There are certain plants that defy common perceptions of what New Zealand natives look like. S. rosifolia is one such plant. It has an appearance more akin to a traditional garden perennial than general notions of our native plants; especially when in bloom, at which time it bears large quantities of white flower heads that have a great resemblance to an old-fashioned garden favourite, Queen Anne’s Lace (Ammi majus). The only other member of the genus, S. geniculata, delivers a similar aesthetic, albeit on a much smaller scale, when its miniature flowers adorn the canopy of shrubs within dry ecologies in the southern half of the country.
Scandia is, in fact, relatively closely related to Queen Anne’s Lace and other members of the widespread carrot family, Apiaceae. Members of the carrot family, which are commonly referred to as umbellifers (based on the shape of their flower heads), are common inhabitants of wastelands and roadsides throughout the world. They lend an air of lightness and informality to garden spaces, and for me they bring to mind romantic associations of English country lanes.
The Dutch plantsman, Piet Oudolf, is a notable fan of this group of plants, which he frequently utilises within his design work. In addition to Scandia, New Zealand contains several other genera from the carrot family, the most horticulturally significant being Anisotome and Aciphylla. This genus of two scrambling shrubs is confined to New Zealand.
Although both species are worthy of cultivation, Scandia rosifolia has significantly more potential for widespread appeal as a garden plant (whether in plantings that are solely native, or those in which native and exotic species are integrated).
In horticultural literature, plants are often damned with faint praise, by referring to them as ‘likely to appeal to collectors’. With regard to this, it is interesting to track the path that some unusual or little-known species take from being considered ‘collector’s items’, to valued garden plants. Sometimes, this is down to evolution in people’s appreciation of plants (such as the increasing popularity of divaricates), and sometimes it can be attributed to increased understanding of how to use plants to best effect in the garden.
Scandia geniculata is one example of a species that may become better known on account of both of these factors. With its small leaves, compact umbels of white flowers and scrambling habit, this may seem an unlikely candidate for the garden. However, when one views this plant in certain situations within the wild, its garden potential becomes immediately apparent.
The first time that I came across S. geniculata was at the remarkable windbeaten shrubland that lies behind the beach at Birdlings Flat, on Banks Peninsula. Based on descriptions and illustrations within books, I had always felt that this would be a botanically interesting species, but one whose garden appeal would be quite limited (especially in comparison with its relative, Scandia rosifolia). Upon seeing the masses of flowers that adorned the low shrubby hummocks of this powerful landscape, I realised that I had been completely wrong.
The problem with my prior prejudice towards this plant is that I had made incorrect assumptions about how it would grow in association with other plants. At Birdlings Flat, it bedecks the outer canopy of the undulating, sculpted forms of the shrubs that define the character of this habitat (including Coprosma propinqua and Corokia cotoneaster). People who are unaware of its identity might assume that the shrubs that support Scandia geniculata have smothered themselves with white flowers.
Therein lies the lesson; if S. geniculata is employed in a similar manner to such natural growth patterns, it can be a profoundly beautiful garden plant. Divaricates make ideal frames, as their growth structures allow for densely-packed ‘fields’ of S. geniculata‘s pretty white umbels. Other applications that have been suggested for using Scandia geniculata in the garden1 are its use within hanging baskets or as a groundcover. As an aside, one interesting quality of the species is that both its foliage and fruits taste mildly of aniseed2.
In botanical terms, S. geniculata is highly unusual – as a climbing member of the carrot family, Apiaceae. Indeed, the climbing/scrambling habit is a major factor in the separation of the two species of Scandia into their own genus (the name is derived from the Latin, scandere, which means ‘to climb’3). Its specific epithet, ‘geniculata‘ is derived from the Latin word for ‘jointed’, no doubt referring to the manner by which its climbing stems are arranged. It occurs naturally in shrubland and forest margins, from the Wellington region south to Otago.
Over the summer months, this beautiful sprawling groundcover covers its bright green foliage with sprays of delicate white flowers. S. rosifolia is a good example of the difference between the flowering performance of plants within the wild and those grown in gardens. As an inhabitant of cliffs, banks and rocky sites, it is often subjected to tough conditions in nature, and as a result can be smaller in stature, with decreased flowering impact.
However, when grown under good garden conditions, it forms more attractive specimens, bearing denser foliage and significantly larger flowers. It is, as yet, not well-known in gardens, although it deserves to be much more widely grown (especially within native plantings or mixed perennial gardens).
It is often compared with the commonly grown herb, angelica (Angelica archangelica); an appropriate comparison, as the foliage and habit of both species is relatively similar, although the leaves of S. rosifolia exhibit a much lighter green colour than angelica4. Two distinct forms of this species are considered to exist5; one of which occurs in coastal areas, with the other occurring primarily on limestone cliffs.
Scandia rosifolia is considered to be an ‘At Risk’ species, and is currently classified as ‘Declining’ in the wild. One of the primary threats is that it is quite a palatable species, meaning that remaining populations endure in locations that browsing animals find difficult to access, such as cliffs. The impact of browsing animals is a common threat to native species, and leads to not only the disappearance of established plants, but (perhaps more importantly) a lack of ‘recruitment’ of young plants, to replenish the population. S. rosifolia is found from the Three Kings Islands down to the lower North Island.
Peculiarly, Scandia rosifolia was first collected in 1769 (by Banks and Solander, at several coastal sites) on Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand, but then escaped the attention of botanists for another 75 years6. It was then collected by William Colenso and Dr. Andrew Sinclair, and subsequently described and named by Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (then director of Kew Gardens). Because Solander’s illustration and name were never published, it is officially known by the species name that Hooker bestowed upon it7.