Queenstown – Bungy-Jumping & Botanizing

As the crow (or Air New Zealand) flies, it’s approximately 1024 kilometres (636 miles) from Auckland on the North Island to Queenstown on the South Island, most of it over the Tasman Sea.  That was our route on our 7th touring day with the American Horticultural Society’s Gardens, Wine & Wilderness Tour in January 2018.

New Zealand-Auckland to Queenstown-Flight

Below on Google’s satellite view is the approximate route that AZ 615 takes inland from the Tasman Sea (which also separates Australia and New Zealand), bearing southeast over the Southern Alps towards Queenstown.


Gate to gate, the flight takes about 1 hour and 50 minutes (80 minutes or so of flying time) and the last 15 minutes of flying over the lake, through the valley in which Queenstown sits and up its Frankton Arm to the airport make it among the most beautiful air approaches on the planet. In fact in 2015 respondents named Queenstown as the “most scenic airport approach” in a survey of that category.

Lake Wakatipu-Frankton Arm-Queenstown-flight route

So….. given that we had perfect weather on the flight, that I had the almost perfect seat overlooking the left engine cowling, and that I was enjoying trying out my new Samsung S8 phone, indulge me for a few photos while we approach Queenstown together.  (If you make it to the end, there’s a little….’surprise’.) The route took us over  the Southern Alps, the South Island’s long backbone, which stretches for 500 kilometres from Fiordland in the southwest to Nelson Lake National Park in the northeast. Here we are looking north toward Mount Aspiring National Park. North of the park and not visible in the photo is mighty Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak at 3724 metres (12,218 ft), where we would be in a few days.

Southern Alps-Aerial View-near Queenstown

Within seconds, below, the northernmost arm of the dogleg-shaped (Z-shaped) Lake Wakatipu was visible, with Pig Island a notable landmark.  This beautiful finger lake is 80 kilometres (50 miles) long with a maximum depth of 380 metres (1280 feet).  Though the mountains look barren here, that greenish-yellow in the scree and fellfields on the slopes features snow tussock meadows with myriad high alpine species.

Southern Alps-Lake Wakatipu-Pig Island-Aerial View

In the photo below we are looking straight up Lake Wakatipu towards the town of Glenorchy at its head. The lake was carved out by glaciers more than 15,000 years ago, between mountains uplifted over millions of years by earthquakes along the Alpine Fault. (New Zealand is part of the seismically-active Ring of Fire in the Pacific Basin, as we know from recent devastating earthquakes in Christchurch and elsewhere). Here on the west side of the South Island, the mountains are made of greywacke, a sandstone-mudstone mix that rose tectonically with the mountains from sediment in a deep ocean trench on the boundary of the Gondwana supercontinent between 100-300 million years ago. (Before it broke off and floated away, New Zealand was on the edge of Gondwana, which also included South America, Africa, Australia, India, and Antarctic.) Because greywacke fractures and falls apart easily, mountain climbers in the Southern Alps nicknamed it ‘Weetbix’. On the east side of the South Island, the bedrock is mostly metamorphic schist.  For a more comprehensive exploration of New Zealand geology, have a look at this excellent website.

Lake Wakatipu-Aerial View-Auckland to Queenstown-Air New Zealand

Now we’re heading straight along the middle arm of the Z-shaped lake towards Queenstown.

Lake Wakatipu & Mount Crichton-Air New Zealand-Auckland to Queenstown

A little fun fact about Lake Wakatipu. Its dogleg shape causes it to produce a tide-like phenomenon called a seiche, or standing wave, derived from a Swiss-French word that means “swaying back and forth”. The lake’s surface rises and falls roughly 10 cm (4 inches) on a 25-minute cycle, best observed apparently at Bob’s Cove (below) on the way into Queenstown. In Māori legend, the rhythmic surging was caused by the monster Matau dozing away at the bottom of the lake.

Lake Wakatipu-Seiche-Bob's Cove-Matau-Aerial View

A few seconds later, we come to the fun part: Queenstown. Though it’s New Zealand’s winter sports centre with lots of mountain areas to ski,there is something for everyone in this alpine town 12 months a year. Here I’ve labelled a few of the things we did over the next few days. Yes, we visited the Queenstown Garden and then travelled up the gondola in order to botanize on the flank of Ben Lomond from which we saw those ‘ghost pines’ in the far left!

Queenstown-Air New Zealand Flight-Ben Lomond-Gardens-Aerial View

And this, a second or so later….Yes, my husband Doug played golf at the Queenstown Golf Course, below (thank goodness for extra-curricular activities for non-gardening spouses!)  Now we’re flying down the Frankton Arm of Lake Wakatipu towards the airport suburb of, yes, Frankton.

