New Zealand has many iconic plants, including some oddities, that have evolved due to our unusual climate, isolation and fauna. Some of the Pseudopanax genus, known as the lancewoods, are part of our unique flora, and their unusual foliage is responsible for them becoming garden favourites worldwide.
The foliage in some species varies dramatically as the plants age, with the spikier juvenile foliage said to be either a defence against browsing moa or an adaption to a dry climate. The moa-browsing theory would possibly explain why foliage on older, taller trees (which would have been out of reach of moa) is less fierce. This adaptation is particularly obvious in the lancewood, Pseudopanax crassifolius, and the fierce lancewood, Pseudopanax ferox.
The leaves on a lancewood go through four distinct changes of shape during the plant’s life. The four leaf stages are: seedling, juvenile, transitional and adult. The juvenile leaves are the more lance-like, and the change to adult foliage is so dramatic that the plant was mistakenly given two separate names by Dr Solander on Captain Cook’s early voyage to New Zealand.
A lancewood’s unique foliage means the tree adds a bold statement to any planting. Nurseries and gardeners have brought a number of species of Pseudopanax together (Pseudopanax crassifolius seems to hybridise readily with Pseudopanax lessonii) resulting in a range of hybrids, many of which are now available from garden centres. All of these hybrid seedlings are different in leaf shape and form, and they increase the range of plants we can grow.
Pseudopanax crassifolius can be found throughout New Zealand, and it is very tolerant of a wide range of conditions. Usually found growing in fairly dense woodland, it is a great species for establishing in dry bush areas. Young plants grow very quickly as a single stem, reaching two to three metres before starting to branch.
As young plants, they can be frost tender, but protection by other plants can enable them to be grown in cooler areas. Their long, narrow, young leaves with serrated edges are dramatic and beautiful, often having a lovely central red or yellow vein.
As they age and start to branch, these lancewoods develop into a very neat and characteristic lollipop-shaped small tree. At this stage, the leaves become much shorter and broader.
Pseudopanax ferox gets its common name of fierce lancewood from its very coarse leaves, which are often darker in colour and shorter in length than Pseudopanax crassifolius. Each leaf is long and serrated and would not look out of place in a crocodile’s mouth.
Growth on the fierce lancewood is fairly slow. As a young plant, the tree is very straight, branching when it reaches a couple of metres in height.
It grows well in many situations, but needs some overhead cover in cold areas if the young leaves are not to be frosted.
Seed is produced on older plants and if you are able to reach it, should be collected in autumn. The seed will benefit from cold treatment (stratification) for two months prior to sowing. This will break any dormancy and seed should then germinate quickly. Sow into a good seedling mix.
Tip cuttings can be taken in spring. Cut 5-10cm pieces of new growth, and push them into a pot of free-draining cutting mix (they may take some time to root). Transfer to pots when sufficient root has formed.
Pseudopanax care tips
- Lancewoods are tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions, including dry areas, but dislike very wet soils and poor drainage.
- Even though frost-hardy when older, young seedlings require protection.
- Lancewoods are reasonably possum-damage resistant.
- Seed on older plants attracts native birds.