Monday, April 9, 2018

Otari Native Plant Botanical Garden and Wilton Bush, Wellington, New Zealand

A fine specimen of Cordyline, the Cabbage Tree
 I flew up to Wellington for a week to get away from my project at Camp Glenorchy after 5 months with barely any time off.  I wanted to have an urban experience to contrast living in a small town at the end of a vast spectacular wilderness on the South Island.  While working at the camp I met a couple who lived in London for 20 years.  James Fraser is a horticulturalist and garden designer who specializes in New Zealand native plants and thier use in British gardens.  Now living in Wellington with his wife Biddy, an accomplished artist, they were generous to take me up to the Wellington Botanical Gardens.  A few days later they suggested I visit the Wilton Bush and Otari Native Plant Botanical Garden, five kilometers from the city center in lush hill country to the north.  I caught the #14 Wilton Bus and the driver told me where to get off.  What I experienced that afternoon is a botanical garden of the highest rank.

The bus dropped me off around the corner and I crossed the road and entered a beautifully designed parking area.  This in itself is a rare thing in the world.  Natural looking arrangements of native stone and rustic stone walls deliniate the carpark and timber bicycle racks.  A finely carved Maori Waharoa Gate frames the entry that symbolizes passage in to another realm intrinsically connected to the natural world.

Waharoa Gate at the entrance to the gardens
The native plant gardens landscape covers 5 hectares adjacent to 95 hectares of restored native forest called Wilton's Bush.  The bush was named after a farmer named Lot Wilson, who set the land aside to preserve its wild state in 1860, while all of the surrounding lands were being logged or cleared for pasture.   Its a glimpse of what was before the arrival of settlers.

The lush forests of Wilton's Bush Forest Reserve

To the right after entering the gardens is the Alpine Rock Garden, which features plants found at high elevations.  The paths are surfaced with finely crushed gravel with well composed layouts of native Greywacke stone framing the edges.  These are paths that beckon you to make your way around unseen bends using design devices that allude to those found in Nature.  Steps made from natural stone give the appearance of walking in a condensed natural landscape.

Entrance to the Alpine Garden
A water garden of connecting pools winds though boulders and Veronicas, Tussock grasses, Astelias, and Schleranthus in nicely composed plantings.  There is an art to arranging plants in a way that emulates Nature that requires great skill.  More often than not, gardeners and landscapers tend to plant in evenly spaced rows for the simplicity of installation and lack of imagination.

Pools in the Alpine Garden
The path leads in to the wild bush between a number of Kauri Trees, New Zealand giants that are native to the more northern parts of the North island.  Because of their excellent timber quality, Kauri forests were heavily logged and very few ancient trees exist today.

Kauri trees edge the path leading in to the Wilton Bush
A vine wrapped Kauri trunk
From the single story Te Marai o Tane Information center, a 75 meter long bridge called the Canopy Walkway crosses 18 meters above a deep ravine revealing spectacular views in to the forest canopy.  It is something of a surprise to come out suddenly over this deep canyon filled with lush bush growth and behold it from such a lofty vantage point.

The Canopy Walk
The forest includes a mixture of conifers in the Podocarpus family.  These include Rimu, Matai, Miro, and Totaras.  Tree ferns growing near the bottom of the ravine are particularly magnificent when seen from above.

A view of a mixture of Podocarp trees from the Canopy Walkway
View of Tree Ferns from the Canopy Walkway
Meryta (Puka) trees have beautiful large glossy leaves.  Single stalked when young, they branch out and form canopies after they begin blooming.  They are native to the Poor Knight's Islands, to the north of Northland on the north end of the North Island.  I just had to write that sentence...;-)

A young Meryta sinclairii (Puka)
Knightia excelsa, the Rewarewa Tree has long velvety red flowers in Spring that are a source of nectar for Tui's, which have a distinctive and very diverse song.  Most New Zealand native plants have small flowers that are usually white, because there are few native butterflies that would be attracted to colorful flowers.  Most Kiwi plants are pollenated by different types of flies, blow flies, hoverflies, and drone flies, as well as weevils, moths,  and 30 species of native bees.  Plants that are pollenated by birds tend to have larger flowers bearing lots of nectar, and are frequently red in color like those found on Rewarewa and Rata trees (Metrodideros).

