Fishermans Bay Garden

Looking at a Google Maps satellite view of the Banks Peninsula is one thing, but driving the hilly landscape from garden to garden is quite another.  We were now heading from Sir Miles Warren’s garden at Ohinetahi on Governors Bay (#1 below) to the “eastern bays” of the peninsula to visit Jill & Richard Simpson’s Fishermans Bay Garden (#2) and enjoy lunch there before ending our afternoon at The Giant’s House in Akaraoa (#3).  (Click to enlarge the map.)

The drive to Fishermans Bay took us an hour and forty minutes and encompassed some of the most beautiful scenery we’d seen in New Zealand. A quarter-of-an-hour past Governors Bay, we drove past roadside stock pens and wild phormiums (P. tenax or harakeke).

We passed rocky outcrops at Gebbies Pass, below, that geologists call the “Gebbies Rhyolite”. It’s what’s left of volcanoes that occurred in the Late Cretaceous, around 81 million years ago. (And thank you to Dr. Greg Browne of GNS Science, New Zealand, for identifying the rock type for me.)

We climbed the hillside around Duvauchelle, from which some of the finest New Zealand woolens are exported around the world.

We passed olive groves near Robinsons Bay, home of a tasty, extra-virgin oil.

Then we came to our first sighting of the “eastern bays” — also known as the Wildside —  a series of headlands and inlets jutting out from the peninsula into the Pacific.  And I would be lying if I didn’t admit that this part of the trip was a little white-knuckle in a large bus, but we were soon…..

….. slowing down on a long access road, past the neighbouring farmer’s sheep running away…..

….. and beehives buzzing….

….. to park beside a rustic old shed framed in agapanthus and wildflowers…..

….. and be welcomed with a sign that we’d arrived.

We walked towards a pretty house with a little entrance garden featuring roses, Spanish lavender and an olive tree.

The owners of Fishermans Bay Garden, Jill and Richard Simpson, greeted us and gave a little introduction to the garden, which she later described to me as a “love story”. (You can hear her tell this story in the video at the end of this blog.)  Jill was working as a landscape designer in Christchurch when they met and fell in love. A dairy farmer, Richard already owned the property – all 300 hectares (790 acres) of it, as well as a dairy farm in Springston west of Christchurch. They would bring their family of six children (three each) to the property for holidays. Once Jill’s children were old enough, they renovated the house and moved to the peninsula. That was 12 years ago, and Jill has been making gardens there ever since.

We began in the long double herbaceous border…….

……. with beautiful  combinations of perennials and lots of fragrant lilies…..

….. and this spectacular rose, below, ‘Eyes for You’. It represents a remarkable and complex breeding achievement by Peter James, stemming  from the dark-splotched Persian rose, Rosa persica – or, as some refer to it, Hulthemia persica. (In fact, the latest taxonomy places the parent in the rose Subgenus Hulthemia, so technically it’s correct to refer to the Persian rose as both names.) A straggly, yellow flowered rose native to dry areas in Iran and Afghanistan, it was that attractive blotch that captivated rose breeders. Some 40 years after they started working with it, there is a growing roster of roses with dark eyes and the Middle Eastern hulthemia in their bloodlines.

Jill collects hebes – more than 150 species and cultivars – and in fact has an entire garden of them, on the slope towards the ocean, but these two made attractive companions at the end of the border.

Fruit trees were integrated into the garden, including apples,…..

….. pears…

….. and plums (that were clearly providing nesting material for leaf-cutting bees)….

A vegetable garden was nearby, and this was one was designed for productivity….

…. rather than ornament.

There were some vestiges of the old holiday house that had once been here, like this sweet little patio.

I walked past an informal cottage garden with dahlias and roses towards a small forest of hulking Monterey cypress trees (Cupressus macrocarpa) – that exotic evergreen considered a pest in New Zealand and paradoxically in danger of extinction on California’s Monterey Peninsula, where it’s endemic.

There were interesting succulent plantings at the top of the hill here, with rusty old farm implements as decor……

…..and a fun planting of shaggy Acacia cognata ‘Limelight’.

I started down the path to find that this marked just the beginning of ……

……Jill’s newest garden, an ambitious hillside planted with an ebullient, Piet Oudolf-inspired tapestry of perennials.

Jill terraced this slope with two truckloads of railway ties, carted and placed one at a time. Let’s walk down through the garden together.

I could have spent hours exploring the plant combinations here. But it wasn’t simply a naturalistic meadow made by throwing all kinds of colourful perennials together; look at the way those carefully-placed canna lilies draw your eye through the planting here.

At the edges near the Monterey cypresses, conditions are favourable for native ferns and other shade-loving plants.

Moving further down, I saw a bench made from those very same cypress trees.

Further down the hill. Such an amazing profusion of flowers and foliage.

I arrived at a little terrace on the hillside, where there was a stunning piece of statuary conceived as an airy steel wire sculpture by Hawarden sculptor Sharon Earl, titled ‘Ecosphere’, from which to appreciate the amazing view.

And what a view it is.