Queenstown-Air New Zealand Flight-Golf Course-Aerial View

You must be thinking we’re going to land any moment now, right? Well, that’s what we thought as we roared towards the runway………

Queenstown-Air New Zealand-landing-aerial view

…. but NO!  Captain didn’t like those tricky Queenstown winds. So up we went for a fly-around. Of course, no one would rather ‘take a chance’ on a landing, so thank you Captain AZ615 for keeping things safe. Now we see the Lower Shotover River behind the airport as we ascend again. Fun!

Aerial View-Aborted Landing-Queenstown-Lower Shotover River-Air New Zealand-

I’m not quite sure where we went…. Remarkables?  (There are so many mountains around Queenstown). Anyway, we rounded a craggy, brown peak……

Craggy peak-Queenstown fly-around-Air New Zealand

….. and flew over Lake Hayes, below.  (At this point, I should give a nod to Google Earth, which helped me identify many of the Queenstown area landmarks.)

Lake Hayes-aerial view-Queenstown

Finally, with that first small adventure under our belt, we landed at the airport in Queenstown – adventure capital of New Zealand!


Wine-Tasting Adventure!

Alan, our lovely bus driver from the North Island was at the airport to meet us and off we drove along the Kawauru River towards Cromwell.  This narrow gorge of the river is called Roaring Meg; it contains a dam and two small power stations that form the Roaring Meg Power Scheme, built in 1934. Hydro-electric power provides almost 60% of New Zealand’s electricity.

Kawarau Gorge

I couldn’t resist this bus window view of the local greywacke rock with its “Weetbix” composition.

Greywacke-Kawarau Gorge-Otago

Before long we arrived at Goldfields where we were scheduled to have a wine tasting and lunch. But the place is more than that; it offers tourists a chance to pan for gold like the prospectors who arrived by the thousands in the 1860s for the Central Otago Gold Rush.

Goldfields-Kawarau Gorge-Prospecting equipment

Or you could pay to sit in a jet boat and roar up the Kawauru Gorge.  (No thanks…)

Jet Boats-Goldfields-Kawarau Gorge

Instead we elected to head to our reserved table at Wild Earth Wines…….

Wild Earth-Goldfields

…. to enjoy a wine tasting……

Wild Earth winetasting-Goldfields-Otago

….. and have a lunch that reminded us all that New Zealand is home to vibrant sheep and cattle farming industries as well as a rich fishery!

Wild Earth-Otago-Wine Lunch

After lunch, we had a date with one of New Zealand’s iconic adventure tourism spots. Along the route, we passed a small vineyard and learned that this is the most southerly of New Zealand’s wine-growing regions.


NOT Bungy-Jumping Adventure!

Soon we arrived at the Kawarau Bridge Bungy Centre, which is the original site for New Zealand bungy-jumping.  It was here in 1989 that Kiwi pals A.J. Hackett and Henry Van Asch first launched their plans for a commercial bungy-jumping enterprise mimicking the “land jumpers” of Vanautu. Check out this video at 2:35 of their big p.r. stunt in Paris, bungy-jumping from the Eiffel Tower, followed by a quick arrest.   One of the serious medical risks of doing this is retinal detachment – and since I suffered one of those without even jumping off my kitchen table a few decades back, I restricted myself to photographing the lovely young woman below, who would have paid $205 ($175 NZ student) for the privilege of doing this……

Bungy-jumping-Kawarau Bridge-Otago

…… and videotaping a man doing a water dunk as he enjoyed his bungy-jump, with a little valley wind in the background. (My 4- and 2-year old grandkids LOVE this video.!)

We watched as river rafts waited for the jumpers to clear the platform.  A few in our group chose to do some rafting the next day – but we were planning to look for plants!

Rafts-under Kawarau Bridge Bungy Centre

Janet Blair Garden

Then we made our way towards Queenstown via the lovely garden of Janet Blair.

Janet Blair garden-Queenstown

Our American Horticultural Society guide Richard Lyon of Garden Adventures, Ltd. enjoyed his chat with our hostess, Janet. Richard, a Pennsylvania-based landscape architect has friendships with a long roster of creative gardeners who generously open their gardens to him on his annual winter tours to his home country.

Janet Blair & Richard Lyon-Queenstown

Look at this heart-shaped hedge window…..

Heart-shaped window in hedge-Janet Blair-Queenstown

….. and this beautiful arch into a garden room.

Arch in hedge-Janet Blair-Queenstown

New Zealand experienced record heat in our first week of touring, echoing the dry summer they had before our arrival. This shady dell offered welcome relief.

Shady table-Janet Blair-Queenstown

Pretty combinations abounded in Janet’s garden, like this lavatera with lavender that…..


….. mirrors the hues of the Remarkables mountain range in the background, below. It was now time to head to our hotel in Queenstown for the night.


Queenstown Public Garden Advenure!

A free day in Queenstown! Along with a few plant geeks in the group, I visited the Queenstown Garden where our AHS host Panayoti Kelaidis, outreach director at Denver Botanic Gardens…..