Knightia excelsa (Rewarewa, NZ Honeysuckle)

Metrosideros umbellale (Southern Rata) in bloom on the last day of 2017 at Milford Sound
At the end of the canopy walk you pass through another carved Waharoa Gate.  At the center of the gate is the face of Tane Mahuta, the guardian of the forest and all living things within it, with Paua shell eyes.  The left side represents the insects of the forest, and on the right, the birds.  The stippled pattern represents the seeds of all the plants growing here.  Passing through the "Waharoa, you symbolically give your Mana, or power to Tane Mahuta as a sign of respect for all forests.  Nature is the Tuakana, or elder of man, and by giving your respects to the forest you are granted passage through the forest.  By entering through the gateway you enter in to another time, space, and realm that is spiritual, energizing and safe from the outside world."

Waharoa Gate at the end of the Canopy Walk
Entering the main part of the gardens, it opens up to a nicely proportioned rectangular lawn surrounded by gravel paths.  The lawn is named after the botanist Leonard Cockayne ( who established the gardens in 1927.  Considered New Zealand's greatest botanist, he and his wife Maude are buried nearby.  He began what is today a collection that numbers around 1,200 native species, including some hybrids and cultivars.  Many of the plants are threatened in their natural habitat, so the garden is a kind of biological bank for preserving the amazing biodiversity that is found in New Zealand.  The results are wonderful.

The Cockayne Lawn and Brockie Rock Garden

The Cockayne Lawn with the Brockie Rock Garden on the left
To the right of the lawn is a bed of plants useful in ornamental gardens, and on the left is the Brockie Rock Garden.  Its named for Walter Boa Brokie, a noted botanist who worked extensively on the spectacular Christchurch Botanical Gardens on the South Island.  He became curator of the Otari garden in 1947 and laid out the collection for the rock garden and many of the tree and shrub plantings during his tenure, expanding on Cockayne's vision.

The beautiful Brockie Rock Garden

A section of the Brockie Rock Garden
Foreground: Geranium travesii (Chatham Island Geranium), and Celmisia (Rock Daisy) in the Brockie Rock Garden
The Brockie Rock Garden, with Hebe, Parahebe, and Euphorbia glauca

The Brockie Rock Garden with flaming orange Carex

Containers on the deck of the Leonard Cockayne Center planted with Astelias
To one side of the Leonard Cockayne Center is a small nursery where plants in the collection are propagated for future plantings and species conservation.  It was closed at the time I was there and I was unable to speak to any staff about the gardens.  Nearly all of the 1,200 species of plants in the garden were grown from seed or cuttings from their natural habitat.  Some threatened plants are propogated for reintroduction to areas where they have been lost.

A sign for the nursery, explaining methods of propagation

Spiny Aciphylla aurea grows in high altitude landscapes

At the end of the lawn, a stone terrace overlooks a lower graveled garden planted with plants found in rain shadow environments, where the climate is drier.  The terrace contains the graves of Leonard Cockayne and his wife Maude.

A stone terrace, called the Cockayne overlook, looking over a gravel garden

Orange Carex (Sedge) in a gravel garden below the Cockayne Overlook

Austroderia species (Toe Toe) are tall grasses distinctive for their flowering plumes and are popular in New Zealand gardens.  They are closely related to the South American Pampas Grass, Cortaderia selloana, more commonly used in the West.

Astroderia (Toe Toe) in a Tussock ecosystem planting

The buff colored plumes of Austroderia (Toe Toe grass) lights up the path, with a bronze Phormium (New Zealand Flax) to the right, and tall mature Pseudopanax ferox (Lancewoods) and brown Carex (Sedge)

Grasses and Sedges are beautifully arranged in naturalistic combinations with distinctively textured shrubbery.  Some are orange, others lime green, or tan and buff colors.


Grasses and Sedges and Groundcovers

Grasses, Sedges, Hebe and Corokia cotoneaster
Gahnia rigida is a sedge found in coastal bogs that has a nice architectural form, with tall chestnut brown flower stalks that turn to a brown seed bearing nut with maturity.

Gahnia rigida, (Sawsedge) found in coastal bogs on both the North and South Islands in the Coastal Garden
Some of the most textual plantings in the rock garden are groupings of Divarcating plants, with densely angular twiggy branches and tiny leaves.  Corokias with silvery twigs and foliage contrast softly with bronze barked Meuhlenbeckias, Coprosmas, Myrsine, Plagianthes, and Sophora (Kowhai).  These plants adapted to predation by 9 species of large flightless birds called Moas, which are now extinct.  The largest species grew to 3.6 meters (12 feet) tall, and could easily strip the leaves from plants without defensive characteristics.  The only native mammals in New Zealand are bats, so Moas and other birds were the source of wild meat for the Maori people, which led to their extinction.

