Imitating New Zealand

Time and time again I drove past thousands of flowering Crocosmia on the roadsides of New Zealand, remarking to myself, “I’ll stop in a few miles and take a photo of this.” As a plant of South African origin, Crocosmia apparently loves Kiwi roadsides. I never stopped to take that picture, so the closest I can come is this Crocosmia planting pondside at the Christchurch Botanical Garden, strangely in the native plant section of that garden.

My thought, of course, is to imitate the New Zealand roadside effect–Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ in long grass–as ornament to my naturalistic garden. It will flare up in flower, then disappear, like the orange day lilies, into the grass.

I use that word “naturalistic” with thoughtful consideration, having recently read serious on-line postings on this issue–on the inaccuracy, downright dishonesty, and/or inappropriateness of that word. One is Michael King’s blog post on Perennial Meadows here; another is Emma White’s thought-provoking essay here. Both are now on the thinkingardens web site.

Michael’s point seems to be that “naturalistic” planting design has become commodified, and is now simply a formula (in the hands of lesser designers) widely used simply because it’s become a popular style, usually without any attention to sense of place or to the creative needs of the garden and the garden maker, in fact, that it stifles creativity. He has nothing against the style itself, only that it has become formulaic. He would also like to abolish use of the term “naturalistic” because he sees its use as dishonest, promising a true naturalism, a nature-based kind of garden, when it is not that at all.

Emma White’s well written and well reasoned essay tries to understand the meaning of the words “nature” and “naturalistic” as applied to gardens, and in her exploration she encounters a series of ambiguities and dead ends. She concludes her discussion by asking, “Is it time to rethink the language we are using? Could this be the end of the term ‘naturalistic planting’, or least the end of its ambiguity? It’s up to you.”

In contrast to these seriously considered opinions, I have no issue with using “naturalistic planting” to describe what I do in my garden or what many others do. But I’ve selected the meaning I want to use and it is mainly an aesthetic one. When I describe my garden as a naturalistic planting, I mean it is an artificial creation, designed to be aesthetically pleasing, but an artificial planting that imitates nature, that very much creates its own nature, using plants from all over the world, but plants well suited to my local conditions and selected to complement the garden’s sense of place. My use of the word “artificial” means nothing more than creation of a living community, or communities, of plants, just not communities you would find “naturally” anywhere in nature.

For a detailed discussion of the meaning of “natural” in today’s world, I recommend Emma Marris’ important book, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. I began my garden several years before Marris’ book was published, at first feeling quite guilty that I wasn’t limiting my plant palette to native plants (whatever those are; the question remains open), and using the horticultural and scientific writings of Noel Kingsbury and Piet Oudolf to guide me. Now I find ecologists all over the world are are recognizing that we live in a world of created nature–no untouched, pristine nature exists–and our only choice, our only chance, is to learn to manage that created nature.

I know Lucifer is one Crocosmia that can survive my zone 6 climate and that it likes moisture (perhaps not as much moisture as I have), so  time will tell whether this plant is destined to permanently join the other plants in my naturalistic garden.

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20 thoughts on “Imitating New Zealand

    1. Considering their foliage, the combination with grass seems a natural (!!) combination. I’d like to know how they got all over the NZ roadsides. I assume a readiness to self-seed.

  1. Great article. It appears rather subjective to me to separate humans from other vectors of plant distribution (wind, animal etc.). I understand that human dispersal of plants should be thought about separately as it is perhaps the most extreme case of plant redistributions in the history of plants. Having said that I am glad to hear that you are over the guilt! Furthermore I think it is more useful to rely on ecological principles to find an inspirational model for the planting design. For example large tall buildings lining the street: what grows well in canyons, building roofs: island ecology, alvar ecosystems and so on.

    1. I certainly use traditional ecological principles in creating my artificial ecology–woodland site, heavy clay, very wet, even standing water much of the year. Then I researched what will grow in such an environment. Many native scirpus, juncus, carex, ferns, pycnanthmeum. Also Japanese miscanthus absolutely loves it, as does Chinese/Tibetan Inula racemosa, as well as many American prairie plants (from the midwest, so not native? Good question that helps blow away the “native only” thing). My ecological model is modified woodland edge with initial planting guidance from Die Stauden und Ihre Lebensbereiche by Hansen and Stahl.

  2. Take the terms for a woody plant – some may call it a shrub, others a bush, and in parts of the deep south I’ve heard called a ‘scrub’, others still, will name it by its common name or a more specific botanical name. Only the latter isn’t open for interpretation (unless the ID is wrong!). It is what it is and each is valid in the mind of the user. Is it ambiguous? Only when it’s not specific. Naturalistic means something totally different to me than it does to you, or Noel Kingsbury or Michael King or anyone else. Is the term ‘interpretive dance’ ambiguous? Just as much as naturalistic garden I suspect.

