Category Archives: New Zealand

A Landscape Devoid of Green

I wouldn’t be fair to write about Mt Taranaki without following it up with a blog about New Zealand’s Central Volcanic Plato; so here it is. After mine and Craig’s arduous assault of the summit of Taranaki we took an all together more leisurely trip to the upper reaches or Mt Ruapehu by ski lift; perfect! The sun, low in the sky, with its golden rays enhanced the rich colours of this young, mineral rich terrain. Only sulphur yellow lichens have so far colonised the upper slopes, a vibrant contrast with oranges of the rock and stark blue sky.
What else to do but lay back in the sun and take in the view and warmth of the sun. That was all well and good, but we had a chair lift to catch to avert a long walk down. As backpackers we generally travelled on a budget and often cooked and slept by the road side, but having spent the last few months fruit picking we deserved a little extravagance. The conditions couldn’t have been better. It was a perfectly still crystal clear evening so we booked ourselves onto a scenic flight over the volcanoes. We circled steaming vents, azure creator lakes and marvelled at the blackened cone of Mt Ngauruhoe casting its dark shadow across the North Island.
The following morning was less than perfect as we set out on foot for a closer look at the creator lakes. After a good hike into a brisk wind we were spared brief few minutes view down onto the lake rimed by yellow and orange bacteria before the cloud base descended and the rain set in. I enjoy hiking in the rain especially in mountainous terrain as it makes for dramatic landscapes, enriches the colours and fuels the waterfall. With the peaks and distant slopes concealed by veils of mist you’re free to admire the smaller things. The higher exposed slopes were not devoid of plant life but were certainly devoid of green, perhaps an adaptation to high levels of light.
On the higher scree plains hummocks of a grey moss/lichen offered shelter and anchorage for the hardiest of the alpine species to gain a foothold. Huddled together, barely poking their heads above their hosts, these tough little plants create gardens in miniature. Bellow the golden, coral like Hebe cupressoides, ruby red Parahebe hookeriana, emerald Olearia nummulariifolia and the blue, pink and red tinged Dracophyllum recurvum nestle together, and black lichens splatter the rocks.
Celmisia incana with is frosted silver leaves, and the bronze grass Chionochloa rubra, animated by the wind, are two more beautifully contrasting plants found on less exposed slopes along with Phyllocladus alpinus with its flattened blue/grey stems.
I have often thought about creating a garden without green, and people often jeer at the concept as dull and funereal. The botanical richness and beauty of these high alpine slopes are certainly a great inspiration and show the wealth of colours and forms that plants have to offer. Ok, so a garden with out green may no afford the jollity of herbaceous boarder in full bloom but I think it would certainly hold its own in the detail. This is one concept I will definitely work on.


Volcanos and Giant Cordylines

As I’m still very much in the UK, and busy helping to prepare my friend Will’s garden for winter, I thought I’d take a look back at a past adventure.

A stalwart of all temperate exotic gardens, and vital for winter structure, is the good old Cordyline. These robust Palm like plants are used so much so, especially in the south west of the UK, that they have acquired the common names of Cornish and Torquay palm or less elegantly the Cabbage Palm. While travelling a year or so ago around New Zealand, during the southern summer I came across a couple of fine specimens in habitat.

 One of the defining features of the north island of New Zealand is Mt Taranaki (above) soaring 2518 metres above the flat pastoral land. The mountain known commonly as Egmont is in fact of volcanic origin, being thrust up through the landscape by immense forces below the crust. Craig Knight, who I was travelling with, and I set out for the summit on an unremarkable grey and drizzly day. Zig-zaging our way through the lush forests that ring the lower slopes, marvelling at the trees laden with Mosses, Ferns, Astellias, Orchids and where the mosses and leaf litter had settled in the crux of swollen bows, small trees and Cordylines that would otherwise reside on the ground. These dripping forests of moss laden and tangled branches became the setting for the Goblin Forest in the Lord of the Rings. As we hiked further up the volcano, the steeper the path rose and the lower and thinner the forest canopy became. Here, where there is much les competition for light and an abundance of water peculating down from the ice cap on the summit and regular rain fall, grows the imposing Mountain Cabbage Palm, Cordyline indivisa.
These distinctive plants with their lush heads of broad leaves (10-30 cm wide and 1-2 m long) seem almost alien among the surrounding bush. This is a striking plant and could create an air of exoticism in any garden. Cordyline indivisa is however notoriously difficult to cultivate. Growing primarily in elevated areas it needs a constant supply of water and a cool position free from all but the lightest of frosts. Below are some young plants in Tresco Abbey Garden in the Isles of Scilly.
Leaving the tree line behind and climbing beyond the grey cloud, the path became steeper still and we emerged into warm sunlight catching our first glimpse of the summit, the looming grey snider cone piercing the sky above. There was no more zigzagging from there on, those ahead of us making a bee-line strait to the top. We were now on all fours, calves burning, scrambling at no great speed up a steep loose pumice slope. Pausing for a breath at a jaunty angle we remained alert as we dodged rocks hurtling by at great speed, dislodged by those higher up.
The cone of Mt Taranaki remains plugged with ice throughout the summer months and is pockmarked with holes made by fallen rocks that heat up in the sun and slowly sink out of sight. The summit provided views out across a cloudscape in every direction. The only landmark visible was the broad bulk of Mt Ruapehu and the perfect flat toped cone of Mt Ngauruhoe out to the east in the Central Volcanic Plato. (Below Craig at the summit.)
Driving east through mile after mile of  irrigated, fertilized intensely green pastoral land, Mt Taranaki still a good size in the rear view mirror, we came across a loan Cordyline australis standing just off the road. This had to be the biggest by many times and certainly the finest of all the Cordylines we saw across both islands. This chap would rival an oak. Rather irritatingly, good old Wikipedia informs me that the biggest Cordyline in fact stands at the northern tip of the South Island in Golden Bay. It is said to have a circumference at the base of 9m and a height 17m and is estimated to be 400 to 500 years old. If this one isn’t the biggest it must be the most perfectly formed.
On my next venture to New Zealand I’ll have to visit Golden bay to see if it really does harbor the biggest Cordyline.