Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Christmas season in the south

New Zealand's own Christmas tree, the pohutukawa

Another funny Christmas season is upon us, and we will be sending each other cards and presents covered with the images of a different hemisphere. Jolly red-faced gift bearers will be captured smiling alongside blazing fires while snow mounds can be glimpsed through windows iced with delicate snow patterns. And the floral images will be all out of kilter too. There will be holly trees decorated with bright red berries, and bunches of ivy, and pts and pots of bright red poinsettias. Of course, there will also be mistletoes, but they have a functional purpose at this time of the year.
In our hemisphere things are flipped over. Instead of snow, we have sand, and instead of berry-clad hollies we have the bright red flowers of our own New Zealand Christmas Tree, the pohutukawa. We are able to have bowls of fresh garden flowers rather than drab evergreens, and we have developed our own floral traditions.
Prime amongst those has been the adoption of the Christmas Lily, Lilium regale, as the flower most associated with the season.

Christmas lily, Lilium regale
This highly-scented white beauty is a relatively recent introduction to western horticulture, having been found in China in the 1920s. It is very hardy and quickly became popular the world around, especially in southern climes where its habit of flowering in late December was treasured.
This lily is quite variable as to habit. It can be as low as 60 cm high (most forms are about this size or slightly larger) but can also grow very tall. I have some forms grown from seed that reach over two metres before they bloom. A couple of years ago they were attacked by a virus which sauces them to become a little fascinated, so I thought I’d start them again from seed. The seedlings have flowered this season – a week before the proper date I might add, and before the mother plants have flowered - but they are less than half the height of their parents. It will be interesting to see how they develop in the years ahead.
Christmas lilies are almost ridiculously easy to grow. They will grow in all but the wettest and poorest soils, and will even cope with semi-shaded conditions, although they do tend to grow out towards the light. They are probably at their best in light, well-drained soils with good humus content, in the full sun.
Like most lilies they have parcels of bright golden orange pollen in the centre of the flowers, and also like most lilies, this pollen can stain material so it pays to remove the stamen when picking for the house.
For many people Christmas is just not Christmas without these lilies. The Head Gardener was brought up with this tradition (her grandmother had big clumps in her garden, as did her mother) so we have a number of clumps scattered throughout the garden, and they tend to stagger their flowering, so we usually have some in flower for about thirty days, and also usually have flowers for picking for Christmas.
For New Zealanders, especially those in the north, the quintessential Christmas flower is the pohutukawa.
This coastal relative of the more wide-spread ratas scarcely needs any description, its deep red flowers having been associated with the festive season, and its summer focus, since pakeha settlement.
For those of us restricted to gardening in inland, and thus in frostier conditions, this treasured plant poses a bit of a problem. It can sometimes be persuaded to survive in relatively sheltered places as long as it can be nurtured through the first few years when it is more frost tender, but otherwise is too tender to survive.
Perhaps a tub of the lovely orange flowered form, ‘Tahiti’ might be the answer. This Pacific Islands variety has become very popular, at least partly because of the ease with which it can be grown in containers. It has silvery foliage and bright orange-red flowers that are carried spasmodically throughout the year, with a flush in late winter.
There are other smaller forms around too, mainly forms of the Kermadec Islands pohutukawa, but none are as easily grown as ‘Tahiti’.
I have noticed lots of poinsettias about this year in the shops, their bright red ‘flowers’ (actually bracts that surround the small white flowers) looking seasonally attractive. Many gardeners are tempted to try and plant these shrubs (for that is what they are) in their gardens. Once again, if they are in more northern areas they will probably get away with this but in our lower North Island it is harder to get these plants to thrive. R n
It might be better to try and grow them as house plants, but even then there are problems.
These plants naturally flower in the winter. In the northern hemisphere they are easily manipulated into flowering for Christmas, but down here it is a little more tricky. Fortunately the flowering is initiated by lengthening days, so poinsettias are grown in glasshouses with black shading, and are subjected to day6 shortening from about October.
In the home garden that is difficult but it should be easy to get your Christmas poinsettias to flower next winter. Just keep them moist during the summer, and then start shortening their days in the middle of April. You cannot have any extraneous light on the plant – even a table lamp will provide enough light to stop flower initiation. If you have a spare room that you never use at night that is probably the ideal spot to get your poinsettia alive.

New Zealand mistletoe

As to mistletoe….or should that be Kissletoe?
There are some wonderful native mistletoes, some with bright red flowers. They are rare plants now, threatened by possums, but some years they flower in profusion up at Mount Holdsworth. What better way to walk off Christmas excesses than to take some one you love and go for a walk. Ask the curator where the mistletoes are before you go, but if you don’t find any, you’ll still enjoy the walk!