Let’s keep going down this flowery path, because there’s something very different at the bottom. (And I don’t mean the bellowing bull our tour members are photographing.)

This is from the same position, but looking back up the hill.

At the base of the hillside border, I looked back up. That fluffy waving flag of native New Zealand toetoe (Cortaderia richardsonii) on the right, below, represents a frontier on this property, and a shift from the ornamental plants grown all the way up the slope, …..

….. because although there was still a sinuous stream of traditional perennials extending towards the ocean,……

….. which culminated in a bee-friendly planting of Fuller’s teasel (Dipsacum fullonum)

….. and annual opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) adjacent to……

……the paddock with the very noisy bull,…..

…… we had now arrived in Jill Simpson’s next gardening chapter. Here is where her love of plants meets her ecological sensibility. After buying this property two decades ago, the Simpsons protected about one-third of it via covenanting, and much of the native ‘bush’ on their property has regenerated since then. (The Simpsons are founder members of the Banks Peninsula Conservation Trust). But New Zealand natives are also beautiful garden plants (as the international horticultural community has discovered), so Jill has begun to use natives and cultivars of native plants in her designs here near the Pacific, like the brown New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) below.

But there are many pure natives here, like the totoe, below, with Chionochloa in front……

….. and the lovely cotton daisy (Celmisia spectabilis).

As I headed back towards the house along a track mown through meadows…

….. I gazed down at the ocean 150 metres (492 feet) below.  Though I didn’t ask the Simpsons, I imagine that the bay is a popular fishing location. The southeastern bays are known for blue cod, sea perch, tarakihi and trumpeter fish.

I’m not sure what fish this was, adorning the entrance to Jill’s hebe collection. Rockfish?

I passed Herbina, the corrugated cow resting in the meadow grasses. I read that although Richard Simpson has had a long relationship with dairy cattle on his farms, he and Jill now have a sharemilker on their other property near Christchurch. (Sharemilking is often used in New Zealand to provide income to farmers who have given up their herds, while providing an opportunity to younger farmers with cattle, but no land). And their young next-door neighbour and his wife manage this property for them, leaving them free to garden and pursue new opportunities, such as their recent purchase of the old (1907) Madeira Hotel in Akaroa.

It was time to enjoy the lovely lunch, set out on the various patios and decks.

I loved the bouquets that Jill had made…

….. from her abundance of flowers.

Look at this view from my lunch spot! That phormium is ‘Jester’, and beyond are astelias and native cabbage trees (Cordyline australis).

These alfresco lunches in the special gardens on the tour were a chance for us to relax and get to know one another better. And it was fun for my husband, Doug, left, to get to know “my” friends from the gardening world, like North Carolina’s Cyndy Cromwell and Denver Botanic Garden’s Panayoti Kelaidis.

Jill Simpson was sitting with us on the deck, and someone asked her how this all got started. Her answer was candid and interesting — including the direction she hopes to take integrating native plants here at Fishermans Bay.

With less than a half-hour remaining before we had to depart for Akaroa, I finished my lunch and rushed back out to this amazing garden to see what I might have missed. It was then that I heard the mellifluous song of the New Zealand bellbird (Anthornis melanura), and I had an idea. What if I retraced my steps through as much of the property as I could, filming the beautiful garden while the bellbird sang in the background. Could I do it?  Would the little yellow bird sing on cue? Have a listen and see what happened.


Ohinetahi – An Architectural Garden Masterpiece

It was Day 15 of our American Horticultural Society “Gardens, Wine & Wilderness” tour of New Zealand and we had a wonderful day of garden visits ahead of us. We left our hotel in Christchurch early and drove south. As we came to the Port Hills, the view of   Lyttelton Harbour ahead was spectacular.  It would not be until I returned home and did some research that I would learn that we were actually on the rim of the collapsed Lyttelton Volcano, one of two shield volcanoes that make up the Banks Peninsula, the other being Akaroa (both active 11-8 million years ago). If you’ve read my blog on Yellowstone Park, you know how much I love volcanos, and this would be my third visit to one (Ngorngoro in Kenya was my first).  When Lyttelton’s southern volcanic rim eventually eroded, it was flooded by the sea, resulting in the pretty harbour we saw ahead of us.

Though the Māori have been in this area for hundreds of years, it was first seen by Europeans when Captain James Cook sailed past on February 17, 1770, giving the name Banks Island (for onboard botanist Joseph Banks, who featured in my Doubtful Sound blog) to the land along the curved shore, which appeared to his eyes separate from the mainland behind. It would later be renamed Banks Peninsula.  We would be visiting three gardens today, each occupying a scenic spot on the peninsula. Looking at the satellite map below (you can click to make it bigger), you’ll see that I’ve marked them as 1 (this garden), 2 and 3. You’ll also see my two earthquake notations (unrelated to the peninsula’s volcanic past). The one in the upper left shows the rough location of the Greendale-Rolleston Fault, a previously unknown slip-fault which caused the destructive September 3, 2010 earthquake.  That 7.1 magnitude quake, the strongest recorded in New Zealand was followed 5 months later by the deadlier 6.3 aftershock centred just west of Lyttelton, which killed 185 and injured more than 6,000 people in greater Christchurch. Both would have a direct impact on our first garden today and an indirect impact on our third garden in Akaroa.

