New Zealand Plants and their Story
Native Plant Revolution
Naturally Native New Zealand Plants
Your Excellencies, Invited
Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends.
During the last two
decades much has changed in our country, in politics, the economy,
health and welfare, education you name it and it has undergone
change. However an even greater revolution has occurred in the gardens,
parks and landscapes of Aotearoa New Zealand. Significantly for
us here today, the incredible changes that have occurred, during
the past twenty years, have been in our attitude towards native
plants and our knowledge of how to grow and use them successfully
in our gardens and landscapes. I would like to review those changes
as they have appeared to me.
New Zealand has a truly
unique flora, which was recognized by the early botanists of the
past. It is still drooled over by the likes of David Bellamy, on
his regular visits to our country. However, it is only in recent
years that we ordinary kiwis have learnt to value the special plant
life of these extraordinary islands.
I would like to start
by telling of a personal experience. Just over 25 years ago, when
we first moved to Tauranga, my wife Esmé and I bought a section
and built our first home. As soon as the initial earthworks had
carved out the basement, and before building was even under way,
we visited a local nursery to buy some "Native Plants". We wanted
to plant the bank that had been created by the excavations in keeping
with the neighbouring bush filled gully we overlooked.
To our dismay the selection
available was minimal I recall a pittosporum, kowhai, rimu,
totara, one or two hebes, and a fivefinger.
This selection was typical
of the time. In fact we also had to walk right down to the back
of the nursery, for native plants were always "down the back" as
if there was something contagious about them.
Whilst there was a limited
selection of native plants available to the public to garden with,
very little was done to differentiate them or to make them special
in any way. To the public, hebes and many other natives were "just
another garden shrub" and often misnamed at that.
We didn't get to see
those trees that we planted down our bank grow very big. We soon
did what many people in Tauranga did at the time we moved
to our block of land and it was here that within two years
we established a small part time nursery that, by early 1979, we
had the audacity to convert into a specialist Native Plant Nursery.
Since then, the attitude
to native plants has changed markedly especially in the past ten
years. Several incidents typify the attitude to native plants at
the time we started growing natives. Firstly as part of our 'market
research' (every business must do some market research before embarking
on a new venture) we had a discussion with a local nurseryman, who
was horrified at our idea of leaving a well-paid profession to set
up a nursery specialising in growing native plants. "You will never
make a living growing native plants no one will want them!"
Our local rural community
was equally sceptical "I spent forty years chopping it off
my farm, so you won't get me planting that!" was a comment we often
heard amongst other equally disparaging remarks about gardening
with scrub. I recall trying to convince a new bank manager that
we weren't hippies, and this was a serious business and we did require
an overdraft. This proved too difficult and it was easier to change
Fortunately we took no
notice of our market research and we set about establishing our
native plant nursery.
Attitudes did change
however. I would now like to review the major influences and agents
of change that have taken place during the past two decades.
We must first recognise
the work of the early proponents of native plants. People such as
Cheeseman, Leonard Cockayne, Sir Truby King, Norman Potts in Opotiki,
Michael Gudex in Hamilton, Sir Victor Davies of Duncan & Davies,
to name just a few, and there were many others, who did wonderful
work to establish reserves, spread knowledge and grow native plants.
The Loder Cup, given by Gerald Loder has done much to give recognition
to the work that these people have done. One must not forget the
influence of the Royal Forest & Bird Society. They achieved
a great deal. However, even by the mid 1970's the use of natives
in our gardens and landscapes had not become widespread or popular.
Those that were used were often not even acknowledged as being native.
During the late 70's
and 80's there were a number of really enthusiastic advocates of
native plants who contributed enormously to increase the popularity
of natives and bring them to our gardens. Those who influenced us
included Muriel Fisher who established a most significant garden
in Birkenhead, growing natives from all over New Zealand. She opened
it to public viewing and had plants for sale.
Graham Platt established
one of our first specialist native plant nurseries in Albany and
did an enormous amount to popularise natives with the gardeners
of Auckland. Others such as Katie Reynolds of Whangarei enthusiastically
spread the word. I recall listening to her with absolute fascination
recounting her story of sailing to the Hen & Chicken Islands
and spending the night on the rocks to prove that geckos pollinated
Laurie Metcalf also deserves
recognition for his part in changing our attitudes by both demonstrating
the effective use of our natives in the botanic gardens of Christchurch
and Invercargill and also for the publication of the first really
useful book on the propagation of our trees and shrubs. How I wish
we had had it in the early stages of our nursery as we had to find
out so much by trial and error.
