Zealand during their late summer in February 1997, focusing upon a number of spectacular native plants encountered in habitat whilst travelling around a small fraction of the North Island.

With a benevolent climate that favours the growth of so many different plants it is not surprising that a number of wonderful gardens have been created. In this, the final part of my article, I would like to share with you some of these gardens and notable plants within them that I found of particular interest.

Although frosts would occur in most, if not all, of these gardens, the types of plants growing in them, would indicate that these would be of short duration and not especially severe. That said, winter is a time of wet, very windy and cool weather and any plants must therefore be able to cope with this prolonged and testing period. I am sure that many of the plants that follow would be worth cultivating outdoors in much of the milder parts of Europe, especially Portugal, Northern Spain, Corsica, Southern Italy and even the Western coast of France, Ireland and the UK.

I should start in the garden of my host Keith Boyer, in the ranges to the West of Auckland. This is part of the water catchment area for the city itself, and is wetter than the great city just below it. Often, the ranges would be shrouded in low cloud or mist when viewed from a clear downtown Auckland.

Keith's garden is on a slope that catches the sun for a large part of the day. Several terraces have been formed and the garden contains areas of differing character. Keith's long interest in cultivating plants and trying new species is especially reflected by the maturity of a number of palms grown from seed some years ago. A notable example is a fine Archontophoenix Purpurea, perhaps the largest in New Zealand, that had just shed an old leaf to reveal the remarkable purple crownshaft below, a colour that improved as the days passed. The strict laws governing the importation of plant material and a nursery industry just waking to the potential of exotic plants result in enthusiasts raising and exchanging their own plants from seed. Spares can then be exchanged or sold through societies and between collectors.

In an especially interesting area of the garden a rainforest has been created, with well defined layers of plants with a canopy, dominated by a number of Syagrus, a 'middle' strata that includes Temperate Heliconia's and Climbing Philodendron's to a ground flora of Stromanthe, Hedychium and ferns amongst many other plants. The Syagrus Romansoffianum are interesting in that they represent two forms. The loveliest of which bears a thick trunk and sprouts fronds composed of large, tough leaflets and has a generally stocky appearance. The other develops a thinner trunk and has a lighter, finer crown of fronds. The two types are distinguishable from an early stage.

In this jungle too are numerous species of banana some of which bear wonderfully marked foliage, marbled with dark red. A huge Ensete Ventricosum had flowered and the enormous, slowly dying, flower spike arching under its own weight, was full of hard, black seeds. Banana species grow well here, relishing the regular rainfall and warm summer weather. If the winter is cold, they are felled to the ground but regrow with the return of the spring.

Behaving in a similar way are a number of aroid species, such as Alocasia and Colocasia. These are a speciality of Keith's nursery and he has been collecting a number of different forms. As with many plants we cultivate, precise naming of many of these forms has become confusing over time, with several names being used by different people for the same variety, so Keith has spent a lot of time trying to assign the correct names to those he cultivates. One of the hardiest, and largest, is Alocasia Odora, which although cut down by frost regrows each year. It has large, green shield shaped leaves and typical aroid flowers in summer which release a strong and sweet perfume, especially during the evening. This species can be raised from seed and would have good potential as a pot plant for outdoors in summer in cold areas, you can overwinter the tuber inside the house, or where frosts do not penetrate the ground too deeply try it outside.

Other palms of interest in the garden include a number of Caryota Gigas and Ochlandra. These grow rapidly to large dimensions and it is planned to create an extension to the rainforest area with a canopy dominated by these unusual 'fishtail' palms.

That beautiful relative of the familiar Kentia palm, Hedyscepe canterburyana revels in the cool, wet conditions here, that must remind it of its Lord Howe island home. A wonderful example graces the garden with a clear trunk and stiff, arching foliage. Butia,Phoenix,Trithrinax,Sabal and Livistona are amongst many familiar palm friends here, but new species are beginning to arrive too. Among them, Geonoma, with red trunks, the unusual Wettinia,(Catoblastus), Praemorsus from the cool, slopes of the Andes and Parajubaea, will hopefully find this a home from home being adapted to a moist, cool climate.