We circled Lyttelton Harbour to our destination overlooking Governors Bay. It was the Māori Ngāi Tahu chief Manuhiri who called his pā (fortified village) overlooking this bay “Ōhinetahi” – The Place of One Daughter – in honour of his solitary daughter in a family of sons. And that became the name of this garden, now arguably Christchurch’s finest private garden.

We were met at the entrance by Ohinetahi’s principal gardener, Ross Booker, shown below at left, chatting with our tour guide, New Zealand born, Pennsylvania-based landscape architect Richard Lyon.

We walked through the gates and down the drive.

Perhaps if I’d seen this plan of the garden on our arrival, I would have had a better sense of how to approach exploring it in the short time we had. But I hadn’t yet grasped the formal, linear arrangement of the garden rooms on three levels….

….. nor paid attention to the intersecting axes I glimpsed soon after we entered. This was the peony garden, which of course was out of bloom in mid-summer. But what was the enticing glimpse of garden below this? In fact, that is the north-south axis that cuts through the various east-west garden rooms and leads directly to a suspension bridge  over the creek to arrive at a shady bush walk filled with New Zealand natives. But we’ll get there later.

At the bottom of the drive, we turned left to find ourselves gazing at a lovely house, below, whose walls were crafted of soft-peach sandstone block.This is where Sir Miles Warren lives, having retired in 1995 from a long architecture career that began in 1955 when he founded his own practice with the radical Dorset Street Flats, expanded it in 1958 with the formation of Warren and Mahoney with Maurice Mahoney, then spent almost four decades creating hundreds of buildings, including some of New Zealand’s most iconic, modernist structures. Those include College House – University of Canterbury (1966), the Christchurch Town Hall (1972), the New Zealand Embassy in Washington DC (1975), the Christchurch Central Library, the Hotel Grand Chancellor (1986) and Clarendon Tower (1986) not to mention housing complexes, apartments and government buildings and airports in Wellington, Auckland and elsewhere. The firm became renowned for its concrete-based “Christhchurch School” style, combining Brutalism with contemporary Scandinavian and Japanese design principles. Sadly, several of those buildings were no match for the earthquakes that would devastate Christchurch in 2010-11, with many sustaining enough structural damage that they were ordered demolished.

Today, Warren and Mahoney Architecture is a 300-employee practice but its original co-founder – retired since 1995 – lives here in this Victorian house.  It was built by British-born naturalist-botanist-entomologist Thomas Potts between 1863-67 and looked like this on New Year’s Eve 1867, in a photo by Daniel Mundy. below. That’s native “cabbage tree” (Cordyline australis) in the foreground.

Potts would go on to plant a number of trees which still stand at Ohinetahi, but the extensive gardens he designed and maintained with the help of six gardeners were completely overgrown in 1977 when Miles Warren, his artist sister Pauline Trengrove and her husband, the late architect John Trengrove, found the property. It consisted of a ramshackle house with a leaking roof (they nicknamed the place Miss Haversham from Great Expectations), a lawn and the small orchard that is still on the site.  But they knew in ten minutes that they would buy it and hired two carpenters who worked for 18 months repairing it, while they came out on weekends to do the “donkey work”.  The garden would take a decade to shape, with Pauline the expert gardener and her brother and husband the designers. As Sir Miles said in one interview, “We were amateurs practising an art rather than having to be professional architects. We could do what we damn well liked and make our own mistakes.”  The garden became a place to escape their desks. In another interview, he recalled, “That period, we were both very busy professionally, so it was great relief, moving bricks and removing trees, fighting our way through the jungle and so on. It was an ideal contrast to the working week.” When Pauline and John moved away in the late 1980s to make another garden, he was left as Ohinetahi’s sole owner and resident designer.

Gardens have always been important to Sir Miles Warren, a passion not always shared by members of the profession. I love this photo of him, below, taken mid-career at his then-Christchurch house by Matt Arnold. That long pool is the epitome of modernism, softened with lots of lovely water plants.

As we set out, I spied the owner, now 89, walking across the lawn. “May I take your photo?” I asked. “Oh, I break cameras,” he replied with a chuckle, but gamely posed for me.

He was very lucky to be standing on his lawn, for his close escape from the 2010 earthquake came in the pre-dawn darkness of September 3rd when the four stone gables toppled onto the tin roofs, the rock falling through into the library where books and grandfather clock crashed to the floor.  As he came down from his bedroom searching for a flashlight, he had no idea of the damage around him.  Friends, family and former tradespeople helped empty the house and begin repairs, removing the stone third storey. stabilizing the walls with concrete and steel bracing and helping the house survive the much closer, more violent February 2011 aftershock. Sir Miles designed further changes to reinforce and strengthen the house. Today Ohinetahi remains a Category 1-listed heritage house – and, personally, I think the scale is much better without all that top-heavy stone.

