A Promising Winter

January begins with fireworks and resolutions.  The first day is bright and promising, but by mid-month we grow tired of the gloom, the ice and those dark after-dinner dog walks.  Have you ever tried to pick up poop in the pitch black nothingness? It’s tricky.  But a walk through the school arboretum reveals wonderful textures and surprising colors.  It reminds me that the plants keep growing.  Some of them even put on their best show without the distraction of lush green foliage.  The textures and lines are distinctive and startling.  I love the little seed balls that hang merrily from the Dove tree, like decorative ornaments left over from Christmas time.  I admire the twists and turns of the contorted filbert, snaking it’s way around like a puzzle.  I adore the evergreen Salal, our Northwest sturdy native with it’s prizewinning green.  And the witchazel  and Dawn Viburnum give me the promise of Spring.  January does have it’s moments.



Germinating Lewisia

This is a difficult plaLewisiant to grow. It tempts you with its beauty, it tricks you with its size. And then when you plant a seed….nothing may happen.  And then nothing may continue to happen.  And then one tiny little plant will emerge.  Then nothing. Then 5 or six plants will show up.  And then nothing. A few months later you might get one or two more. And then you give up, repot the seedlings and dump the rest. Lewisia is one of those plants that have to do things their own way.  They insist on a winter before germinating.  It’s called seed stratification, which is defined as “the process of treating stored or collected seed prior to sowing to simulate natural winter conditions that a seed must endure before germination” (Thank you Wikipedia).  Last year we had some success.  After sowing we put the seeds in the fridge for 4-6 weeks.  This year I tried a new strategy, sowing and then putting the seed tray outside to brave the oncoming winter. The results are in the photo.  Six little Lewisia, growing valiantly.  Not very successful considering over 30 seeds were sown. But we’ll see what happens come spring. The next experiment is underway.  The Lewisia seeds are in the freezer for about a month and then I will sow them.  Then we will see if this plant can be tricked.  But it’s definitely worth the wait for the beautiful little blossom.  More updates in the future on Lewisia.Lewisia

New Zealand Seeds

Kaka Beak

New Zealand Hibiscus Flower

Hibiscus Flower

Growing plants from seed can be fun but also frustrating.  The fun part is when you have a tiny handful of specks and they turn into 63 plants–it’s botanical magic.  The frustrating part is when you have a small collection from half way around the world and they just dissolve into a gooey mess, with not even a hint of a cotyledon.  I’ve experienced both while trying to germinate my seeds from New Zealand. I was really disappointed with the seeds that I purchased at a local nursery.  I got a wide selection and only the hibiscus and Kaka beak germinated.  The seeds were either too old or the instructions incorrect on the seed packets.  Some of them, like the flax for instance, said to roll in a moist paper towel and place in the fridge for 4-6 weeks.  I did this with the flax that I had collected myself and with the packaged seeds, but only the ones I collected began to germinate.  The hibiscus germinated readily and has been growing really well, but I’m not impressed with the plant.  It’s kind of weedy and rangy looking and the flowers, while attractive, only last for one day.

Some of the seeds were easy to collect.  It was winter and many plants had persistent seed pods.  The flax for instance had spikes topped with a capsule of many slippery little black seeds. There was hillsides of flax in New Zealand and each capsule had many seeds.  Some plants required a bit more creativity to gather the seeds.  The agave had some beautiful seeds pods, but they were high above my head, still clinging to the 10 foot tall flower stalk.  Luckily I found one that had fallen to the ground.  The banksia seed pod was alien to me, I had never seen anything like it in our part of the world and I felt like I had to have one.  That required climbing through a hole in the fence at the botanical garden and hunting around the hillside for a fallen pod. The unknown seed pod labeled Olivella I spied in a gift shop.  It was so striking



I offered to trade an Olivella biplicata shell for it, and the clerk agreed. It’s always handy having something interesting in your bag in case you need to trade.

New Zealand 115The Phormium seeds, after rolling in a wet paper towel and in the fridge for one month have been slowly growing.  They seem delicate, I probably need to give them some liquid fertilizer.  The agave plants are the champs. I had almost 100% germination.  They pushed up through the soil with lots of muscle (fiber?) and I have over 60 of them growing now. Growing the plants on is the next challenge. Dealing with pests (thrips) disease (powdery mildew) and fertilizer (don’t forget!).  I hope to get a few of them to produce more seed so I can try again.