Panayoti Kelaidis-AHS Host-New Zealand Tour-Queenstown Public Garden

…..toured us through the collections, which came from all over the world.

Panayoti Kelaidis-Queenstown Public Garden2

Apart from native New Zealand plants like lacebark ( Hoheria populnea)……

Hoheria populnea-Lacebark

….. and wire netting bush (Corokia cotoneaster)….

Corokia cotoneaster-wire netting bush

……. I found some beautiful Romneya coulteri from California being visited by honey bees…..

Honey bee on Romneya coulteri-Matilija poppy

….. and giant California redwoods (Sequoiadendron giganteum) with massive trunks….

Giant Redwood-Sequoiadendron giganteum-Queenstown Public Garden

…..and towering Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii).  Seeing them here, clearly thriving after many decades, it would be shocking later that day to see the way they’ve invaded the mountains and valleys surrounding Queenstown – including those in the background of the photo – where the flanks are dark green with these Pacific Northwest natives.

Douglas firs-Pseudotsuga menziesii-Queenstown Public Garden

Botanizing on Ben Lomond Adventure!

Soon after lunch, a few of us convened at the hotel and shared a cab to the Skyline Gondola Station at the base of Ben Lomond or Te-taumata-oHakitekura. It was a popular place with mountain-bikers and everyday folks like us.

Skyline gondola-Ben Lomond-Queenstown-mountain bikes

Going up, the view of Queenstown Bay and Lake Wakatipu was spectacular. You can see right here the ‘wilding pines’ – a generic name for many non-native trees like these Douglas firs that were planted by European colonists in the late 1800s as a beautification project.  Subsequent plantings took place as Arbor Day activities.

Skyline Gondola-Queenstown view

After getting off at the top where the view is even more stunning…..

Skyline Gondola-Terminus-Queenstown

….. we began our ‘tramp’ (as the Kiwis call a hike) by walking up through a dark Douglas fir forest. Notice that there are no understory plants here.  Nada.

Wilding-Douglas Fir forest-Ben Lomond

Soon we were on a path curving gently up through the Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve.  We would be stopping well short of the upper saddle and summit (1748 m – 5735 ft), but it was still a good walk. And the botanizing was great!

Botanizing-Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve

I saw my very first mountain beech (Fuscospora cliffortioides).

Fuscospora cliffortioides-Mountain Beech-Ben Lomond-Queenstown

The view over the subalpine shrubland was stunning…..

Tussock meadow-Ben Lomond-Queenstown

…..if you discounted the sprayed ghost forest of Douglas firs across the valley and the young trees popping up in the tussock grasses.

Douglas firs-wilding control-Ben Lomond

They are taking ‘control’ of these invasive conifers very seriously, as evidence by the sign here. And coming down on the path as we were ascending was one of the wilding eradication volunteers, clippers stuffed in his backpack.

Wilding control sign-Ben Lomond-Queenstown

But the plants! We saw turf mat daisy (Raoulia subsericea)…

Raoulia subsericea-Turf mat daisy-Ben Lomond-Queenstown

….. and turpentine bush (Dracophyllum uniflorum), so called because of its eagerness to burn…..

Dracophyllum uniflorum-Turpentine bush-Ben Lomond-Queenstown

….. and mountain cottonwood (Ozothamnus vauvilliersii)…..

Ozothamnus vauvilliersii-Mountain cottonwood-Ben Lomond-Queenstown

….. and a very cool lycopod, Lycopodium fastigiatum.

Lycopodium fastigiatum-Alpine club moss-Ben Lomond-Queenstown

That’s snow totara (Podocarpus nivalis) with the red berries, below. Not sure about the prostrate plant.

Podocarpus nivalis-Snow totara-fruit-Ben Lomond-Queenstown

Panayoti had his reference book of New Zealand alpines with him, but he is a natural font of botanical knowledge and pointed out the tiniest plants to us as we trekked up the path. On the way we were passed by lots of young hikers heading up to the summit or coming down. From here, it was another 1-1/2 hours to the top. Ah to be young again, with fresh knees……

Botanizing-Panayoti Kelaidis-tussock meadow-Ben Lomond track-Queenstown

We had decided that the beech forest would be our turnaround point, and we finally got there.  What a day it had been. Sitting in the shade under the beech trees…..

Beech forest-Ben Lomond-Queenstown

…… we realized we were tired, hot and thirsty.  Time to start the hike down the mountain and back to the hotel — with a timely stop at a Queenstown pub en route. No gin-and-tonic ever tasted quite as delicious as the one I polished off with my fellow ‘trampers’.

Finding Beauty & Tranquility at Omaio

While touring New Zealand this January with The American Horticultural Society’s Travel Study Program, we were privileged to visit both gardens with a high degree of human intervention and wild places where nature was the sole designer. But we also visited a garden where the owner had used her skill to meld subtle design with the natural environment in a way that complemented both.