All that toppled stone would be put to creative use, as with this reinforced folly and observation tower leading to a new waterfront “park” that I’ll show you later.


When Sir Miles, Pauline and John Trengrove began planning the garden at Ohinetahi, they did what many serious designers do: they visited famous gardens. Thus the Red Border of Hidcote Manor Gardens in England’s Cotswolds became inspiration for the lovely Red Garden here. But I think this one is even better (having seen Lawrence Johnston’s version some 25 years ago….) because of its intimacy,……

…… formality and smaller scale, which helps visitors understand how to accomplish a “colour garden” themselves.  That centrepiece, below, is a deconsecrated stone baptismal font. The red parterre hedge is barberry; the green is boxwood. And the silver pear (Pyrus salicifolia) adds just the right touch at right.

Plus…. if you know that my great passion is colour in garden design, you’ll know that I think complementary contrasting red-and-green is one of the best ways to bring the drama of that brilliant colour to a garden.

Four Burbank plum trees planted by a previous owner are still producing fruit, and act as the forecourt to Ohinetahi’s spectacular Herbaceous Border.

I loved that someone had placed this fallen plum on the statuary leading into the border.

Isn’t this border enchanting?  Sir Miles designed the airy, octagonal gazebo with its ogee roof and curved arches to match the Victorian trim on the house.

The summer combinations were stunning, like this sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa) and Verbena bonariensis….

…. and this dark Teucrium hircanicum with a cranesbill (Geranium) and Japanese hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’).

…. and magenta summer phlox (Phlox paniculata) with agapanthus.

Bumble bees were happy foraging on the single red dahlias in the herbaceous border.

This is what the border looked like facing back to the house.

I went down into the Woodland Garden that runs along the edge of the property beneath mature trees, including oaks that are some 150 years old.. Here were native cabbage trees and tree ferns….

….. and selections of New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax)….

…. and traditional shade garden ornamentals such as hosta, hellebore and astrantia….

Climbing back up, I walked past a wall inscribed in Latin by Mark Whyte, Conditor horti felicitatis auctor: “Whoever plants a garden, plants happiness”.

At this end of the garden was a suspended metal globe by Neil Dawson, whose large works also adorn downtown Christchurch.

Here’s a closer look at the globe. Neil Dawson’s work was also featured in the blog I wrote about the Connells Bay Sculpture Park on Waiheke Island near Auckland.

And I found one of the old trees planted by Thomas Potts, a hoop pine (Araucaria cunninghamii).

It was comforting to see a handsome, well-used compost bin behind one of the hedges. (Ross Booker: “Four months turnaround from hoe-to-go“.) Maintenance is crucial here; the hedges alone take three months to trim.  At the moment, all the work is done by Ross and one other full-time gardener.

The pleached Hornbeam Walk is also modelled on England’s Hidcote; at its cross-axis is a copy of the urn designed for Alexander Pope’s garden at Twickenham.

I walked back towards the Lawn which is all that remains of Thomas Potts’s original garden.  Looking to my right I saw the pretty pool house and the pool wall hidden by a pyracantha hedge.

But when I climbed up to the pool level, I could look back at the lawn and the perfectly balanced scene opposite….

….of two chartreuse ‘Frisia’ locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia) and a Luytens bench flanked by two shiny granite columns. Behind were precisely-clipped macrocarpa hedges (Cupressus macrocarpa).

I walked to the Suspension Bridge over the creek….

…. with its artfully-adorned bridgehouse.

Here I could see the stream below wending its way south to the ocean through New Zealand “bush”…..

…. including lacy tree ferns.

Suspended elegantly in the lush native bush under Thomas Potts’s five old oaks was a stainless steel sculpture by Auckland artist Virginia King titled “Heart of Oak”, below.  Commissioned by Sir Miles in 2014, the artist – who saw the garden in winter – describes it on her website. “The circular mandala  form alludes to the longevity of trees, to changing seasons and the cycle of life and  to ancient mythologies about Oak trees in Roman, Greek, Celtic, and Teutonic cultures.

The cycle of life was certainly evoked naturally in this lichen-covered tree trunk.

I loved that the blue base of this woodland sculpture emerged from a clump of New Zealand blueberry or turutu (Dianella nigra) with fruit exactly the same azure hue.

Approaching the outlook to Governors Bay, there was another evocative sculpture, this one by acclaimed artist Graham Bennett.

With our departure time approaching, I made a quick stop in Ohinetahi’s little art gallery, featuring works by renowned New Zealand artists.

Adjacent is a newer gallery containing 3D models and photographs of Warren & Mahoney projects….

…… including many destroyed by the earthquakes.

Back at house level, the Rose Garden beckoned, with its 12 rectangular, boxwood-edged beds marked by topiary spirals and boxwood chess pieces…..

……and filled with white, yellow and apricot roses to match the house.

I loved the ebullient fuchsia at the house entrance, and was intrigued with the number woven into the trim. Thomas Potts’s sandstone walls were quarried at Charteris Bay across Lyttelton Harbour.

