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Top tropical tips

The tropical look is appealing to many, but how can landscapers strike a balance between giving clients what they want and making sustainable decisions? Here, garden expert Jon Muller explains how

I have just returned from tropical Kerala in India. The name ‘Kerala’ means coconut palm tree in reference to the many that grow in the area. I loved the lush, verdant plants and warm weather, much unlike our winter here! It got me thinking how we can get that tropical look – do we have tropical or subtropical native plants that fit the bill?

Our native flora encompasses a wide range of ecological zones from alpine, coastal, wetland, and subtropical. We are surrounded by ocean and have mountain ranges through both islands. This results in a range of climates, soils, and plant types.

We do have some tropical-looking palms, like our native nikau, Rhopalostylis sapida. We also have a member of the mahogany family, kohekohe, Dysoxylum spectabile, which has the unusual tropical characteristic of cauliflory or flowers arising from the stems.

We also have a condition called dimorphism, where you get different growth habits in adult and juvenile plants, such as lancewood or matai. I always find the sight of our lancewoods very distinctive in plantings here, especially in groups at different stages of growth and form.

Our tree ferns and native cabbage tree are also bold and have a tropical look. When I was in southern England, they talked about the Cornish palm tree, which was in fact our cabbage tree Cordyline australis. It looks tropical but handles cold, wet, and windy conditions as well. Our tree ferns like Dicksonia and Alsophila syn. Cyathea also look tropical.

Island flora

As we have offshore islands, we also get plants that are distinct, such as Poor Knights lily, Xeronema callistemon, Chatham Island forget-me-not, Myosotidium hortensei and puka, Meryta sinclairii. All have bold foliage and can have bright flowers. Myosotidium hortensei is unusual having blue flowers; most native mainland plants have white flowers, as they are pollinated by moths.

Another feature of tropical plants are climbers or lianas. We have examples like supplejack, Ripogonum scandens or Northern Rata, Metrosideros robusta, which starts as an epiphyte in a tree and eventually takes over the host tree such as a rimu tree.

One offshore island climber Tecomanthe speciosa, is a very vigorous climber with bold glossy leaves, and creamy flowers. There was only one Tecomanthe left in the wild until it was found and cultivated.

Tropical appearance

See the far-left photo for a climbing fern, growing up a native tree, with supplejack lianas growing upwards – this setting wouldn’t go amiss in the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie set in Cambodia! You can get a similar effect with living walls or training climbers up wires or structures, such as the Muehlenbackia growing up the fence in the picture second from left.

There are some species or forms of our native trees that are more resilient to harsh conditions, such as the nikau pictured on the near left from the Chatham Islands, Rhopalostylis chathmaica growing in a windy site in Wellington (a common occurrence!).

Ideally, source your plants from your area, whether by seed or cuttings, as they will do better in your locale due to provenance or locality, and try to observe how native plants interact together in subtropical settings.

At Waitangi Park in Wellington, all the native plants are found and sourced locally and blend in naturally, including Cordyline australis, tī kōuka and Rhopalstylis sapida, nikau. There is a stream going through the whole park with native, locally sourced rushes and grasses to filter the water. Nearby at Te Papa, there are good examples of our native flora in ecological groupings, such as forest and coastal.

So, you see, it is possible to bring a taste of the tropics to your location in New Zealand. But, like with most things in landscaping, it comes down to careful research, selection and planning!

Jon Muller has owned Wellington Gardens Ltd for 24 years. He practices landscape design and construction, with an emphasis on planting design.

He has taught at polytechnics and university, mostly in soft landscape subjects. He has written six gardening books, including Wellington Gardens, and enjoys helping clients find landscape solutions. He also helps students and workers studying for their landscape qualifications.


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