Hector Mountains

Much like those recollections of long-suffering children whose holidays were punctuated by occasional stops for their engineer father to look at a bridge, my children may one day bemoan the times when the car would come to a screeching halt so that I could admire one of nature's wonders on the roadside.

However, there are instances when it doesn't seem such a raw deal, as in the case of a recent day trip over the Nevis Road (New Zealand's highest-altitude public road), where we set ourselves down for a picnic in the Hector Mountains surrounded by beautiful subalpine plant communities. And at the very least, if all else fails, the food's usually pretty good.

In the area surrounding our picnic spot, the iridescent green foliage of Hebe odora (pictured above) sharply punctuates the muted, predominantly tawny hues of the tussock and Dracophyllum that dominate the area. This attractive species is relatively common in cultivation, where the kind of contrast that is demonstrated here in nature can serve to amplify its bright tone (and bring depth to plantings).

In the last year and a half, we have become interested in the potential of a couple of species of clubmosses within plantings (as details). The species that is shown above, growing in the crevice of a schist outcrop is (perhaps surprisingly) a compact example of a plant that often trails from the branches our northern forest giants, to a length of 1 or 2m (Phlegmariurus varius). The influence of the elements in containing its growth form here is self-evident, as the plant restricts itself to the insulating environment provided by the rock.

Hummocks of whipcord hebes (which I suspect are Hebe propinqua) dot the tussockland, with a coating of white flowers adorning the outermost growth points on many specimens in late January. These unusual plants have assumed qualities more akin to conifers in response to the often punishing conditions associated with many montane habitats.

A good deal of the lower plants that hug the ground plane allude to the damp conditions that characterise certain hilltops like this at certain times of year - a circumstance that seems counter-intuitive given the proximity of schist tors. This diverse assemblage of carpet-forming species creates a tapestry of differing colours and textures that constitutes its own miniature world when viewed up close.

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