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Sub-tropicals growing in Kerikeri


A slowly accumulating, descriptive repository of plants growing
in the Bay of Islands
by Robin Booth

Ornamental Bananas

Banana plants and their relatives come in several forms in New Zealand. The most spectacular and brilliant is Musa coccinea, syn Musa uranoscopus the Red Torch Banana or Red Flowering Thai Banana, a slim-stemmed plant growing up to around three metres high and forming a clump with time. This species comes from Southern China and Southeast Asia and is grown entirely as an ornamental. The upright flower bracts are a very bright scarlet with the flowers in the bracts a golden yellow with green tips. These heads of flowers last very well as a cut flower even looking good after six weeks. I have seen Tuis taking nectar from them. I find it seldom sets it’s whitish fruit in New Zealand and the occasional one that does set has few seed in it.


   Musa coccinea flowers last well as a cut flower.


Like most banana species it does appreciate a protected, warm area with free draining soils.

Another species is Musa velutina or Pink Velvet Banana which comes from Northeastern India and Assam. This one is a sturdier plant growing to a similar height and also has upright flowers, this time in pink. It forms pink-skinned fruit freely and these are packed full of seed. Nature helps the birds here as when the fruit is ripe the skin starts folding back from the pointed end and exposes the seeds covered with flesh so the birds can eat without peeling! I have had some plants grow as wildlings from bird distributed seeds so maybe take a little care with the ripe fruit, cut them off the plant before the birds get them. This species will handle a colder situation than M. coccinea.


 Musa velutina fruit.


To me an exciting new Banana relative which is just starting to become available is Musella lasiocarpa syn Musa lasiocarpa Chinese Banana or Golden Lotus Banana from China. This is a very cold hardy, deciduous plant which can even stand snow on it. It flowers at 1.5 metres and has a huge, yellow-gold, upwards growing, flower spike which takes up to a year to fully open. Ours haven’t flowered yet but they do have very attractive leaves which do not shatter very easily. Put this name into your search engine on your computer and you will find pictures of it in flower.


        Musella make a good pot plant.


There are also other species which we might discuss another time. These are all good plants for that sub-tropical effect in the garden.



Brazilian Fern Tree or Yellow Jacaranda



One of our most dramatic growing trees at Wharepuke is the Brazilian Fern Tree named because the huge Jacaranda-like leaves which resemble Tree Fern leaves. It is a native from Brazil to southern Mexico where it is called Bacarubu or Guapuruvu. Scientifically it is called Schizolobium parahybum and belongs to the Legume family.


    Looking up into a fully leafed tree.


   The unfurling new leaves in the spring.    


In the wild this tree is one of the first to grow away when a mature tree falls in the forest so it is a fast grower which tends not to branch for the first few years. This allows it to take control of the light available. Being a legume means that it fixes nitrogen in the soil which helps it to grow strongly.

Leaves are up to two metres long and interestingly tend to be a little sticky, for why I don’t know. The tree is deciduous for about six weeks from late winter then the new leaves start unfurling giving a Dr Zeus feeling to the end of the branches.

In 2004 my tree, which was ten years old, carried it’s first flowers which were on the highest branch nearly hidden from view. The yellow flowers are born on spikes which stand above the foliage though some pictures I have seen show the flowers appearing before the leaves so there seems to be some variability in the species. The showy flowers are a good source of nectar and are supposed to be scented. I hope the tuis find it attractive.


  A fallen flower from the first spike.


With time buttress roots form at ground level. The whitish-yellow wood is light and is used for paper manufacture, joinery etc.

I find that a free draining soil is best; a tree on my heavier soil doesn’t do anywhere near so well. It will stand light frosts. Some references say the tree is brittle but I haven’t found it particularly so. Vigorous new growths in the spring can get blown off in a storm though.

Some people may not want a tall tree but want to enjoy the huge leaves. This is easily done by cutting the tree to ground level when it gets to the maximum height you want. It then grows away very quickly giving you that lovely effect with it’s new leaves.

A very sculptural tree for the garden, it does give high, light shade and other plants are happy growing under it. A tree I would recommend if you have the space.


 Blood Lilies


The Blood Lily group of bulbous plants from South Africa are a wonderful addition to a garden. The different species flower at different times through the year and the one giving a great display now is Haemanthus (Scadoxus) katherinae.


    Growing well in the light shade.


Starting to appear in late spring the leaves and flowers tend to develop together with the flower stalk starting to form near ground level and getting to nearly a metre high. The flowers fully open from early to mid January and hold well for a few weeks. The salmon-red flowers are in nearly spherical balls which stand above the half metre long leaves and are up to 25 cm across making a very bold statement.


  Closeup of the flowers.


Close-up of the flower.

The plant tends to die back completely over the winter period though if it is a mild winter some of the leaves persist until the new growth starts in late spring. The bulbs are slow multipliers so it takes a while for a good clump to eventuate and seed is seldom set naturally so multiplication is a slow process. This accounts for the price one has to pay for a plant.

I find it is better to grow them in either dappled sun or light shade or at the most morning sun as the leaves get yellowed in the hotter afternoon sun. In shade the soft green leaves give a wonderful backing to the strongly coloured flower heads. Some water in the dry times is appreciated but they will survive droughts. Sometimes slugs and snails can be a nuisance damaging the leaves.

A close relative that flowers in February is Haemanthus coccineus. This plant is a little more commonly seen. The flower head is like a bright red paintbrush with a mottled red handle sticking out of the ground. Yellow pollen covers the tips of the brush This is soon followed by two large leaves reminiscent of tongues lying flat on the ground. These leaves can grow up to 80cm long and 30cm wide. Again best in a bit of light shade but will grow reasonably well in sun all day long. Both are well worth growing.


     The dramatic leaves appear after the flowers have died away.



    Haemanthus coccinea in flower.


Please note that Scadoxus and Haemanthus are poisonous in all parts.

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