Growing Seeds


The Cabbage Tree

Cordyline australis is a true New Zealand tree. I saw it everywhere I went in Wellington. It was at the botanical gardens proudly sporting a nameplate and it was in my brothers backyard with a small girl climbing its branches. Up on a hill and down by the sea, this tree grows from the North to the South on both islands. I really like the way the sprouts shoot out of the trunk and branches, like someone glued spikes onto the bark.

That is another name for this plant in our part of the world, Dracaena ‘Spikes‘ is sold as an annual here in the US. As an annual it gets up to 36 inches tall.  I’ve had a few of these that we grew from seed last year and have found them to be very slow growing.  Maybe with more fertilizer and more sun it would become more tree-like.  As a tree in New Zealand it can get up to 66 feet tall. Put the right plant in the right place and magical things can happen!

The young leaves are edible and so it is called Cabbage tree or cabbage palm  It must taste like a cabbage for it certainly doesn’t resemble one. I collected some seeds and they are having trouble germinating.  I soaked them and put them in the fridge for five weeks, but there is no sign of change yet. Besides food, especially for the native birds, Cordyline is also used for fiber in rope, baskets, clothing and sandals. I’m hoping to grow this beautiful New Zealand native here in Washington. Maybe I’ll make a cabbage cape someday.

New Zealand Nursery

The nursery in New Zealand was so familiar and yet so far away.  This summer I stepped off a plane from a sunny Washington summer into a cool and windy New Zealand winter. It was a surreal experience to not only change time zones but also to change seasons. I felt like I had fallen back in time to March.  One of my first stops was the local garden center in Wellington. They had a beautiful shop well stocked with gifts and seeds and tools and fertilizer and indoor plants.  The first display I saw was filled with winter Daphne. Then I moved on to see rhododendrons, pansies and camellias.  I was delighted to see so many plants that were familiar to me.  It’s fun to realize that many plants growing here in the NW corner of the United States do just as well on the other side of the world.  Yet there were also plants at the nursery that I rarely see here at home.  Exotic names like Leucadendron, Pseudopanax, Griselinia, Metrosideros were introducing themselves and I was having fun learning the new language. The conifer section was tiny and I was surprised at the number of broadleaf evergreens, in the nursery as well as all over town. The hebe selection was fabulous and I loved seeing so many varieties. Prices seemed quite reasonable, especially with the exchange being 1 New Zealand dollar equal to about .7 US dollars.  It made shopping a lot easier! My purchase was a Daphne for my brothers garden, as he needed something special. I also bought some New Zealand Native seeds, but they are not germinating very well. I’m hoping to grow some of these beautiful NZ natives in my garden, I hope I can find the right match.


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Are there Hebes in the Shire?

I visited Palmer’s garden center in Miramar today and was overjoyed to see so many Hebes! Small leaf, large leaf, purple and green leaf, what a great variety. I wanted to pack them up and take them home with me and see what they think of Washington. My guess is they would love it in the Northwest.

 I did find something I could purchase…packets of New Zealand native plant seeds. I am so excited to try them and see how they grow. One of them is a hebe, along with the silver fern, a cabbage tree, the Mt Cook Lily and more. It will be a fun experiment. I was surprised today while driving along Scorching Bay, to see this curious sign:  

Little blue penguins live here on the North Island! I didn’t see any, but it was fun to come across that sign. Luckily we didn’t get lost today, even though I had to ‘drive on the left, look to the right’. It must have been that great road map we found at the Roxy Theater.  


As I was exploring the Wellington Botanic Garden today I had a chance encounter with a very unusual tree.  Near the Lady Norwood Rose Garden I met a Banksia integrifolia or Banksia on a steeply sloped hillside. The first thing I noticed were the unusual seed pods, or woody cones that were persistent all over the tree. They have such an interesting shape and are covered with valves that are like little mouths that are open or closed.   The leaves were distinctive with their narrow elliptical shape and serrate margins.  And then I saw the bark which is full of texture and I knew I had to find a seed and try and grow this little beauty back home.  I was hesitant to pluck anything off a tree in a botanical garden, but luckily I found an old cone on the ground nearby.  Almost all of the valves were closed on the one I found, I might have to burn it to release the seeds.  A bit of research showed that this small tree is native to Australia and is named after the English botanist Sir Joseph Banks. The flowers form cylindrical cones in May, June and July (winter) and are pale green or yellow.  They appear to be an important nectar source for birds during this time of the year. There are several Banskia species in New Zealand, all from the family Protoaceae. It is supposed to be fairly hardy, growing in all soil types and can even tolerate a short amount of freezing weather.  I hope I can make it home with a seed!