Omaio-Garden Welcome-Sign

Omaio is a Māori word that means “peace, tranquility and happiness”. For Liz Morrow, her 18-acre (7 hectare) property on the Takatu Peninsula an hour north of Auckland is all of those things. What started out in 1980 as a log cabin seaside holiday house (what the Kiwis call a “bach”) became, in 2005, a full-time home.  Now it’s not just a ‘garden of national significance’ recognized by the New Zealand Gardens Trust, but also a Bed & Breakfast.  And it’s been the subject of magazine articles and a garden show.

Omaio-House front

But back to 2006, when Liz and her son Johny….

Omaio-Garden Sign

….. whose eponymous deck (aka ‘the gin deck’) is a comfortable spot to have a drink while gazing out at the ocean….

Johnny's Deck-the gin deck-Omaio

…. worked together to sculpt a garden out of native bush that features a  puriri tree (Vitex lucens) estimated to be 800-1000 years old, ancient kauri pines (Agathis australis), totaras (Podocarpus totara), silver ferns (Cyathea dealbata) and many other species. Crushed seashells from the beach, below, form the paths which circle through the bush……

Shell path through bush-Omaio

….. while fallen tree fern trunks delineate the edges in many places. Tree fern path edging-Omaio

Using borrowed garden hose to outline gently curving borders that echoed the curves and waves of Kawau Bay below, Liz cut into the former lawn, planting both exotics and natives that would complement, but not out-compete, the natural setting.

Lawn & sea view-Omaio

In the sunny garden surrounding the house…..

Omaio-House garden

….and in the dappled shade near the tennis court are plants like hydrangea that do very well here.

Tennis court-Omaio

We were all wowed by the luscious mophead Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Bloody Marvelous’.

Hydrangea macrophylla 'Bloody Marvelous

Though Liz’s massed clivias and bergenias would have flowered in New Zealand’s spring (our autumn), their foliage and fruit still offered interest in midsummer. This is the fruit of a yellow-flowered clivia.

Clivia fruit-Omaio

Liz was the perfect hostess, organizing an alfresco lunch…….

Liz Morrow-Omaio

….. in the shade behind the house where terraced gardens stretching up the slope offer what Liz calls “a soft palette that’s easy on the eyes”:  lots of green foliage with just a sprinkling of colour in a favourite yellow dahlia.

Terraced beds-Omaio

I loved this focal point crafted from a Scleranthus moss cushion…….

Scleranthus moss cushion-Omaio

……… and the real cushions on these comfy chairs under ferns.

Chairs & tree ferns-Omaio

After lunch I wandered Omaio’s paths, past the sunny Koru Garden where vegetables grow in profusion in raised beds shaped like the koru or symbolism-laden fern crozier that I wrote about in my last post.  In the bright midday sunshine, it was difficult to do justice to this garden…..

Koru Vegetable Garden1-Omaio

…..that provides fresh produce throughout the year. Not visible in the background is a small fruit orchard.

Koru Vegetable Garden2-Omaio

In the mostly green bush landscape, the pohutakawa (Metrosideros excelsa) stood out like a glowing red bouquet.

Metrosideros excelsa 'Vibrance'

This was my favourite photo from Omaio, a shimmering kauri trunk set against the turquoise ocean. (Kauris will figure prominently in my next blog on Maori culture.)

Kauri trunk-Agathis australis-Omaio

The artwork chosen for Omaio is subtle and rustic, like this corrugated iron boat shed…..

Boat shed-Jeff Thomson-Omaio

….. and sphere, both by Jeff Thomson. (His “Cows Looking Out to Sea” were in my earlier blog video from Connell Bay Sculpture Park.)

Sphere-Jeff Thomson-Omaio

Grandchildren must love this swing under the trees.


In a nod to the North Island’s prehistoric past, a lifesize moa by Jack Marsden-Meyer made from driftwood and pururi boughs watches over the path from the bush.  The sculpture recalls the flightless bird – this one, the North Island giant moa (Dinornis novaezealandiae)  was estimated to stand at 3 metres (10 feet) – that was hunted to extinction by the Polynesians, the first humans to reach New Zealand in the 13th century.

Moa-sculpture-Jack Marsden-Meyer-Omaio

Her “eggs” sit in a nest nearby.

Moa sculpture eggs-Omaio

As I came back around the house, some of Liz’s family were returning from a fishing expedition on Kawau Bay with a bucket of ‘snapper’ (Pagrus auratus), aka pink seabream, for dinner.

Snapper-Pink seabream-Omaio

Rounding into the shade, a native New Zealand hens-and-chicks fern (Asplenium bulbiferum) caught my eye.  Note the tiny ferns arising from bulbils on the mature fronds.

