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.

The Garden at Akaunui

Day 14 of our New Zealand tour took us out of Aoraki Mount Cook National Park and down onto the Canterbury Plains with its patchwork of agricultural fields. Here’s a bus window look at the descent.

In late morning we drove into Akaunui Farm Homestead in the countryside near Ashburton. As we walked down the long, hedge-lined driveway, we were greeted politely by the two family dogs.

The brick house was lovely, with its generous verandahs and covered balcony. Built in 1905 for Edward Grigg, a son of one of Canterbury’s pioneering colonial farmers, John Grigg, first president of the New Zealand Agricultural Society and a large-scale sheep and cropping farmer, it was originally part of the Grigg family’s massive Longbeach estate. But it has long been in the family of our host and hostess today, Di and Ian Mackenzie.

Di and Ian, below, share that farming pedigree with their predecessors.  Though their grown son now farms Akaunui’s 600 hectares (1500 acres) in vegetable and grain seed and sheep and dairy cattle, Ian has previously served as the national grain and seed chair of the Federated Farmers of New Zealand.

Di Mackenzie does all the gardening on a property whose landscape was designed originally by Alfred William Buxton (1872-1950). As the New Zealand government historical entry says, “Buxton’s landscape designs were typified by curved entrance drives, perimeter plantings of forest trees, water.…”  We saw that all here at Akaunui, the curved entrance drive and perimeter plantings of forest trees. ……

…… ….. a sinuous pond….

….. and a bog garden……

……with Gunnera manicata, among many other choice plants.

The pond curved around past Di’s vast collection of trees and shrubs, including bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) …..

…..and presented the most spectacular reflective view of the house.

There was a lovely tranquility about this pond, with its little rowboat.

I liked this combination, of a hybrid of native Phormium tenax with Verbena bonariensis.

Many of the specimen trees are very old, like this southern magnolia (M. grandiflora)…..

….. which was still putting out shimmering blossoms in mid-summer.

The lawns alone take Di Mackenzie 15 hours a week on her sitting mower, and clearly they had just been done before our arrival.

The beds around the house feature roses and perennials…..

…. and Di’s exquisite sense of colour is on display here, like this buff peach rose with Phygelius capensis.

There is a sweet parterre along an outbuilding wall.

Rain showers started as I made my way from the lovely swimming pool……

……(Canterbury’s summers can be hot and very dry)…..

…….. to the enclosed garden……..

….with its espaliered apple allée  and stunning focal point.

Outside, there were pears…..

….. and peaches…..

…..and figs……

……and more apples.

Di’s vegetable garden produces an abundance of produce…..

……which she uses for family meals. What’s left over gets preserved for winter.

I loved this flower border, with its pretty white-and-blue theme including Ammi majus and love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena).

And I liked the way Di mixes perennials with roses, making the roses earn their keep instead of segregating them in a rose garden.

We were walked up to the newest part of the garden: the 4 hectare (10 acre) native-rich designed wetland. Paradoxically, when John Grigg bought his 32,000 acre estate here in 1864, the property was said to be mostly “impassable swamp”. But for Di and Ian, turning part of it back into a designed wetland with a meandering, marshy swale……

….. bordered by native flaxes (and also some colourful Phormium tenax cultivars, below)  and grasses…….

….. like Cortaderia richardsonii, a New Zealand cousin to pampas grass…….

…. and native hebe,below, with a foraging bumble bee,…….

…. offered more than an embrace of modern ecological sensibilities. There are also family golf matches in this area, where the water hazards are clearly abundant.

Perhaps the dog has been trained to retrieve lost balls? Or maybe he just likes a dip.

That bridge above, in fact, was where Ian Mackenzie showed us something he’s very proud of, something that for him seems to have made the return of the wetland all worth it. Have a look at these, below. They’re Canterbury mudfish (Neochanna burrowsius), an amphibious species that can survive long periods without water by burrowing into the mud. And they’ve been making a big comeback here at Akaunui.

We returned to the picnic tables via the previously overgrown woodland, which Di has started to clear in order to plant rhododendrons and lots of shade-loving plants.

We were offered a luscious home-cooked lunch with delicious beets and greens, courtesy of Di’s garden.  Oh, and the best rhubarb cake ever!

And there was a little wine (actually a lot of wine!)

