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The charm of native perennials

I spoke at an event over the weekend and was given a potted plant as a token of gratitude. I was pretty chuffed because it was a turutu, the New Zealand blueberry, Dianella nigra. I was even more pleased because I know the donor lives on the margins of the Tararua Forest Park and has forest land on their property, so I am almost certain that this will have been raised from a very local seed.

The big explosion in the use of native plants in the domestic garden has largely overlooked the many native perennial plants that should find haven in our gardens. We have lots of pittosporums and hebes [more correctly veronicas] and other native trees and shrubs in our plots but somehow the perennial plants have not quite found their way in yet.

It must be said that our native perennials are mainly quite restrained plants and certainly do not have the self-confident exuberance of dahlias or lilies, but they have a subtle charm of their own.

The turutu is a good example. It is a clump-forming plant, usually growing in quite a loose manner. The green foliage is reminiscent of a dwarf flax, but it is less dense. It has tiny white flowers, with reflexed petals and bright golden stamen. However, it is not the flowers that make this such an attractive plant. In the summer this plant is covered in delicate sprays of dark blue berries.

The berry colour varies a little, and I have seen some colonies in the Tararuas where they are noticeably paler blue, but generally they are deeply coloured. Birds love these berries and will harvest them once they are ripe. If you are handling them, you are likely to end up with stained fingers – the juice can apparently even be used as an ink.

Although the plants may look like dwarf flax, they will flourish in a wider range of conditions. They can grow in the open, but they seem to do best when grown in semi-shade, even under quite dry conditions. They are great if you have an established area of native shrubs and trees and you are looking for some undercover.

Dazzling white flowers of New Zealand iris.

In recent years several Australian dianellas have been introduced to New Zealand horticulture, some with blue flowers and one with variegated foliage. They have become useful in massed municipal plantings but they lack the grace of turutu.

One of the other speakers was given a potted New Zealand Iris, mikoikoi – actually a member of the Libertia genus, probably L. grandiflora. This is another underappreciated plant, with lush foliage not unlike that of the turutu, although it is a little denser. In this case, it is the racemes of pure white flowers that are the highlight of the plant, with stems pushing through the leaves to show a succession of smallish but very bright flowers that last for weeks.

You will find this growing on forest margins, usually in dampish conditions, but in the garden, it is very tolerant of both full sun and relatively dry conditions. It will cope with semi-shade and will flower freely there. It looks really good if mass-planted in a shady spot.

This charmer has several New Zealand relatives, including the stoloniferous species L. peregrinans. Whereas mikoikoi has arching leaves this species has stiff, erect leaves, which usually have an orange cast to them. You will see this used in mass plantings, but you need to be a bit careful with it as its stoloniferous habit means it is inclined to wander about a bit. Give it a bit of room to expand and it will be a good hardy plant for you.

Another species, L ixioides, is similar to mikoikoi, but it grows more stiffly, and the leaves can sometimes carry yellow or orange leaves. This trait has been picked up by venturesome plant breeders and a number of coloured varieties have been released onto the market.

Perhaps the best of these is ‘Goldfinger’, which has a prominent yellow strip on each of the leaves. It flowers intermittently through the year; the flowers are followed by yellow seed pods which are also attractive.

There is a tiny species too – L. pulchella. This only grows to about 10 cm high, with dark green foliage and tiny white flowers. When growing in the Tararuas, it appears in quite dense forest and only at certain altitudes. I find it best to grow as a potted plant as it is so small, but it can be grown in loose, humus rich soil in the garden. Semi-shade probably suits this species best. This is the only one of the New Zealand species that is not endemic – we share it with the Australians and New Guineans.

Other native perennials to consider include the renga renga lily, native blue Euphorbia glauca, some of the Spaniards [Aciphylla species] as well as astelias, all of which are easily grown.

Native Euphorbia glauca.

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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