Golden flowers: the sunny signs that show spring is here
It's time to sing a song of spring! Here in the Wairarapa, the season comes in a burst of golden glory.
Gold is undoubtedly the colour of celebration and sunshine, as evidenced in our rising spirits and many celebratory golden blossoms.
As another page turns in the great green book of the seasons, we delight in the first sight of things, personal talismans that herald the start of spring. First lambs, chaffinch song and daffodils are all greedily noted with mounting pleasure each day. All things seem to be falling over each other in the urgent need to breed and to bloom.
The arrival of this golden time depends on your location. The Spring Equinox is on September 23, but in the Wairarapa the blooming of flowers is our guide, though it has been a drier than usual autumn and winter here, necessitating much watering if the spring bulbs are to press on into bloom. "Blind" flower buds that fail to develop is one symptom of water shortage, as are short stems with flowers opening at ground level.
In my garden, spring is ushered in by the tiny enamelled brilliance of Tudor-ruffed aconites, shining-sheathed crocuses, glittering celandines and a host of golden blossoming trees and shrubs: showers of cloth of gold (forsythia); fountains of the first true rose of the season, yellow Banksiae 'Lutea'; golden sprays of the single rose-like blossoms of Kerria japonica; the new gilded leaves of nine-bark Physocarpus 'Dart's Gold'; and the fragrant powdery beauty of various acacias.
The "yellow daphne" Edgeworthia papyrifera is eagerly awaited for its scented pom-poms of silver-furred golden bloom. It holds its blossoms in tight fist-shaped clusters all winter. Come September, the fingers of these silver plush gloves loosen and straighten, presenting a handful of scented golden stars to the sun.
Bright yellow epimediums, also known as happy mediums because of their easy nature, are early favourites along with golden cowslips, hose-in-hose primulas and double primroses.
A starry little alpine Ipheion sellowiana makes a generously flowering potful of golden stars, while limnanthes creates a carpet of bloom that has become one of my favourite carpeting annuals. Each year, the self sown seedlings appear to cover the ground beneath bulbs or wallflowers, erupting into hundreds of golden white blossoms as extensive as the Milky Way. By mid-summer they have seeded and gone, so cannot be considered as permanent groundcover, but next winter up the seedlings will pop again ready to gild another spring.
But perhaps we should look to our native plants as true indicators of the season. What are the true spring flowers of Aotearoa?
From August on, supplejack flaunts its creamy green blossoms while those in coastal areas may watch for the dainty flowers of our sole native primrose, Samolus repens, the sea primrose.
Corokia is another native shrub that decks itself with golden stars while clematis species – sacred to Maori – unfurl their blooms each September. But golden kowhai wins the crown, its brilliant gilded cloak is our most joyous herald of spring.
I was fortunate to inherit several mature specimens in my garden, both Sophora microphylla and Sophora tetraptera, with hybrids of both. Last spring, I counted over 40 tui partying in them all at once. Dwarf varieties are available for containers or those with small plots.
In the past, an extraction of the bark was used as herbal medicine, always sourced from the sunny side of the trunk – a risky procedure as kowhai is known to be a powerful purgative and emetic. It has even caused fatalities as with the pioneer family who all died as a result of eating with cutlery fashioned from kowhai wood. So beware using kowhai as barbecue skewers!
Other Maori folklore we should remember as part of our national heritage calls the last frost of winter a "kowhai frost" while September's spring rains were known as "kowhai rains". If the blossoms appeared from the crown of the tree downwards, we were in for a bad summer; from the base upwards indicated a fine, dry season ahead.
In the wild sheltered valleys, kowhai is a magnificent sight, stitching its delicate tracery of gold embroidery over the dark tapestry of native bush – a sight that gladdens the heart every spring. Golden glory indeed!
- NZ Gardener