Asplenium bulbiferum-Mother spleenwort-Hen-and-chicken fern

And I loved this little maidenhair fern in a pot……

Maidenhair fern-Omaio

…. and these nests from the birds that have called Omaio home over the years.


A quick glass of water……

Water jug-Omaio

……then it was time to climb the path to the bus and head further north to the seaside town of Paihia in the Bay of Islands.

New Zealand – The Fernery Nation

“A fernery”…. Doesn’t that sound enchanting? For me it conjures up damp air, the cool fragrance of earth and decomposition on a forest floor, lacy texture, dancing shadows, and a thousand shades of green. But as a word defining an actual place, I hadn’t run into ‘fernery’ until arriving at our first of three actual ferneries in New Zealand during our American Horticultural Society garden tour this January.  As a country with a warm subtropical climate at the top of the North Island and cool temperate rainforests in the extreme southwest of the South Island — and everything in between – and with 15,000 kilometres (9,300 miles) of humid coastline, it’s an ideal environment for ferns of all kinds, but especially the native tree ferns for which it is well known, like the one below growing with kauri trees at Bay of Islands.

Tree fern-Puketi forest-Bay of Islands

Before I begin, here is a little chart I made to try to remember the differences among New Zealand’s relatively small number of native tree ferns from the genera Cyathea and Dicksonia. (Which is a little like someone from New Zealand trying to understand the differences among Canada’s goldenrods…..) The most important things to remember are: Cyathea are scaly, Dicksonia are hairy. The three most common are mamaku or black tree fern (C. medullaris), ponga or silver fern (C. dealbata) and whekī or rough tree fern (D. squarrosa).  I think I photographed all of them, apart from C. cunninghamii.

New Zealand tree fern chart-Janet Davis

So, from the beginning of our tour, it was here at Domain Auckland, off to the left of the reflecting pool, below, in the Wintergardens complex…..


….. under the lichen-encrusted beams of the open-air Fernz Fernery, that I saw my very first king ferns (Ptisana salicina, formerly Marratia).  In New Zealand, where all the plants still bear their traditional Māori names, king fern is ‘para’; its starchy rootstock was used by the Māori as food. It is the country’s largest herbaceous fern; in perfect conditions its fronds can reach 5 metres (16 feet).

King fern-Ptisana salicina-Fernz Fernery-Auckland Domain

Built in 1929 as an unemployment work project, the fernery occupies an old scoria quarry carved from the flank of the extinct cone volcano Pukekawa (the Auckland War Memorial Museum, which we also visited, sits directly atop the crater’s tuff ring). During the Second World War, the fernery began to be neglected; specimens were stolen, common local ferns and weeds invaded, and the place was vandalized and used for parties. By 1992, the 1930s collection of some 80 native species from all over New Zealand had diminished to just fourteen. Two years later, the fernery was restored and its specimens – including whekī-ponga (Dicksonia fibrosa) with its persistent skirt of old fronds, below – were restocked.  My regret is that the sun was shining brightly on a record-heat Auckland afternoon, creating difficult light for photography. It would have been wonderful to return to this lovely spot in the cool of morning.

Fernz Fernery-Auckland-Domain

Over the next several days, we visited scores of private gardens, including Mincher, the Auckland area garden of Bruce and Angela Spooner, where we had our first delightful outdoor dinner. Here I caught Bruce showing the whitish back of a silver fern (Cyathea dealbata) – New Zealand’s national emblem – to one of our tour group. The root of the Latin epithet dealbata (whitened) is, of course, “alba” for white, referring to the silvery-white backs (abaxial surface) of the silver fern’s fronds.

Silver fern-Cyathea dealbata-underside-Mincher Garden

On our bush walk behind their manicured gardens, I saw my first black tree fern or ‘mamaku’ (Cyathea medullaris) with its dark stipes.

Cyathea-medullaris-black tree fern

In the Bay of Islands on the northeast coast of the north island, we visited the Puketi Kauri Rainforest near the seashore town of Paihia, Though I’ll expand on that in an upcoming blog on Māori culture, below is a taste of this spectacular ancient forest laced with tree ferns and towering kauri trees (Agathis australis) via the Manginangina Kauri Walk.  (Also the scene of the first photo in this blog).

Kauri & tree fern- Puketi Forest-Bay of Islands-Manginangina Walk

That evening, we visited the Waitangi Treaty Grounds for a cultural show and dinner and I was fascinated by the use of a tree fern frond in this enactment of a traditional Māori pōwhiri or welcome. Here, one of the performers becomes the warrior issuing the wero or challenge to the visitor. By placing the fern frond on the diagonal, he offers a provisional welcome.

We would see scores of tree ferns in the private gardens we visited over the next few weeks, but through luck and very fast walking, a few of us also managed to visit a second proper fernery during a shopping stop in the city of Whangārei (pronounced Fangaray as the Māori “wh” is pronounced “f”) on the drive from the Bay of Islands back to Auckland.  What a treat to spend a few minutes wandering through the Marge Maddren Fernery at Botanica Whangārei, below.

