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.

Lilies in Meadows

I spent an hour on Thanksgiving weekend planting a dozen Orienpet lily bulbs in my meadow gardens at the cottage on Lake Muskoka. A deservedly popular group resulting from complex hybridizing of Oriental and Trumpet lilies, they came from the Lily Nook in Neepawa, Manitoba, which has been in the lily-breeding business for more than 30 years. The Lily Nook also sells popular lilies outside their own registry, offering 150 varieties through their catalogue.  I’ve always been impressed with their service and the quality of their bulbs.


When I say I planted the bulbs in “meadow gardens”, I mean either one of two small fields on either side of the cottage, below, but also in….

orienpet-lilies-in-meadow beds that I originally intended to keep somewhat tame, which have now been invaded by their wild meadow brethren.  This is ‘Conca d’Or’ – my favourite Orienpet, with blue Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and ‘Gold Plate’ yarrow (Achillea filipenulina)….


Planting lilies is easy, and much like planting spring bulbs such as tulips or daffodils. The difference is that lilies can be planted in either fall or spring, unlike spring-flowering bulbs which must be planted in autumn. Fall planting works well when autumns are long and relatively mild, allowing the bulbs to root nicely before freeze-up. In my case, there is no beautiful, rich soil to work; it is truly a mess of wild grass and wildflower or perennial roots and granite bed rock. I shifted my spade around to find 10-12 inches of clear soil, then dug out any roots I could and sifted the soil a little with my hands. I had a very small amount of seed-starting mix that I added to the hole (I would recommend a better soil, if you have it, to give a good start), then plunked the fat, scaled lily bulb on top.  Lilies prefer rich, free-draining but reasonably moist soil.


I gathered a pail of pine needles, and after backfilling the hole with the bulb, I mulched the soil with the needles and watered everything well. Experts recommend mulching Orienpets in cold regions, but apart from the pine needles, I’ve relied on our generally guaranteed deep snow cover to get them through winter. The pine needle mulch at least guarantees a short time for the bulb to emerge in spring without encroachment by other plants.


And when I say encroachment, in meadow gardening it’s a given that life is cheek-to-jowl and plants must be able to survive in those conditions. Here’s the Asiatic lily ‘Pearl Justien’ with wild sweet pea (Lathyrus latifolius).


This year, I bought 3 bulbs each of pink ‘Tabledance’ (who makes these names up?) and ‘Esta Bonita’, three of ‘Northern Delight’ (soft melon orange) and three more of my fave: pale-yellow ‘Conca d’Or’.  The Lily Nook always adds a free bonus bulb, usually an Asiatic. While they are lovely in my city garden, they don’t seem to take as well to the meadows at the lake.  The one below faded away after a few years of rough living.


Orienpets have inherited the spicy fragrance of their pink and white Oriental parents and the swoony scent of the orange and yellow Trumpets. So I’m careful to site my lilies where their exquisite perfume can be enjoyed up close. That means near a sitting area, as with ‘Conca d’Or’, below…


…. or along a grassy path where walkers can enjoy inhaling.  That’s peachy ‘Visa-Versa’ at the front, and the orange Asiatic ‘Pearl Justien’ in the rear.


…. or beside the stairs to the dock….



They are not immune to disease (especially after a rainy spring, when the stems and leaves can develop a blight) and certain little critters love them, especially red lily beetle (I don’t have many of these) and grasshoppers, like the ones below noshing on ‘Robina’ (I have thousands of these!)


This one reminded me of Dr. Strangelove riding the bomb.


Deer will take the odd chomp off the top – and that, of course means the end of the flower.  But when they are happy(ish), they are my guilty pleasure – since everything else in my meadows is grown for wildlife and pollinator attraction. The liies are just for me, a little hit of luscious intermingled with the do-gooders. Let them keep company with the red ‘Lucifer’ crocosmia as it brings in the hummingbirds to sup….


…. and with the orange butterfly milkweed, as it attracts bumble bees and monarch butterflies.


Let them hang out with the bee-friendly veronica (V. spicata ‘Darwin’s Blue’)….


…. and the pink wild beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) with its hordes of bumble bees.


Here’s a tiny video of ‘Conca d’Or’, (above) playing partner to beebalm.

Yes, my meadows are big enough for a few pinup gals, like ‘Visa-Versa’, below.


And the garden beds look all the lovelier for a ravishing beauty among the humble blackeyed susans.



Black for Garden Drama

Late August brings us into the dog days of summer, and there’s nothing that cures a dog day like a dose of drama. That’s why I reserved this month for BLACK! (And thanks to a little summer travel, I’m just getting in under the August wire.)

Black flowers & leaves-The Paintbox Garden

Of course, no plant leaf or flower is completely black. Inspected closely, there is always green (for photosynthesis) or dark red, purple or deep bronze underlying the apparent dark floral pigments. But there’s a rich roster of plants that can be called upon to inject a little black magic into the garden, whether it’s with dark-as-night foliage or betwitchingly black blossoms. And for my money, no one offers up the design potential of black like Vancouver’s Van Dusen Botanical Garden. Here’s their black and gold border, with barberries, colocasias, sedums, eucomis and black mondo grass, to name just a few. Isn’t it lovely?  And doesn’t that dark foliage look spectacular paired with chartreuse?

Black Border-Van Dusen Gardens

Here’s a closer look at a portion of Van Dusen’s wonderful border, with a black taro, ‘Black Tropicanna’ canna and ‘Brunette’ snakeroot (Actaea racemosa ‘Brunette’).


Mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) is one of the darkest ‘black’ leafed plants, and one of the most dramatic for pairing with bright colours.  I love the way Victoria’s Horticulture Centre of the Pacific uses it in combination with Sedum ruprestre ‘Angelina’, seen below in spring when it’s still gold.

HCP-Ophiopogon 'Nigrescens' & Sedum 'Angelina'

Here’s how it looks at HCP with golden oregano (Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’).

HCP-Ophiopogon & Origanum vulgare 'Aureum'

At gorgeous Chanticleer Gardens in Wayne, Pennsylvania, the Japanese Garden employs Japanese black mondo grass as a dark edging under bamboo ‘fencing’.

Chanticleer-Ophiopogon & Aruncus-Asian Woods

Other dark, grass-like plants include fountain grass, particularly Pennisetum ‘Princess Caroline’ and ‘Vertigo’, below, shown with orange zinnias at New York’s Conservatory Garden in Central Park.

Conservatory Garden-Zinnia & Pennisetum 'Vertigo'

And here is Pennisetum ‘Princess Caroline’ doubling down on black with the ornamental pepper Capsicum annuum ‘Black Pearl’, a fabulous black annual.

Capsicum 'Black Pearl' & Pennisetum 'Princess Caroline'

Black and red look spectacular together, too, as demonstrated by Capsicum annuum ‘Black Pearl’ paired with annual red Salvia splendens.

Capsicum 'Black Pearl' & Salvia2

The best spring bulb for injecting a little early-season black is Tulipa ‘Queen of Night’. I love this one, and use it liberally in my own spring garden. Here it is at Toronto’s Casa Loma bringing depth to citrus colours….

Tulipa ''Queen of Night' & yelllow-orange tulips

…. and at Toronto’s Spadina House as a pretty partner to pink….

Tulipa 'Queen of Night' & 'Black Diamond'

…. and echoing the dark foliage of ‘Diabolo’ ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Sambucus & Tulipa 'Queen of Night'

Shortly after the tulip season comes columbine season, and there’s nothing more dramatic than Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Black Barlow’.

Aquilegia vulgaris 'Black Barlow'2

One of my favourite dark-leafed shrubs is Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Eva’), seen below with a pink Phlox paniculata at Northwest Garden Nursery in Eugene, Oregon.

Northwest Nursery-Eugene-Sambucus&Phlox

For some reason, annual sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas) lends itself genetically to black colouration. Here is ‘Ace of Spades’ with yellow rieger begonias in Toronto gardener Shari Ezyk’s lovely urn.

Shari Ezyk-Urn with Begonias & Ipomoea batatas 'Ace of Spades'

And adding a dark carpet to sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) at the Conservatory Garden, in New York.

Ipomoea & Chasmanthium

This is the fancy-leafed ‘Blackie’, with ‘Lemon Gem’ marigolds at Toronto Botanical.

Ipomoea & Tagetes

Another species that has benefited ‘darkly’ from plant breeding is tropical taro or elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta). Here we see the big leaves of  ‘Royal Hawaiian Black Coral’ exploding with a canna lily out of a sea of chartreuse foliage at Montreal Botanical Garden.

Montreal Botanical-Colocasia esculenta 'Royal Hawaiian Black Coral'

Black taros are also used beautifully with other tropicals at Nancy Goodwin’s Montrose Garden in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

Montrose-Black Taro1

There are some good black petunias, including yellow-striped ‘Black Velvet’.

Petunia 'Black Velvet'

Sometimes we forget that seedheads can have visual impact in a late-season garden, especially when they’re as dark as Rudbeckia maxima, shown in front of Calamagrostis acutiflora at Wave Hill in the Bronx.

Black Seedheads-Rudbeckia maxima

Purple coneflower has dark seedheads, too. Here it is behind the golden fall foliage of Amsonia tabernaemontana in autumn.

Black Seedheads-Echinacea & Amsonia

And don’t forget the zingy seedhead possibilities of blackeyed susans!

Black Seedheads-Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm'

We can also add black with furnishings, of course. Here’s a modern black steel fence I fell in love with at the Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York.

Black Garden Fence-Corning Museum of Glass

And this black-stained garden arch is the height of design sophistication (as are black fences).

Black Garden Arch

Black chairs? What about using some black stain and artistic flourish to turn a Muskoka (Adirondack) chair into a work of art, as my artist son Jon Davis did for me many years ago.

Chairs-Muskoka-Adirondack Style

Even a simple black bistro chair can up the dark drama quotient, especially if it’s in renowned garden guru Tom Hobb’s former Vancouver garden.

Chair-Tom Hobbs

In the black accessories department, you can’t go wrong with a simple black obelisk, especially when it chums with a pink daylily.

Black Iron Obelisk

Moving to containers, black adds a dollop of sophistication via this beautiful trio of planters at Toronto Botanical Garden. No other colour would work as well with the flamenco-red flowers and foliage, all designed by horticulturist Paul Zammit.

Toronto Botanical Gardes-Cordyline-Acalypha-Geranium-Ipomoea

I’ve written about Paul’s creative container designs before, but he does have a special skill for knowing just what to use, like these kitchen herbs (parsley, sage), grasses (carex, hakonechloa) and orange calibrachoas in a run of basic black iron window boxes.

Toronto Botanical Garden- Containers

I’ll finish my contemplation of black in the garden with containers from my favourite public garden, Chanticleer. Here’s a lovely black urn that repeats the black-red theme of some of the photos above, with red calibrachoa. Stunning, isn’t it?

Pot-Chanticleer-Callibrachoa 'Alpha Kona Dark Red' & Melilanthus major (1)

And finally, a half-dozen statuesque black planters that are as much about defining space in this Chanticleer garden, as they are containing plants.

Chanticleer-Black Pots on Lawn