Perhaps the most significant
single influence on the attitudes towards native plants was the
emergence of publications with colour photographs. This happened
during the late 1970's and 1980's. Suddenly every one could now
identify our native trees and shrubs. The quality colour reproductions
of native plants, their leaves, flowers and forms, in books written
by Professor J. T. Salmon, Audrey Eagle, Muriel Fisher, and Barbara
Mathews brought native plants to life. Even I, who while at school
had struggled to identify a kauri from a kahikatea using only line
drawings, could now easily tell one from another and give it its
correct name. The influence of modern publishing techniques and
colour photographs did a lot to aid identification and take the
mystery out of native plants.
were way ahead of magazines. It was to be a long time before our
popular gardening magazines and newspapers published articles and
photos of natives on a regular basis.
Some events also significantly
influenced our attitudes. In the early 1980's the government of
the day was faced with growing unemployment and so took a leaf out
of Australia, and copied a successful scheme there, setting up the
'Beautiful New Zealand Scheme'. A scheme that I feel was quite significant
in changing attitudes towards native plants.
We can in hindsight be
critical of this scheme. Beautiful New Zealand was a disaster in
some respects -- it didn't create very many jobs, was poorly funded
from the outset, and was modified, then abandoned far too quickly
for it to make very much impact. Its legacy today is usually seen
as a mess of scrubby trees alongside our highways. Planting that
does little to give native plants a good name.
However it was remarkably
successful in another respect. It drew attention to native plants.
Its effect started landscape architects, designers, and even engineers
taking natives seriously on a wider scale. It also gave our business
a great boost at the time, giving us the impetus for more growth.
We bravely added to the nursery by purchasing the property next
door in order to expand our operation. This was at a time when kiwifruit
prices had forced land values to an all time high and interest rates
were starting to rise.
We also saw a new group
of native plant specialists set up nurseries at this time to meet
the growing demand, so we weren't alone. We became aware of Talisman
Nurseries, Oratia Native Plants and Antons Nursery. In the latter
part of the 1980's competition didn't seem to matter the
biggest problem each year was running out plants which always occurred
each spring. Always when the more forward thinking garden centres
wanted plants to increase their range. And so more plants were produced
for the next year.
The concept of revegetation
took a leap forward in the mid 1980's with the publication of the
Revegetation Manual by Boyden Evans, published by the Queen Elizabeth
II Trust. This was a significant publication as it brought to the
public new concepts and a realization that native plants could be
planted out in the open and they actually grew reasonably quickly.
The interest in revegetation
had grown out of work to repair environmental damage caused by the
building of the dams on the Waikato River by the Lands & Survey
Department during the 1960's. They had established a nursery at
Taupo, specifically to grow plants for this work, which subsequently
became the main Department of Conservation nursery. Now as Taupo
Native Plants it has continued to specialise in growing natives
for revegetation. It was only during the late 1980's that some forward
thinking councils started to carry out occasional revegetation projects.
Interestingly revegetation has remained largely an activity carried
out by local government and there still remains the potential to
extend it to the private sector.
When we exhibited at
Mystery Creek in 1989, trying to encourage farmers to plant natives
and revegetate those small unusable corners, we were received with
looks of puzzlement and what one could describe as the dry sarcastic
comments that only farmers can utter. These farmers who accidentally
happened to wander into our stand kicked the plants on display in
a manner more suited to a car sales yard. An abrupt change occurred
shortly after this, as two years later the reception was very different.
What a turnaround by 1996, at our third attempt at Mystery Creek
this attitude had completely changed.
1990 saw two events that
influenced the changes in attitude towards native plants.
First there was the "Natives
in the 90's" conference in 1990, a significant event in the 1990
sesquicentennial celebrations. This conference grew out of a conversation
between Bob Edwards, the editor of Commercial Horticulture magazine,
and myself. Bob felt it was time a major conference was held to
draw attention to native plants generally, and to bring together
all those who were interested in, or working in the area. The Bay
of Plenty Polytechnic organised the event at its new horticulture
facility in Tauranga. Interest exceeded expectations with over 120
delegates from all over the country including several from Australia.
Interestingly those attending were from all imaginable sectors of
interest in native plants the scientific community, nursery
industry, landscapers, Maori, educational institutions, local and
regional councils, private gardeners, farmers, Forest & Bird,
and the media.
It was at this event
that the issues that are with us today first emerged. The WAI 262
claim had its origins at this conference, Ecosourcing and exporting
were discussed. Papers were presented that brought the work of botanists
to the attention of the nursery industry and gardeners, ethnobotany
emerged as an area of considerable importance. New cultivars of
native plants were displayed. New concepts for marketing plants,
then being used by Woodlyn nurseries in Australia were presented.
These were to have a major influence on garden centre marketing
in the coming years. It was the start of a decade of even greater
awareness and appreciation of our flora.
