Giant rhodos mesmerise

Now all the crowds for the garden festivals have gone home, we can enjoy our local gardens in comfort.

It's a great time to see rhododendrons and where better than Pukeiti. It's easy to ignore the garden because it's on our doorstep, but lest we forget, it's probably the most diverse collection of rhododendrons in the world. Everything from the sub- tropical vireyas to the enormous big- leaf rhodos are represented.

So it seems timely to go for a wander and remind ourselves how good it is. The moment you cross the drive from the gatehouse, you'll see the best New Zealand rhododendron of all time. If I lived in a tiny town garden and was allowed just one shrub, this would be high on my list of candidates.

As you can see from these Rubicon plants growing both sides of steps, they have the most amazing glossy, crinkled foliage in deep dark green. Dense trusses of blood-red flowers are the perfect topping. Bred by the late Ron Gordon of Taihape, this is the best dwarf red rhodo in the world.

Step right onto the grass, admiring the bluebells all around, and then up by the kauri is another New Zealand selection, Falcon's Gold, with big bold leaves and golden flowers. Check out the furry grey-leaf Rhododendron pachysanthum just in front, because it's such a tactile beast, and hardly recognisable as a rhodo.

The small tree in the lawn with multiple trunks and hammered bark is Ironwood, or Parrotia persica from Iran. It must be a shock adjusting from the arid Iranian climate to Pukeiti with its four metres of rain a year. Apparently two metres is classified as rainforest. New Plymouth misses out but many of us around the mountain squish easily into that category. So if it rains during your visit, don't worry - it's a rainforest. Wet places suit the bog primulas, and a nearby group of magenta Primula pulverlenta prove the point.

Just below is pink leaf maple or sycamore, grown exclusively for the spring growth flush Acer pseudoplatanus "Brilliantissimum" and on the left of it is a rare evergreen from Taiwan and Korea. Trochodendron aralioides another of my all time favourite shrubs has leaves like our native fivefinger. Look for the peculiar green flowers shaped like a frozen splash of rain. At the front of this border are various Pulmonaria with pink-and-blue flowers and mottled leaves. They're terrific ground cover near the edges of a flower bed.

Back towards the main path is another stunning red, Rhododendron elliottii. This plant was first discovered in north east India by the famous explorer Kingdon Ward. Unlike the Rubicon, you won't find this plant for sale in a garden centre because it's quite tricky to grow, though you wouldn't think so to look at this splendid specimen.

On the corner near the path is a group of splendid foliage plants with emerging pink candyfloss flowers, and bold crinkled leaves. Rodgersia pinnata is another plant for wet climates and thriving here.

Take the Cook Walk through the bush until you emerge into an open area with a rimu and fabulous native fuchsia tree hanging over the path with paper brown trunks. We usually think of fuchsias as small delicate shrubs but our native Fuchsia excorticata is the biggest in the world. From here onwards you'll see some glossy-leaf plants like giant lettuces. These are the giant Himalayan lily or Cardiocrinum. Come back at Christmas time and they'll be in their glory with huge white-and-red scented trumpet flowers.

Turn right following the gravel path into the Stead Walk. The first shrub on your right is an evergreen Viburnum cylindricum. I recall one of my ancient shrub manuals says the leaves can be defaced by vandals, writing on the leaves with their fingernails. All I can think is they had a better class of vandal in his day.

At the first bend up the slope, situated behind the seat is a white- flowered Drimys winteri a rare Chilean shrub used by crew on sailing ships to ward off scurvy.

Up along on the opposite bank is native clematis in flower, and just a little further on the next bend is a group of rhodos called Floral Gift bred by local plantsman Mark Jury. These maddenii types of rhododendron have dark glossy leaves and scented flowers, and as a bonus are rarely attacked by thrip insects.

Above them, the tactile peeling trunks belong to a huge rhodo called Loderi King George with enormous white scented blooms. Some people consider this the best rhododendron hybrid of all time, but as you can see it gets a trifle big.

Having walked back to where we started at the end of the Cook Walk beside the native fuchsia, you can choose a variety of tracks to continue your walk. We took the route straight ahead aiming towards the little black house. Nearby is a tree with fawny- brown trunks called Myrtus luma or sometimes known as Luma apiculata. Either way this beautiful tree is ideal for small gardens, being hardy and evergreen.

If you go straight on again down the Ayckbourne Walk (I hope you've brought your map) there are lots of those maddenii types of rhododendron with their fragrant flowers. A group of three have a label saying KW 20280, which is the seed batch number for Kingdon Ward. You can tell what an industrious fellow he was to collect more than 20,000 batches of seed in the wilds. Look up behind these and a label says native Pseudopanax arboreus but to the left of that plant is a far more exciting and rare Pseudopanax edgerleyi with single glossy leaves almost like a rhododendron. I wondered why I couldn't find this plant in the new Lucas & Dawson book of NZ trees, and then realised someone has changed its name to Raukaua edgerleyi. Whatever the name it's a handsome shrub and is usually seen as an epiphyte growing on tree fern trunks.

Check out the huge mosses on the left bank just before turning into Matthews Walk.

Initially you think the bank is covered in tiny pine seedlings but look closely and you'll see it's a moss Dawsonia superba, the tallest moss in the world.

Down the slope, ignoring lefts and rights, you find yourself at the lowest point with a fabulous group of Rhododendron elliottii over on the left at the start of the Burns Walk. Just up the slope on your left a group of calico bush or Kalmia latifolia just coming into flower.

All along the way you can see where the gardeners have been this winter, mulching, pruning and planting, as well as improving the tracks. Good to see lots more evergreen azaleas planted as they do so well at Pukeiti as a foreground to the bigger shrubs.

Don't forget to check out the undercover vireya house next to the gatehouse, and if you fancy a coffee and snack, the Founders Cafe is open right through until January.

Taranaki Daily News