Planting native trees is a no-brainer. Leading landscape designer Michael Mansvelt shares his all-time favourites
It’s sometimes hard to imagine that our country was once covered in native forest comprising thousands of plant species, from the lush rainforests of the West Coast to the majestic podocarp forests of the east coast.
Sadly, many of these ecosystems no longer remain today but our plants, trees, ferns, grasses, perennials and mosses are among the most diverse and interesting on the planet, with 70 percent or more of them unique to Aotearoa.
Māori have lived with a deep connection to the country’s plant life, which has sustained, healed, clothed and sheltered them for centuries. But early settlers longing for a taste of home introduced many foreign species, which changed the landscape considerably.
Not surprisingly, the plants of Aotearoa have long been prized by botanists, gardeners and horticulturalists around the world. In my travels, I always felt proud to be Kiwi when I saw our native plants being used abroad, from our iconic pōhutakawa lining streets in Manhattan Beach in California to our lush tree fern displays that pop up often at the Chelsea Flower Show and the iconic cabbage trees/tī kōuka that frequent landscapes all over Europe.
Thankfully, in recent years New Zealanders have begun to appreciate our flora more and recent conservation efforts by iwi and government-led initiatives such as the One Billion Trees programme and riparian plantings have made a significant dent in the amount of native plant species being replanted, where they always belonged.
Over the past 30 years as a landscaper and gardener I’ve planted countless plants, both native and exotic. As a self-diagnosed plantaholic and proud Kiwi it is our wonderful native plants that I am increasingly finding more appropriate and exciting to grow.
I have my favourites, but it’s important to explain that when selecting any plant for a space (small or big) every one is different and has pluses and minuses. If you’re working with small sections, not all natives lend themselves to confined spaces so it pays to choose plants that you’ll enjoy long term, year round and won’t get too large for your place – or your neighbours.
I use a point system and give a point for each attribute a plant offers:
1. Brings the birds. Oh wow, I want one.
2. Brings the birds and has the prettiest flowers. This is amazing, I need this.
3. Brings the birds, has fragrant flowers, makes a great screen. OMG, is this plant for real? It’s perfect, I’m planting 100.
1. Tītoki Alectryon excelsus
In recent years tītoki has become highly favoured as a street and landscape tree for their evergreen glossy foliage and perfect round form but the tītoki is way more versatile than just a specimen tree. They take extremely well to clipping, making it the ideal tree for pleaching and hedging and are suitable for formal and smaller gardens. Most nurseries can source established grade trees so, for the impatient among us, instant screening is readily available. It is perhaps their appeal to our native birds, especially kererū, that make them almost irresistible to modern-day gardeners.
2. Raupō Xeronema callistemon
Raupō taranga or Poor Knights lily hails from the Poor Knights Islands where it grows amidst the roots of ancient pōhutakawa and rocky cliff faces. This natural habitat makes it ideal for growing in pots (as we tend to let pots dry out much like rocky cliff faces), it adores coastal conditions and grows in full sun or semi-shaded areas beneath trees. In frosty areas, grow it in a sunny covered porch or veranda, or even indoors in a well-lit room. Every home should have one. The striking succulent form gets upstaged in October/November when it produces the most outrageous red bottle brush crossed with bird of paradise-like flowers. The lilies are full of nectar for our native birds to enjoy.
3. Wharariki Phormium cookianum
New Zealand flax is a mainstay in our landscape but often overlooked in our gardens. Few plants can rival their versatility and hardiness, and there are hundreds of beautiful hybrids with a rainbow of colours and forms. The best for residential gardens is the smaller Phormium cookianum hybrids as they are tidier and don’t get too large. They grow in wet, dry, clay, sandy snow, and salt, but always look best with an occasional feed and preening. The flowers are prized by tūī and make excellent cut flowers.
4. Kurīpākā Dicksonia fibrosa
As a West Coaster, to me, the most iconic Kiwi form of all is our humble tree fern. They are so beautiful and so underrated in gardens. There are many species to grow, but perhaps the tidiest and with the most dramatic form and foliage is the kurīpākā. I use them in pots, avenues and entranceways as a Kiwi alternative to topiary as I find their form surprisingly formal, especially when repeated.
5. Puka Meryta sinclairii
The puka is definitely our most tropical and exotic looking tree with huge glossy green leaves and a lovely round form that is built to take the most severe of coastal conditions. They are a small- to medium-sized tree that do well in pots, but those big leaves take a lot of water and nutrients to keep them happy, so in containers you’ll need be attentive. They detest frost so keep them undercover in winter.
6. Marlborough rock daisy Pachystegia insignis
Unlike many perennial daisies that flower and die down, the Marlborough rock daisy is a small, beautiful evergreen shrub with glossy grey-green foliage and that alone makes it worthy of a prime position in your garden. In spring the mass display of large white daisy flowers are breathtaking and highly attractive to bees. They are coastal, but will grow throughout the country. They adore sun, but because they don’t like wet feet will do well in pots. They are well suited to dry gardens under eaves where the rain seldom visits.
7. Mouku Asplenium bulbiferum
This humble fern has long been prized across the globe as an indoor plant. The delicate graceful leaves produce small baby plants on the tips, which can be easily removed and planted, hence the name hen and chicken fern. Best planted in shade, it is perfect for southern walls and again does well under eaves or beneath trees amidst tight root systems where it’s often hard to grow much at all.
8. Nīkau Rhopalostylis sapida
Our glorious nīkau is actually the most southern palm on the planet – and to my mind – the most beautiful. The fruit also provides excellent food for birds and bees. Their iconic silhouette makes them the perfect accent for any home and its slender form means there will always be a spot for at least one in the smallest of gardens. They do better in moist, rich conditions and don’t do as well in dryer areas. Often considered slow to grow, I have found this to be untrue, with mulch and regular feeding they rocket away quickly. Protect young plants from frost.
9. Horoeka Pseudopanax crassifolius
A really versatile small tree for small gardens. The lancewood will grow in most regions and screams Aotearoa style. It is a tall slender tree, with no branches for several metres, giving it a Dr Seuss-like form that allows you to look through them to views beyond. I love them planted in groups for drama and the fruit, which takes one year to ripen, is an important food source to native birds.
10. Kōwhai Sophora microphylla
If you don’t know what a kōwhai is, then you haven’t been to New Zealand in September. Kōwhai claims the trifecta – great form, gorgeous flowers and intoxicating to native birds. It grows into a medium-sized tree that’s suitable for most New Zealand gardens and, being semi-deciduous, they will let the sunlight in over winter when we need it most, while providing shade in summer. They aren’t always the most uniform of trees so avoid planting in rows and avenues, but are well suited to a more natural grove or group style of planting. Hybrids such as “dragons gold” make excellent hedges, although trim them no later than January if you want them to flower in September
Words by: Michael Mansvelt.