Sunday, March 29, 2009

Do not forget the natives!

For a long time botanists considered there was only one New Zealand species of kaka beak – Clianthus puniceus, found in East Cape and northern Hawke’s Bay, and also in isolated places in Northland, where European scientists first found it. Maori had long treasured it for its red flowers.
That view has now changed and botanists say there are two species – the critically endangered Clianthus puniceus which is now found in only one place - Moturemu Island in the Kaipara Harbour - and the only slightly less endangered Clianthus maximus, which is found in the East Cape area, in a small number of sites.
This second plant is the one most commonly met with in gardens, although often described as being the first named species. By far the most usual form is ‘Kaka King’, a selected East Cape variety, cutting-raised and all stemming from one wild plant.
The number of plants found in the wild is plummeting remarkably. In 1995 over 1000 plants were found growing naturally. A decade later the number had fallen to just over 150.
So what is happening?
The plants threatened status is due to two factors – changing environmental conditions, and excessive predation.
In the wild, these plants are early colonisers of bare ground, often being among the first plants to invade slips and other gravelly sites. Over time they get shaded out by taller growing species like tutu and kanuka, but there is always fresh ground to invade.
The young seedlings are soft and succulent, as anyone who has grown these native treasures from seed will know. This has made them very prone to predation from deer, which browse the screes and slips the kaka beak once colonised. And goats, which are an increasing pest in the East Cape area, also love to eat the young plants.
At first glance it would appear that gardeners could have a part to play in keeping kaka beak safe for the future, but it turns out to be a faulty concept. Unfortunately, almost all the plants grown in the trade are grown as cuttings, and thus there is a very much reduced gene pool.
The answer has to be action in the wild. One programme has seen school children planting thousands of seedlings on the roadside, and a journey through the East Cape in October is enlivened buy the site of strips of the bright red flowers of kaka beak.
That is not to say we cannot help. Some nurseries are now starting to raise plants from seed rather than from cuttings, and, as many gardeners will tell you, kaka beak plants will set seed in the garden, and germinate well in light, open soil.
In the garden these plants do best in full sun – remember they die out if planted in the darkest depths although they can cope with light shade. They prefer well worked soil, preferably well-drained, and should be kept out of strong winds. They can a slightly frost tender, but should cope with most sites in the lower North Island.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dreaming of hosts of silver daffodils

Narcissus 'Thalia'

For those who love spring flowering bulbs there can be no time of the year more exciting that autumn – not even spring. In spring the flowers may or may not come to fruition, but in the autumn, every bulb holds the potential of beauties as yet unseen, is a perfect vision as yet unrealised.
My letter box, and my e-mail Inbox, are filled with fliers, announcements and catalogues from various bulb growers and importers each autumn, and each year I find myself being tempted by another batch of new varieties.
As much as I love the multitude of ‘other’ bulbs – tulips, irises, crocuses and hyacinths - there is no doubt that the flower we most associate with spring is the (usually) golden wonder, the daffodil. I cannot imagine any garden without a good selection of these charmers.
Pure white kinds look great in the garden, especially if planted alongside darker foliaged plants. My favourite is a slightly smaller variety called ‘Ice Wing’, with reflexing petals and snowy white cup. I have a large clump in a pot – it is fantastic. There are similar types -‘Thalia’ is also fabulous, and the old species N. triandrus ‘Alba’ is a treasure.
I am always a sucker for miniature bulbs, and the dwarf daffodils are no exception. I love the bright little Hoop Daffodils, with their comparatively large cups –usually bright gold but sometimes paler, even white – and their almost non-existent petals. These are very easily grown, and look fabulous in a large terracotta bowl.
Other favourite miniatures which have done well for me include ‘Tete a Tete’, a perfect miniature daffodil with bright yellow flowers, two or three to each head. ‘Jetfire’ is a sunny, bright little bulb with backwards-curving yellow petals and lovely orange-red cups. This has proven a reliable bloomer with us, and also makes good increase.
‘Rise and Shine’ is another pert little scented flower, with backwards curving white petals and small cups. They open slightly orange then fade to yellow. Another great little plant.
Daffodils are the easiest of bulbs. As long as the soil is not too dry –they are pasture plants in the wild – and the site is not shaded (they fade away in the shade), they will stay in the garden and provide colour spring after spring.
As always, we have bought some new varieties this autumn, so I must away and get them planted. And say a little prayer that they will be as pretty as I am now imagining they will be!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Red Pouch Fungus

I am on annual leave - sort of. By that I mean I am also giving speeches and attending meetings during my time off, but I have managed to make some time for myself.
The first day of my leave was gloriously fine so I went west - then north, then east...
What I mean is that I climbed up the East Holdsworth route to the Holdsworth summit. This is a longer route than the usual one but is more interesting and prettier - or, at least, so I think. The round trip took about six hours.
There was little of horticultural merit on my trip but I did find a patch or two of this red pouch fungus, Weraroa erythrocephala which grows to about 30mm in the forest litter. In a few months time there will be a much grander array of fungus in fruit on the mountain, but this is a charming little thing.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Verbena, verbena, verbena

