The herald of spring in the native garden has to be the sunshine yellow kowhai (Sophora species) – even its name means yellow. Its lovely flowers have led to kowhai being considered our national flower.
Admittedly, this tree or large shrub can look quite drab for most of the year, but at springtime it comes into its own by bursting into beautiful yellow flowers. I have a smaller-growing cultivar, Sophora molloyi ‘Dragon’s Gold’, which is more shrub-like in size and this flowers in late winter. This year it started flowering as early as June, perhaps due to our milder autumn.
Kowhai are significant to Maori and the flowering on bare branches, before the leaves appear, was a signal that winter was over, frosts were past and it was time to plant the kumara.
The nectar in the tubular yellow flowers is keenly awaited by our nectar-loving birds, the tui, bellbird, kaka and kereru who flock to the trees. I have counted as many as 20 tui in a neighbouring large old kowhai in spring.
After flowering the seeds form in pods that hang down from the branches. The seeds usually need scarification (abrasive rubbing to allow water into the seeds) before germinating. This can happen when seeds pass through the gut of birds, too. The trees do self-seed and I often find seedlings popping up in the garden that can be potted up.
Unusually for New Zealand trees, some species of kowhai are deciduous and lose their tiny, green leaves in winter. Other species have a juvenile stage of densely tangled branches before reaching tree size and starting to flower.
The only downside to growing kowhai is to take care as all parts of the tree are poisonous, as are so many of our garden plants.
Of course kowhai is not the only plant to awaken in the native garden in spring.
One of the earliest flowering natives is the tree fuschia, kotukutuku (Fuchsia excorticata). This plant is unusual as it is the largest fuchsia and, rare for a native, is semi-deciduous. It gets its name from its cinnamon-coloured bark that peels off in long strips. The small flowers are greenish at first then turn purply red as they ripen and have another unusual feature – their pollen is blue.
If you have a tree fuchsia in your garden, this will attract native birds such as the nectarfeeding tui, bellbirds and silvereyes. The little silvereyes can’t reach into the flowers, so they get to the nectar by piercing the base of the flowers instead! The purple berries will form later over summer. This is one of our three native fuchsias, the other two being a shrub and a ground cover.
The wineberry or makomako (Aristotelia serrata) is also starting to flower. This tree has beautiful clusters of nodding, bell-shaped flowers, produced on branching sprays. They start off creamy white then change to pinky red – the colour of rosé wine perhaps? This graduation in colour adds to the charm of the flowers. The wineberry is one of the few deciduous natives and, in colder areas, will lose its leaves. Well worth a place in the native garden.
And it’s not just trees that are preparing to flower – many shrubs and perennials are, too. My favourite hebe (now called veronica) has to be Veronica speciosa. This can grow into a sprawling shrub so needs to be pruned to keep in shape. But the flowers are such a stunning shade of magenta and are produced over a long period so are really good value in the garden. An added bonus is that they self-seed, so I have several spread around the garden now. They look good both in a native garden and in a perennial, mixed border as that gorgeous colour contrasts and complements so many other shades of exotic perennials.
Chatham Island forget-me-not
The Chatham Island forget-me-not (Myosotidium hortensia) is an outstanding garden perennial with those large, glossy, heart-shaped pleated leaves. It is not a true forget-me-not, but was given the name because its flowers are very similar. The Chatham Island forget-me-not produces a large stalk of deep-blue flowers in spring. There is also a rarer, white form.
These plants like a rich, moist soil and some shade, but not deep shade or they won’t flower well. Plants can clump up and look good under trees. They can be tricky to grow (I know as I’ve lost a few but, ever optimistic, have just bought another!), but if they are happy and thrive we are rewarded by those stunning blue flowers, rare among our natives.
New Zealand lilac
Heliohebe hulkeana, the New Zealand lilac, is unusual in the colour of its flowers, a pale lilac. In spring this small, evergreen shrub produces a profusion of long sprays of lilac-mauve flowers from the tips of the branches. After flowering, pinch out the growing tips to keep this shrub compact or it can become rather sprawling. The leaves are pretty too, being small with serrated edges.
For northern gardeners, golden tainui or kumerahou (Pomaderris kumeraho) is budding up and will soon open its golden flowers that will cover the bush. This plant is also known as “gumdigger’s soap” as the crushed leaves will lather up in water, due to the chemical saponin.
And then there is Clematis paniculata. Puawananga, is known as the “flower of the skies”, and heralds spring for Maori.
There are nine clematis species endemic to New Zealand, but C. paniculata is the best known and most widely grown. Most plants available for sale produce male flowers, as these are bigger and showier. The flowers are white, with six to eight petals and a central spray of yellow stamens. As if they were not beautiful enough, they have a sweet scent, too. Later in summer, if the female flowers have been pollinated, they turn into fluffy seed heads, blown away by the wind.
Like all clematis, it likes moisture and cool roots, so plant other shrubs around the base to keep them cool. The vine will scramble up other plants or a support to reach the sun where it flowers and becomes the flowers of the skies in spring.