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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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