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‘We can call it manuka, honey’

In the last few years, New Zealand honey producers have taken a court case to stop Australian producers from calling their tea tree honey ‘Manuka honey”, arguing that it is a trademark and should only be applied to produce from Aotearoa.

They failed in their attempt – at least partly because the honey is produced from the same species. What we call “manuka” is a species named Leptospermum scoparium, is also found in Australia, and almost certainly originated there. The seeds of this plant are small and easily dispersed, accounting for it crossing the Tasman and taking hold here. In fact, Australia had many species of Leptospermum – about 80 – collectively called “tea-trees” over the ditch, and there are some wonderful hybrids among them.

Over the weekend we were in one of the stores of the main garden centre chain and found a plethora of these hybrids in full flower in their “native” section, being described as manuka, which is ironic, bearing in mind how hard we pressed for the term to only apply to New Zealand plants.

Both the New Zealand-raised hybrids, and these special Australian manuka cousins were looking especially attractive. Among the New Zealand-raised forms, the bright red ‘Electric Red’ was certainly the standout. This has deeply coloured foliage and has a little splattering of flowers over the winter but at this time of the year it excels itself, the branches becoming covered in vibrant, red flowers. This is my favourite single-flowered manuka and has an amazing flowering season. Unfortunately, we have lost a couple of these when they were quite well established, but I have seen plenty of mature specimens.

Despite looking like a form of native manuka, it is in fact a hybrid with the Australian species L. rotundifolium providing the genes for larger flowers.

If you think naming Australian plants as “natives” and calling them manuka is a bit cheeky, you will appreciate the subtlety of calling one of the hybrids ‘Outrageous’. This is a cultivar produced at Bywong Nursery in Bungendore, New South Wales. It a hybrid between Leptospermum polygalifolium ‘Cardwell’ and Leptospermum ‘Rhiannon’.

The latter is a cross between two Australian species that has been used widely in producing the range of hybrids currently available in New Zealand. It is a large-flowered form compared to native manuka, with red-purple colouring, quite unlike any New Zealand forms. ‘Outrageous’ will grow to about two metres, with drooping branches and bright red-purple flowers. Each flower has a bright green central disc which contrasts nicely with the bright petals. This is a very free flowering form and very attractive for the home garden, as well as being useful for picking.

‘Tickled Pink’ has similar breeding, but in this case the flowers are – pink. This one grows in quite an upright manner and has tight growth. The foliage is bright green, giving a nice contrast to the very pink flower. You can expect it to grow to about two metres high, and about 1.5 metres across. Its manner of growth makes it suitable for screening.

I was intrigued to see a slightly different coloured cultivar on offer – ‘Dark Night’. This has large, deep mauve flowers borne in abundance on long stems with semi-pendulous growth. The colour is quite unlike any other of those on sale.

Intriguingly, it was developed in New Zealand, but from Australian cultivars. It will grow to about two metres, with a similar girth, and is hardy to both wind and frost.

‘Cygnus’ is another cultivar that can be called a trans-Tasman effort, as it is the result of crossing our native manuka with an Australian species. This was bred at Levin and comes out of the same breeding programme as ‘Electric Red’, but instead of the exuberant red flowers this has large flowers [up to 25 cm across] with frilly edges. They are white, but often have a light pink cast. It is a medium grower with upright and narrow growth.

Others in the range include ‘Centaurus’, which has white flowers with purple/pink edges. This has quite a bushy, wide-spreading habit, making a great contrast to ‘Cygnus’. ‘Merinda’ is one that grows even lower – it is semi-prostrate, which makes it great for smaller gardens or even for containers. It has vibrant magenta flowers that cover the bush at this time of the year. ‘Pageant’ grows somewhat similarly, but in this case has large purple flowers.

Most of the cultivars are capable of withstanding at least a light frost, and most will thrive in poor soil and warm weather. They are very attractive plants, and they look their best at this time of the year.

As the Head Gardener and I were looking at the native plants she called me over to look at ‘Outrageous’, saying it was a brightly coloured manuka. I had to tell her: “That’s Australian – it is not manuka, Honey!”

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