"Vikram, get some
cutaways of this miracle."

November 14, 2014

Recently, I spent six days driving through much of Otago and Southland with David Straight, as part of research for an upcoming book project. Our focus was on aspects of our vernacular (or everyday) landscapes, although I had an additional purpose for the trip (sourcing photographs and researching for planting guides on our southernmost regions).

When we are walking through landscapes, it is usually fairly easy to locate David, on account of the bright red beanie that customarily sits atop his head – such as at the South Island’s southernmost tip, Slope Point, where his beanie was temporarily the last terrestrial reference point before the expanse of the Southern Ocean.

One of the most interesting vernacular landscape forms that we went to see was the use of schist for fence posts in the Maniototo – where a lack of trees drove this inventive (and impressive) adaptation of an abundant local material for fencing (as shown below, left). Altogether more unexpected was a concrete trough from the Ida Valley, which is part of an irrigation canal system that had its origins several decades ago (below right). This trough receives water that has been piped beneath the street from the canal, and the water reappears within the trough to continue on its path.

One of the Otago plants that I was eager to see in the wild is a cliff-dwelling shrub called Helichrysum selago var. tumidum (pictured below), found only on Otago Peninsula. The day that I visited Sandymount to see this species illustrated perfectly what drives the growth habit and leaf form of this shrub; for powerful winds whipped off the Southern Ocean (winds that pressed so forcefully at my back that I couldn’t have stopped walking on my way back to the car if I had tried).

The exposed conditions at Sandymount also cause interesting forms to arise in the small-leaved shrub species that take up their position on the front line. I particularly enjoyed the big-nosed Coprosma propinqua that is shown on the right, below.

After looking through Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula, we moved on in the directions of the Catlins. I have long been keen to visit Nugget Point (at the northern end of the Catlins), as my great-great-grandfather was a lighthouse keeper there (as well as at many other lighthouses in the South Island). In addition, the shrubland and rocky ground around Nugget Point hold many interesting plants, including Olearia fragrantissima (pictured below, in flower), Pseudopanax ferox, Anisotome lyallii and Celmisia lindsayi (which is shown above, left).

One of our many forms of Melicytus alpinus clings to steep ground on Nugget Point, where it is shorn to a low height by the coastal winds. This form has been brought into cultivation in recent years, wherein it exhibits a more upright growth habit (at least in sheltered conditions) and a distinctly dark tinge to the leaves.

Nugget Point receives its name for the ‘Nuggets’ that sit outside the headland that bears the lighthouse. Large numbers of seabirds reside on these inaccessible outcrops, and their presence is indicated in the nature of vegetation on the headland, where certain nutrition-dependent species thrive in the fertile conditions that seabirds create.

One of these species is Chenopodium (syn. Einadia) allanii, a soft-stemmed groundcover that trails from rocky ground beneath larger shrubs and in the open. This drought-tolerant herb (which can be seen in the photograph below) has considerable potential for cultivation (particularly for the difficult task of finding groundcovers for dry conditions), but is almost unknown in the landscape industry. Another native herb which is better known to horticulturists, Linum monogynum, was almost ready to display its beautiful white flowers at the time of our visit.

Further down the coastline, Anisotome lyallii, was in flower at Curio Bay. This member of the carrot family has been grown for a long time by gardeners interested in our native flora (especially in the south), and it was therefore gratifying to see it in its natural habitat – growing on cliffs with Asplenium obtusatum at the edge of the Southern Ocean.

The most exciting (and rare) plant that I wished to see on our journey was the critically-endangered herb, Gunnera hamiltonii (shown below), which is only found in a handful of populations. This bronzish-purple leaved groundcover grows naturally within sand dunes, mostly on Stewart Island, with just one natural population left on the mainland.

It spreads through the dunes in an intriguing manner, whereby stolons (the underground stems) creep outwards and the clumps of new foliage that arise from the stolons emerge from the ground like bronze duck’s footprints in the sand. Gunnera hamiltonii grew in the company of pingao (as shown below, left), whilst a southern species of sand daphne, Pimelea lyallii (below right), was in full flower at the time.

Large greyish-green mats of Pimelea lyallii push their stems through the surface of the back dunes, and in early summer it flowers profusely (providing sustenance for members of a genus of native moths, Notoreas, that is closely associated with our coastal species of Pimelea).

Whilst in Southland, I was very keen to see 2 plants that are common in cultivation yet rare in the wild, Libertia peregrinans and Euphorbia glauca (for both of them are more readily-found in this region than other parts of New Zealand). Libertia peregrinans (pictured below) has become a very popular landscape plant, due to its striking orange, upright leaves and white iris-like flowers (it is indeed a member of the iris family). As I was walking through the dunes near Gunnera hamiltonii, I had the great fortune of seeing this plant for the first time in the wild.

On our way up western Southland, we stopped at Cosy Nook, a tiny collection of cribs nestled into the hillside by the boulder beach. Dense shrubs of Hebe elliptica grow amongst the beautiful granite boulders that form the coastal fringe at Cosy Nook (as shown below).

As we walked along the coastal turf at Cosy Nook, we came across the peculiar scene pictured below – in which someone has come here and taken plugs of a native coastal groundcover, Leptinella dioica, presumably for their garden or as a turf substitute (possibly on a bowling green). Although this kind of insensitive removal of native plants from the wild should never be recommended, the shadowy voids left by these plugs formed a dynamic composition (albeit entirely by accident).

On our northward march up the western Southland coast (which is a surprisingly denuded landscape in terms of native vegetation), I managed to locate a small population of Euphorbia glauca, which was the first time that I have seen this species in the wild. This group of plants endures within a very small area of a beach terrace that is dominated by marram, an exotic species that unfortunately seems to be having a detrimental effect on the Euphorbia glauca.