I will always associate Celmisias with Muriel Fisher, who once recounted her lifelong love of this beautiful genus to me, in the entertaining manner with which she talked of our native plants. It is easy to understand the passion that our mountain daisies stir within botanists and horticulturists, for they rank among the most spectacular of our native flowers.
There is a purity and perfection to the white-and-yellow flowerheads of Celmisia, whilst the rosettes of silver foliage that are characteristic of several species give them a commanding presence when not in flower. It is suitable here to reflect upon the predominance of white or cream (and to a lesser degree, yellow) flowers within the New Zealand flora, a phenomenon that has been a subject of interest to many botanists.
This is considered to be connected to the nature of our native pollinating insects (including flies, moths and short-tongued bees), which are mostly unspecialised (therefore, negating the impetus for development of a variety of colour, or complex patterns, in native flowers). The large predacious hoverfly (Melangyna novaezelandiae) photographed below is a common native species, which is an important pollinator of a wide range of native alpine plants.
As may be gathered by the common name, mountain daisies, Celmisia spp. are chiefly found within montane to alpine areas. However, as is the case with many montane plants, certain species are also native to coastal habitats (primarily in southern areas of the country). They are almost absent from Auckland north, with a few outlier populations of two species (C. major var. major and Celmisia graminifolia) on rocky outcrops by the coast.
Tikumu, as various species of Celmisia are collectively known in te reo Māori, were traditionally used in the preparation of garments – including leggings (called ‘taupa’) that played a role in protecting one’s legs whilst walking. There is a very small number of extant examples (and imagery) of rain capes and cloaks (kakahu)1, made from tikumu, attached to a flax backing.
The genus is named after Celmis, a figure from Greek mythology who was associated with the working of metals, and was also notable as a friend of Zeus (in the latter’s youth). There are almost 70 species of Celmisia, most of which are confined to New Zealand. The remaining species are native to Australia.
As the white blossoms of the Mt Cook Lily (Ranunculus lyallii) fade in December, Celmisia semicordata ssp. semicordata takes up the baton; adorning the grasslands and scrub of the Southern Alps with their spectacular flowers through into January. This species, which is one of the largest of our mountain daisies, is a notable feature of the famous Hooker Valley walk, where the photos shown within this species profile were taken.
C. semicordata ssp. semicordata is an exception amongst the plant profiles within this website, as it is a species that I have not grown. However, we have included it herein, as it is one of our most remarkable native plants, and one that we will endeavour to cultivate in the future.
Tikumu has a reputation for being fickle in cultivation, a fact that is to be expected in a subalpine species that is accustomed to continual air movement and cool root conditions. It is therefore surprising that this species (as well as other members of the subgenus Pelliculatae2) is resilient to both burning and stock grazing, and can form a major component of degraded grasslands in the South Island. As a result, these larger mountain daisy species sometimes form enormous swathes of white flowers within high country pasture, clothing entire hillsides and valleys.
Although it is generally found in open positions within nature, a semi-shaded position is recommended by several authors for garden culture – presumably to provide comparatively equable conditions, as fluctuations in site conditions encourage the proliferation of soil fungi that can cause the abrupt death of this and other Celmisias.
This species is completely unsuited to growing in warmer, more humid parts of New Zealand (where, admittedly, only a very limited range of Celmisia spp. may be attempted). Whilst preparing for the Chelsea Flower Show, I was interested to find out that Celmisias, including this species, are grown well by several growers and gardeners in Northern Ireland, where the stability of the climatic conditions is favourable to their cultivation.
Despite the uncertainties often associated with growing this species, it is worth attempting in South Island gardens – as one of our most spectacular native flowers. For cultivation, the closely-related Celmisia monroi should also be considered seriously, as it is less vulnerable to sudden collapse – coming as it does from a wide range of usually drier habitats3.