Marge Maddren Fernery1-Botanica-Whangerai

Built in 1987, it honours local conservationist Marjorie Maddren, who was on hand to help with construction.  She was the founder of the Whangarei Native Forest and Bird Protection society, which donated the funds and volunteer hours to build this enchanting place.

Marge Maddren Fernery3-Botanica-Whangerai

Within its three connected shade houses, there was even a little mossy pond or two.

Marge Maddren Fernery2-Botanica-Whangerai

I had never heard the term “filmy fern”, but there was a purpose-built adobe brick house containing these ferns, which are native to tropical or temperate rainforests and require constant moisture; many enjoy proximity to waterfalls.

Marge Maddren Fernery4-Filmy Ferns-Botanica-Whan

Below is the filmy fern Hymenophyllum demissum, which reminded me a little of damp, weeping parsley.

Hymenophyllum demissum-Filmy fern

After flying to Queenstown on the South Island and exploring the city and area for a few days (more on that in a later blog), we headed towards Fiordland National Park to explore Doubtful Sound. After a boat ride over Lake Manipouri, we got on a bus to take us through Wilmot Pass in Fiordland, where I photographed the prickly shield fern (Polystichum vestitum)….

Polystichum vestitum-Wilmot Pass-Fiordland

….. and what I believe are crown ferns (Blechnum discolor), on our way to the boat dock in Doubtful Sound’s Deep Cove.

Blechnum discolor-Crown fern-Wilmot Pass

But it was in the spectacular reaches of Doubtful Sound itself (blog coming later), which we navigated on a memorable overnight voyage to the Tasman Sea and back, where tree ferns formed an essential component of the jutting peaks and hanging valleys of this beautiful fiord.

Fiordland Navigator-Doubtful Sound

Below are what I believe to be soft tree ferns or kātote (Cyathea smithii) growing beneath southern rātā trees (Metrosideros umbellata) with reddish flowers.

Cyathea smithii-Katote-Southern rātā-Metrosideros umbellata-Doubtful Sound

And here they are beside one of Fiordland’s countless waterfalls.  You can clearly see the persistent rachises or frond stalks of C. smithii, one of the identifying features of that species (along with their notation on Fiordland botanical lists.)

Cyathea smithii-katote-soft tree fern-Doubtful Sound-waterfall

After leaving Fiordland, we spent a few days touring in Dunedin before heading towards Mount Cook. At a shopping stop in the little town of Oamaru, some of us hurried to the Oamaru Public Garden where we discovered lovely gardens with tree ferns……

Oamaru Public Gardens-Tree ferns in garden

…. and another charming native fernery, among many other fine gardens. However, I think this structure must be a replacement for the one celebrated in a 1917 issue of the Oamaru Mail newspaper, of which it was written: “The fernery at the Gardens is now nearing its full beauty, and those who visit its cool emerald recesses will acclaim the originators of its inception who succeeded in having set apart for its erection part of the proceeds of two Garden Fetes.”

Fernery-Oamaru Public Garden

Christchurch became our base for visits to three spectacular Akaroa gardens, which I’ll write about in time. But the first, Ohinetahi, belonging to esteemed architect Sir Miles Warren featured a small wild garden with beautiful tree ferns.  Suspended over a creek was Heart of Oak, a stunning piece of sculpture from Virginia King, who also contributed to Connells Bay Sculpture Park in my last blog).

Ohinetahi-Virginia King-Heart of Oak

There were also ferns in this sphere by renowned New Zealand artist Neil Dawson.

Ohinetahi-sphere-artist Neil Dawson

We finished our tour in Wellington, where we visited what was my favourite New Zealand public garden, Otari-Wilton’s Bush & Native Botanic Garden. Here, within a vast expanse of native New Zealand plants, was the most ambitious native fernery, an outdoor collection planted in the 1970s.

Fernery sign-Otari-Wilton's Bush

I could easily have spent all day here….


…… finding new ferns like the lovely common maidenhair Adiantum cunninghamii.

Adiantum cunninghamii-Common maidenhair fern-Otari-Wilton's Bush

The scene below took me a while to identify, but it’s a lovely example of a plant community in the New Zealand bush. The fern is a sub-canopy climber thread fern (Icarus filiformis, syn. Blechnum filiforme), and the photo shows both its string-like juvenile form and its adult form.  The little orange flower is New Zealand gloxinia or taurepo (Rhabdothamnus solandri), a smallish shrub to 2 m (6 ft) and the country’s only gesneriad. Like several other native plants, it was named for Daniel Solander, the 18th century Swedish explorer who, along with Joseph Banks, sailed on Captain James Cook’s first voyage in 1769.