    1. And does it matter? When I first started reading these “discussions” about the meaning of nature and naturalistic, I thought, “So what?” We’ve been redefining nature for centuries, why this concern? It seems a short-sighted discussion that lacks the big picture view of the history of use of these words. I like your analogy with “interpretive dance.”

  3. I wouldn’t say that pristine states of nature haven’t existed, and don’t continue to exist until they get discovered.
    But I’d also say that the meaning of ‘naturalistic’ and ‘natural’, in relation to garden practice, can be understood in terms how people integrate. For we live in an age when peoples who’ve been separated by geography are now coming together in mixed communities, and these communities are as ‘natural’ as any of their antecedents.
    It’s a new nature, isn’t it? For life never stops, but is forever in a state of transformation. For me, naturalness is really about good health, not about a restricted range of identities. What works, works. What doesn’t may be ‘unnatural’.

    1. Faisal, your comment reminds me that the native plant movement has, by some, been criticized for its potential to support racist tendencies. It’s rather easy to make analogies to immigration law, particularly America’s awful laws (keep the foreigners out), even to the Nazi interest in native plants as important to maintaining a pure Aryan culture. Some have even linked Jens Jensen, a hero of the American native movement, to the exclusionary approach to plant use. As you say, what works, works. What doesn’t may be unnatural.

  4. I read British gardeners who battle to contain or eradicate this plant. Along the roadside reminds me of Paterson’s Curse. Scary stuff and it ATTACKS. But then you burn your problem children, perhaps that will keep it well-behaved for you.

    1. I had to look up Pattersons Curse, which seems a truly dangerous plant. Crocosmia has clearly become a weed in New Zealand, but my difficult conditions will easily control its desire to spread wildly. My heavy wet clay has tamed a number of thugs, and the selective burning may help. I do pay attention.

      1. C. aurea is found from the coast to up to the altitude of 2 000 m above sea level in the Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Swaziland. It loves moist habitats e.g. stream banks, wooded kloofs, and forest margins.
        Says PlantZAfrica

  5. The Crocosmia is considered a nusiance weed here in Auckland and the local council aggresively sprays them to get rid of them, as are the lupins that line the road sides of the South Island. They look lovely but are crowding out the natives. We are desperately trying to return our little bit of New Zealand bush back to an original state by planing natives, but they grow slowly, are fickle and this is exactly what the introduced plants exploit. Our garden has been neglected for 20 years and you can follow our battles on our blog and would welcome any hints and help would be appreciated.

    1. Thanks for confirming my suspicion that Crocosmia has become a rampant weed in New Zealand. I’m quite sure that won’t happen here in my garden. Most Crocosmia are not winter hardy here, although ‘Lucifer’ is, and even ‘Lucifer’ will have a hard go in my heavy clay. Extinguishing it from your roadsides looks almost hopeless; there’s just so much of it. You might find some comfort in Emma Marris’ book, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post Wild World. I look forward to watching how you reclaim your garden.

      1. James, at this stage we are just putting in the structure, but are just about start the major planting phase. We are getting excited at the prospect.

  6. For several years I pulled this plant out by the fistful as it seemed to be coming up wherever it wanted, and not where I intended. I had come to regret planting it, but the flower came to symbolize a moment in our marriage. So I just kept up with it as best I could. Later for no apparent reason it just went away and other things took its place.

    1. I’ve heard similar stories before. An invasive plant seems about to completely take over, then some change (who knows what, a readjustment of the ecology, a new insect, some unknown bacterial or fungal organism, some change in the competitive regime, etc.) occurs, and the plant comes back into control or goes away entirely. I think I read about this in Emma Marris’ Rambunctious Garden. Thanks for the story. I’ll be happy if crocosmia jumps around my garden for a few years. I wish I could tell a similar story about Japanese Stilt Grass (Microstegium vimineum), but it appears to be here forever, even though it’s an annual.

  7. Hi James – I know this post is somewhat old, but here’s a bit of info on Crocosmia that might help. It’s a terrible weed here in my part of Australia as well (including my own garden blog where I have struggled to contain it). Once it is established, it doesn’t respond to typical hand weeding (the soil actually needs to be meticulously sieved to remove the corms which are prolific and easily broken off) nor poisoning (each leaf has to be painted with a sponge, or it has to be sprayed with undiluted weed killer). The reason it’s become such a difficult weed in NZ, Australia and Great Britain is because the frosts that used to contain the spread are becoming less severe. If anyone wants to plant – and enjoy it – I would recommend cutting a piece of large plastic pipe and sinking that into the ground at least 12″ into the ground making sure that the tip of the pipe still stays above the soil level; and then ensure that you cut the flowers prior to seeding. That way, you can contain its growth

    1. Hi, Matt – I can imagine how much of a problem crocosmia is down your way. Here, in my wet, heavy clay, I doubt it would do what it does for you. I didn’t plant it as I had planned, but still think I may experiment with a few corms in isolated areas next year. I could tell from what I saw in New Zealand that it has gone completely wild there. Thanks for the warning.

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