Sunday, June 16, 2024
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Back in the soil again

What a time we had last week. Wairarapa was assailed by the tail of Cyclone Gabrielle, and most gardens suffered a little wind damage, and perhaps some were even overwatered. But we were all stunned by the events that were taking place just to the north of us.

Like most of us, we had close relatives we could not contact for days, and although we were hopeful they were alright, it was disconcerting not having certainty. And it has been almost unbearable seeing the damage wrought on places we’re so familiar with. It seemed almost wrong when the sun finally broke through here at the weekend, and we were able to get out in the garden again, but it was a relief to be able to get away from the stream of bad news and just put some fingers into the soil.

A few weekends ago, we had a family stroll around the southern pathway at Titahi Bay Beach. I have been keen to take a walk there as it one of the places that one of my favourite flowers grows, the widespread Veronica elliptica. This native, with large flowers for a Veronica, grows over quite a large range, including coastal areas in both the North and South islands and as far afield as the Falkland Islands. The Falkland Island form is one of the parents of one of the oldest Veronica [used to be Hebe] cultivars, ‘Blue Gem’. This is an English-raised hybrid of ancient origin, but is still a popular plant, especially with its variegated sport, ‘Waireka’ one of the best bi-coloured foliage Veronicas.

I had previously seen V. elliptica growing wild in the Catlins and even on Ulva Island, in the Halfmoon Bay on Stewart Island, but had never seen it in the North Island.

I still haven’t. Turns out we should have gone to the reserve at the northern end of the beach, not the southern one. It was still an interesting walk, with the local form of Veronica stricta in flower, and one or two other gems to look at too. As you might expect on an elevated site on the coast and exposed to Wellington’s notorious winds, the Veronica plants we saw were all small growing, along with the small coprosma shrubs. I was pleased to come across a lovely specimen of the common Spaniard, Aciphylla squrrosa. I was especially pleased to come across it by seeing it in a clump of shrubs rather than walking into it, as it has seriously spiny leaves.

I guess those leaves are why this lovely plant has not made its way into the gardens of any but the most dedicated native plant enthusiasts.

It has plenty going for it, with attractive foliage, a blue tone, and a pleasant shape, forming a small tussock. The flowers spikes [which themselves have spikes!] are attractive in a subtle way, with scented, yellow flowers hidden among the spikes along the stem. The stems will grow to about a metre tall, rising above the foliage by about 40cm.

We used to grow this plant but it died out recently, and I have not replaced it yet. The only reason I may not do so is the painful memory of trying to weed it when it became infested with veldt grass.

This plant grows through much of New Zealand – there are some along the south Wairarapa coastline – so it should be easy enough to grow in most conditions. Perhaps a sunny, well-drained site is the best place for this beauty.

There are other species available – we have grown some – with some lovely golden foliage. One I particularly like after having seen a magnificent clump of it in the Dunedin Botanic Garden is A. dieffencbachia. This is one of only two species to be found in the Chatham Islands, and has glaucous ferny foliage year-round, with a large stem of yellow flowers in summer.

This one needs to be grown in full sun, and needs very good drainage – it is a coastal plant in the Chatham Islands. It is not common in cultivation, but makes a spectacular addition to the garden. You will probably need to contact a specialist native plant nursery to obtain one.

If you like native plants and have a penchant for the unusual, you should watch for the only New Zealand member of the gloxinia family, waiu-atua. This lovely, slightly ungainly growing shrub, is found in many places in the North Island but is not locally abundant. It has distinctive trumpet-shaped flowers, usually brick orange and striped, although bother coloured forms have been found.

This poor plant, which has lots of twiggy branches and small green leaves, struggles under the botanical moniker of Rhabdothamnus solandri, and doesn’t seem to have a common pakeha name.

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Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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