Sunday, February 28, 2010

Feeling like a dill?

The first week in March is Herb Awareness Week, promoted by the Herb Federation of New Zealand.  Each year the Federation promote the herb of the year as chosen by the International Herb Association, and adds another three herbs of their own choice.
This year the international choice has been dill, a member of the vast Umbilliferae family, along with carrots, Queen Anne’s Lace and parsley.  It is an easily grown annual, looking superficially like fennel, but with blue-green leaves rather than fennel’s yellow-green ones, and lacking the distinctive aniseed scent of the latter.
It is best to sow the seeds in situ as the plants resent being moved, like most of their cousins.  They are spindly growers and might even need some twiggy framework to cling to us they grow, but once established they are self-supporting. They are usually grown in a succession of sowings, as they mature in about six weeks and a number of crops are needed to ensure a constant supply of leaves.
They are good plants to have growing in amongst others as they attract lots of insectivorous insects – the ones that will eat your aphids -  and the little umbels of yellow flowers are very attractive in a subdued way.
Dill is one of those classic herbs, more commonly used in Northern Europe than in the Mediterranean areas where it is supposed to originate.  The leaves are best snipped and chopped very finely, before being added to fish dishes in particular.  The leaves are best harvested shortly before flowering as they will be at their strongest then.
Once flowering has occurred, the plants should be left alone to ripen the seeds. These are used us a flavouring for pickles, in particular for small pickled cucumbers.  I have a friend who makes some pots most summers, and lets me have a jar if I am especially nice to her – and they are delicious
It is also said to have some medicinal properties.  If taken at bedtime it can help sleep, as both leaves and seeds have a mild sedative effect.  It is also meant to be great at getting rid of the hiccoughs!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Dichroas at 'Woodleigh'

Last week I wrote about a recent visit to the Taranaki garden of author Glyn Church. ‘Woodleigh’ is situated just north of Oakura, near another nationally significant garden, ‘Ngamamaku’. ‘Woodleigh’ is home to Glyn’s extensive hydrangea collection, and during my visit we spent some time looking at some of his favourites among the many species and varieties that make us this large group of plants.

The first plant we saw was a very large specimen of Dichroa versicolor. This shrub from China has become quite well-known in the past few years, and is sold under a variety of names – usually with “blue” at the beginning.

I have always known it to be a relative of the hydrangea, but Glyn was able to shed a little more light on its history. He told me he introduced it to New Zealand, and had it growing in his garden for some years before it was released to the market. From there, different nurseries picked it up, giving it varietal names. It is an evergreen shrub with bright blue flowers from early summer into the autumn. The bright blue flowers are fertile, and carry berries in the autumn.

One year he noticed some seedlings in his garden, which he grew on until they flowered. Once they flowered he formed the opinion that they were actually crosses with a Hydrangea, and kept careful notes of the various hybrids he had. He spoke at a Hydrangea conference in Belgium (yes – there are such things!) about his discovery, and was intrigued to find an American nurseryman who has raised many hybrids between Dichroa and Hydrangea, and never succeeded in breeding anything as colourful as Glyn’s seedlings. It turns out, too, that the plant we have been growing as D. versicolor is in fact a hybrid itself, first found by the plant hunter Robert Fortune in a Chinese nursery.

As we walked around the garden, Glyn showed me the plant he considers the best of his hybrids – one called ‘Cambridge Blue’, and it is a lovely big flowered hybrid.

Work will continue in these crosses, as they offer the chance of evergreen hydrangeas that are able to grow in full sun, as the Dichroa does.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

'Woodleigh Garden'

The gardens of Taranaki hold a great allure to those of us who garden in the east. The extra rainfall and increased humidity, and the generally more temperate climate, make Taranaki home to many famous gardens, gardeners and nurseries.

My forays to explore this wonderful horticultural region have almost always been undertaken in the spring, usually in conjunction with the fabled Rhododendron festival.

There are 32 gardens of national significance in New Zealand – 10 of them in Taranaki. Until last week I had visited 9 of them, so I thought it was about time I saw the tenth, Glyn and Gail Church’s ‘Woodleigh Gardens’, just north of Oakura, on the Surf Highway. This is a fabled garden among hydrangea growers, as Glyn Church is a work acclaimed authority on these shrubs, and their allied species, and unlike most Taranaki gardens, has a summer emphasis.

It was very hot when I called in, and I was glad to sit inside with Glyn, at the dining table, overlooking the extensive garden, to chat for a while before venturing outside

In front of the house, overlooking a large pond, was a hedge that looked at first glance like box, but closer inspection revealed it to be mature forms of the native scarlet rata Meterosideros fulgens. In the wild, this clambers up through the canopy until it reaches the light, and then flowers in the upper storey of the forest, usually red but sometimes yellow. The form at ‘Woodleigh’ was a lovely burnt orange.

Two other rare plants in the top garden took my eye. The first was a Canary Islands Foxglove, Isoplexis canariensis. This is a woody perennial that makes a stand of deep green, serrated leaves, topped for months on end with brownish-orange trumpet shaped flowers in tall racemes. I grew this plant from seed many years ago, but it clearly thrives much better in the nearly frost-free ‘Woodleigh’ than it did for me. Glyn told me it has another great attraction for him – the bell birds love feeding from it.

Near by was a large perennial growing Cassia species I had never seen before. Glyn told me it was C. didymobotrya, an African species he grew from seed, and had been unable to propagate again. It does not grow from cuttings and does not set seed in his garden. It has upright stems of bright golden flowers, as you would expect from a Cassia. It grows exuberantly, covering a few square meters. No lean and hungry look to this Cassia!