The rose garden’s central path was on an axis with the Reflecting Pool across the lawn, its edges adorned with eight Coade stone flowers.

Now there was just enough time to dash around the house and head up past the Doug Neil-carved Oamaru stones…..

….. and Andrew Turnbull’s “Astrolabe”, below, to visit the newest addition to Ohinetahi, an adjacent .75-hectare (1.85 acres) property overlooking Governors Bay purchased in 2008 and christened “the park”.

There are masses of natives here, like leatherleaf sedge (Carex buchananii)…..

…..and Corokia cotoneaster sheared into wedges, below.  Originally part of the Potts property, the park features the oaks he planted a century-and-a-half ago.

Large-scale modern art commands the hillside……

…… including pieces like ‘Phase’ by Graham Bennett.

And the new amphitheatre overlooking the water is a place where visitors can relax in a spectacular setting atop a turf bench supported by some of the 140 tonnes of sandstone block that fell from Sir Miles’s roof into his library, that terrible night in September 2010.

In 2012, after setting up the Ohinetaki Charitable Trust (the trustees include his sister Pauline and a niece) to oversee the necessary maintenance, insurance costs and continued development of the property, Sir Miles Warren donated it to New Zealand.  As he said to a reporter at the time, “So many gardens are made in New Zealand and the owners become elderly and the grounds fall into disrepair. It would seem a pity to spend 35 years making something and then walking away and letting it fall apart.

The bus was leaving and I had just enough time to make one last photograph.   The bust, of course, was familiar, but I had to look up the inscription. Firmitas, Utilitas et Venustas.  Coined by the Roman architect Vitruvius, it dates from the 1st century B.C and means “Strength, Utility and Beauty.” It’s an age-old tenet of architecture but it seemed to me it described this garden, as well as the man who is now a tenant here.

We were heading south on the Banks Peninsula to see two other gardens made by brilliant, obsessive gardeners. It would be a garden touring day like no other (and I’ve been on many tours). But as to this part of Canterbury, I will let Sir Miles Warren have the last word. Filmed in 2016, it relates to the city he loves, a city whose architectural heritage owes much to the work of Warren and Mahoney Architects, a city working to recover. Be sure to watch until the end, when he asks the question I would also put to you.  And the answer: “If you haven’t yet, why not?”

Christchurch Botanic Gardens

As we pulled into Christchurch in late afternoon a few hours after our delightful lunch and garden tour at Akaunui Homestead and Farm, a few of us decided to leave the hotel and walk to the Christchurch Botanic Gardens less than a mile away. After the disastrous 2011 earthquake here, the city has been rebuilding for years, especially structures that were not earthquake-proof, like this old building en route.

The botanic gardens are open to the public from 7 am to 6:30 pm (conservatories 10:15 am – 4 pm) daily, except Christmas Day. Like all the botanic gardens we saw in New Zealand, there is no charge to visit. Covering 21 hectares (52 acres), they were opened in 1863, occupying a pretty site along the Avon River.  There is an excellent printed .pdf guide online.

We started in the Kitchen Garden adjacent to the former Curator’s House, which is now a restaurant (we would eat dinner there later).  I thought this was one of the finest edible gardens I’d visited…..

….with its focus on design…..

….and diversity of edibles…..

….and education.

We walked along the Avon River with its scrim of beech trees….

….past early evening picnickers.

With so little time until dark, we bypassed the lawn and adjacent heather garden.

The large Rock Garden seemed to need a little more TLC in the weeding and editing department……

….. but had clearly been an ambitious design with significant scale.

I liked seeing a new ornamental onion, Allium carinatum subsp. pulchellum, so happy here…..

…. and keeping the bees happy, too.

I had never seen Francoa sonchifolia in a garden, so was delighted to find it here along with its foraging honey bees…..

I walked slowly through the New Zealand Gardens….

….full of indigenous plants which in this country seem to be so understatedly…..

…. green that the overwhelming perception is unremarkable.

But it takes time and local understanding to appreciate each of these plants, the smallest and the large, like the iconic totara tree (Podocarpus totara), below….

….and how they relate to wildlife, including this insect chorus on a Christchurch evening in mid-summer. Listen…..

Adjacent to the Native Plant Garden is the Cocayne Memorial Garden, designed in 1938 to honour Leonard Cocayne (1855-1934), New Zealand’s pioneering botanist and ecologist and author of The Vegetation of New Zealand (1921).

Given our limited time, we hurried through a cactus garden….

….. with some interesting large succulents that I later discovered were Furcraea parmentieri. A monocarpic Mexican species, these plants will grow until they achieve flowering, after which they will die.

A female paradise shelduck hovered at the water’s edge with her duckling nearby.

There were pretty, South African Crinum x powellii at the water’s edge here, showing why its common name is “swamp lily”.

Time was fleeting so we turned back toward the entrance past this lovely stand of fragrant lilies.

