One of the criticisms made of New Zealand’s indigenous plants is that they are not very colourful and while it is true that we do not have the wide range of perennial plants that some places have – think of Central America with all its wonderful daisies and dahlias, or South Africa with its plethora of flowering bulbs – there are still plenty of attractive flowering plants.
There are few more arresting sights than our pōhutukawa in its full summer garb, and its cousins, the various rata trees, are almost as dramatic. Among the shrubs, many modern veronicas [they used to be called hebes] have wonderfully coloured flowers, and kākā beaks look fabulous when they bloom in early summer.
Although we do not have the most colourful of clematis in the world, there is still something inherently exciting about puawhanaga flowers when they appear in spring. Botanically known as Clematis paniculata, this forest and shrubland plant spreads itself along the canopy, bursting forth with masses of pure white flowers, which are delicately scented.
The scent is an attribute often overlooked in the garden. Many flowers have evolved to use scent to attract pollinators, often at the expense of highly coloured flowers. Some flower at night, and have white flowers to attract night-flying insects, while others just use a strong scent to draw their pollinators to them.
There are several other native clematis species that use scent to attract insects to their relatively uncolourful flowers. Clematis foetida, an oddly misnamed plant, is one of these. This widespread native climber can be found in the wild in Wairarapa and has greenish cream flowers that carry a distinctive sweet scent. What is odd is the specific name foetida means almost exactly the opposite, so maybe it is one of those scents that some people cannot detect! There are several similar species, and all are great for planting in a mixed shrubbery, where they will add a bit of extra interest over the spring/summer period.
There is another wonderfully scented native climber that is not planted as often as it should be, the so called “New Zealand jasmine” or kaihua, Parsonia heterophylla. There are three different Parsonia species in New Zealand, but this is the only one commonly available in the nursery trade, and it is the one with the biggest flowers. Not that means a lot, as the flowers are actually very small, creamy white and carried in large numbers in the spring through the summer. It occurs through much of New Zealand, generally in reasonably moist soils, but it will grow in drier sites. When grown from seed, the juvenile leaves are very variable [that’s what hetrophylla means], but most nursery-sourced plants are grown from cuttings nowadays.
Given a tree or two to climb up, this plant can be quite vigorous – up to 10 metres even – but in the garden it will generally be trained along a fence or perhaps through a smaller tree. It is a twining climber, so only needs something to wrap its arms around to support itself.
One plant that is usually overlooked when discussing beautifully scented natives is the much-maligned [in the garden at least] cabbage tree. Sometimes in the mountains, you will find you are walking along a track with a cabbage tree growing on the bank beneath you, its flowers at the same height as the path. The scent will literally stop you in your tracks – sweet and almost lily-like. The mountain species, Cordyline indivisa, which can be tricky to grow in the garden as it collapses if things get too warm, has broader leaves and an even better scent.
Oddly, the scent is very similar to that of the easter orchid, Earina autumnalis, which is just starting to flower now. This tiny little epiphyte, found on branches and sometimes in scree-like ground, has small leaves and tiny white flowers, not much bigger than a pinhead. You might need to strain to see them, but you can easily track them by following the scent. I once came across a mat of them covering some rocky ground in the hills above Eastbourne – a sight and scent not easily forgotten.
Perhaps the most highly scented native plant is also one of the trickiest to grow. Toropapa, Alseuosmia macrophylla, is an endemic shrub that grows up to about two metres and carries pinkish flowers with a heady perfume. It is a problem to grow in our conditions as it needs shelter from frost and wind and also needs moist, well-drained soil that is high in humus. Although it probably does best in western parts of the North Island, and the north-west of the South Island, I have seen a specimen growing very well in a sheltered spot in the Dunedin Botanic Garden.