Skullcaps and saltbush

March 21, 2015

Within the open understorey of forest near Nelson, one of our rarest plants, Scutellaria novae-zelandiae, decorates the ground with its delicate white flowers. We have planted this beautiful herb in gardens before, and therefore I was eager to see it in the wild whilst working within close range of the majority of the remaining wild populations.

S. novae-zelandiae generally finds its opportunities within sparsely vegetated understorey, such as the habitat pictured below, as it can easily be outcompeted by other groundcover plants. In this area, the adjacent river periodically plays a role in maintaining such conditions, as flooding occasionally rips through the forest on either side of the river.

The presence of the New Zealand skullcap within the small area of the country (Nelson and Marborough) in which it occurs is intriguing, as there are no other members of this large genus within New Zealand. It is a beautiful little detail for woodland gardens, a situation in which we will be planting several specimens in an upcoming Nelson project. Whilst following the river by which we encountered S. novae-zelandiae, we took a detour further uphill to look at a small population of a threatened native grass, Anemanthele lessoniana (below, right, on the edge of bush).

This tussock, commonly known as gossamer grass, is a very popular garden plant in New Zealand and abroad, due to the gossamer-like flowerheads that it produces over much of summer, and the red and orange tints that the foliage assumes at certain times of year. Interestingly, this form of A. lessoniana has a quite distinct appearance from the normally available commercial form of the species – with its stiffer, more upright growth form and greener hue.

In many places along the track, the beautiful Hebe stenophylla was in bloom at the time of our visit. This species occurs in a wide range of habitats in the Nelson region (and elsewhere in the country), and is one of our finest hebes for cultivation. Significant quantities of it are grown in Nelson by Tim Le Gros (of Titoki Nursery), a local plantsman who has amassed a considerable knowledge of this region’s special plants (and who was my guide to visit the sites shown herein).

On a separate occasion, I was fortunate to be able to see another critically endangered species that we have used in gardens, Atriplex cinerea, in the wild with Tim. Although common in Australia, it is only represented by a small number of plants in New Zealand, where it is considered to have arrived naturally (on the currents that flow across the Tasman).

The silver leaves of A. cinerea (which is commonly known as grey saltbush in Australia) are a particularly striking sight along the shoreline near Mapua, where we saw this plant. Although a small number of plants remain on islets of the Waimea Inlet, this plant is the last remaining naturally-occurring specimen on the mainland.