Nearby was a giant redwood (Sequoidendron giganteum), below, one of seven grown from seed that was ordered from California in 1873 (just 21 years after William Lobb first collected seed of the newly discovered trees in Calaveras Grove in the Sierra Nevadas for Veitch’s Nursery in England), making them 145 years old. Interestingly, though North Americans call this species “Sierra redwood” or “giant redwood” or “big tree” (since it is often confused with the smaller Coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens). New Zealanders and the British call it “Wellingtonia”, a name that recalls England’s race to be the first to name it. After Lobb returned to England with seed, seedlings and herbarium specimens, taxonomist John Lindley named the species Wellingtonia gigantea to honour the recently deceased Duke of Wellington (1769-1852).  Meanwhile, as tourists poured into Calaveras Grove, botanist Albert Kellogg was working to sort out his big tree specimens in his herbarium at the brand-new California Academy of Natural Sciences in San Francisco, intending to call the species Washingtonia.  In 1854, the Duke of Wellington would lose his “official” taxonomic honour when French botanist Joseph Decaisne placed the tree in the genus Sequoia as S. gigantea (Sequoiadendron came later), but the common name Wellingtonia stuck for giant redwoods grown in the Commonwealth.

We peeked in to the lovely Rose Garden with its 104 beds, but kept walking.

Two more trees caught my eye. The Madeiran lily-of-the-valley tree (Clethra arborea) was attracting bees to its pendant blossoms……

….. and I was happy to see a young kauri  (Agathis australis) growing here, having loved walking under towering kauris in their protected forest at Bay of Islands.

At the southeast fringe of the Rose Garden was the extensive Dahlia Garden, with 90 percent of the collection sourced from New Zealand breeders.

This is ‘Velvet Night’, a 1985 introduction from Dr. Keith Hammett, one of the dahlia world’s icons and New Zealand’s leading breeder of ornamental plants.

We walked past an old Kashmir cypress (Cupressus cashmeriana), with its elegant pendulous branchlets.

Sadly because of the lateness of the day, we missed seeing the large water garden and the far reaches of Christchurch Botanic Gardens including Hagley Park. And the six conservatories had closed a few hours earlier: Cunningham House (tropical rainforest), Townend House (cool greenhouse), Garrick House (desert), Gilpin House (orchids, bromeliads, carnivorous plants), Fern House and Fowraker House (indigenous and exotic alpines).  And somehow we missed the herbaceous border. But it was time to head back to the entrance, past our riverside picnickers who had now been joined by friends and a few waterfowl, in order to enjoy our own alfresco dinner at the Curator’s House Restaurant before walking back to the hotel and hitting the sack. For tomorrow would be one of the best days on our tour, starring three stunning and very different New Zealand gardens.

Oamaru Public Gardens

It’s a measure of the depth of the gardening tradition in New Zealand that one of the most charming gardens I visited during our 3-week tour was not even on our itinerary.  It just happened to be behind a pair of iron gates a few of us spotted along the road as we drove into the town of Oamaru, less than a 90-minute drive north of Dunedin, en route to our  2-night stay at Aoraki Mount Cook.

As the bus pulled into the Oamaru town centre with its boutiques and art galleries, a handful of us doubled back the 3 or 4 blocks to the entrance of the Oamaru Public Gardens. A map was posted showing the features of the garden, arrayed like a long strip of green between residential neighbourhoods. The water meandering throughout is the Oamaru Creek, which charges various ponds and spills down splashing rills and small waterfalls.

We began to walk along the road, conscious of our limited time to visit.  Look at these gorgeous hydrangeas with agapanthus and dahlias.

I must admit I was a little worried when I saw the Craig Fountain and its surrounding beds, below, which looked a little Victorian ‘bedding-out’ for my informal taste. But the thing is the gardens are Victorian.  They were established in 1876 on 13.7 hectares (34 acres) set aside as public reserve, thus making them one of the oldest public gardens in New Zealand (Dunedin, Christchurch and Auckland are older).

We walked under this arch, which led to the famous ‘Wonderland’ statue which, of course, I missed.

But I loved what I found a little further along: this verdant scene with tree ferns, hydrangeas, Japanese maples and a small waterfall and pond.

A view of the water feature.

More hydrangeas.

We walked on and came upon the Display House. Enchanting!

The bromeliads, begonias, ferns and other hothouse plants were grown to perfection.

Look at these beautiful vrieseas.

The aviary featured an assortment of fancy birds. (I tried “Polly want a cracker?” in my best Kiwi accent, but no dice.)

I believe this was Mirror Lake (or possibly “top pond”)…. there is so little pictorial guidance of the features of the garden on the web.

We wandered through the Native Plants garden. So strong is the native plant ethos in New Zealand that in 2015 one of the unused glasshouses at Oamaru Public Gardens was loaned to native plant enthusiasts as a permanent propagation nursery for endemic natives.

We saw New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) and one of the many native sedges.

There were strange plants I needed help from my Plant Idents group on Facebook to identify, like New Zealand myrtle (Lophomyrtus bullata), or what the Māori call ramama….

…. and one we thought likely to be snow totara (Podocarpus nivalis).