As we made our departure from this beautiful farm, I stopped to watch the dogs’ tails move through a big field of something green. Looking closer, I realized it was another of the Mackenzie family businesses: radishes on their way to ripening seed.  I read later that New Zealand supplies almost 50% of the world’s hybrid radish, carrot and beet seed. Next time you slice a radish for a summer salad, consider for a moment that it might have started its journey in Ian & Di Mackenzie’s pretty field in Canterbury.


Hiking Under Aoraki Mount Cook

Of the three January 2018 weeks we spent touring New Zealand on the American Horticultural Society’s “Gardens, Wine & Wilderness” tour, without a doubt my two favourite outings were our overnight voyage on Doubtful Sound in Fiordland and the day we hiked the Hooker Valley Track under the country’s tallest mountain, Aoraki Mount Cook.  That’s not to say I don’t love gardens, but for me there is simply no garden that compares with the one that nature conjures in places that we have not disturbed. So it was with great excitement, a few hours after lunching at Ann & Jim Jerram’s lovely Ostler Wine vineyard in the Waitaki Valley that we found ourselves standing beside Highway 80 on the shores of Lake Pukaki, staring in awe at the majestic mountain in the distance.  Every camera and cellphone came out.

You can see why the Māori of the South Island called their sacred mountain Aoraki, or “cloud piercer”.  (I’ll tell you more of their founding legend later.)

We continued driving Highway 80 (aka Mount Cook Road) along the shore of Lake Pukaki on our way into Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. As at Queenstown, we saw invasive “wilding conifers” along the shore – in this case, lodgepole pines (Pinus contorta), left, from western North America. Introduced into New Zealand in 1880, the trees were intended to “beautify” the lakeshore but have invaded throughout the Mackenzie Basin.

Like Lake Louise in Canada’s Banff National Park, Lake Pukaki appears turquoise because its waters consist of glacial melt from the mountains we’ll see over the next 36 hours. In the meltwater is superfine “rock flour” or “glacial milk” consisting of rock that has been pulverized into fine powder by the grinding action of ice as the glaciers melt and retreat.

Though I wouldn’t really understand the hydrology here until I came home and studied maps, we then drove over a small stream wending its way out into Lake Pukaki’s northern shore.  This, I would learn, is a channel of the Tasman River, which empties both the Hooker glacier and massive Tasman glaciers in adjacent mountain valleys in the park. Now at the height of New Zealand summer, it was not a big flow, but I imagine these braided channels roar in springtime when the gravel floodplain accepts the snowmelt.

Moments later, we arrived at the 164-room Hermitage Aoraki Mount Cook Hotel that would be our home for the next two nights. Built in 1958 and extended several times, this is the third incarnation of the mountainside hotel.  The original, built in 1884 by surveyor and Mount Cook ranger Frank Huddlestone, was sited further into the valley near the Mueller Glacier. It was taken over by the New Zealand government in 1895. As visitors started pouring into the region, the hotel could not keep up with the demand for rooms, and was also subject to seasonal flooding, which ultimately destroyed it. In 1914, a second hotel was erected; it would host four decades of guests, including a young Edmund Hillary and his climbing mates who bunked here during their 1948 ascent of Mount Cook. Five years later, he and Sherpa Tenzing Norguay would be the first to summit Mount Everest. After a 1957 fire destroyed the second Hermitage, the current one was built by the New Zealand government, under the aegis of its Tourist Hotel Corporation (THC) which also owned other tourist properties. In 1990 the THC was sold to a private corporation.  Our room was on the 5th floor of the rear wing and had a floor-to-ceiling view of Aoraki Mount Cook.

It had been a long Day 12 of our tour, starting in Dunedin with a morning stop in Oamaru before our wine lunch in the Waitaki. After a delicious dinner (appetizer below), shared with hundreds of other mountain tourists, we hit the sack. Tomorrow there would be a valley hike – and plants!

My Hooker Valley Track Hiking Journal

10:00 – The next morning, we left The Hermitage (roughly the red square), cheating a little by getting a lift in our tour bus (which cuts off the first few miles and at least a half-hour walk) to the campground, shown at the first yellow arrow, below. Our destination, Hooker Lake – the second yellow arrow – didn’t seem far on the map, but it’s a good hike, as you’ll see.

10:17 –  Armed with a lunch we’d scrounged from our breakfast buffet, off we went in the fine, mid-January summer weather on the Hooker Valley Track (Kiwi for “trail”).

10: 21 – Soon we were passing through matagouri shrubland. Dark and prickly, the other name for this riparian native is wild Irishman (Discaria toumatou).

