Sunday, December 16, 2007
Flaxes and cabbage trees – what a flowering season they are having this year – and what does it portend?
This season the cabbage trees and flaxes all seem to be having a fantastic flowering season, with many people commenting to me that they have never seen such a good bloom on their plants. I have even had one or two non-gardeners contact me, concerned about the funny creamy white growths they have noticed on their cabbage trees, worried about what it might be.
Although it is fabulous that these iconic New Zealand plants are having a fruitful season, according to Maori tradition, it does not augur well for those who are already fretting about the lack of moisture we have experienced this year. Maori tradition states that the sooner the cabbage tree blooms, the sooner the summer arrives. In another version, the better the flowering, the hotter the season. This has also been applied to flowering in flaxes.
In his wonderful book Dancing Leaves, the story of New Zealand’s cabbage tree, ti kouka, Philip Simpson offers a more prosaic explanation of the flowering habits of cabbage trees. He quotes research that suggests a biennial flowering pattern, with alternate years being larger or smaller, but overlays this with a longer interval between mass flowerings caused by the length of time taken for new stems to reach maturity. He suggests that sometimes these two patterns align, and a significantly more prolific flowering occurs.
There is another factor at work too. These bumper flowering years seem to follow periods of good growth, when the plants are able to make better plant growth, and able to convert their nutriment into flowers.
I guess you have to take your choice; Maori tradition holds that the flowering foreshadows a long, hot, dry summer, while pakeha scientists say that it is an effect of good growing period the year before. Either way, let’s just enjoy this rare floral treat from these wonderful New Zealanders.
Many gardeners have very negative feelings about cabbage trees, finding their leaf shedding habits very trying. I confess that, as much as I love the larger species and forms in the countryside and in large gardens, I would struggle to find room for them in a smaller garden.
But there are newer garden hybrids that are very much worth growing. Among these is the very attractive Jury hybrid from Taranaki, ‘Red Fountain’. There was a large number of this plant in the Auckland Botanical Gardens when I visited recently, and the staff at the gardens are obviously taken with it too, as they have erected information boards, extolling its virtues.
‘Red Fountain’ has bright burgundy red leaves from a stem that stays very small – the breeders say their plant has not grown 30 cm tall. The leaves weep gracefully, giving red cascade effect. They are very hardy and will cope with full sun. They are not fussy about soil types, and can easily cope with any but the hardest frosts. In view of the predicted dry summer, it is also useful that they can cope with minimal watering once established.
I think these are just made for growing in containers. I have seen some growing in electric blue glazed pots and they look stunning. They flower too – they had lots of flower in Auckland a few weeks ago – and the light pink to mauve flowers have a delightful scent – jasmine-like although not very strong.