A shady path led to the fabulous Fernery.  (I included this little section in my previous blog on New Zealand ferns.)

We walked through quickly. enjoying the allure of the towering tree ferns.

Then it was on to the large Chinese Garden where the impressive ceramic entrance mural was done by Christine Black. There is a lovely story online of how,  thanks to the persistence of a woman named Yvonne Cox, both the mural and the garden itself came to be here in 1988 as “a symbol of the friendship between Oamaru and the large Chinese community in the Waitaki district, most of them descendants of the Central Otago gold miners”.

There’s a handsome water feature…….

…… and numerous Chinese shrubs and trees, like Gingko biloba…..

….and, of course, a zig-zag bridge to keep the evil spirits away.

We left the Chinese garden via another nod to Asia, the red Japanese bridge overlooking the Oamaru Creek.

The morning was marching and it was time to head back to the bus to continue our journey to Aoraki Mount Cook.  We strolled towards the entrance past more spectacular mophead hydrangeas…..

….. and Acanthus hungaricus, which grows as well in New Zealand as in cold Canada.

And we chatted for a minute with one of the gardeners, who cheerfully answered a question or two for me.  Beautiful gardens like Oamaru (which was free to enter, like Dunedin Botanic Garden and all the civic public gardens we visited in New Zealand) are crafted and sustained in equal parts by good design; healthy, interesting plants; and hard work. So here’s to Matthew Simpson, a “real Kiwi” as he put it, and all the dedicated employees of public gardens in New Zealand and throughout the world. Thumbs up to you all!

Dunedin Botanic Garden

After travelling on the 10th day of our American Horticultural Society “Gardens, Wine & Wilderness Tour” from Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound to Dunedin in Otago on the east coast of the South Island, a 3-1/2 hour journey of 291 kilometres (182 miles)……

…. we arrived in the city late in the afternoon. Our route took us past the Dunedin Railway Station. Built in the Edwardian Baroque style in 1906, it provided train service for a city that had been founded 58 years earlier by the Free Church of Scotland. In fact Dunedin is the old Gaelic name for Edinburgh, and it was the Scots who were the first colonists, though the Māori had already occupied the land for some 700 years. It was a big whaling port in its early days, then the Otago Gold Rush of the 1860s led to its rapid expansion.

Where we had slept in a stateroom aboard a boat on Doubtful Sound in Fiordland the night before, tonight we would be sleeping in a rather lovely room at the Distinction Dunedin Hotel. What made it extra-special was the fact that the room was equipped with a clothes washer and dryer. If you’ve travelled for any length of time on a bus tour, you’ll know how welcome that would be.

Feeling a little tired after the drive, we ordered up a light room-service dinner of cheese plate & salad, and cracked a bottle of Marlborough Chardonnay.

The next morning, we headed out to Dunedin Botanic Garden….

…..where we were met in the parking lot for an orientation by Alan Matchett (left), Garden Team Leader/Curator and Collection Curator, Dylan Norfield.

Opened in 1863, it is New Zealand’s first botanic garden. It occupies 30.4 hectares (75 acres) on a property that slopes from native Lovelock Bush, the New Zealand Native Plant Collection, Geographic Collection and Rhododendron Dell at the top down a hillside through the Southern African Garden and Mediterranean Terrace  and Rock Garden – all considered the Upper Garden – to the Lower Garden where you find Herbaceous Borders, a Knot Garden, Glasshouses, the Clive Lister Garden, the Rose Garden, Theme Borders and a Water Garden. The main gates open to an intersection of three of Dunedin’s main streets.

We set off behind Alan and Dylan for a tour that was sadly much too short to see all the features of this wonderful garden.

The Native Plant Collection is vast, and includes traditional borders…..

….. featuring grasses and shrubs and with some of the country’s native tree ferns, like Dicksonia fibrosa, with its persistent frond ‘skirts’. (For more on NZ ferns, have a look at my previous post.)

There were cultivars and hybrids of natives here, like silver-leafed Brachyglottis ‘Otari Cloud’….

….. and the lovely variegated Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Irene Patterson’. Unlike the UK and the mild west coast, pittosporums are not much seen in northeast North America.  I wish I’d had time to search out many more.

In the shadier sections, the New Zealand rock lily or renga renga (Arthropodium cirratum) was in flower…….

…… and bush flax (Astelia fragrans) was already in fruit.

We toured a fascinating Alpine Scree.  On an island so dominated by the rugged Southern Alps (it is estimated that one-third of New Zealand’s flora exists in the alpine zone), it’s interesting to see plants adapted to the gravelly slopes of mountains…..

… giant Spaniard (Aciphylla scott-thomsonii), below. Though often called Spaniard grass or speargrass, the spiky Aciphyllas are actually umbellifers, members of Apiaceae that flower in November. The flowers in my closeup below have withered and blackened.

Here’s a vigorous clump of Marlborough rock daisy (Pachystegia insignis).

In the Geographic Collections, we noted South American plants like evergreen Luma apiculata from the Central Andes between Chile and Argentina…

….and Lomandra longifolia from Australia.

