New Zealand wonders

Add a dramatic dash of the exotic to your garden, using grasses, hebes, phormiums and delphiniums from down under.

Credit: Des Kennedy

More and more gardeners around the globe are growing these New Zealand wonders

delphiniumsDelphiniums from Down Under
The New Millennium Delphinium series developed by New Zealand’s Terry Dowdeswell is now available to B.C. gardeners. Distributed by Heritage Perennials, this hardy-to-zone-3 strain outperforms other tall types, although foliage may sometimes become infected with powdery mildew in mid summer. Stately spires on bushy plants come in a wide range of shades from pastels to dark purple and blue. The deeply cut leaves form a medium-sized mound. Stems may require
staking in windy areas and this is best done before they reach 90 cm (3 ft.) or so in height. Remove spent spikes after flowering to encourage repeat blooming in fall. For best flowering results, use a high-phosphorus fertilizer in early spring.
– Courtesy of
PHOTO: Dowdeswell Delphiniums

Exploring the gardens of New Zealand is exhilarating because of their great diversity and eclecticism. In the Auckland area, near the top of the North Island, a lush semi-tropicality suffuses the gardens. Palm trees and tree ferns provide an exotic canopy; the outrageous blooms of bougainvilleas and jacarandas abound; local nurseries seem overstocked with agaves and aeoniums, aloes, bromeliads and echeverias. By the time you’ve explored southwards down to Invercargill near the bottom of the South Island you’re far closer to the cool temperate gardens of Britain or British Columbia. Between the two, the country’s gentle climate and benign growing conditions encourage a rich diversity of gardening styles.

As well, this country boasts some outstanding plant breeders. The brilliant dahlias being developed by Keith Hammett were featured in a number of fine gardens we visited, including Trott’s Garden south of Christchurch where the owner was replacing unsatisfactory shrub roses with the superior foliage and longer bloom of dahlias. Terry Dowdeswell’s sturdy and superbly flowered New Millennium delphiniums have recently become available at select B.C. nurseries.

But certainly a primary reason why this little country has become a star in the international gardening scene – including winning the coveted gold medal at the 2004 RHS Chelsea Flower Show – is the diversity and beauty of its native flora. That overdone adjective unique is perfectly applicable to the plant life of New Zealand, which evolved in complete isolation for many millions of years. Eighty per cent of its 2,500 species of native ferns, flowers and conifers are found nowhere else on earth.

Dahlias, roses and other red
flowers play against a purple
berberis in the gred garden at
‘Ohinetahi’ the garden of noted
New Zealand Architect Sir Miles
Warren on Governor’s Bay near

Many natives are plants of striking beauty, such as the pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa), also known as New Zealand Christmas tree because it explodes with brilliant crimson flowers in December. The kowhai (Sophora microphylla) is a smallish tree with masses of bright-yellow blooms in spring. Ferns feature prominently in natural landscapes too, with dozens of markedly different species, including some 27 species of filmy ferns, Hymenophyllaceae, whose fronds are thin to the point of translucence. Far more conspicuous, tree ferns are a dramatic pioneer species in moist New Zealand forests. The ponga, or silver tree fern, one of New Zealand’s national symbols, grows to 10 m (33 ft.) high with fronds spreading up to 4 m (13 ft.) wide that are green on their top side and silvery white beneath.

The small portion of these natives that have lent themselves to cultivation give many New Zealand gardens a startlingly distinctive aura and are increasingly popping up in temperate gardens all over the globe, including in B.C. “Some New Zealand natives will grow very well in the Lower Mainland, providing distinction and architectural interest in the garden,” says Sharon Rowles, who hails from New Zealand but now operates a garden centre on Bowen Island called Silver Fern Florist. “In particular we like to feature the phormiums, pittosporums and senecios in our garden centre and floral design work as they offer such beautiful foliage.”

A mix of native grasses and
sedges creates an attractive
sidewalk planting along an
Otago town street.