10:26 – Through the thorny matagouri branches, the massive southeast flank of Mount Sefton appeared. Called Maukatua by the Māori, it’s the 13th tallest mountain in the Southern Alps at 3,151 metres (10,338 feet).

10:28 –  Look at all these amazing golden Spaniards! What? You don’t see any Spanish tourists? No, golden Spaniard or spear grass (Aciphylla aurea) is the name for the sharp-leaved plants stretching across this meadow. Now we could clearly see Mount Sefton and its neighbour to the right, The Footstool (2,764 metres – 9,068 feet).

10:30 – The meadows were spangled with snow totara (Podocarpus nivalis), also called mountain totara. A much-hybridized evergreen, its progeny appears in  temperate gardens throughout the world.

10: 32 – The track features three suspension bridges, two of which were rebuilt in 2015 to divert them from areas prone to flooding or avalanches. This was the first bridge. From here, you could just spot……

10:34 –  …..Mueller Lake as it spilled its own meltwater from the Mueller Glacier just beyond into Hooker River below the bridge.

I walked (bounced?) across the bridge behind my husband who was holding onto his Tilley hat in the fierce valley wind. I was very proud of him. He is not a gardener, and a 3-week garden-wilderness tour of New Zealand might not have been the first item on his bucket list when we contemplated this trip in 2017, but he was enjoying it very much – provided the wine flowed at dinnertime!

10:39 – Here was Griselinia littoralis, aka kapuka or New Zealand broadleaf, an evergreen that normally grows as a tree. Though its Latin name indicates a preference for the seashore (littoral), we are really not far from the Tasman Sea in this mountain valley. (And here I must offer my thanks to New Zealand plant wizard Steve Newall, who helped me identify many of these endemic treasures. Have a read about Steve in this piece by my Facebook friend Kate Bryant).

10:41 – That long berm at left, below, is the moraine wall of Mueller Glacier.

10:44 – We passed a few invasive plants in the first meadows, like foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), below.

10:50 – I passed my phone to my husband and asked for a portrait….of my best side. Like some 70,000 other New Zealand tourists, I wanted to have a record that I actually made this hike.

It was much warmer than I thought it would be, and I adopted my customary “I thought this was a glacier hike?” clothing modification, the same strategy used a few years ago in Greenland to hike the boardwalk through the alpine meadows to the UNESCO   Ilulissat Icefjord site.

11:01 – Okay, back to New Zealand. Forty minutes after we began our hike, we crossed the second suspension bridge, known as the Hooker Bluff bridge. The scenery here can only be described as spectacular.

11:02 – Now we saw the Hooker River spilling into Mueller Lake.

11:05 – After crossing the bridge, the river was on our right side. Though small, it was powerful, its crashing cascades seeming to echo off the nearby mountain walls.

11:06 – I was so transfixed, I stopped for a few minutes to make a recording.

11:07 – Along the path, one of the golden Spaniards (Aciphylla aurea) had toppled over under its own weight. You can see the umbellifer flowers and strange leaves against the stem

11:08 – A moment later, I saw one pointing towards Mount Sefton’s lofty glaciers.  

11:11 – And three minutes after that, I stopped to mourn that I had not been here a month earlier to see the flowering of the iconic Mount Cook lily, Ranunculus lyallii, the world’s largest buttercup, below. It was collected by and named for Scottish botanist David Lyall (1817-1895) who had travelled as ship surgeon around New Zealand and the Antarctic from 1839-41 on HMS Terror. (Terror was later lost with all hands, along with HMS Erebus, in Canada’s Arctic during Captain John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition to find a shortcut from Europe to Asia.  After years of searching, both shipwrecks were found in 2014 and 2016.)  In assembling Flora Antarctica containing Lyall’s plant collections, his friend, English botanist Joseph Hooker (1817-1911), noted that the New Zealand shepherds called it the ‘water-lily’, an appropriate name since it is the only known ranunculus with peltate leaves.  (It was Joseph Hooker’s father, William Hooker, for whom this valley and glacier were named by Julius von Haast in his geological survey of the Southern Alps in 1863.)

But the Māori of the South Island – the ancient Waitaha, then the Ngāti Māmoe, then the present-day Ngāi Tahu – had known the flower for hundreds of years before David Lyall arrived to botanize. They called it “kōpukupuku”. It has even been featured on postage stamps.

11:13 – A few minutes later, I felt somewhat mollified to come upon a few pristine specimens of Gentianella divisa.

11-17 – Unlike a Canadian alpine meadow in, say, Alberta, there is little bright colour in these tussock meadows under Aoraki Mount Cook.  Many of the herbaceous plants tend to have white flowers, like Lobelia angulata, below.

11:19 – You can barely see the tiny white flowers of inaka (Dracophyllum longifolium), one of the common native shrubs in the Hooker Valley.

11:24 – So far, we’d been walking on crushed gravel. But now we set off across the meadow on a beautiful boardwalk. As it began, it pointed us at Mount Sefton and The Footstool, but a few minutes later, it….

11:26 –  …… veered to the right and gave us the full valley view of Aoraki Mount Cook.

11:30 – The shimmering meadow here was mostly mid-ribbed snow tussock (Chionochloa pallens).

11:32 – I was happy that I was able to identify mountain cottonwood (Ozothamnus vauvilliersii), which I had also seen in flower on Ben Lomond in Queenstown.

11:36 – Steve Newall helped me identify this lovely little community: the silver leaves of mountain daisy (Celmisia semicordata), its flowers already past, sitting in a bed of Gaultheria crassa to the left, with creeping wire vine (Muehlenbeckia axillaris)  up against the rock. The tussock grass is mid-ribbed snow tussock (Chionochloa pallens).

11:37 – A minute later, we were crossing the third bridge, called the Upper Hooker Suspension Bridge. This one seemed to catch the wind and the vibrations, especially near the river banks, were very strong!

11:43 – I stopped on the path for a few minutes to absorb the sight of these wonderful meadows and shoot a short video. Here’s how they looked:

11:54 – As we approached the end of the track, I found a stand of creeping wire vine (Muehlenbackia axillaris) in flower…..

11:54 – and Raoulia glabra with its little pompom flowers.

11:55 – When I looked up from the tiny alpine plants nestled in these rocks, I couldn’t help but notice the massive boulders lying in the meadow. The one below looked like it had sheared clean off the mountain and tumbled down the scree slope. But of course it might have happened dozens or hundreds of years ago. Unless one was actually there…….

11:56 – A minute later, we arrived at our destination. Hooker Lake lay before us – a body of water that hadn’t been there at all before the late 1970s, when Hooker Glacier began its retreat. In geological terms, it’s referred to as a “proglacial” lake.   It had taken us an hour and 39 minutes. We celebrated by walking along the path to a little picnic area and eating our lunch.

12:12 – With our picnic finished, I headed down to join the tourists posing for photos on the lake’s shore.

12:19 – My arthritic knee was not going to keep me from kneeling on the glacial till to capture a souvenir image of this little iceberg – aka “bergy bit” – washed up on shore.  As I looked up from this little lake – melted from a glacier named for an English botanist by a German geologist – at a towering mountain – named for an English sea captain by another English sea captain – I was unaware of the sacred nature of this park.

Long before Captain John Lort Stokes decided in 1851, while surveying New Zealand, to honour his predecessor, Captain James Cook, by naming the country’s highest peak after him, the Māori of the South Island knew it as Aoraki, or “cloud piercer”. The Ngāi Tahu do not see the mountain merely as the result of millions of years of tectonic uplift as the Pacific and Indo-Australian Plates collide far beneath the surface along the island’s western coast  For them it is the core of their creation myth: the mountain possesses sacred mauri. They say that long before there was an island called Aotearoa (New Zealand), there was no sign of land in the great ocean. When the sky father Raki wed the earth mother Papa-tui-nuku, Raki’s four celestial sons came down to greet their father’s new wife. They were Ao-raki (Cloud in the Sky), Raki-ora (Long Raki), Raki-rua (Raki the Second) and Raraki-roa (Long Unbroken Line). They arrived in their waka (canoe) and sailed the sea, but could not find land. When they attempted to return to the heavens, their song of incantation failed and their waka fell into the sea and turned to stone as it listed, forming the south island. The brothers climbed onto the high side of their waka and were also turned to stone. They exist today as the four tallest peaks in the area: Aoraki is the highest (Mount Cook); the other brothers are Rakiora (Mount Dampier), Rakirua (Mount Teichelmann) and Rarakiroa (Mount Tasman).

When title to the park was vested to the Ngāi Tahu in 1998, the mountain’s name was formally changed to recognize Aoraki, and all management decisions are made in concert with them to respect the environment as their sacred place. This remarkable carving by the late Cliff Whiting hangs in the park’s Visitor Centre. It depicts a fierce Aoraki and the four brothers/mountains.

