Wildflowers of Waikumete

by Philip Smith

Throughout our lives, we carry certain memories of landscapes (both real and imagined). Many of these come to represent romantic or idealised places and resonate deeply within us. They can be natural landscapes, flower gardens of our youth, pasture or wastelands (amongst others). As a child, I was raised on stories like ‘Wind in the Willows’, which filled my head with idyllic visions of woodland and meadow that will always retain a magical charm for me (despite, or rather in addition to, my subsequently developed passion for New Zealand’s native flora).

It is perhaps surprising to some that one should find such an experience within a cemetery. However, Waikumete Cemetery is no ordinary place. From its early days, wildflowers (many of South African origin) have spread from around gravesites into the pasture to create a dream-like space, as they erupt into flower during the later months of the year. The result, as the eminent Auckland botanist, Alan Esler, describes it, is “a wonderland of intermingled plants from three separate regions of the world”1

Furthermore, it should not necessarily come as a surprise that romantic scenes of this nature are able to develop within a cemetery. Cemeteries are often unfettered by the neverending renewal and control that we impose upon our other man-made spaces; a characteristic that some cemeteries share with wastelands. In this way, Waikumete has been permitted to form a kind of ‘second nature’, in which indigenous and exotic elements have combined to form new ecologies and aesthetics.

Although not indigenous, the presence of so many of these South African flowers growing in wild associations has been recognised as being of significance – and part of the old cemetery area has been made a wildflower sanctuary. From my personal perspective, what makes these communities special is that many (although not all) of the wildflowers within them are not aggressive environmental weeds; yet persist and co-exist with native and pasture species, thereby forming a hybrid landscape.

There is an interesting network of species throughout; with some wildflowers (like Ixia polystachya, pictured at the bottom of this essay) somewhat ubiquitous, while others occur sporadically, or in isolated groupings. The bright orange flowers of Tritonia crocata (pictured above) are low-growing highlights, popping up relatively irregularly between graves. In its wild habitat (in southern parts of South Africa’s Cape province), this diminutive bulb grows predominantly on clay slopes, in a type of shrubland called renosterveld2.

The chincherinchee3, Ornithogalum thyrsoides (pictured above), comes from areas to the west of Tritonia crocata‘s natural range in South Africa, where it grows in lowlying, often marshy habitats. Traditionally, it has been a popular garden bulb within New Zealand – valued for its dense heads of white flowers (with dark centres). It occurs in isolated pockets around particular graves.

The flower that is shown above is an unusual species of Ixia, I. paniculata (formerly known as Morphixixa panixulata), whose arrangements of peculiar pink flowers remind me (very loosely) of some types of basket fungus (when viewed amongst the grass). This native of southwestern parts of the Cape is also, like chincherinchee, present in isolated groupings around graves.

The delicate pink onion that is shown below is Allium roseum ssp. bulbiferum, a small species that occurs in much of Europe, and where Asia and Africa meet with Europe. I have only observed it surrounding one grave, where it is well established, although it probably grows elsewhere in the cemetery. Although it is no doubt present in old gardens, I have not seen this beautiful species growing before, and I was impressed by its comparatively contained nature (in contrast to other Allium spp., like onion weed, Allium triquetrum).

As mentioned previously, Ixia polystachya (an upright species occurring in many different shades of white, pink and mauve) is widespread throughout much of the older parts of the cemetery. This South African species grows in a range of habitats from the coast to the mountains in the Southwestern Cape. Also common throughout much of the old cemetery areas, although on a different tier, is a small purple-flowered species, Babiana angustifolia, which is a reasonably common bulb within older gardens in Auckland. In South Africa, this grows in damp habitats of renosterveld2, while at Waikumete it is frequently found near the edges of tracks, graves and roads (where sufficient light is available).

Other desirable bulb species that are to be found in Waikumete’s wildflower meadows include Ixia maculata, Sparaxis spp., Freesia refracta, a Romulea sp., Tritonia lineata, Scilla peruviana and a dwarf daffodil, Narcissus bulbocodium (which is pictured below). In addition to these, ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) contribute significantly to the character of the area.

Unfortunately, some of the bulbous species that were previously planted at Waikumete are undesirable, having established themselves as noisome weeds here and elsewhere (including Aristea ecklonii and certain Watsonia spp.). Controlling the presence of these is a necessary aspect of maintaining the future of Waikumete’s wildflowers. At present, they do not play a significant role in large tracts of the most interesting areas.

Exotic species of the kinds described above are not the only significant wildflowers present at Waikumete. There is a high number of native orchids (most notably from the genera, Corybas, Caladenia and Thelymitra) that grow naturally amongst native scrub within the cemetery’s boundaries, many of which are rare or threatened. In addition to these, Waikumete is also home to two rare native grasses, Dichelachne inaequiglumis and Paspalum orbiculare, an uncommon liane, Calystegia marginata, and the nationally endangered herb, Picris burbidgiae.

Quite aside from specific plants, certain areas of Waikumete Cemetery also contain locally significant ecologies (most importantly, scrub/gumland ecologies). Notable amongst these is the presence of considerable numbers of Dracophyllum sinclairii. In comparison to some of the forested areas protected within the Waitakeres and elsewhere within the region, Auckland does not have many of these open ecologies left. However, the incursion of weeds, and plans for significant areas of grave sites, pose threats to these vestiges of Auckland’s past.

The diversity of both exotic and native species found within Waikumete Cemetery is an example of the way in which some seemingly unlikely places can act as repositories for our natural and horticultural heritage. And as spring rolls around each year, we are reminded of this in a spectacular manner – as one of Auckland’s most beautiful flowering displays starts up once again.


  1. From ‘Wild Plants in Auckland’ (Esler, A. 2004. Auckland : Auckland University Press)
  2. This translates, intriguingly, as ‘rhinoceros field’; a name that may have been derived from a high incidence of rhinoceros within this vegetation type (when they were still to be found in the Cape), or indirectly from the name of a shrub that is one of its dominant components, renosterbos (rhinoceros bush).
  3. I’ve always wondered about this name. It is apparently derived from the Afrikaans word ‘tjienkerientjee’, which refers to a sound that the stems on this bulb make when rubbed together.