The second event was
a personal one I recall a rather depressing visit to the
bank manager, the country was in the depths of the recession. We
came away vowing to start promoting natives with all our might
it was our only hope. Our plan was two fold As the council
and landscape markets were at an all time low we decided to build
our sales to garden centres. We aimed to start by persuading garden
centres to display native plants, preferably up at the front of
the garden centre and secondly to start educating our customers
the gardening public. Unable to afford expensive advertising,
we used pamphlets, articles and at every opportunity we could, gave
talks to garden clubs, service groups, schools, and most importantly
at in store promotional days in garden centres.
Many myths had become
associated with native plants, hindering or preventing gardeners
planting or using them. One only needed to spend a few minutes talking
to a gardener and they all came pouring out they grew too
slowly, they are too big, they won't transplant easily, have no
colour, didn't like to be trimmed or pruned and didn't need fertiliser.
Our aim was, and still
is, to educate our customers to dispel these myths explode
them as I had once seen John Cleese doing on one of his educational
videos exploding the myths associated with parenting. Debunking
the myths surrounding native plants became an important part of
the early marketing strategy at Naturally Native.
Persuading the garden
centres to display natives prominently was more difficult. My job
in our business was being the Sales Rep. It was
really enjoyable when you called on a friendly, sympathetic garden
centre where management and staff were keen on natives. It could
be a thankless task at other times. I still cringe at the reception
I often got from some garden centres, especially in Auckland for
some reason, where the usually arrogant young male manager who was
not at all interested in native plants, would say, "They don't sell
here!" (Strangely the previous manager who had invariably moved
on last month was able to sell hundreds).
Eventually we presented
a concept to Palmer's management and persuaded them to allow us
to set up a display stand in their newly opened branch in Tauranga.
We displayed the plants. By providing their head office with monthly
sales figures we soon demonstrated that well displayed native plants
sold as readily as any other plant. In fact so well that they were
soon requesting similar displays in all their stores and other garden
centres were wanting to become part of the system.
This was accompanied
by a new phenomenon 'New Native Plants'. In the early 1990's some
'new' natives became available our first 'new' plant was
Weinmannia 'Kiwi Red'. It was a chance seedling with bright
red foliage that appeared in a tray of kamahi seedlings. After nearly
ten years to bulk up sufficient numbers it was ready for commercial
release. Kiwi Red was one of the first native plants to be granted
Plant Variety Rights (PVR) and was heavily promoted by the Green
The release of Jack Hobbs'
Wiri series hebes in early 1991 gave us the opportunity to promote
hebes and marked the start of a great surge of public interest in
this, New Zealand's largest genus. Others such as Metrosideros
'Carousel' and Cordyline 'Albertii' from Duncan & Davies
set the interest in 'new' natives really rolling.
Some key members of the
nursery industry have been influential in the rapid changes we have
seen in the interest in native plants in the past decade. In considering
changes in attitude, mention needs to be made of the enthusiastic
efforts of people such as Terry Hatch (Joy Plants), Roger McGibbon
(Natural Logic), Geoff Davidson (Oratia Native Plants), Felix Jury,
Alister Turnbull, Joe Cartman and Julian Mathews. All have contributed
more than their fair share to the native plant cause.
Where are we at now,
at the end of 1999 and facing a new millennium? A decade from the
natives in the 90's conference.
At the last count in
the Nursery Register there appear to be over 300 nurseries that
lay claim to growing native plants. Ten years previously we could
have counted the number of nurseries considering it significant
to advertise the fact that they grew natives, on the fingers of
one hand. It is difficult to place a value on plant production in
New Zealand as we lack the necessary statistics. A conservative
guestimate was made recently and placed the total value of native
plant production at the farm gate at just over $25 million. It could
be as high as $35million.
Our company now operates
in a highly competitive market where price is a constant factor.
Efficiency is paramount and quality and service must always be the
best, if we are to survive.
Garden centres now stock
a wide range of natives in clearly marked areas and usually in a
relatively prominent place. Natives are regularly promoted. Only
last week I saw advertisements and mailers with photos of native
species Chatham Island forget-me-not has almost attained
commodity status. Next year and we just might see the chains offering
them at cut prices. I can safely say that, a wide range of our native
plants, are now readily available to our gardeners and landscapers.
Change is forever with
us as we see the large chains; The Warehouse, Hardware House, KMart
and supermarkets starting to move into gardening lines. They see
value in stocking a basic range of native plants. Natives now no
longer belong to the realm of the specialist.
'Natives in the garden'
appeared in a real estate advertisement in our paper last Saturday;
they are now considered important enough by the public to have become
a selling point.
Last year I visited the
Ellerslie Flower Show at its magnificent new location in the Manurewa
Botanic Gardens. The thing that really stood out for me was the
incredible switch to native plant material. Not just in one or two
displays but in almost every display. In fact it was difficult to
find an outdoor garden with only exotic plant material.