Otari-New Zealand-Gloxinia & Blechnum filiforme

I loved this vignette of epiphytic thread fern (Icarus filiformis) and climbing scarlet rātā (Metrosideros fulgens) – colonizing a tree fern trunk (Cyathea dealbata).

Epiphytes on tree fern-Otari-Wilton's Bush

Unfurling croziers like the one below on the wheki (Dicksonia squarrosa) at Otari-Wilton’s Bush are called ‘koru’ in Māori. The koru is a symbol of creation, according to Te Ara, the New Zealand encyclopedia, which “conveys the idea of perpetual movement, and its inward coil suggests a return to the point of origin. The koru therefore symbolises the way in which life both changes and stays the same.”

Koru-Dicksonia squarrosa-wheki

We saw the koru shape in the Kowhaiwhai motifs on the rafters of the Māori ‘marae’ or meeting house we visited in Bay of Islands…..

Koru motif-Maori-marae-Bay of Islands

…. and even in tattoos of some of the Māori performers at Waitangi.


Perhaps the most spectacular feature at Otari-Wilton’s Bush is the elevated boardwalk that lets visitors walk above the forest floor where silver ferns (Cyathea dealbata) spread their lacy fronds amidst native trees and understory shrubs.

Otari-Wilton's Bush-Silver fern from boardwalk-Cyathea dealbata

It’s not surprising that this fern with its silvery reverse that saw it used by the Māori as a trail marker, even at night,……

Cyathea dealbata-underside-abaxial surface-silver

….. this fern with perfect symmetry, large fronds held horizontally and soft feathery pinnae…..

Silver fern-Cyathea dealbata

….. should have become New Zealand’s national emblem. I saw it emblazoned on airplanes  …..

Air New Zealand-Silver Fern motif

……and glass dividers…..

Air New Zealand Flight Status-Silver fern motif





























…… and on the uniforms of employees of Air New Zealand. (I asked my cheerful flight attendant to model for me on the way back to Los Angeles).

Air New Zealand-uniform-Silver Fern motif

There were needlepoint silver ferns on the ‘city chairs’ at Government House in Wellington….

Chair-Silver Fern motif-Government-House-Wellington

…… and on the sign for the fabulous Te Papa Museum in that city……

Te Papa Museum-Wellington-Silver Fern motif on sign

…… where, inside, a stylized tree fern was part of the natural history display,

Te-Papa-Tree Fern Display

And, of course, the famous New Zealand All Blacks rugby team sports a dramatic silver fern on its black jerseys.

All Blacks-Silver Fern logo

It wasn’t just architecture and design where I was seeing tree ferns, though. I started to see their shadows on the road……

Tree fern shadows-Omaio

……. and their reflections under paddling ducks.  I had clearly fallen in love with tree ferns.

Duck on Tree Fern reflection

For me, it’s profound that a single plant so captivates a nation – its founding people and those who came hundreds of years later – that it becomes an iconic symbol of ‘place’. After all, I live in a country that discarded its colonial Red Ensign flag after a lengthy debate and adopted a stylized maple leaf for its flag in 1965. Now the maple leaf is featured not just on our flag but on corporate logos and sport uniforms, such as Air Canada and the Olympic men’s hockey team below.

Canada-Maple leaf motif

There has also been debate in New Zealand of replacing its current flag, the Blue Ensign and Southern Cross, with a design incorporating the silver fern. But a 2016 referendum defeated that motion by 57% to 43%. A shame, I think.  It would have made such a lovely ending to this blog…….

Silver Fern-Flag candidate-New Zealand-Kyle Lockwood design

Butterfly Milkweed: PPA’s 2017 Plant of the Year!

You know that feeling of pride you get when a friend receives a well-deserved award? I feel exactly that way about an outstanding prairie wildflower that I’ve been growing here in my meadows on Lake Muskoka for many years. So, when I heard that The Perennial Plant Association chose my very favourite perennial – butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa — to be their 2017 Plant of the Year, I decided to honour it with my own blog.

Asclepias tuberosa-Apis mellifera1

The PPA award is not the first laurel to be bestowed on this lovely wildling. In 2014, it was awarded the Freeman Medal by the Garden Clubs of America, as a native deserving of wider garden planting. And the GCA president asked me if I would donate my photo of a monarch butterfly on the flowers, below, which I was happy to do (see down this page).

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch butterfly

Despite the plaudits, butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is not the easiest perennial to grow, unless you happen to garden on a sand prairie. It has a deep tap root that makes it rather difficult to transplant. And seeds are often notoriously slow to germinate and grow, sometimes taking 5 years to grow enough to set flower buds.  But give it a little rich, free-draining, gravelly soil and lots of sunshine, and watch the pollinating insects pile on. Foremost, of course, is the beautiful monarch butterfly, which uses it – as it does all milkweed species – as food for its caterpillars. If you’re lucky, you might see the female monarch ovipositing on its leaves or flowers.

