The plant master

19:49, Feb 20 2014

Every now and then you meet someone who is so enthusiastic about plants and gardens, it becomes infectious.

I recently met Bruce Hammonds at a party and he invited me to see his new bush walk. Many of you will know Bruce; most of his teaching career was as a school science adviser, and later he was headmaster at Vogeltown School. He lives just around the corner from the school at the end of Hursthouse St.

It's a property with a history as it was bought in 1945 by Lady Davies, wife of renowned nurseryman Sir Victor Davies, and subsequently by Graham Miller, who was a landscape gardener manager at the Duncan and Davies nursery. The nursery leased a nearby block of land for plant production, and here in Bruce's garden, the trees are a tangible reminder of those early days.

I met Bruce on the roadway to begin our tour beside a steep hillside he's recently landscaped using native flaxes, toitoi, astelia, tussocks and hardy shrubs like hebes and olearias. All of these hardy natives are ideal for hot dry sunny sites, and it's looking great.

This part of the garden can be admired by workers and schoolkids taking the shortcut walkway from Kereru Place further up the valley. The short walkway saves people walking miles along Huatoki and up the hill.

At the bottom of the slope is the driveway into Bruce's house and all along the drive are big native trees such as rewarewa, hinau, rimu, and the rarer tanekaha and black maire. These latter trees would have been planted back in the D&D era.


On the right are choice natives Bruce has added to the mix, such as silver tree ferns and the big wheki ponga with the huge skirts of fronds, as well as nikau palms and the huge king ferns. All of these are brilliant landscape plants for making a statement about New Zealand gardens, as they show our native flora can be as striking and dynamic as any exotic plants.

Wherever you look there are interesting plants, with a big native hinau in behind the tree ferns, and then several mountain pawpaw plants adding a bit of overseas flavour.

Bruce is obviously besotted with plants because he's growing cobra lilies or Arisaema. You know someone has really got the plant bug when they start growing these weird and wonderful purple-black flowers. And there beside them is the very rare lancewood I've always known as Pseudopanax edgerleyi, but I see some bothersome botanist has gone and changed the name to Raukaua edgerleyi. Some of us have enough problems remembering the old names without inventing new ones!

Anyway, ignoring the name change, there's an even trickier truth to grasp with some of our native plants. They often have a double life where the juvenile plants look completely different to the adult form. In this case the juvenile leaves look like cannabis and the adults are simple single, glossy leaves. This confused the early botanists no end and even today overseas plant lovers are puzzled by our juvenile plants.

Beside the house is a group of very large kauri trees, some dating back to 1945. This is the kind of landscaping money can't buy. You might be able to shift enormous palms at a price but you can't have instant kauri - that takes time.

The exotic trees around the house are equally impressive. There are four big magnolias; Magnolia campbellii must be exciting in the spring with pink chalice flowers, but two of them are in flower in summertime. Magnolia delavayi from China, with its huge grey, paddle-like leaves, is the biggest I've ever seen. Plus there's an enormous American tree of the appropriately named Magnolia macrophylla, with leaves big enough to use as umbrellas in a downpour.

While we're busy looking up at all these trees, I suddenly spot a big stags horn fern with its antler- like leaves in faded grey. From here we walk down into the bush, stopping to admire the glossy leaf version of pepper tree, and then below in the swampy area is a huge drift of paritaniwhau, the native begonia with reddy bronze leaves.

At the bottom of the slope it's possible to admire Bruce's handiwork; he's managed to create a natural-looking forest scene while keeping the views and vistas open. A recently constructed walkway completes a circular track around the property.

With all the curving foliage like kiekie, nikau and tree ferns he likens the scene to a more tropical place like Bali and you can see the tropical connection. Bruce should know, as he worked as a school adviser in Bali and other exotic locations such as South Korea and Japan.

As he says, he didn't make a lot of money on these overseas ventures, but instead gained a wealth of experience and insight, which is far more important than money.

Hydrangeas grow en masse down here in the swampy bit. Say what you will about hydrangeas, they are wonderfully resilient.

Farther along, in a drier part of the track, are some beautiful orange-flowered native shrubs, the native gloxinia or Rhabdothamnus solandri. We hardly ever see this for sale in garden centres, but if it was an exotic plant, we'd all want one.

Emerging from this swampy zone is a beautiful clear stream. Bruce has recently created a raised wooden walkway to make it safe for visitors to enjoy this watery zone. And although it all looks so natural, he'll tell you he's only recently planted the fern collection along here, having waged war on the wild ginger and wandering jew to create a new ferny glade.

There're some choice native trees such as large tawa and pukatea and then a really big mangeao, Litsea calicaris, with bronzy, glossy leaves.

Then up the slope and we're back at the house where Bruce has an exotic area with a superb handkerchief or davidia tree, and several big nyssa trees, which along with all the maples planted back in the D&D era provide wonderful autumn colour. They lose their leaves in winter, allowing more sunlight into the property.

I was impressed with how Bruce has studied his garden to come up with solutions for various problems. Most of us see a gap in the garden and promptly fill it with our new purchase, rather than looking any deeper.

Taranaki Daily News