Jovellana sinclairii is one of the more surprising members of the New Zealand flora. With its relatively large heads of white bell-shaped flowers and its pale green, soft foliage, it seems like the kind of plant that should be encountered within an English or American woodland garden (rather than forests in the eastern North Island).
Its relatives from the predominantly South American genus, Calceolaria1, have long been valued as garden plants, primarily for their extremely vibrant flowers. As well as bright colours, Calceolaria flowers exhibit distinctive patterns of speckling, a feature that is also strongly marked in Jovellana. The white bell-shaped flowers of both our New Zealand species (of which the flowers of J. repens are shown below) are adorned by attractive purple spots that confer an added sense of depth to the flowers.
The distribution of the family is intriguing, as it is only present in South America and New Zealand – a link that Thomas Cheeseman commented upon in his work, ‘Illustrations of the New Zealand Flora’ (in addition to noting the similarly disjunct occurrence of Fuchsia – which mostly occurs in Central and South America, with 3 species in NZ and one species in Tahiti). The genus Jovellana contains a handful of species, of which two are native to New Zealand; the larger (and more gardenworthy) J. sinclairii, and a smaller creeping species, J. repens (pictured above and below).
Within our plant profile on Scandia rosifolia, I have previously stated my fondness for plants that circumvent people’s perceptions of New Zealand’s native flora. They are important reminders that New Zealand contains a very wide diversity of landscapes and plants, many of which do not conform to notions of that which is ‘native’.
Quite apart from the generous displays of white bell-shaped flowers, even the light olive-green, felt-like foliage of J. sinclairii doesn’t quite fit with stereotypical imagery of our forest plants. The overall appearance of its leaves gives this species a lightness that makes it a welcome presence in the shaded, damp sites that it prefers to occupy.
Within the garden, Jovellana sinclairii thrives best in conditions similar to the streamsides and seepages in which it often occurs within nature – namely shelter, partial shade and a reasonably moist soil. That said, it is quite tolerant of dry periods within cultivation; although it tends to become overly lax (and subsequently unkempt) under such constraints. Even within conditions of adequate moisture, J. sinclairii requires some pruning to prevent plants becoming too loose. This is ideally carried out at times of active growth (such as spring) when older, long stems may be trimmed to ground level – leaving the most recent stems to once again form a well-shaped plant.
Jovellana sinclairii is naturally confined to the east and centre of the North Island, from Hicks Bay south to the Ruahine ranges. It is best suited to growing in milder parts of the country, but will grow in southern parts of New Zealand, if given shelter2. It flowers from late spring, over the full duration of the summer.
The species name, ‘sinclairii‘, refers to Dr Andrew Sinclair, an early botanist who sent a large number of plant collections to Kew Gardens in the middle of the nineteenth century – thereby assisting Joseph Dalton Hooker (then Director of Kew) in preparing the first authoritative account of the New Zealand flora. Sinclair ‘discovered’ this plant (to Western science) in 1842, in the vicinity of East Cape.