Readers of these pages will already, no doubt, be aware of the often 'inaccurate' and rather outdated information contained in many gardening books, that discuss the cold tolerance of many of our favourite plants. A good job the plants can't read, or they would find out they should not be growing outdoors with crazy members of the EPS! A good example of this is the increasing use of Bromeliads outdoors, an area in which Keith is a pioneer. Many occur at high altitudes in the wild and whilst it is true a number are tropical in their requirements, others are surprisingly tolerant of cold. Bilbergia, Aechmea and some Neoregelia, for example, come in an amazing variety of patterns and colours that intensify with the onset of cooler winter weather, they really can glow at such a dull time of year. Very easy to care for and needing little or no soil! Just place a few amongst your plants, they will look amazing!, but remember, they won't tolerate prolonged, severe cold.

Surprisingly, perhaps, succulents perform well in this wet climate too, with two spectacular species of Aloe being worthy of note. A. Polyphylla, from the Mountainous kingdom of Lesotho, where it is an endangered species, forms large, single rosettes often well over a foot across. Although the leaflets are plain, it is the way they spiral themselves within the rosette that make the plant so unique. Normally a tricky species to cultivate well, though reasonably frost resistant, the many I encountered were the best I have seen anywhere. Likewise, Aloe Plicatilis, which grows with Proteas in the fynbos of its South African home, is a winter growing species bearing dichotomous fans of grey foliage that are really architectural. The multibranched examples I encountered were enormous!

Moving on...

Auckland itself contains many green spaces. Around the University campus are some interesting plantings, often featuring unusual species. A good collection of cycads, many in cone, comprise one such bed. It is a pity that theft of cycads is an ever growing problem and the plants at the university were planted through sheets of mesh wire to stop would-be thieves from digging them out!

Close by, is the former residence of the English governors of New Zealand from days gone by. The grounds are full of old plantings, which include a huge Erythrina Indica tree, planted over 100 years ago. There are also mature Rhopalostylis Baueri originating from the original seed collection of this plant on Norfolk Island, they are truly impressive. Neighbouring the university is Albert park, which is worth taking time to walk through to admire a wide variety of mature trees and shrubs.

The Domain, is another area of parkland worth a visit. A range of glasshouses contains a mix of plants, some of which could undoubtedly be grown outdoors!, as well as a fern quarry. As it was summer the ferns looked a little the worse for wear, but with winter rains they must be superb. Many, many species can be found here, including a good selection of tree ferns.

Leaving Auckland, Keith and I headed down to the Taranaki area and the oil city of New Plymouth. This is sheltered from cold Southerly winds by Mount Taranaki, which also acts as rainmaker, by trapping cloud around its peak. Coupled with its warm, Northerly aspect, New Plymouth has a good Micro Climate for a whole range of plants.

It is here that Pukekura and neighbouring Brooklands parks can be found, old, yet immaculately tended by the city. It rained during my walk through Pukekura, though that served to add to the atmosphere! A lake dominates the park its shores surrounded by many, large, tree ferns, mainly Dicksonia Fibrosa, which revel in the damp climate.

Rhododendrons and Camellia's make imposing trees here, and it must be spectacular to see them in spring, covered in bloom. Floral highlights during my visit were to be found in the glasshouses! A large display of red and orange South African Disc orchids and numerous individual pots of a Streptocarpus species that bore one giant, furry leaf and a spray of mauve flowers were very eye-catching.

Later in the day and when the rain had stopped we headed for Brooklands park. Here a group of the Australian cycad Lepidozamia Peroffskyana caught my attention. This lovely plant, with a liking for cooler, moist climates, grows very well in much of North Island. A male plant with cone shedding much pollen was fascinating. The cone is huge and resembles a work of modern art! Not bad for a plant, little changed from the days of the dinosaurs. This easy going cycad is a great choice for the amateur cycad grower and well worth cultivating.

Just outside the town, at Waitara, lies the nursery and garden of Barbara and Brent Dury. Set in a spectacular location, along an estuary,(complete with large Bream in the clear water), this is a garden of treasures. Barbara has been collecting palms and other plants for some time and the nursery she now runs specialises in producing Cycas Revoluta and Taitungensis, both of which do well in New Zealand.

In flower at the time were many forms of the bulb Amaryllis Belladonna. The result of a breeding programme undertaken by Barbara's father many years ago, the plants pepper a grassy slope, in a naturalistic setting, down to the estuary. They carried their large, trumpet flowers in varying shades of pink, some deeply coloured with contrasting white throats.

A garden in sheep country?

Leaving Barbara, we headed south to a unique garden, belonging to Clive and Nikky Higgie near Wanganui. Clive runs a large sheep farm, but he has a deep passion for plants, of everykind, and has devoted a large area of the farm to his collection even planting unusual tree specimens across the fields, protected from nibbling sheep by oil drums around their bases!

