When we started growing native plants in 1995 I believe our timing couldn't have been better. The awareness and popularity of natives in New Zealand was just taking off. Not that this information formed any part of our business plan. We simply didn't have a plan. This was just something I knew a bit about from my parents, and my wife who is great gardener. I loved it and had a sheer determination to prove some people wrong.
Fortunately we took no notice of my horrified father-in- law nor of ex-employers who were convinced that we could never make a living from growing native plants.
"Who will want them??!"
In fact NZ plants are famous all over the world.
Within a decade of Captain James Cook's first visit in 1769, manuka was being offered for sale in England. The first Hebe was bred in 1848 by a nurseryman in Scotland. Today pohutukawa is one of California's most popular street trees. Our cabbage trees have been observed growing all around the world. The English pass them off as some sort of tropical palm tree!
Jack Hobbs of the Auckland Regional Council Botanical Gardens showed a group of nurserymen photos of a European nursery growing 400,000 Hebe 'Waireka' (a variegated Hebe, not one of my favourites). This Hebe would be sold flowering in a small plastic pot in the same way we would use flowering chrysanthemums as a gift.
New Zealand Flax Hybridisers of Tauranga only export coloured NZ flax, many of which will never be available on the NZ market.
New Zealand has a truly unique flora. 80% is found nowhere else in the world. It is drooled over by visitors who cannot fail to comment on the ferns, tussocks and the subtropical luxuriance of our temperate rainforests. There are some curious features, which seem to be largely a NZ phenomenon, the large number of small leaved divaricating plants that grow in a criss-cross tangle and plants like lancewood Pseudopanax crassifolium, which as a juvenile looks not even remotely like its eventual adult form.
As Kiwis we have certainly been slow to recognise the value of our own native plants compared with gardeners in the rest of the world. Since the arrival of the first Europeans 200 years ago and in fact the arrival of the Polynesians a thousand years earlier, the country has undergone a massive forest clearance and wetland draining to create our present agricultural landscape.
Thanks to NZ's huge variation in latitude and therefore in climate, from the cool mountains of the south to the sometimes more tropical north, there exists the ideal situation for growing an extensive range of plants.
Along with the new settlers came a cargo of foreign plants in an attempt to recreate something of what they had left behind. We are the weediest country in the world. For every native plant we have in the wild, there is now an exotic plant growing alongside.
In the past years we have seen a remarkable change in attitude to our native plants. No longer are our plants just of interest to a small number of dedicated enthusiasts.
The selection of native plants is now not limited to a few trees tucked down the back of the garden centre out of sight. Today they are out on display with every other type of plant sold.
There are many new native plants bred each year. We hear less and less of the myths that had become associated with native plants. "They grow too slowly, have no colour, get too big and don't like fertilizer."
They grow too slowly, have no colour, get too big and don't like fertilizerGuy Bowden
They are, after all, successful in their own environment and therefore generally easy to grow. Today the landscape industry uses native plants extensively. There are great examples in our parks and cities. We have learnt how to use them more effectively, creating gardens requiring little maintenance to match our busy life styles.
You can find a native plant for any situation: wet, dry, windy etc. It's all about the right plant in the right place. You can have big hedges, box hedges, mixed shelter, rock gardens and flowering plants. I think one thing to remember is that native plants are no different from any other plants. They can survive on very little but you can do a lot to improve the health and growth of a native plant by mulching and feeding.
In the north, autumn is the best time to plant. Although there may not be much growth, moisture levels are high and the plants make use of every warm day. Over the next few months I plan to cover a range of topics on New Zealand native plants.