It’s useful to remind ourselves that botanical names are not just scientific gobbledygook, but have real meanings behind them (usually derived from Latin or Greek). These names are sometimes very beautiful, as in the case of Helichrysum – which means “sun gold” (in Greek). This description does not apply strongly to the New Zealand members of the genus, but rather to Mediterranean species (that were, for obvious reasons, the first to be named). Most of our nine species do not bear conspicuously golden flowers, and are more likely to provoke interest on the basis of the remarkable foliage and growth forms that they exhibit.
Before discussing this genus further, it makes sense to discuss a botanical term that is of particular relevance to Helichrysum. ‘Appressed’ is a word that can be used to describe leaves, buds or other parts of a plant. It simply means ‘to lie flat against something’; and as the photograph below on the left (of Helichrysum intermedium) shows, this character is strongly demonstrated in the way that several of our native Helichrysum hold their leaves (that is, flat against the stem and other leaves).
This lends such species a distinctive appearance, similar to the stems of whip-cord Hebes or certain conifers (these might also be compared with coral, especially due to their branching structure). In its most extreme manifestation, this adaptation gives two extraordinary native species (Helichrysum depressum and H. dimorphum) the semblance of a mass of dead stalks.
Due to their ability to grow in difficult sites, such as cliff faces, our native species of Helichrysum are useful drought-tolerant plants for gardeners and landscapers from cold, dry regions of New Zealand. Northern gardeners will primarily be familiar with the genus via a couple of South African species that are often seen in older gardens (Helichrysum petiolare and H. argyrophyllum). Helichrysum is a large genus of several hundred species, that occurs in many parts of the planet (with a heavy concentration of species in southern Africa).
Current botanical thinking indicates that our New Zealand species of Helichrysum may not in fact belong to the genus. However, it may take a while for their taxonomy to be resolved; and until that point, they will be known by their current names.
This variable shrub occurs throughout the North and South Islands, especially in dry forest edge and scrub habitats. Although it is much more contained in its growth, its habit can be compared with the South African species, H. petiolare – insofar as it is characterised by arching stems that form a dense, tumbling mass. In contrast with H. petiolare, the niniao (which is the only Helichrysum to grow naturally in the north of New Zealand) will not colonise a significant area as soon as you turn your back.
It is markedly different from its New Zealand relatives, in that it has considerably larger leaves that are not appressed to the stems. H. lanceolatum is often associated with sloping ground, where it frequently adopts a slightly weeping form. Its main claim for inclusion within the garden lies in the range of subtle colours that are exhibited in its stems and leaves – from russet browns, pale greens and buff colours, to the light silver-grey on the back side of the leaves.
Although subtle, the cream flowerheads that appear in summer also add to niniao’s appeal. It is worth noting here that southern forms that I have observed have a substantially paler foliage (with yellowish tinges) than the specimen shown in the photograph above and below. This equates with the distinction that is made between certain forms of the species within Eagle’s Trees and Shrubs of New Zealand1, with the form shown above conforming with the broad-leaved form from the far north of the country.
It responds best to a well-drained situation with gardens, and (in my experience) seems to prefer clay banks in the northern habitats within which I have predominantly observed it – sites that I associate with low fertility. Although it can grow to over 2m tall, niniao most commonly attains a height of between 1.2 and 1.5m, as the branches are inclined to naturally arch over.