Clive exchanges and obtains seeds and plants from all over world and his collection forms a veritable botanic garden. Around the house are many palms, including a lovely Jubaea, just commencing its phase of upward trunk growth. He has also constructed a large, walk through glasshouse, full of gems, needing extra warmth and shelter from the winter wet. It includes many of the unusual plants from Madagascar.

The most spectacular area however is a field, resembling a steep sided amphitheatre, with a mini lake at its base. One half of this faces the sun and is hot and dry, the other in contrast, shadier and a little cooler.

Tracks wind there way along the slopes, amongst one of the largest collections of xerophytic plants I have ever seen... but don't slip or you could end up impaled on a Yucca or a giant Cereus!!

Puya, Dasylirion, Agave, Aloe, spectacular red flowering Erythrina and much, much more are here, all labelled and carefully researched to confirm there identification.

The opposite side is home to palms, some such as Livistona and Washingtonia planted in large numbers, many bamboos and shrubs of all kinds. I was especially taken by a giant lobelia, which had carried a huge flower spike, though Clive hasn't arranged,(yet!), the Gorillas that would normally feed upon it in its native home high in the mountains of Africa.
Interesting too, a plant of the rare palm Juania Australis, which I saw for the first time. Growing in quite a dry spot, in full sun, an attractive plant with silvery undersides to its fronds. Nearby, a species of Chusquea bamboo with spiky, stiff leaflets, this plant originating from the seasonally dry habitat shared with the more familiar Chilean Wine palm, Jubaea.

It was a real privilege to visit this remarkable garden, that is tended solely by Clive, Nikky and their children to a very high standard.

An EPS members garden...

A jump back to the Auckland area now and a chance to visit the large garden and fruit orchards of member Dick Endt. Readers of Chamaerops will be familiar with articles that Dick has kindly provided, the last featuring Jubaea in Chile. He has visited the high Andes on a number of occasions, introducing new plants both for our gardens and as potential fruit crops. Orchards of some of these can be seen at his home in Oratia, there is even a large banana plantation!

Again, red crownshaft Geonoma are cultivated here along with wonderfully healthy, and sizeable Ceroxylon, those majestic wax palms. Perhaps, however, his speciality is Parajubaea Cocoides and this is well represented throughout the garden by many large specimens complete with shaggy, hairy trunks!, one even sports two trunks! Pride and joy is the tallest of his many plants, which has been producing its curious long flower spikes for some time. These emerge from various levels of the trunk and at least one of them had successfully set fruit, so perhaps it won't belong before Dick is producing seed of this interesting and graceful palm in small quantities.

A new plant, not formally identified at the time of my visit, was about to be introduced as an ornamental. Grown from seed he collected, it is an attractive member of the aralia family, with divided, puckered leaves resembling a Schefflera, a very desirable plant.

On the up...

A very different garden was that of Jim Rowe, who lives in the neighbouring valley to Keith, in an even wetter part of the Waitakere ranges!

Jim, a retired and very knowledgeable gardener, has been especially interested in epiphytes for many years. His collections often date back to original introductions and are genetically valuable, as many of these 'species' currently available have actually become hybridised over the years

Again, a sloping garden, of mature trees, whose branches bear vast clumps of bromeliads and are dripping with 'christmas' cacti, ferns, orchids and many climbers. Great if you have a small garden and want to make use of vertical space, but not for a freezing climate!

My final visit was made North, to Dargaville and the collection of member John Lok. An avid palm collector, John and his wife Margery, are experts at persuading palm seeds to germinate! Testament to this is there large collection covering a wide range of species, including a number needing tropical conditions. A large greenhouse is full of pots and trays of seedlings, all growing well and in some cases very fast!, especially some Roystonea.

John also obtains large numbers of seeds of the four species from Lord Howe island,both types of Howea, Hedyscepe and the smaller and tricky Lepidorrhachis Mooreana. Germination of all these is slow and none require much heat to sprout, just a lot of patience!

Evidence of success here were the vast numbers of Howea Forsteriana that john supplies to the N.Z. market. These make good indoor and outdoor palms for much of North Island. Indoors they are tolerant of low light and some neglect. Outdoors, they are tough, wind resistant and a graceful palm ideal for greater use in palming up Auckland, though the lovely native Nikau should also not be forgotten.

A whistle stop tour, but so many plants to see. New Zealand is certainly a long way to go but if you ever have the chance do make the trip. There is just so much to experience in this gardeners' paradise!


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