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch ovipositing

Come back and you’ll see the little egg on a leaf….

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch egg on leaf

… or perhaps right in the flowers.

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch egg on flower

Follow along over the next few weeks and you’ll see the various instars of the developing caterpillar munching away on the leaves….

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch caterpillar

…. and the flower buds.

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch larva

But monarchs aren’t the only butterflies fond of butterfly milkweed. Many others love the nectar-rich flowers, including the great spangled fritillary…

Asclepias tuberosa-Great Spangled Fritillary

…. hairstreaks, below, and many others.

Asclepias tuberosa- hairstreak

Bees love it too. On my property, I often see the orange-belted bumble bee (Bombus ternarius) nectaring….

Asclepias tuberosa-Bombus ternarius

….and the brown-belted bumble bee (Bombus griseocollis), too.

Asclepias tuberosa-Bombus griseocollis

Here’s a little video I made of the brown-belted bumble bee foraging on my butterfly milkweed. In the background, you can hear a red squirrel scolding and a lovely Swainson’s thrush singing its flute-like song.

Naturally, many native bees seek nectar from butterfly milkweed.  I’ve seen long-horned (Melissodes) bees….

Asclepias tuberosa-Megachile

…. and tiny, green sweat bees (Auguchlora pura), all enjoying the flowers.

Asclepias tuberosa-Augochlora pura

Honey bees are avid foragers, too.

Asclepias tuberosa-Apis mellifera3

Okay, you get the picture. This is one superb pollinator plant!  But how should one grow it, and with what companions?  I have grown it in both reasonably rich, sandy soil, and very dry, lean, sandy soil, and I can attest that it prefers more moisture than other prairie plants, such as gaillardia and coreopsis. This is what it looked like near my septic system this July. I managed to keep it watered by running two hoses up the hill behind my cottage, but it was a struggle until a few rains came.


However, if summer rains are abundant, it’s happy with those more drought-tolerant natives.  Here it is growing very wild in dry soil with Coreopsis lanceolata.

Asclepias tuberosa-wild planting

And it does well in fairly dry conditions with Anthemis tinctoria.

Asclepias tuberosa & Anthemis tinctoria

On the other hand, it does well in reasonably rich soil with my Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, where I can run the hose if rains don’t come (like this summer)…..

Asclepias tuberosa & Crocosmia 'Lucifer'

…. and peeking up through my grassy monarda meadow, near a lush pink lily.

Asclepias tuberosa & Lily & Monarda

I’ve grown it with Penstemon barbatus ‘Coccineus’….

Penstemon barbatus & Asclepias tuberosa

…and with blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta).

Rudbeckia & Asclepias 2

And I’ve seen it looking pretty with daylilies and catmint in a friend’s garden, too.

Asclepias tuberosa & Hemerocallis-Nepeta

Butterfly milkweed’s blooming season is so long, it counts numerous July and August plants as companions. Here is a bouquet I photographed on July 17th, 2010 with blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta), false oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides), veronica (Veronica spicata ‘Darwin’s Blue’) and blue vervain (Verbena hastata).

Asclepias tuberosa & bouquet companions

… and a collection of little bouquets I made on August 16th, 2013.

Asclepias tuberosa-August 16-Bouquets

If you want to know absolutely everything that might flower at the same time, here’s a montage I made one year on July 7th, 2014. Yes, that’s butterfly milkweed near the lower right corner. See if you can guess the rest!

Asclepias tuberosa & plant companions-July 7-2013

I have planted dozens of young butterfly milkweed plants here at Lake Muskoka over the years, like these ones offered by the Canadian Wildlife Federation (along with suitable nectar plants), as an encouragement to ‘bring back the monarch butterfly’. Most took, provided I irrigated them for the first summer; a few didn’t.

Canadian Wildlife Federation-Milkweed

But I have also managed to grow many from seed, which is harvested from the typical milkweed fruit capsule.  The ones that were most successful were those I guerilla-sowed, using the toe of my boot to kick them in along the edge of a gritty, community pathway midway down the hillside on a neighbour’s property. Under that granitic gravel, below, there was actually rich sandy soil and adequate moisture, given that the path sits mid-slope on the hill. But this tough environment best replicates the natural ‘sand prairie’ that butterfly milkweed likes.

Asclepias tuberosa-growing in gravel

You can also buy a seed mix in multiple colours:  ‘Gay Butterflies Mix’, below.

Asclepias tuberosa 'Gay Butterflies Mix'

Want to try your hand sowing butterfly milkweed? Follow these seeding instructions in a propagation guide in the Minnesota newsletter of Wild Ones:  “Collect when pods are cracked open. Remove down; cold stratify in fridge in damp sand for 90 days. Broadcast on soil surface in spring when soil is warm.

Best of luck growing this worthy award winner!  You and the pollinators – including the lovely monarch butterfly – are worth the effort.