Scrub aesthetics

by Michael Shepherd and Philip Smith

v. 1 tr. rub hard so as to clean, esp. with a hard brush.

n. 1 a vegetation consisting mainly of brushwood or stunted forest growth. b an area of land covered by this. 2 (of livestock) of inferior breed or physique.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary 1

We present within this essay a concept that many would consider to be an oxymoron, ‘scrub aesthetics’. It concerns a vegetation type that does not commonly feature within idealised imagery of the New Zealand landscape. We tend to connect more with what we view as ‘pure’ landscape types; such as forest, beach, pasture2 and tussockland (although, ironically, the last of these represents a heavily-modified landscape type in many cases). In contrast, scrub is a derogatory term. It represents ‘ecological limbo’; vegetation which is either waiting to be cleaned or be transformed by nature into a more advanced system.

This in-between (or liminal) character is one of the most interesting aspects of scrub environments; that is, they are often hybrid landscapes. So often, we feel the need to draw a line between ‘natural’ and ‘human’. We also favour completeness. Scrub does not offer neat categorisation, nor is it homogeneous in its character.

Scrub represents a great variety of distinct habitats, in which a large amount of botanical diversity and aesthetic worth resides. Until recently, scrub has been largely ‘unaestheticised’; yet it constitutes an interesting source of inspiration for designers and gardeners; one which may stand next to other traditions that influence our gardens. The images presented within this essay are intended to convey the wide array of landscapes that come under this term, and display some of the many beautiful details of scrub landscapes that are not commonly seen.

A question of scale

A problem with the way in which we perceive landscape lies in our mode of moving through it. We have an ‘automobile culture’, in which our perception of countryside is mainly taken in on a large, broad-brush scale. This presents challenges to plantspeople wishing to introduce people to the great diversity of our natural heritage. Landscape is not just an abstract concept. It is not a painting.

On the other hand, gardens are experienced on an intimate scale. Within gardens, we experience diversity; we perceive fine textures; we experience shifting details and dynamism. These are all characteristics that one takes in upon walking within scrub, but which are not seen from afar. Urban gardens, in particular, should be intimate in scale; especially as many of us wish to retreat into our own personal worlds within our homes.

The question of scale is important within gardens and public plantings. So much native horticulture and gardening is based on applying the imagery of vast landscapes (whether vast in height, as in the case of forest, or in area, as in the case of tussockland) to intimate situations. Such landscapes are not as well adapted to the human scale as many scrubland ecologies, as the latter will often grow to a height which provides privacy, yet remain sufficiently low that they do not overly shade a property. In short, scrub’s ‘stunted’ scale matches the requirements that we often ask of plants in built-up areas.

Ecological value of scrub

As mentioned previously, scrub habitats are botanically diverse, bearing a large range of species which do not occur in other vegetation. Ecology is linked to aesthetics, as awareness of our natural heritage (and conservation) is becoming increasingly important to many gardeners.

A group of plants that is particularly associated with scrub environments is our native orchid flora (two specimens of the genus, Thelymitra, are pictured below). In northern areas of New Zealand, the species of Pomaderris (several of which have attractive yellow and cream flowers) are scrub specialists, whilst the many highly attractive species of native Clematis are especially associated with such environments throughout New Zealand.

Two of our most unusual tree species, Pittosporum patulum and Pseudopanax ferox, are predominantly found within scrub; the former within subalpine areas of the South Island, and the latter in isolated locations throughout the country. P. ferox (commonly-known as toothed lancewood) needs no introduction to most gardeners; its unusual form has made it popular within gardens. Pittosporum patulum (the juvenile and adult phases of which are pictured below), on the other hand, is almost unknown in cultivation. This nationally endangered species is an exceptionally beautiful small tree, which has darker, bronze tones and more delicate foliage than Pseudopanax ferox, but shares the latter’s unusual two-stage growth form, called heteroblasty.

Heteroblasty is exhibited in an unusually high number of species within the New Zealand flora, and has been the subject of much research. Put simply, it means that a plant has one growth form for its juvenile phase (such as the long, toothed leaves of P. ferox), and then goes through a change at a certain height, to exhibit completely different looking leaves and branches (the adult stage of P. patulum is shown in the photo below on the right, the bright green tree in the centre; the juvenile leaf is shown on the left).