Forms of New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax), mountain flax (P. cookianum) or hybrids of the two feature prominently in New Zealand gardens and are becoming ubiquitous in our south-coast gardens as well. Though we saw them growing to magnificent proportions in their homeland – P. tenax can reach 5 m (161⁄2 ft.) tall – leaves will rarely reach half that size in even the choicest B.C. locations. The broad red leaves of P. tenax ‘Rubrum’ may achieve 2 m (61⁄2 ft.), while the narrow twisted leaves of P. cookianum ‘Surfer’ will be well under a metre (40 in.). In colder areas of our province, plants need to be brought indoors for the winter. Short-term gardeners simply treat phormium as an annual.

Hebes, perhaps the most common New Zealand native found in temperate gardens around the world, are valued for the lovely colours of their foliage, the pleasing symmetry of their leaves and their gracefully rounded form. Over 100 species of this evergreen shrub occur in New Zealand and many more named forms have been developed. Lovers of sun and dry, sandy soil, most hebes are listed as hardy to zone 7.

Trott's Garden
Precisely clipped hedges of Cupressus
create multiple garden rooms
in the formal portion of Trott’s Garden south of

Extensive use of hedging is a definite feature of New Zealand gardens, picking up the motif of large shelterbelt hedges seen across much of the windswept countryside. While agricultural windbreaks are often of Monterey cypress (C. macrocarpa), which is also used in garden hedging, many of the loveliest garden hedges were sheared from small-leaved New Zealand natives such as Kunzea ericoides and Corokia buddleioides.

The genus Olearia contains about 120 species of trees and shrubs known as daisy bushes or tree daisies. One of the hardiest is Olearia x haastii, a natural hybrid that’s very popular with California gardeners. Small white daisies – really clusters of small florets that together resemble a single flower – cover this 2-m (61⁄2-ft.) shrub and are set off by its glossy, dark-green leaves.

The extensive use of ornamental grasses in New Zealand gardens and street plantings reflects the beauty of the wild tussock grasslands that cloak hillsides, particularly on the South Island. We can all rejoice that some several of these gorgeous grasses and sedges are becoming increasingly available in local nurseries. Brentwood Bay Nursery near Victoria offers a particularly fine selection of hebes, grasses and other New Zealand plants.

Pasifika Garden
Native grasses and hedging combine
with exotic tropicals in Peter Brady’s
Pasifika Garden in Auckland

The snow grasses are large specimens generally found on mountain slopes. One of the loveliest, Chionochloa flavicans, looks like a slightly smaller and more graceful form of pampas grass, with densely clumped weeping leaves and stems of creamy flowers to 1.5 m (5 ft.) tall. It’s listed as zone 8 and is available in B.C. Grass-like in appearance, with arching strap-like leaves, astelias are becoming increasingly popular in gardens. Especially handsome Astelia nervosa occurs in tussock grasslands and sub-alpine forests, normally with green leaves. But under certain conditions some forms develop bronze or brilliant silvery foliage.

Among the toughest and most versatile natives are three sedges of quite similar appearance, all hardy to zone 6. Carex testacea is a graceful clumping sedge that will thrive in dry or moist conditions, eventually reaching about 60 cm (2 ft.) tall. Its slender arched green leaves colour to rich reds and golds as summer ends. Slightly smaller and more prostrate, C. comans comes in a pale-green form that bleaches white, earning it the cultivar name ‘Frosted Curls.’ C. flagellifera is another charming mop-top with a weeping habit; a new cultivar of it named ‘Kiwi’ forms high arching clumps and remains evergreen in milder climes. Taller still, reaching 75 cm (30 in.), C. buchananii is more stiffly upright and a good performer in both damp and dry sites. So while gardeners with a genius for outwitting winter weather or those blessed with a precious microclimate in White Rock or Oak Bay may be able to luxuriate amid lush hebes and pittosporums, many more of us can enjoy a limited but still exhilarating taste of New Zealand’s marvellous natives by deploying these and other hardy native grasses.

Des Kennedy recently led a second tour of New Zealand gardens. For information on future overseas tours, contact Julia Guest at Panorama Travel Consultants: 1-800-320-3377 or visit the website: