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It’s as simple as a walk in the park

I was walking through Queen Elizabeth Park last weekend, quite early in the morning, when I came across a triangle of delight – three of my favourite plants all in close proximity, and each looking at their best.

It was in the eastern portion of the park, near the bird aviary, and the first of the trees was completely bare. It might sound odd to suggest that a tree would be at its peak when it was recently denuded, and although the shape of the bare branches was nice, it was the effect of the fallen leaves that was spectacular.

It was a ginkgo that looked so stunning. These are very ancient trees, some suggesting they could date back nearly 250 million years, and despite their appearance as a regular flowering tree, they are, in fact, closely related to the large conifer family, and even more closely aligned to the cycad family. However, you could be deceived if you went looking for the needles you associate with pines and spruces, or the stiff palm-like leaves of a sago plant. The deciduous leaves are somewhat fan-shaped, much like the leaflets on a maidenhair fern, thus giving the common name of Maidenhair Tree.

The trees tend to be one of the last to drop their leaves, which almost always turn rich gold before falling. Once the fall starts it proceeds rapidly, so you are left with a golden carpet of leaves cloaking the ground, which is what I saw at the weekend.

There are large trees when mature, and only suited for larger gardens, as they occupy a bit of space. There is another issue with them in the garden. Female cultivars form lots of fleshy fruit once they mature. The actual seed is valued in various cultures for its medicinal powers, but each kernel is enclosed in a flashy casing which rapidly turns rancid once the fruit has dropped.

The scent is almost unbearable and also indescribable. Think of mixing unwashed socks, vomit and animal excreta, and you will get close to the odour. And it’s not easy to wash off either, as I can attest from experience. The best and only way to ensure you do not suffer from this is to make sure the ginkgo you plant is a male.

Fortunately, the mature tree in the park is a male, but it might not matter too much in the place it is situated because there is a wonderfully scented Magnolia doltsopa nearby. This is one of nature’s most fragrant plants, its lovely combination of spiciness, sweetness and citrus undertones making it a plant of choice.

Botanists and gardeners can get frustrated with each other, when the former decides a popular plant has to change its botanical name, and this has recently happened to the plants we once knew as michelias – they are all magnolias now. Realistically, a glance at the flowers on this tree will soon demonstrate how closely related they are. The flowers resemble a slightly more petalled and relaxed form of the larger growing Magnolia grandiflora. They also appear in more of a flush, so the tree will be covered in flowers for many weeks at this time of the year.

This is a medium-sized tree, with dark evergreen leaves in our climate, although I think it would be semi-evergreen in colder areas. Very hard frosts can damage the flowers, but otherwise, this is a wonderful hardy plant for the home garden.

There are other, smaller growing evergreen magnolias available, mostly with the same delicious scent. We grow the old-fashioned Port Wine Magnolia with purplish flowers and, to my mind at least, overly sweet fragrance, but we also grow M. yunnanensis, smaller growing and with the same lovely scent as M. doltsopa, and some hybrids between them.

For some good smaller growing ones, look out for Mark Jury’s Fairy Magnolias, in a range of colours.

Close to these two there is another of the very best magnolias, M campbelli ‘Alba’. This is a very early flowering species from Asia, carrying very large flowers of the cup-and-saucer type associated with the species, where new petals sit upright surrounded by flattened earlier ones.

The various campbellii magnolias, and the many species derived from them, are among the most spectacular of all flowering trees.

I still lament to soft pink one in Palmerston North’s Esplanade Garden that died a few years ago – before that I used to make an annual pilgrimage just to see it.

I was privileged to be able to help plant the white form in the park a few years ago, so I keep a close eye on it, anxiously awaiting its flowering each year. Its pearlescent flowers with the merest hint of pink are an absolute delight.

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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