‘Woodleigh’ is a garden well worth visiting. Glyn is a generous and affable host, and the hours I spent walking around the garden with him were marvelous. Next week we will take a closer look at his collection of hydrangeas.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A 'Naki road trip

Tuesday started out with a leisurely run along the spectacular coastal walkway in New Plymouth.  This is a stunning track that snakes around the edge of the coastline from the Waiwhakaiho River down to the port, about 6 kms in all.  I ran from one end to the other, then turned around and went back! 
It was a calm, still, warm morning, with lots of people out walking, running, biking and even a few swimming.

I raced back to my motel in Inglewood, and set off on my overland adventure, along to Stratford then onto the wonderful Forgotten World Highway, which snakes through the Taranaki hinterland, through dense rain forest, past Whangamomona and out into 'tiger country.' 
A detour along a narrow country road led to the Mt Damper Falls - all 85 metres of them.  The drop is huge but the summer flow was not so dramatic. 
Still, I am very glad I called in to see it, as I saw one of my all time favourite plants, Parataniwha, Elatostema rugosum, growing in the wild.  I love this native herb.
I then headed further into the wilds, along a rollercoaster road, eventually joining SH3 just to the north of Mount Messenger. I followed the Tongapuroto River north until I reached its mouth.  I parked up and walked looking at the remarkable effects of the sea on the landscape, including the popular 'Three Sisters" - although there are now only two and a bit!

I found a dead crab, stranded in a sea cave.  It took some imaginative use of the camera's time exposure to get these slightly odd pics.

Hunger forced me to hit the road again, and I ended up eating lunch in Waitara at about 4.00 p.m.  While I was eating I looked through the local newspaper and saw that Central Districts was playing a cricket game at Pukekura Park, so I scooted along and watched that for a while, before detouring up to the North Egmont Visitors Centre on the flanks of Mount Egmont/Taranaki on my way back to the motel. 
I found this littrle chap sitting on some grass.  This was taken with a 70mm lens, so you can see how close I was able to get to him!

In the 'Naki

Monday saw me headed north for a few days. I called in at Marton on my way, to catch up with a couple of cousins. Wally, New Zealand’s biggest second hand bookseller (him, not the store) was complaining about the lack of business, while his sister PJ looked frazzled beyond belief as she served me a coffee at her shop.

I pushed on to the outskirts of Oakura, where I spent four delightful hours in the garden with Glyn Church, a world-renowned hydrangea expert - more to come on that visit.

In the evening I backtracked a little and went to have a quick look at Parihaka – a very sad sight (and site). I parked on the side of the Hangatahua River (known to pakeha as Stoney River) near Okato.

I then pushed on for New Plymouth, where I wandered around Pukekura Park, taking photographs until then light had nearly gone.

Such a great day.

Waitangi Day and a bit of time off

My annual leave has built up so much that the people over at corporate services are starting to give me the evil eye, so I am taking a week off. In order to take this time off I am working all weekend.

Well, not quite as mad as it sounds. I had a speech to give on Waitangi Day, to a group of descendants of one of our founding families. The twenty minute speech went down well – it took me over 90 minutes to get away. Various family members wanted copies of the presentation, so that was uber cool.

In the afternoon I worked at the archive until 4.00, and then went over to the park for the town’s Origins Festival, a celebration of our cultural diversity. A couple of organisations I am on the board of (New Pacific Studio and Arrow FM) were there, but my little adopted grandchildren Emily (nearest camera) and Summer were there too, and I spent most of the time with them. The local newspaper caught me helping them decorate some sheep for an upcoming celebration of the 50th Golden Shears competition.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Outsmarted - and still smarting

My best laid plans for tricking the little girls that frequently visit our garden have gone astray. You might remember that I reported in the spring that I had sowed some purple carrot seed to try and catch the girls out when they went bandicooting in my vegetable patch.

They were in the garden today, relaxing after having a swim. I nonchalantly mentioned that they could have some carrots if they liked, and the younger one enquired if they were purple or orange!

They are obviously far too smart for me, but I did manage to extract a kind of revenge. They had ridden their bikes around to our house so I offered to accompany them home – and took them on a large detour to photograph some climbing plants. It involved ascending a long but not excessively steep hill, but it was too much for the younger girl, who resorted to pushing her bike part of the way. She turned the tables on me as we neared home, streaking past and screaming with delight as she beat me to the front gate.

So what were we looking for on our ride?

My first mission was to photograph the hardy “Chilean Jasmine”, Mandevilla sauveolens. This is one of the very few hardy climbers with large white flowers, and can be relied on to flower for months over the hotter part of the year. It is deciduous (that is how it copes with cold weather) but clothes up early in the spring and looks great for the warm months.

It is not actually a jasmine – in fact, it is a member of the Oleander family, and like many members of that group, it has a degree of toxicity. Garden books vary enormously on this issue, most saying it is only so to a minor degree, and a lot of leaves would need to be eaten before it caused any problem. It does have sticky white latex which can be a skin irritant for some people, but do not let these things put you off having this plant. It grew for many years along a trellis in my grandparent’s courtyard, and I never heard of it having any ill effects on anyone.

When we got home , the girls proudly took me around their garden, showing me the strawberry patches (two!) asking whether berries just turning pink were ready to eat. We looked at passion fruit, broccoli, pumpkins, tomatoes, sweet corn and capsicums.

Then the younger girl took me down to the darkest corner of the section to show me a bright white flower growing on a tree. Only it was not on the tree. It was on a climber that was twining through the tree. It was, of course, a Chilean jasmine.

By the time I biked home I felt quite depressed -completely outsmarted (and outbiked) by a nine and an eleven year old - and secretly pleased they were so interested in the garden!.