Helen McKerralPukeiti Gardens, New Zealand

The wonderful thing about being a gardener on vacation is that, no matter where you are in the world, you meet people who love plants. The climate may be different, the plants may be different, but that joy of all things green and growing, of creating a beautiful environment, also creates an instant connection we recognise in each other. It’s exhilarating.

Pukeiti Rhododendron Garden

Pukeiti Rhododendron Garden

So in New Zealand this spring, travelling with three non-gardeners, I persuaded them into two gardens in the Taranaki district on the North Island. One was Te Kainga Marire, a private city native Garden of International Significance, and the other was the council-run Pukeiti Rhododendron Garden near Mt Taranaki itself. And although I was there before either garden peaked for the upcoming Taranaki Spring Garden Festival both were fabulous – even my non-gardening friends loved them. I saw a mouth-watering list of other gardens on the list but our time was short. However, if you’re in the region during the festival this video will inspire you.

Pukeiti Rhododendron Garden

Pukeiti Rhododendron Garden

I was also fascinated by the geothermal vegetation in the central parts of the North Island, so I’ll intersperse my next few Aussie blogs with these three New Zealand perspectives, beginning with the Pukeiti Rhododendron Garden.

Pukeiti Rhododendron Garden

Pukeiti Rhododendron Garden

The garden is nestled on the rich volcanic soil on the lower flanks of Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont), which looks like a snow-capped volcano a child might draw, so ridiculously pointy and perfect is its shape. In fact, coming from Oz with our ancient weathered landscape (see James Beattie’s “Wilpena Pound“, in my back yard, and Catherine’s “Uluru”) the thing that struck me most about even the restrained North Island of NZ was its abruptness: its jumbled valleys, its acutely-angled hills with pointy tors, its small sky, ringed by mountains.

Rhododendron 'Charisma'

Rhododendron ‘Charisma’

Although Pukeiti boasts 2,000+ wild and cultivated rhodies, the park contain so much more. Donated to the Pukeiti Rhododendron trust in the early 1950s by William Douglas Cook and transferred to the Taranaki Regional Council in 2010, the 360 hectare grounds include azaleas, magnolias, as well as many native rainforest plants, blending beautifully together.

Rhododendron 'Robert Keiller'

Rhododendron ‘Robert Keiller’

Rhododendron tuba

Rhododendron tuba

Rhodies thrive here because the climate is similar to their home in the Himalayas and China and indeed, tucked into areas of native vegetation, they look perfectly in place. Warm climate vireyas, such as Rhododendron ‘Simbu Sunset’, are housed in a protected greenhouse. I’m no rhodie expert, so if anyone can identify the three unknown cultivars pictured, I would welcome your input!   [8 Oct – Many thanks to Graham Smith, former Pukeiti Director, for identifying these rhododendron for GardenDrum]

Rhododendron 'Simbu Sunset'

Rhododendron ‘Simbu Sunset’

I could describe the gardens but, really, the photos do a better job. The ambience is serene and, on the day we were there, the low cloud cloaking Mt Taranaki just added to the peacefulness. It’s big enough to get lost in, with or without a map (don’t ask!). Suffice to say, we found each other!

Rhododendron prostitum 'Pukeiti'

Rhododendron prostitum ‘Pukeiti’

If you’re lucky, you’ll bump into some gentlemen volunteers with probably more than a century of plant and gardening knowledge between them. Your enthusiasm will connect with theirs and they might show you the way to the “First of the First” (to flower) rhododendrons, a gnarled specimen of Rhododendron protistum ‘Pukeiti’ which took more than two decades to flower from seed.

“Have you seen the giant rata?” one of our gentlemen guides ask and we admit that no, we’d been sidetracked.

“Have you seen the giant rata?”

“Follow me,” he says. En route we garner many fascinating snippets about the understorey species (foxgloves are an invasive pest). He also explains that the hemi-epiphytic rata vine, Meterosideros robusta, often germinate as seeds atop tall trees, then send their roots downwards through the moss and other epiphytic growth to the ground.

Roots of the Meterosideros robusta

Roots of the Meterosideros robusta

They gradually expand, until all that’s left of the original tree is an encased rotting core (eventually a hollow – you can climb through this one), surrounded by healthy, self-supporting rata.

800 years old rata

This rata is thirty metres high, 12.5 metres in circumference and about 800 years old – dating back to the same time NZ was settled by the Maori people!

In fact, all of the epiphytic plants of New Zealand were fascinating. Every centimetre of almost every surface is covered in mosses and lichens and ferns and other tiny plants, the names of which I haven’t a clue, so that it’s possible to see an entire ecosystem with forty species on a boulder the size of a beach ball, or a tree branch no thicker than my arm. The tree epiphytic vegetation is inelegantly but evocatively referred to as “tree snot”; I thought it enchanting nonetheless and constantly stopped to photograph it. No room in this blog for pics, I’ll bundle some with the geothermal story later.

Giant rata

However, the giant rata itself is a host for numerous epiphytes, so much so that it was impossible for me to identify the rata’s own foliage until our gentlemen guides pointed it out (smallish ovate leaves). The grassy-looking clumps high up are specimens of the epiphytic lily Collospermum hastatum – an epiphyte growing on a hemi-epiphyte! These clumps gradually become huge over time and fall to the ground where they continue to grow. This plant is also known as “The Widow Maker” for its unfortunate effect on forest workers in the past!

North Island’s native vegetation

All in all, I was utterly captivated by the North Island’s native vegetation and its landforms, where its geology and – ironically – its youth, is writ large and bold on every vista.

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Helen McKerral

About Helen McKerral

Horticultural journalist, photographer, contributor to many garden magazines, and author of 'Gardening on a Shoestring'. Adelaide Hills, South Australia

One thought on “Pukeiti Gardens, New Zealand

  1. Lovely post, Helen. I agree, New Zealand has such a fabulous array of vegetation and landform. Perhaps because so much of their geological history is volcanic, they have a continual flow of wonderful, rich material in which things can take hold and grow. There is also the mystic and spiritual aspect of their land that reflects in the beautiful and exotic vegetation and the misty, temperate conditions that so love flowers and delicate fauna. I am married to a Kiwi and from my earliest days visiting there was always struck by the proliferation of backyard veggie patches all over the country. And everyone – even the most blokey rugger lover – had a soft spot for their garden and loved talking plants etc on any occasion. We also have “widow makers” here in Aus; the soaring eucalypts that drop their limbs silently and swiftly, without warning.

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