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Purple puya and Naked Ladies

The Head Gardener and I spent the Easter break in the hill country on the other side of Tukituki River, behind Havelock North.

We very cleverly traded in looking at the brown hills of Wairarapa with looking at the brown hills of Hawke’s Bay.

We were house and pet-sitting for the weekend. I took the wirehaired terrier for a walk on the first morning, marvelling at the slowly changing trees we walked beneath. As autumn settles in, they are starting to colour up nicely. In some drier spots, and with some earlier types of trees, the colour is quite advanced.

However, the most exciting horticultural event took place when the misbehaving dog – a “wirehaired terror” I was calling by then – ran away from me for the second time and disappeared down a farm driveway. After minutes of fruitless calling for her [and the use of a few choice expletives] the farmhouse owner came along in his car, complete with the dog sitting majestically alongside him, and a leash.

Now armed with a lead to control the dog, I continued my walk, promising to return the leash once I was back at the house. The Head Gardener accompanied me back down the road later in the morning, as we took the leash to the neighbours. While we were chatting, we learnt that they were ex-horticulturists who retained an interest in plants.

In one part of their house garden was a relatively small rosette-shaped plant with dead flower spikes prominently displayed. I immediately though it was a puya, a member of a large genus of bromeliads from the Andes and other parts of South America.

The only puya I had ever seen before in the flesh was the enigmatic P. alpestris which grew in my grandparents’ garden and in a few gardens in Masterton. This makes a rosette that resembles the top of a large pineapple [to which it is distantly related] and then throws up magnificent stems of flowers. These stems can reach over two metres and are covered in bell-shaped flowers of a colour that is almost impossible to describe. They are almost metallic teal with a contrastingly bright orange stamen. Believe me, if you see one of these in flower, you will never forget the sight. Each flower is filled with nectar which attracts birds which pollinate them in the wild. The seed is very small and distributed by wind, so it probably needs to be gathered as soon as it is ripe.

I thought the Hawke’s Bay plant was too small to be P. alpestris, and the owner told me that when it flowered with velvety purple flowers, they took it to Green Door, a very reputable garden centre in Havelock North, who said it had never seen anything like it and could not name it.

Once I got back to the house we were looking after, I went online and found it was indeed a puya, P. venusta, a Chilean native that is rarely offered for sale in New Zealand. When nurseries stock it, they almost always promote the glorious silver rosettes rather than the striking flowers.

It needs to be planted in a dry, well-drained site and probably in a spot away from passing traffic as, like many of its puya kin, it has little spikes on the edge of its leaves. It will do very well with other plants that like similar conditions – aloes and agaves would complement it well.

The more common species, Puya alpestris [still not very common, though] has greener foliage and probably grows to about twice the 1m x 1m size of P. venusta. Both are well worth growing as they are such decorative plants even when not in flower.

They should also be popular with those who want a more static garden, with architectural plants, as they are very much “no fuss” plants once established.

I managed to gather some seed pods from P. venusta but I am not sure that they contain any seeds. Just in case there was none, the kind gardener also gave me a small packet of nikau seed he had gathered the day before, so one way or another, I will have a reminder of the visit.

Oddly, at the entrance to the driveway is what I can only call a horticultural conundrum – swathes of naked ladies – Amaryllis belladonna – growing in the shade of a pine plantation. I expect to see these in the countryside, but they are usually growing in big paddocks in full sun where the bulbs can ripen each year. Once, I even saw a host of them in the convent in Hiruharama [Jerusalem] up the Whanganui River.

These Hawke’s Bay ladies are the bright pink form, standing out clearly in the shade of the pines. The Head Gardener was very surprised when I told her I had found naked ladies prancing in the trees down the road!

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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