We made a brief stop at the Rhododendron Dell, which forms a large part of the 4-hectare (10-acre) Woodland Garden.  Naturally, as we visited in summer, nothing was in flower,  but I can only imagine what these massive ‘Halopeanum’ rhodos would have looked like in November.

Descending, we made our way through the large Southern African Garden.

There were beautiful king proteas here (P. cynaroides).

….. and masses of the dwarf Agapanthus ‘Streamline’.

How spectacular is this eye-popping planting of Crassula coccinea, native to the fynbos of the Western Cape?

With time running out, I raced through the Mediterranean Garden, with its formal pool…..

….. and balustrade overlook, with the hills of Dunedin in the distance.  But I knew I’d be coming back here today after another tour stop to spend lots of time retracing my steps to really explore the place!

In the Lower Garden, there was a Knot Garden patterned on the one in the Shakespeare Garden at Stratford-on-Avon.

And in classic public garden style, there was a stunning herbaceous border that I viewed from one end……

….. to the other.

Look at these lovely combinations:  alstroemerias and bright pink phlox with Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’…..

….. and salmon achillea with old-fashioned Shasta daisies…..

….. and unusual (for me) Lobelia tupa with Phlox paniculata……

…… and soft pink achillea with chocolate cosmos (C. atrosanguineus). Isn’t this fabulous?

There were loads of bumble bees foraging on the alstroemerias……

….. and on the lovely blue bog sage (Salvia uliginosa).

And just to add a little design intelligence to all that floriferous brilliance, the garden also features a number of “colour borders”, including yellow…..

….. and red….

….. and violet, featuring Lythrum virgatum, Monarda fistulosa and Agastache foeniculum.

I was impressed by the massive size of this English oak (Quercus ruber) – aka the ‘Royal Oak’ – which was planted in 1863 to commemorate the marriage of the Prince of Wales and the Danish Princess Alexandra.  The children in the playground seemed unmoved that they were frolicking atop the roots of a piece of Dunedin’s colonial history.

For sheer elegance, I loved the Clive Lister Garden – and also the story behind it, below. What a wonderful way to enrich a public space, especially one that has meant much to you during your life.

Look at this view of grasses and many native plants from one side of the bridge in the Clive Lister Garden……

….. and the other side, featuring hostas, Japanese maples and other shade plants.

The garden is full of textural plants…..

….. and those with attractive, coloured foliage.

Flowering seems less important than good foliage in the Clive Lister Garden, but there were some lovely surprises, like this ligularia-montbretia combination.

This is the shimmering Astelia chathamica ‘Silver Spear’, which we’re starting to see in N. American gardens.

Alas, our time at the fabulous Dunedin Botanic Garden had drawn to an end without me seeing the glasshouses, water garden, theme gardens, rose gardens or fully exploring the native and geographic collections in the Upper Garden we’d walked through so quickly. So I trotted out to the bus reluctantly and vowed to come back by taxi later in the day.


When I returned, clouds were gathering in the sky so I hurried to the Winter Garden Glasshouse. At its opening in 1908, it was said to be the first public conservatory in Australasia. It has three wings; the west wing contains a good cactus collection.

Tropicals find a warm, humid home in the central Tropical House.

And the east wing contains the sub-tropical collection, with plants like the lovely Vireya rhododendron, below.

It started to sprinkle as I left and eyed the Rose Garden – very nice, I’m sure, but I wanted to get back to the Upper Garden.

I decided to buy an ice cream in the visitor’s centre to see if the shower might abate, but it continued. So I headed quickly over Lindsay Creek to the Rock Garden…..

….. eyeing these spectacular red-hot pokers (Kniphofia sp.) as I walked. The climate here in Dunedin seems perfect for these South African natives.

The rock garden is stunning, and one could spend a half day just here examining all its lovelies, like…….

….. strange-looking Raoulia apicinigra, one of the “mat daisy” clan, …..

….. and Dierama pendulum, fairy bells.  But the rain had now intensified and having given my umbrella and raincoat to my husband to take back to the hotel (“Nah, I won’t need it.”), I found a plastic bag to partially cover my hat and tucked my phone under my shirt to keep it dry.  My cameras were now back in the camera bag as the heavens opened and the rain poured down.

One last shot, of a butterfly lily (Gladiolus papilio) that was as soaked as I was, and out I ran, down the steps and past the now deserted herbaceous borders to a bus shelter outside the gates, where I waited in the monsoon for 20 minutes to flag down a passing cab.

As sad as I was not to have had more time to spend at Dunedin Botanic Garden, I was so very grateful that I’d had the opportunity to see it at all.


Love botanic gardens? You might be interested in my blogs on New York Botanical Garden, Idaho Botanical Garden, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, UBC Botanical Garden and Toronto Botanical Garden’s fabulous containers and Piet Oudolf border. In South Africa, there is the mighty Kirstenbosch, the Harold Porter National Botanic Gardens and Durban Botanic Garden.  And outside London, Kew Gardens in autumn.