The land of kiwis and tree ferns
By Alison M. Bowles
On completing the Kew Diploma Course in September 1988 I embarked on a study tour abroad. I was fortunate to have some money from the Kew Guild to help with my expenses while I was in New Zealand. I had decided to travel to New Zealand in order to visit their National Parks and gain a better knowledge of their native flora, especially the ferns. I had contacted Kewite Ian McDowell at Pukekura Park and he very kindly put me in touch with horticultural groups throughout New Zealand. I was therefore able to see much of both North and South Islands.
I arrived in Auckland at the end of January, able to enjoy the end of an antipodean summer. I visited Graham Platt’s Nursery; where he operates an interesting concept in marketing for a retail nursery, as none of the plants are labelled. The idea is that customers have to ask for advice and therefore go away with a plant likely to do well in the position they have described in their garden. This was a good introduction for me to New Zealand as he specialises in natives, paying particular attention to the provenance of his stock plants. He then kindly showed me around the Waitakre Cascade Falls Park, in a range of hills very close to Auckland where many New Zealand natives can be found, including the famous Kauri, Agathis australis which was heavily felled for its strong timber in the nineteenth century. This was also my first chance to see some New Zealand tree ferns in their native habitat, such as Cyathea dealbata and Dicksonia squarrosa.
I travelled from Auckland to Nelson via the Wellington-Picton ferry, watching dolphins as we entered Marlborough Sound. Many people I spoke to throughout the country complained about the gorse which had been introduced from Britain, originally for use as a hedge. It thrived in the southern climate and has now naturalised; I particularly remember the hills around Marlborough Sound being a vivid yellow.
The journey from Picton to Nelson took me across the Richmond Range where I saw Nothofagus woodlands for the first time. In Nelson I stayed with members of the Nelson Fern Society, who were most helpful, taking me to a number of locations to see filmy ferns and also to some local private gardens owned by fern enthusiasts. They were able to supply me with some filmy ferns which I sent to Kew. I also gained my first experience of public speaking when I gave a talk to their Society about Kew Gardens.
I continued through South Island to Dunedin. Travelling by coach I was able to appreciate the countryside, crossing over the Lewis Pass and then descending to the vast and parched Canterbury Plain. I gave a second talk at Dunedin Botanic Garden to their Society which had been modelled on the Kew Mutual Improvement Society. A large proportion of the audience were students who seemed very interested in Kew’s work.
Then on to Te Anau and the beginning of the famous Milford Track, a three day hike in a World Heritage Park, crossing the Mackinnon Pass and eventually descending to Milford Sound. This was a wonderful way to appreciate the vegetation which luxuriates there with an average of six to ten metres of rain a year. We began walking through Nothofagus forest, with many ferns in the understoreys. As we climbed the beeches became smaller until Hoheria was the dominant plant, then we came to the alpine area and found Ranunculus Iyalli, Celmisias, Aciphyllas and low growing Hebes. Descending to the wetter western side of the pass I saw filmy ferns really at home, and wonderful specimens of Leptopteris superba.
I then continued my journey by heading up the West Coast to Greymouth. Numerous Metrosideros spp. in bloom way up in the tree tops added vivid splashes of colour to the roadside. The New Zealand train service has a limited number of routes, but the Trans Alpine Express Service to Christchurch had been recommended to me as it passes through spectacular mountain scenery.
In Christchurch Pamela Gibbons, an ex-Kew student, and her husband put me up for a few days. She had kindly arranged for me to be shown around Christchurch Botanic Gardens and Christchurch Parks and Recreation Department both of which were very informative. The Botanic Garden has a distinct English feel to it from the nature of its plantings. I also contacted another Kewite, John Taylor, and was able to spend an evening with him.
I now had to make my way to Hawera, in the North Island, to give a talk to Hawera Horticultural Society. My hosts in Hawera were members of the Society and had lots of local horticultural contacts, I was therefore shown around many gardens. They are close to New Plymouth and took me to Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust, nestling between the Pouakai and Kaitake Ranges which provides the site with an excellent microclimate. We also visited Pukekura Park where I met Ian McDowell and George Fuller who very kindly showed me around. They have an unusual fernery which had been hollowed out of the volcanic ash so that you walk through a narrow tunnel entrance. The ferns certainly seem to enjoy their surroundings. While in the area I visited Duncan and Davies Nurseries and saw their propagation houses and packing shed.
Then on to Tauranga and my last talk, where I stayed with the Secretary of the Bay of Plenty District of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture. This is a major centre for Kiwi fruit growing so I enjoyed looking around an orchard and a packing plant. They look so rampant, with foliage spreading everywhere.
Then to the East Coast and Napier where I stayed with David Lowe and his family for a few days. They had been suffering a drought so when, on my arrival, it rained they were all very happy. Unfortunately it was wet for much of my stay in Napier. There is a wonderful avenue of Norfolk Pines along the promenade. Despite the damp and rather cold weather making me feel rather at home one look into the gardens and the sight of Tibouchina, Hibiscus and Bougainvilleas all thriving told me definitely this was not England.
I was then able to meet up with Alice de Nys, who had been an international student at Kew while I was on the Course. We were shown around the Otari Open Air Native Plant Museum by the Curator, Mr. Ray Mole. This consists of 200 acres, much of it still native bush, in a cold valley on the outskirts of Wellington. Plants from throughout New Zealand are on display, such as Griselinia lucida and Myosotidium hortensia. His enthusiasm for the New Zealand flora made me feel very sorry to be shortly leaving it behind. I travelled up to Palmerston North with Alice and she showed me around the propagation houses at Massey University where she now works.
I was very fortunate to be able to spend this time in New Zealand where I met many interesting horticulturalists who willingly shared their knowledge of their native flora with me. I am grateful to the Kew Guild for helping to finance this trip.