This summer I fell in love all over again - with an old gardening favourite, the American verbena.
In New Zealand there are essentially two different types of verbenas – those that are grown as annuals, and those that we treat as perennials.
I think the annual verbenas are not planted anywhere enough. They provide a steady stream of colour right through the summer, and are available in a wide range of colours.
I have a particular soft spot for bi-coloured flowers, and was taken with a red- and white form I saw bedded out in a local garden. I think red and white make brilliant companions in the garden – I remember a planting of red and white petunias in an elevated brick planter, backed by a white trellis covered in Dublin Bay – and this planting in an elevated bed was very memorable.
It is difficult for the home gardener to get access to single colours in many annual varieties, although it is simple enough for commercial growers. Some companies make it easier though. My Taranaki friends at Egmont Seeds (whose catalogue is on line) sell single colours to the public.
I think their most popular strain is the older ‘Crystal Ball’ which is composed of solid coloured flowers in a wide range of colours – it includes apricot, blue, white, magenta, rose and deep pink – and is able to cope with light frosts so it will survive well into the autumn.
The Quart series is a marvellous one for bedding, for baskets or for containers. There is a mix of solid and two-toned types, and again, a wide range of colours. There are also some interesting mixes available, with a ‘Waterfalls Mix’ which includes lavender, purple and white forms, and ‘Merlot Mix’ (which should attract those of us who like alcoholic drinks) which features plain burgundy, burgundy with a white eye, magenta, rose and white.
I think my favourite variety of all the bedding verbenas is still the wonderful ‘Peaches and Cream’. This is an international award winning strain that we first grew in the nursery about ten years ago, and fell in love with straight away. It is absolutely brilliant in association with terracotta, so is ideally suited to pots. It has a unique two tone orange and peach colour pattern, brighter when opening, but then fading to a creamy shade as each flowers ages. Like most bedding verbena, it is a half hardy perennial best treated as an annual.
All the bedding verbenas will do well in any well-fertilised soil, with adequate moisture and full sun. The requirement for an open position is fundamental to solving the only problem that these bedding beauties have – they are a little prone to mildew. In the shade – especially in damp shade – they will quickly cover themselves with the tell-tale silvery powder that is an indicator of the disease.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

A long wait for a florum

Autumn as well and truly with us now, with cold nights and dewier mornings predominating, along with a good dollop of rain for most of us. The garden centres are responding to the autumn surge – they seem to all be stocked up with fresh spring flowering bulbs. This weekend I went down to my favourite nursery to pick up some annuals for winter colour and found myself tempted by some of the small flowering reticulate irises I always fall for.
But autumn is not only a time for buying bulbs, it is also a time to enjoy those bulbs whose dormant time is over summer and who bounce into growth at this time.
I have had a surprise appear in a pot in the glasshouse. About ten years ago I sowed some seeds from an overseas supplier, which included a lot of seeds of bulbous plants. One in particular I was interested in seeing – one of the so called autumn crocuses, the Colchicums. The seed I bought was from C. longiflorum, one of the smaller species of this widespread northern hemisphere genus.
A few years later a number of leaves appeared in the pot and I anxiously awaited the first flowering of my new plant. There must have been a mix up as the flower that finally appeared in the bright blue pot (in spring I must add) was most assuredly not a Colchicum – rather it was a lovely form of the white Narcissus triandrus, one of my favourite bulbs. I was slightly disappointed, as I am a bit of a fan of Colchicums, but the treat of the lovely icy-white flowers took the edge off my disappointment.
Imagine my surprise then, when I went out to sow some Pacific Coast Iris seeds recently. There in the little blue pot that housed my white miniature daffodil is the most perfect little pale pink Colchicum flower– my long-awaited, and to be completely honest, nearly forgotten C. longiflorum. And what a little pet of a thing it is. It is about 100 mm high with a spreading set of six petals, more open than most other Colchicums I have seen, and with the most delicate baby pink colourings. I am entranced with my newest seedling – as I should be after ten years waiting for a flower.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Those smelly beauties

I love autumn. The first of the autumn rains has freshened up the soil and the tremendous heat of the summer is starting to dissipate. Although much of the garden is preparing itself for a winter slumber, some plants are at their decorative best at this time of the year. This year I have noticed that the English Oak trees appear to be having a very good cropping season – their bright green acorns seem to be displayed more prominently than usual.
There is another reason I love autumn though – it is the time to start ordering and buying spring-flowering bulbs. I love most times of the year in the gardenbut the flush of spring flowers is surely hard to beat.
This year I have been thinking about onions, garlic, leeks and their kin – not only the ones in the vegetable garden either.
The ones in the vegetable plot are doing fine, although I had some worries with the onions. This year they just did not want to form bulbs, growing thick stems instead, and looking like giant spring onions. In the end most of them made bulbs, but not until late in the season. I may have planted them a little deep – they prefer to grow almost on the surface – and the soil may have had too much nitrogen, forcing leaf growth rather than bulbs. The problem seems to have fixed itself, and we will be picking the crop very soon – as soon as the leaves, now folded over, have died off.
I have always been a fan of the ornamental members of the huge Allium tribe, and grow two or three different species and hybrids here. But this year a new form has taken my eye, a hybrid between Allium christophii and A. macleanii called ‘Globemaster.’
It was A. christophii that first got me interested in these oddities of the garden world. A lovely clump was well-established in the first garden I loved, that of my grandparents. It threw up the most glorious globular heads of silvery pink flowers in mid –spring. The flowers lasted for a couple of weeks, then gradually lost their colour until they remained as a dried seed head, much treasured by my grandmother for her flower arrangements.
‘Globemaster’ takes this style a step further. Each head of flowers is up 20 cm across, held on chunky stems of up to a metre high. Every starry flower in the head is bright violet, and shines in the sun. British gardeners have acclaimed this as the best large flowered Allium yet bred. I cannot wait to see this flowering in my garden next spring.
‘Gladiator’ is also around for the first this year. This is taller and the flowers are deeper. They look, according to one catalogue I have looked at, “like giant softballs.” I do not know whether that is an inducement to plant or not, but they make brilliant accent plants for the middle or rear of the border.
It might pay to think carefully about placing these bulbs as they tend to lose their foliage early in the season and can leave a bit of a gap in the garden. I think they would work well with some mid-sized Dahlias planted in front, to take over when the Alliums have finished.