When Sandra and I started growing native plants commercially in the 1990s we were mainly supplying Garden Centres in Auckland. Hebes with colourful flowers were very popular and reasonably easy to grow which is a good thing when you are starting out in the nursery business. We were growing approximately 240 species and cultivars of Hebe. We had Hebes from high in the Southern Alps, Hebes from the Chatham Islands, Hebes bred in France. We had Hebes from all over the place as did many other nurseries.

The popularity of Hebe soon declined and nurseries like ours were partly responsible for this decline. We had put people off these wonderful plants by selling mountain species of Hebes that just don't like the north, many of the cultivars were just not well bred. We now concentrate on the many Hebes that perform well in our northern conditions.

Hebe is New Zealand's largest genus of flowering plants, there being around 100 species and subspecies. Only one of these, Hebe rapensis, is not growing in New Zealand. Two other species are also found elsewhere. Hebes are remarkable for their diversity in appearance and for the range of habitats in which they grow, from alpine rocks 2800m above sea level to coastal margins. Plants range from large fleshy leaved shrubs with beetroot purple flowers (Hebe speciosa) to small trees with large white flowers (Hebe parviflora), to 'Whipcord' forms with small scale like leaves and others you would class as a ground cover.

We feel it's a real shame that Hebe's have lost some of their popularity as they make a nice addition to any garden and are after all our largest flowering genus of plants.

Hybridisation between species growing in the wild is not common but when compatible species are in planted in gardens, hybridism is extensive. So many growers and collectors have selected and named these cultivars. Some have less than desirable features, poor flowering and little disease resistance etc. However, planned breeding of ornamental Hebe cultivars has been happening for a long time. It is thought that the first hybrid was produced in 1845 in Suffolk, England and it is now estimated that there are around 700 hybrid Hebes. Hebes are very popular in the United Kingdom and many more cultivars have been bred there since 1845. It is also the home of the Hebe Society formed in 1985 to encourage the growing of Hebes. The first book on Hebes was written in the United Kingdom. Hebes are grown throughout North America primarily as landscape plants. They are also grown in many other parts of the world. My mother spotted Hebes growing outside a hotel in Turkey and another when travelling in Kenya.

Hebe Headfortii

Since making the mistake of trying to grow every Hebe there I, we have trialed many in our own garden and have come to the conclusion that mountain Hebes are best left to grow in the mountains. This doesn't mean that we don't have an interesting range which will grow from Auckland north. Around twenty wild species are found growing from the Coromandel to the top of the North Island and also many cultivars which will perform well in this region and are suited to a range of garden situations.

We feel it's a real shame that Hebe's have lost some of their popularity as they make a nice addition to any garden and are after all our largest flowering genus of plants. They make great box hedges or larger formal hedges. Planted on mass in group they provide a stunning display of colour and form.

As a general rule Hebes are not hard to grow in the garden, they suffer very few problems. The majority enjoy full sun, plenty of air movement and good drainage. While Hebe's will tolerate being left to their own devices, the use of fertilizer and good rich compost will produce far better plants which will remain in good condition for much longer. Some Hebes form attractive ball like habits but many will benefit from a light clipping immediately after flowering.

Some of our favourites:-

Hebe speciosa, Titirangi

A spreading, bushy shrub up to 2m x 2m, with large fleshy, glossy leaves producing large magenta flowers. It is very distinct and unlikely to be confused with any other. This endangered plant is found growing naturally at only three sites from Muriwai to South Hokianga. Ideal for coastal gardens. It enjoys full sun and rich moist soils.

Hebe diosmifolia

Hebe diosmifolia

This Hebe is quite a variable species found growing over a wide range in northland. The one we grow is a low growing shrub up to 70cm. It has dense dark green foliage and many white flowers are produced over a long period through spring. This Hebe could also be used as a low formal clipped hedge.

Hebe obtusata

Not widely grown in gardens, this prostrate Hebe can be useful growing over banks and as a ground cover. Found growing in the wild in coastal scrub along Auckland's west coast.

Hebe brevifolia

This low growing plant has with handsome long fleshy leaves. It is a plant which can grow into quite a dense mat. Its large flowers are widely spaced; they range in colour from bright crimson to deep purple. Found only in a small area at North Cape and the Surville Cliffs.

Hebe macrocarpa

There are two recognized varieties of this Hebe, var. macrocarpa which can grow up to 2.5m tall and has large narrow leaves up to 12cm long, producing white flowers. The other var. latisepala which produces violet flowers and grows to around 1m in height is found only on Great Barrier and Little Barrier Islands.

Hebe "Wiri Mist"

A very compact, low growing Hebe rather flattish on top. Heavy white flowering Hebe late spring to early summer. Hebe "Wiri Mist" is a hybrid between diosmifolia and albicans. Breeder Jack Hobbs considers this Hebe to be the best of the Wiri series. The cross between two true species gives this plant extra hybrid vigor.

Hebe "Headfortii"

Similar plant to Hebe "Inspiration" but with a much deeper purple flower and dark green shiny foliage. Grows to approximately 70cm in height by 1m in diameter. Thought to have been bred in Ireland in the 1920s. Mt parents planted this Hebe on the farm near the coast some forty odd years ago and it has survived unattended for that time.

Hebe La Seduisante

Hebe "La Se'duisante"

An old cultivar with Hebe speciosa as one parent. Thought to have originated in France where it first appeared in a nursery catalogue in 1906. For best results this Hebe needs plenty of air movement and rich moist soils. It has large leaves like Hebe speciosa with dark purple undersides particularly on young leaves and stems. It produces large violet purple flowers.

Hebe "Oratia Beauty"

This attractive plant grows to approx 75cm high with bright green foliage. The flowers provide an interesting effect being a medium pink in bud then opening to pure white giving a two coloured appearance.

by Guy Bowden.