Moments after kneeling at the shore of Hooker Lake, I gazed up at the sky and saw a cloud. People who study clouds call this an orographic cloud – its shape distorted by air currents that must lift in response to tall mountain peaks. But when I looked later at the photo I’d made, all I could see was the face of a fierce ancient god gazing across the sky.

12:20 – Okay, back to earth now. I didn’t bring my ultra-zoom camera with me on the hike or I could have captured the front wall of Hooker Glacier.  As it is, I enlarged one of my images to show the glacier and its calving wall.  If you’re looking to see sparkly-white, gleaming glaciers, you’re in for a shock here. As my friend Andy Fyon, retired head of the Ontario Geological Survey, says: “Active alpine glaciers can be a bit like a child. They revel in the rough and tumble life and in getting dirty! That is not the same for continental glaciers, which enjoy staying clean.”

12:30 – Looking at the upper part of Aoraki Mount Cook, below, you can see the summit partly obscured by a cloud.  I’ve also drawn in the south ridge that was recently renamed the Hillary Ridge. The closest of the mountain’s three peaks, Low Peak (3599 metre – 11,808 ft) was first summited in 1948 via the southern ridge by a foursome that included Edmund Hillary, Mick Sullivan and Ruth Adams and their guide Harry Ayres, Three years later, Hillary, along with Tenzing Norgay, would become the first person to summit Mount Everest. But that 1948 ascent of Mount Cook came with attendant drama, for when the foursome went on to attempt the nearby peak La Perouse (out of my photo to the left or west), Ruth Adams’s rope broke and her 50-foot slide down the slope left her unconscious with several fractures.  Hillary would contribute the first chapter to the gripping account of that rescue.

In fact, some 248 climbers have died attempting to climb Aoraki Mount Cook. Summiting is a considerable achievement in the world of couloirs and cirques and belays. I enclose the following video to demonstrate the skill needed. I estimate that I screamed “Oh, my god” or words  to that effect a dozen times and averted my eyes at least 20 times. Put on your crampons and fasten your carabiner…..

12:38 – Heading back to the hotel now, we took a little side detour up to a few small tarns, which is alpine for glacial pond.

12:46 – The Upper Hooker Suspension Bridge was just as bouncy and windy on the return trip.

12:55 – We walked at the base of Mount Wakefield, which separates Hooker Valley from the Tasman Valley to the east.

12:59 – A small footbridge at the Stocking Stream Shelter took us over the Hooker River with its milky rock flour.

1:20 – Looking down a little later, I saw a drift of Parahebe lyallii.

1:35 – And creeping over a rock was one of the “bidibids”, Acaena saccaticupula.

1:53 – I saw my only Hooker Valley butterfly, the common copper, foraging on New Zealand harebell (Wahlenbergia albomarginata).

2:12 – Coming towards the end of the hike, I made a critical mistake. Weary now and gazing across the meadows at what looked to be a direct route back to the Hermitage, I said, “Why don’t we get off this winding path and go straight back across the meadow?”  My husband, trusting soul that he is, reluctantly agreed.  Neither of us knew that the only people who ventured this way were mountain bikers.  With our tired legs, the spongy soil and long grass of the meadows made the last stretch seem never-ending.

2:14 – In the meadows in front of the hotel were a few lupines. Despite now being on the noxious aliens list, these invaders are quite famous for their massive spring show in the park.

2:19 – Parts of the meadow turned into dried-up gravel stream beds that are clearly part of the seasonal drainage patterns of the rivers here.

2:21 – I found another famous New Zealand mat plant, scabweed (Raoulia australis), growing here.

2:37 – And finally, 4 hours and 20 minutes after we began our hike, we arrived back at the sign-post near the hotel.

3:00 – As we kicked off our hiking shoes and collapsed  onto our beds in the 5th floor room with the great view of the mountains, we cracked open a bottle of the Gëwurztraminer we’d bought at Ostler Vineyard the previous day. A glass of chilled wine never tasted so good.

9:30 – And later, after dinner, as the light dimmed in the sky, I looked out on Aoraki Mount Cook with something akin to affection. Like the Māori, I sensed its spirit infusing this spectacular landscape.

9:43 – And as the sun shed its last rays on its snowy peak, I gave thanks for the pilgrimage we had made to be close to it.