Today the landscape industry
uses native plants extensively, and we see award-winning gardens
featured in magazine articles and on television containing really
creative plantings of natives. The magazines now have regular articles
and features on native plants. Quite a considerable change in just
a few short years.
During the last five
years we have seen Maori becoming increasingly involved in this
area. At least one major iwi is involved in the nursery industry
and many have small nurseries usually associated with training and
employment schemes. A recent trend has seen Maori students researching
a variety of aspects of native plants. We see continuing education
courses being held both on and off the Marae on Te Rongoa (Herbal
medicine). Ethnobotany has become available to the public.
We have come a long way
in the past two decades but we have a long way yet to go. We have
got to ask ourselves where to from here? For that is the underlying
purpose of this conference.
The future has a number
of interesting challenges for those of us dedicated to furthering
the cause of native plants. Firstly we must address treaty issues
especially those raised by the Wai 262 claim. This will require
a process of discussion and education and require us to be patient,
but I feel we must not let this prevent the development of the use
of native plants for amenity purposes.
My dream is to see the
gardens and landscapes of this country reflecting the essence of
our unique flora and not a being just a poor copy of Europe, North
America or Japan. A landscape where visitors can marvel in the quality
and variety of our plants and gardens that we New Zealanders can
be proud of. Lets see the gardens of New Zealand be our unique gardens.
We certainly have a good basis to start with our very special plant
There remains however
issues still to be debated such as the effects of plant selection
and amenity horticulture on biodiversity. Ecosourcing needs to be
debated and defined.
Secondly I am convinced
that we all need to learn more about how to use native plants more
effectively in our gardens and landscapes. There are countless examples
of native plants looking ragged and past it. This has the effect
of putting people off native plants. If we are not careful the interest
in natives will fade and in the future they will say "how quaint
they were in the 90's using all that native material in the landscapes".
We need to progress from
here and with careful experimentation and observation learn to use
our plant material in ways and in a manner that brings out the qualities
of our plants and produces sustainable gardens requiring little
maintenance to match our time driven lifestyles. We also need to
learn more about our plants.
At one of the seminars
that Naturally Native ran recently for landscapers, we heard a presentation
from Gavin Lister of Isthmus group about the new landscaping in
downtown Mt Maunganui. Mature phoenix palms had been used to establish
height in the new car park come village square area. Asked in question
time why natives had not been used Gavin replied that we know how
to move large Phoenix palms but we are unsure about moving large
natives. This is a lesson for all. We need to learn much more about
how to grow, and handle our natives. This is just one example of
how research can be applied to native plants in the future.
The potential for research
into both growing our natives better and using them better is considerable.
Naturally Native has been involved in spinifex research for the
last three years. This small project has already produced significant
results. There are challenges for our research establishments and
opportunities for individuals and companies.
Our plant breeders have
been given the opportunity to develop, with the introduction of
Biosecurity legislation limiting the introduction of species from
overseas. We need more cultivars, not only for export but also for
our own garden industry, to keep the consumers interested and enthusiastically
planting native plants. Making the gardens and landscapes of our
We must keep the innovation
and interest in New Zealand natives going in the retail garden scene.
New and different ways of marketing our plants to gardeners must
continue to be developed. It is no good resting on last year's successes
or even this year's. I regularly say to people visiting our company
"Its easy to grow a native plant anyone can, but its really
difficult to sell it".
There are unbounded challenges
in all aspects of the native plant industry. I don't believe that
we are doing justice to the export potential of our plants. Overseas
our plant material is sought after, but our plant export
industry is not performing as well as it could. To date we seem
to have been stuck in the mould of exporting small plants. The must
be better ways to take advantage of our excellent growing conditions.
Recently my attention
was drawn to three overseas trends. There is a development of interest
in the use of natural remedies. There are some products already
available such as manuka oil and natural soaps. Some iwi are already
working to develop an industry based on native plant material. There
is much more potential for the natural remedy market to grow.
There is a worldwide
trend to appreciating the natural heritage of the planet. Why then
are we continuing to fell stands of bush when we can start developing
their truly sustainable attributes into high value tourism?
There is a worldwide
trend to recognise the rights of indigenous people and with it the
fauna and flora and we are fortunate to have the treaty process
already in place that is addressing this in New Zealand.
In my past I studied
education at Waikato University. I recall that all the educational
theorists that we studied considered the changing of attitudes to
be one of the most difficult educational tasks. However we have
seen in the past 10-15 years a remarkable change in attitude by
our nation towards its native flora. The change has been brought
about by the enthusiasm of those dedicated to native plants. To
those who want to see our unique native flora in our gardens and
To keep up the momentum
of this considerable change will be most difficult. It will certainly
be a challenge. As with the native in the 90's this conference will
set the scene for the next ten years of the Native Plant Story and
continue to build the interest in our very special and unique plants.