A beautiful microcosm

23:38, Nov 01 2012
ACQUIRED TASTE: Try planting globe artichokes in the herb garden with thyme and sage for a flavoursome trio.

On a sunny spring day, it's hard to beat a drive up, or down, the Motueka Valley. It's the perfect way to soothe the senses and gladden the heart.

It's certainly a reminder of how fecund and productive the land is, with lots of crops on the go, bright green pastures, abundant apple blossom, and hops springing into life.

Some may say it's a bit of a used and abused landscape, with cutover pine forest trees littering the slopes, gorse and broom invading forgotten gullies, and old man's beard clambering all over the riverbank willows. But I guess it's a matter of how you see the world. Sure, all those weeds and potential disasters are there, but so are lots of lovely spring blooms and crops bouncing back to life after winter.

Even the weeds, if you're the right frame of mind, look good right now, with bright yellow broom flowers lighting up the roadsides and dandelions smiling at the sun. And, soon, the gloriously serendipitous foxglove flowers will take their place in the mix.

To me, it's a microcosm of the Nelson landscape, with all kinds of crops growing in little pockets of land, on fertile river flats and in sheltered gullies. And it's such a world away from the city and traffic.

I love the way there's such a variety of crops to spot as you drive along the valley - blueberries, kiwifruit, apples, nashi, hops, asparagus, flowers, blackcurrants, and even a bit of homegrown tobacco.


And I love the old, run-down farm buildings, particularly those sporting rusty old corrugated iron, testimony to an era when practicality produced an appealing aesthetic.

Among those I love best are the hop and tobacco kiln buildings. You can't miss these old beauties, which make such a distinctive mark on Nelson's rural landscape. If you look hard enough, you'll spot them all over the place on jaunts around the district, in the Moutere and out the back of the Waimea Plains. Some of you may be lucky enough to remember the days when they were an integral part of working farm life in the district.

And they're unique to Nelson, setting it apart from other regions, the same way palms divide the warm country north of Banks Peninsula, the southernmost limit for nikau (in a secluded coastal gully near Akaroa), from the cold south.

And I love the way hop and tobacco kilns are such a reflection of their function. I don't want to go all deep on you here but, if you haven't heard of the design dictum "should function (or use) follow form" (the structure) or "should form follow function?", the answer with a hop or tobacco kiln is obvious; the form of the buildings is absolutely dictated by the function.

As those who used to grow it know, the elevated area was used to dry the tobacco leaves left hanging on poles stretched across racks right up to the ceiling, as the warm air was drawn up through the leaves.

The modern interpretation of the old hop processing plant still has the high ceiling to allow the mechanisation of the harvest, where the long stems of the plant are stretched out to rake the precious fragrant flowers off the vines, but somehow the modern buildings lack the romance of the old-style kilns and sheds.

Although there are lots of other buildings designed around cultivation, harvesting and processing of a particular plant, like those for making wine and storing barrels, none come close to the specific, distinctive form of hop and tobacco kilns.

But, inevitably, as they fall apart from redundancy and neglect, we can probably expect the kilns and sheds to gradually disappear - and I, for one, will miss the tale their form tells us.

Tobacco may now be the last taboo, but those who recall the halcyon days of tobacco growing will also remember the unique fragrance of the pink-flowered plants, Nicotiana tabacum var. macrophylla.

Typical of tobacco is the night-time scent of the flowers, evolved to attract night-flying pollinators - mostly moths - in their native habitat of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

But the nicotiana (pronounced ni-ko-she-ana) plant grown for tobacco is just one of many species that produce sweetly scented, night-fragrant plants. Others include the moon or white-flowered Nicotiana sylvestris. Although not commonly available, this stunningly beautiful annual will stretch up to a metre and a half tall when mature in midsummer, and will reward you with delicious, night-scented blooms that smell of balmy, Somerset Maugham-type-nights in the tropics.

Plant one and you will be addicted. But, unlike the tobacco nicotiana, it will leave you the better, not worse, for doing so, enriching your garden and your life - the perfect plant to have beside the barbecue or patio. When I drive up the beautiful Motueka Valley, I dream of night-scented nicotiana and elusive trout to catch in the river below.

Note: If you can't find Nicotiana sylvestris at your local garden centre, it's available from Kings Seeds at www.kingsseeds.co.nz. Sow or plant it now for summer.