May 1, 2016

Since starting gardening in Auckland at the age of 13, I have consistently learned that the evocative images that one views in books or magazine articles about plantings in Northern Europe or North America need to be taken with a grain of salt, due to the differences between those places and our humid climate. As with any place, the best means of accumulating knowledge is to observe which plants have thrived here in the long term, as well as trialling species to determine their suitability for the north of New Zealand.

Bearded irises are an excellent example of the value of this, due to the fact that a large number of the varieties that one can contemplate further south in the country do not perform well in our mild conditions. One reason is the absence of an element that is a normal check or stimulus in the life cycle of many plants, such as very cold winters or arid conditions. However, there are a range of bearded iris varieties that perform well for us (normally the more robust varieties), such as the examples pictured here from the Nancy Steen Garden at the Parnell Rose Gardens.

Around 15 years ago, I found proof in a different form, via the sale of several beautiful varieties of bearded irises at CCS (near Royal Oak), where propagation of reliable, gardenworthy plants was part of a training programme for enabling people with disabilities. These bearded irises have subsequently adorned my parents’ garden in the intervening years, as well as being shared with others.

Returning to the subject of the Nancy Steen Garden, there are relatively few public gardens where an equivalent range of interesting and reliable perennials are grown. As such, it is a fine place for anyone wishing to acquire knowledge of suitable flowers for Auckland, such as Aquilegia chrysantha (pictured below), or to observe the non-floral detail of Rosa omeiensis ssp. pteracantha‘s peculiar bright red winged thorns (above, right).

There are several varieties of Geum that grow well in Auckland, including an interesting form with greenish flowers, called Geum rivale ‘Album’, that I have only seen growing at the Nancy Steen Garden. This differs significantly from the more commonly-seen, pink-flowered Geum rivale, which is a reliable, long-lived compact variety.

The final image below is of a flower that has grown in the garden of my parents since before I was born. Like the springtime appearance of freesias, primroses are a flower that I associate with my childhood, and yet another example of the collective pool of evidence that exists within Auckland’s gardens (for informing us of how we should approach plantings within our own distinctive climate).

It is important to recognise that if we do not value the inherited knowledge of growing plants that have made it through generations (as opposed to recently-bred, commercial varieties that may be pushed through retail outlets), we can lose that material (and the knowledge associated with it).

This was foremost in my mind last week, when I rescued several bulbs of a particularly elegant, red-flowered lily that an old lady grew for decades (along her front fence) in the suburb where I spent my childhood. The diggers had already rolled in, bowled the house and cleared the property. From amidst the rubble adjoining the street, a number of bulbs that would otherwise have been destroyed (and which I had never seen growing elsewhere in Auckland) can now continue to contribute towards the beauty of the city’s green spaces.