Sunday, April 13, 2014

Variegated Ginkgos

I was talking plants with a few friends during the week and the topic turned to plants we never expected to see.  You know what I mean – something you stumble upon in a garden that you have never even read about, and you look at it, not quite sure what it is, and then when you work out what it is, you think – “I never would have thought of that!”
I had a moment like that a few months back in the delightful ‘Tupare’ garden in New Plymouth.  The Head Gardener and I were strolling through the garden on a drizzly summer afternoon, having almost the entire garden to ourselves, when we stopped to look at a tree with green leaves, splashed with white lines radiating out from the centre of each leaf.  It took me a minute to realise it was a variegated Ginkgo, but a second’s reflection made it obvious.
There was the same light coloured bark, and there were the same Ginkgo leaves, with their veins spreading out from the leaf stalk, but instead of being the usual dull green, here they were  irregularly splashed with streaks of white.  It is probably more interesting rather than dramatic, but would make a great talking point in a moderately sized garden.
It would be especially interesting at this time of year, when the green colouring would be replaced by gold, giving a butterscotch and ivory sort of look to the trees.
Ginkgos are interesting trees, if a little large for most small gardens. They are ancient conifers, although they look not the least bit like a pine tree.  They have male and female trees, and unless you love the scent of rotten socks, I suggest you hunt out male forms.  The males tend to make a tidier pyramidal shapes, while female forms correspondingly tend to spread more.  And of course, they also bear fruit which contain the famous ginkgo nuts.
If you have never had the pleasure of smelling these fruit, all I can say is that you are very lucky.  It is almost indescribable, but perhaps seven day old socks, mixted with the most pungent blue cheese you can imagine, with an undertone of dog excrement gives you a hint. And I can tell you, having had the misfortune to pick one up, the smell does not go away, even with repeated rinses.  The dried nuts are an Asian treat, but the young nuts smell rather similar to the fruit  although they are said to have a sweet taste with a cheese-like undernote.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Not much to look at, but ...

A minor star of the native plant world that is showing off at this time of the year is one you might not even notice – the once ubiquitous Golden Ake Ake, Olearia paniculata.  This is a very tough coastal daisy – again a New Zealand native – which was once quite commonly grown as a hedge.  It has light yellow/green leaves which are covered in white hairs on the lower side.  These leaves can be flat but are more usually very wavy, and they are born on orange stems.  If the plants are grown as small trees and are allowed to develop a trunk, the bark has wonderful texture.  One catalogue I looked at described the bark as ‘stringy’, which is hardly a flattering way to talk about delightfully exfoliating bark, although it does tend to come of the tree in strips. 
There is a mature tree near the fernery at Queen Elizabeth Park, which has this delightful bark – it is worth taking a quick detour to look at it.
However, it is this time of the year the Golden Ake Ake lets forth its greatest asset – the totally inconspicuous flowers that you would never even notice, except for one standout feature – they have the most amazing sweet and fruity scent – reminiscent of the Easter orchid. We have a couple of these trees in the backyard.  One is actually growing in the neighbour’s garden, but another has grown as a seedling of that, with much lighter foliage, so I am happy to leave it growing there.  At this time of year the scent is wonderful, especially in the evening.

There are many native olearias, all known by various forms of “daisy” – coastal daisy, mountain daisy, holly daisy.  I am sure you get the idea.  Some of them are primarily grown for their foliage, while others have pretty white daisy-like flowers. Perhaps the prettiest of the New Zealand species known as Streamside Daisy, O. chessmanii, which is smothered in white flowers each spring.