The Far North

November 22, 2015

Regardless of the quality of knowledge provided by nurseries or books, there is only so much one can learn about plants without actually seeing them in the wild. For this reason, I often make trips to various parts of the country to view native plants and ecologies, whether to experience plants that we regularly use within Auckland, or for more specific research regarding projects in other parts of the country.

One species that frequently finds a place in our planting designs is Pittosporum pimeleoides, a compact shrub from Northland that inhabits a range of envrionments, including kauri forests and coastal scrub. This fine-leaved species takes on a variety of forms, from a columnar variant that we most commonly specify (with a distinctly fluffy appearance) to low, dome-shaped forms with wider leaves and a more open habit (such as the plant shown above, growing on a coastal outcrop on Whangaroa Harbour).

In addition to the interest of the plants that grow on this outcrop, native bees find a home on its mudstone banks (as pictured above), which are pockmarked by entry holes to the tunnels in which these little creatures live.

On the northern side of the harbour, we walked through to the familiar local landmark of Dukes Nose, on a large track that contains a large diversity of native plants, including a beautiful large shrub called Pseudopanax gilliesii (pictured above, in seedling form), which is restricted to this area and nearby Puketi Forest. P. gilliesii is distinguished from the somewhat similar P. lessonii (also a native of northern New Zealand) by its compact growth habit and the appearance of the leaves.

Almost unknown in cultivation, Pseudopanax gilliesii is a particularly fine garden plant that we specify on a regular basis, and it was this species that I was most keen on seeing during our journey. Due to its tendency to grow on cliffs and dry ridgelines (as evidenced by the specimen shown above, in the centre of the picture below a kowhai), it is well suited to the inhospitable conditions associated with urban plantings – such as at City Works Depot in the centre of Auckland, where we have planted a number of P. gilliesii.

Whangaroa Harbour’s spectacular cliffs are also home to a distinctive, low-growing shrub with bright green leaves, Coprosma aff. neglecta – which is one of a group of allied forms that occupy exposed habitats around Northland’s coastal margins, including North Cape and Maunganui Bluff. The Whangaroa variant appears to have a slightly more upright, tiered growth habit than other forms that I have either seen in the wild or cultivated.

Further north, we visited an interesting area of wind-shorn coastal vegetation on the northern side of Henderson Bay, which contains another distinctive Coprosma that we have grown extensively within gardens – simply sold under the name of Coprosma ‘Henderson Bay’ (pictured below and above left, amidst a low canopy of manuka, a narrow-leaved species of ‘kanuka’ and Pseudopanax lessonii). Upon seeing this plant within its natural growing station, its potential as a plant for native gardens becomes immediately apparent, as it provides a fine-leaved, creeping groundcover with a far superior appearance to many of the regrettable Coprosma varieties that are commonly sold.

The aforementioned ‘kanuka’ (Kunzea linearis), which was in flower at the time (above right), is a particularly refined species that is mostly associated with the Far North. The reason for the inverted commas around the name is that ‘kanuka’ is not a name traditionally applied by Māori to our various species of Kunzea, and K. linearis is indeed known as rawiri manuka (as noted by Peter de Lange in his comprehensive work on the genus).

Up at Te Paki, we walked in the forest remnants where Metrosideros bartlettii clings to an increasingly tenuous existence. The decline of this critically-endangered species is a matter of national interest that needs to be more widely known, and one in which complacency can not be allowed to play any part. Whilst walking on one of the tracks in this area, I noticed large amounts of a groundcover that we often use, Leptostigma setulosum, growing in the most disturbed spots (as pictured below, left).

As we were so close to Cape Reinga, it made sense to make the very short drive there, primarily to have another look at the wind-sculpted shrublands (shown above, right) that occur on the most exposed hillsides leading out to the famous lighthouse. I had already observed these plant communities at the beginning of this year (on one of the final research trips for the book, ‘Vernacular’), when I was impressed by the beautiful mosaics formed by a range of species, including the creeping form of Corokia cotoneaster that is associated with this part of the country.