Sunday, September 07, 2008
I have been very busy over the past few months, writing a book about Queen Elizabeth Park, Masterton’s main recreation ground. It was formally established in 1875 and first planted in 1878, with some of the original North American conifers still flourishing and giving the horticultural backbone to the park.
In my research I found out some more details about one of the most interesting plant introductions from New Zealand, about a plant that originated in the park and is now grown all over the world.
The members of the Robinson family are locally famous horticulturists. Their founding ancestor, Alexander Robinson, was a nurseryman/gardener, who established a business in association with some of his sons. At one stage their grounds were in Nursery Road, the original gardens of W.W. McCardle, the nurseryman who first planted the park.
One of Alexander’s sons, Lawrence, usually known as Laurie, came to run the nursery. He was a native plant fanatic and was a passionate advocate for the forested environment to the west of Masterton. For many years he agitated for the Tararuas to be declared a national park.
He was a very observant gardener, and over the years introduced many new varieties to the nursery trade, mainly native plants, although his most famous introduction came from an exotic.
He was active in the Masterton Beautifying Society for many years, and served as a seconded member of the Masterton Borough Council for decades. It was this inside knowledge that was to lead to the discovery of his most successful introduction.
He learned the staff at the park were about to fell a mature Photinia serrulata.
This was once an important large shrub in the trade, being evergreen and having attractive bright green leaves. I always think of it as a more refined laurel cherry. It flowers profusely in September, with black berries following in the summer.
It was the fruit, which last on the tree through the winter that was the attraction to Laurie Robinson. He normally raised his stock plants from seed he bought in, so the chance of grabbing some fresh seed free of charge was too good to pass up. He sent his young son Paul, who was to later run the nursery (and to tell me the details of the story) down to the park to gather the seed, which was duly sown in the long fields at the nursery.
And what happened?
One of the seedlings, and one only, turned out to have bright red foliage in spring. Laurie realised it was a hybrid with Photinia glabra ‘Rubens’, which grew near to the seed tree in the park. It was quickly propagated, and after years of building up enough plants to be released, it was made available to the public as ‘Red Robin’.
All this took place in the late 1940s, long before legislation allowed plant breeders to register their new varieties and receive a royalty for their endeavours. ‘Red Robin’ is now grown in the millions world-wide, being particularly well-known as a hedge plant, but also popular for use as a standard, as a street tree and as a feature shrub in the garden.
‘Red Robin’ is very easy to grow, not seeming to pose any particular cultural difficulties other than the requirement for reasonable drainage. It simply will not tolerate soil that is waterlogged. It does prefer full sunlight, as this will