The Tai Tapu pensioner who planted a forest of native kowhai

NICKY PELLEGRINO
Last updated 11:48 02/08/2017
JULIET NICHOLAS

"I thought it might be a bit of fun to plant a whole lot of one tree," says Jan Chaffey, of the kowhai wilderness she created.

JULIET NICHOLAS
Sophora microphylla in full bloom on the banks of The Avon in Hagley Park.
JULIET NICHOLAS
Sophora spp.
JULIET NICHOLAS
Sophora prostrata.
JULIET NICHOLAS
Sophora fulvida.
JULIET NICHOLAS
Sophora chathamica.

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At the age of 70, Jan Chaffey decided to plant a forest. After a lifetime of loving wild places and native plants, she had found herself faced with a bare stretch of hillside and realised what she most wanted was to restore it to wilderness. This is why, now 82, Jan lives surrounded by at least 150 kowhai trees, most of which she put into the ground herself. "It may seem a ridiculous thing to do at my age," she says. "But I wanted to make an impact."

The kowhai is New Zealand's unofficial national flower and Jan has always loved the way the tree brings South Island landscapes alive in spring with shades of yellow and gold. "The gorgeous butterfly-like flowers just seem to leap into existence. They're wonderful," she says.

Jan has an interesting background. As a young woman, she studied fine arts, then went on to work in the botany division of the now-defunct Department of Scientific & Industrial Research (DSIR) in Lincoln. She also tutored at Lincoln University's School of Landscape Architecture. She was also a farmer's wife, raising a family in the Canterbury high country.

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It was after the death of her husband Rob, when the farm was subdivided, that she decided to move further up the hill and build a new home on a bare 1.5 hectare plot in Tai Tapu. It was a wrench for Jan to leave her garden. "But I'm so high here and I have the most magnificent 360-degree view," she says. "So I consoled myself by thinking it doesn't matter that I don't have a garden. I've got the plains and the sky. I'm on top of everything; it's a sky garden."

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Still the woman who remembers once coming back from art school and digging up her mother's lawn to plant silver birches was never going to be able to resist transforming her land with some sort of planting. The only question was what. "I decided that, because of my age, I couldn't look after a garden," she recalls. "I had to think of something I could do and stay sane. A friend said, 'Why don't you have a kowhai forest' and I thought it might be a bit of fun to plant a whole lot of one tree."

So Jan started buying kowhai and digging holes. "And the more I planted, the more I started to get interested and look at them more closely. Being surrounded by them, you want to know more."

Eight species of kowhai are recognised as native to New Zealand and Jan has all of them in her forest. She also has two Chilean varieties – Sophora 'Sun King' and Sophora cassioides – as well as Sophora howinsula which originates from Lord Howe Island.  

She was careful where she sourced her trees, as kowhai can hybridise easily, and she is in the habit of name tagging her special ones so she can recognise them instantly. "They flower at different times so for a large part of the year I've got some kowhai flowering," explains Jan, who says the bushy, shrub-like Sophora molloyi (Cook Strait kowhai), with its small yellow flowers, can be relied on to supply her with winter colour. 

Jan started planting at the bottom end of her steep section, positioning the taller varieties behind the bushier, low-growing ones. "A good landscape principle is to start planting furthest away from your house because if you begin close to it, then you'll never get to the farther parts," she explains.

That area was heavily planted and now it is bush-like and mostly impenetrable, and the trees are beginning to self-seed. In nature, the kowhai tree grows in a diverse range of habitats. You'll find them on river terraces, flood plains, hills slopes and rocky ground. Some varieties only grow wild in the North Island and others are restricted to the South Island, but in Jan's garden all our native kowhai are flourishing. "This is one of the harshest environments you could have. We get strong northwest gales and in summer we have droughts," she says. "The rabbits are a terrible problem and there are deer in the pine forest above me – although they seem to leave the kowhai alone and prefer my rengarenga lilies which are like chocolate to them."

In the early days, the kowhai moth was also destructive and Jan did lose a few trees. "But those that have survived keep getting better and better," she says. "It's a wonderful plant to have a fixation on."

There hasn't been any cosseting of her kowhai. Jan says they get "old lady maintenance" which means no watering even through dry spells. "This isn't a garden, it's an environment," she explains. "Gardening to me means flowers, detail and cutting back, and I've got very little of that going on in my large space. I see this more as restoring the land to the wild. Everyone around me here is also planting madly so we've got a very exciting place to watch grow."

Jan is still active as an artist and her kowhai forest inspires her abstract paintings. Last year, she had three exhibitions and, while she hasn't opened her studio door quite so often lately, her brain is buzzing with creative ideas. "My paintings are based on the energy of springtime and the way everything renews, and I happened to use the kowhai," she says. 

She has also become hugely interested in the history of the tree, which has long been important to Maori – kowhai means yellow in te reo. Its flexible branches were once valued as material to build houses or create bird snares; its flowers turned into dye; and its medicinal bark made into poultices to treat wounds and infusions to cure various ills. 

Kowhai tend to be easy care, happy with most soils and some sunshine, although they tend not to like wet feet for lengths of time. 

Sophora microphylla grows most widely in New Zealand. This tall, spreading tree flourishes in both warm and cold climates, and is the South Island's main species. Other species do better in the North Island – Sophora fulvida is recommended for the Waikato northwards. But Jan has found that all the native kowhai grow well away from their home environment.

She especially loves her Chilean Sophora cassioides for its big blowsy butterfly flower. For suburban gardens, her pick is a New Zealander, Sophora longicarinata (limestone kowhai) which hails from Marlborough and is a smaller, fine-leafed tree.

Kowhai are semi-deciduous, so lovers of tidy, ordered gardens might shy away. "They are messy. They do drop leaves," Jan warns. "Still, there's a trend now for wild gardening and bringing nature back into the cities rather than everything being neat edges and immaculate lawns."

Jan finds the kowhai a rewarding tree to watch grow and she is also enjoying the wildlife it brings into her environment. The bees love its flowers, bell birds swoop in for the nectar. "And now the trees are getting taller the wood pigeons are starting to arrive," she says.

Her planting may have slowed but Jan still heads out regularly with her spade. Now she is putting in plants closer to the house and – despite her family telling her "no more projects" – has started a leucadendron collection because she missed having flowers she could pick and give to friends. "I'm unbelievably busy but that's good isn't it? I'm crazy really; just a person who is hugely passionate about plants. And you've got to be passionate… passion is what drives everything." 

- NZ Gardener

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