As an evolutionary adaptation, heteroblasty is often considering jointly with that of the ‘filiramulate’ (more commonly-known as divaricate) growth form3. This refers to the phenomenon of small-leaved, often densely-branching shrubs, of which New Zealand has a large number of species. The filiramulate growth form is strongly associated with scrub communities, and contributes significantly to their character. It is a special interest of Michael’s; one which he has not only pursued in his garden, but through a series of paintings based on these intriguing plants (simply entitled ‘Divaricate’).

In addition to its botanical value, scrub provides valuable habitat for many native lizards (such as geckos), which prefer high light environments, and find food and protection amongst the often densely branching shrubs that characterise scrublands. Native insects also find valuable habitat within scrub areas. Examples include a significant grouping of moth species which are known to favour small-leaved Olearia species, and copper butterflies, which are heavily dependent on species from the shrubby and lianoid genus, Muehlenbeckia. Insect conservation is a subject close to Michael’s heart, and was a major goal in the creation of his Onehunga and Te Puru gardens.

Personal recollections

Michael’s interest and affection for scrub is rooted in his own personal history. We all carry interior landscapes – landscapes of memory. For Michael, a major interior landscapes is that of growing up in Ngaruawahia in the late 1950s, at a time when there were large tracts of scrub, fernland and open ground. As a child, the spaces created by the scrub were entertaining, compact worlds in which birds nested in accessible places and there existed an abundance of insect life.

One memory from Michael’s youth (relating to the landscape surrounding Ngaruawahia) is of a painting by Alfred Sharpe, painted from Taupiri hill, looking back towards Mt Pirongia. Sharpe commented that the landscape had a sombre uniformity to it throughout much of the day, but that towards sunset, the landscape lit up with “the most gorgeous colours”4. When one walks amongst these environments, one becomes aware of a wide array of russet tones and unusual, subtle shades of green; colours that are well represented within the canon of New Zealand art (such as in the work of Colin McCahon, William Sutton and Toss Woollaston), but which we do not value as readily within gardens.

Michael has made similar observations to those of Sharpe, within his own garden (although on a more intimate scale). Within the low-level, lucid quality of the late afternoon light, the leaves of many filiramulate species appear to hang like thousands of little diamonds. In addition to the effect of light, many scrub environments contain a relatively restrained palette of colour and texture. The rhythm of small differences in colour establishes a painterly effect; one of subtle, intergrading shades which create continuous moving fields of texture.

Despite the similarities within colour and leaf texture, there is an enormous amount of structural variation in many scrub species. The range of differing growth forms and branching structures (the latter are frequently more apparent than is usual in garden plants, due to the often diminished leaf size) instils such compositions with a dynamic quality. There also exists a myriad of beautiful details, such as the opalescent berries borne by some Coprosma spp..

In creating his own garden, knowledge and memory came together for Michael. Whilst thinking over the eventual form of the garden, he learned more about botany and developed his own artistic perspective on the plants that fascinated him. The ideas that Michael has investigated present one prototype for the concept of a ‘scrub garden’. However, as the images within this essay attempt to convey, there is a huge range of both natural and modified landscapes which can provide us with inspiration for a style which presents a different take on our natural heritage.


  1. Allen, R.E. (ed.) 1990: The Concise Oxford Dictionary. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  2. Perhaps not considered ‘pristine’ in the natural sense, agricultural landscapes historically represent an idealised cultural landscape (and are certainly part of the landscape identity of New Zealand).
  3. The term ‘filiramulate’ is an adjective that was adopted by botanists, as a superior alternative to the word ‘divaricate’. It is considered to be a better term for this type of shrub, as ‘filiramulate’ refers to the internode length in relation to leaf size, rather than the literal meaning of ‘divaricate’, which is to branch widely (at roughly a 90 degree angle). Not all shrubs that fit within this group of plants branch at wide angles, therefore ‘divaricate’ does not describe this group of plants well enough.
  4. The quote is taken from Sharpe’s notes, which accompanied the painting. Sharpe described the colours as “orange, yellow & deep violets & purples”. It should be noted that Sharpe was very dismissive of the landscape’s appearance other than at sunset. This is an example of the issue of scale, when landscape is viewed from afar (as opposed to the scale experienced within a garden). This note is included to illustrate the range of colours which become apparent under certain light conditions. The description can be found on the Auckland Art Gallery website.