Corokias, Meuhlenbeckias, Coprosmas and Pseudopanax

A wonderful textural planting of Divaricating Plants
One of the most striking plantings in the garden is a dense grove of Lancewoods (Pseudopanax ferox).  This species has become quite rare in the wild.  Its Doctor Seuss look owes to an evolutionary  characteristic where juvenile plants have long tough bronzy spiny leaves that droop downward on a narrow stalk.  When the plants reach a more mature age they form a rounded clump of foliage at the top and drop the lower leaves revealing a strong, deeply fissured trunk.  This adaptation is believed to have developed as a defense against foraging giant Moas.  The thick juvenile leaves may have been difficult for Moas to eat, and the clump forming at the top of tall mature trees would have been out of reach.

A fantastical grove of juvenile and mature Pseudopanax ferox plants and Hebes

A garden featuring Hebes, Olearias, and Pittosporums connect the two sides of this lower area.

Phormium cookianum (Mountain Flax), Hebe salicifolia, Olearia, and Pittosporum

Left: Arthropodium cirratum (Rengarenga) and Right: Pseudopanax under a canopy of multi-trunked trees.

Coprosma is a genus of many types of shrubs and groundcovers found all over New Zealand.  One of my favorites is Coprosma ciliata, a large upright shrub with tiny rounded glossy leaves set on horizontal fan like branches.  Coprosmas sport colorful berries in orange, yellow, and bright blue depending on the species.  Bronze and variegated colored foliage cultivars are commonly planted in California gardens.

Coprosma ciliata

Coprosmas and Meuhlenbeckias and a variety of ground covers

An artfully laid out path

Looking out in to the Wilton Bush
A trail from the Alpine Garden leads down a steep forest path in to the Wilton Bush to a small waterfall.  From there the path follows streams in a circuit path.  The oldest tree in the Wellington region, an 800 year old Rimu stands on a hillside accessible by a network of trails.

The waterfall with Elatostema rugosum (Parataniwha, New Zealand Begonia) growing at it's base
Shelf fungi on a decaying tree trunk

The trail leads through picnic lawns and extensively restored bush plantings.  Thousands of trees and shrubs have been planted to accelerate the regeneration of the forest.  Birdlife is recovering due to increased habitats and efforts to remove introduced predators, such as Stoats, Possums, and Rats and Feral Cats.

The Troup Picnic Lawn

The South Picnic Area in the Wilton Bush
On the map the trail leads to the Karori cemetery.  I was expecting a small burial plot but was surprised to find the second largest cemetery in New Zealand rambling in various states of decay across the crest of a series of hills.  80,000 people are interred here in mostly concrete crypts.  The lush bush surrounding the cemetery makes it a lovely memorial garden.

The Karori Cemetery
The Karori Cemetery
The Karori Cemetery

Hiking back along the streams, and up the hill, I returned to the Botanical Garden.  I wandered the paths again admiring this wonderful plant collection set brilliantly amongst the carefully placed stones spotted with beautiful lichens.  The light grew silvery with some coastal mist drifting in.  A magical day.

One of the many projects I have been working on at Camp Glenorchy is what I call the Zen Garden.  It is a strolling garden in front of the Homestead Building, which is the main lodge for the camp.  I laid generous local schist flagstones to create the paths, a material that is not readily available in the Wellington region.  I laid the stones in a way that they relate to each other and create a path that slows you down, so that people will stroll the garden and take in its details.

The Zen Garden at Camp Glenorchy
I also incorporated beautiful large boulders that speak to the mountains beyond.  All of the plants used in the gardens are native to New Zealand except for those that produce food.  It was an exciting project for me as I was mainly focused on creating stone mosaics for a long period of time.  I've put a great deal of time in to learning more about the wonderful native flora that graces this amazing country.  In the fall I transplanted collections of two species of Acaena, a groundcover from the Paradise Valley up the Dart River.  I dug them from an area that has been disturbed by the road grading so as not to disturb a wild habitat.  Garden building is my first love.

Red Roses from a Women's retreat placed in a stone bowl I carved, in the Zen Garden at Camp Glenorchy
Thanks for reading, Jeffrey