New Zealand gardeners often bemoan the 'greenness' our native flora. The showy wildflowers of North America, the tropics and elsewhere are not for us. But we have some true gems amongst our natives, valued highly in other countries, even if they are sometimes passed over in their own country.
Flowers abound, though; it's simply a case of knowing when, and where, to look for them. Spring is one of the most spectacular times in the calendar with kowhai, clematis and Chatham Island Forget-Me-Nots all producing dazzling displays.
Spring is peak flowering time for native trees and most of our showiest trees, apart from the Christmas blooms of the pohutukawa, flower in spring.
Kowhais are one of the first signs of spring in New Zealand, the bright yellow flowers appearing even from late winter. Loved by nectar seeking native birds and gardeners alike, every New Zealand garden should include at least one kowhai.
There are several species and a number of forms available from the slower growing and slower to flower South Island kowhai (S. microphylla), the faster developing North Island kowhai (S. tetraptera) to the dumpy, delightful hybrids such as 'Dragon's Gold' that flowers even before winter ends.
Lemonwoods or Tarata (Pittosporum eugenioides) are known for their light green wavy-margined leaves, growing quite quickly to a 5.0-10.0m (16-33ft) tree, the lemonwood is one of our prettiest pittosporums. In spring the lemonwood has masses of creamy-yellow flowers held in clusters and with a sweet scent. Apiarists value these trees for the spring nectar supplies, gardeners for the graceful form, foliage and the flowers each spring. Protect from frost tender when young as it can be tender.
Less flashy, but a valuable tree in coastal gardens, Karo (Pittopsorum crassifolium) produces deep wine-coloured spring flowers. More hidden in foliage than those of the Lemonwood, the Karo has a subtle charm. Frost tender, Karo needs a protected position but is extremely wind hardy.
The weird but wonderful tangled red flowers of the rewarewa, bring to mind proteas and other flowers from South Africa. Heavy with nectar, the reddish flowers draw birds and appear over a long period from spring into summer. A narrow upright tree with serrated, narrow greenish-brown leaves, the rewarewa is an excellent choice for many smaller gardens, providing an excellent exclamation point without the bulk of many conifers.
Putaputaweta (Carpodetus serratus) is wonderfully tangled, although not quite divaricating, when young. The green leaves are marbled white, giving rise to its European name, 'Marble-leaf'. The leaf serrations reduce as the tree matures and the branches straighten, but the clusters of white, scented flowers are more than compensation. A small tree Putaputaweta fits into most gardens. It needs moist soils and can be frost tender when young.
The wineberry or Makomako (Aristotelia serrata) is one of our showier flowering natives. Large clusters of small wine coloured flowers appear on the tree in spring and early summer. These are followed by juicy black berries that are great bird food. Soft green foliage is tinged purple beneath and can be frost tender, especially when young.
A New Zealand icon, the flowering of the cabbage tree or ti-kouka (Cordyline australis) is a spectacle. These palm-like trees produce massive creamy flower heads that will last well into summer as they form hundreds of seeds, taken by the birds to perpetuate the species. Along the coastline and inland, the tufted heads of the cabbage tree bearing their flowers will stand out. It's commonly believed that the tree will not branch until it has flowered, an adage borne out by casual observance.
Cordyline banksii, a smaller cordyline with more lax, drooping leaves produces similar flowers, although not in the quantity of C. australis.
Another unique New Zealander, the Nikau (Rhophalostylis sapida) flowers in late spring, the spike of pinkish-purple flowers emerging from the stem below the leaves. Unfortunately the Nikau takes many years to flower, so if you have one, cherish it. A good rich, moist soil and a relatively frost free position and your Nikau will thirve, look after it as unfortunately it is now threatened in some wild habitats.
Spring means kowhai blossom
Kowhai, bare branches hung with gold
Lemonwood flowers scent the spring air
Marbled foliage of juvenile Putaputaweta
The Cabbage tree, an NZ icon
Older trees develp a marvellous knarled shape
Cordyline banksii, smaller and with pink-tinged flowers
The Nikau, purple-pink flowers appear below the leaves