PUKEITI - 25 YEARS ON
Graham Smith, Curator
The lodge at Pukeiti in 1972.
Photo by Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust
Pukeiti planting in 1956.
Photo by Pukeiti
The same planting in 1975.
Photo by Pukeiti
On October 30th this year the Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust, New Plymouth, New Zealand,
celebrates 25 years since W. Douglas Cook cut the ribbon that began the turning
of a dream into reality. Members of the Australian and American Rhododendron
Societies will know just what that means in terms of hard work and determination.
This is an opportune time to look back on what has been achieved in that period.
"Pukeiti" means "Little Hill" and this volcanic cone is 1601 feet high,
and is part of the volcanic ranges close to New Plymouth, which terminates in the
8260 foot peak of Mt. Egmont. Being on the west coast of the North Island and
only 10 miles from the Tasman Sea, the prevailing westerly winds are generally
moisture laden and the rainfall of 135" per annum is proof of that. This is
spread evenly throughout the year. The resulting high incidence of cloud cover
reduces temperature fluctuations and the severity of frost. Ground temperatures
can dip to -8°C in open spaces, but bush areas remain frost free. In short,
it is a cool temperate rain forest highly suited to rhododendron cultivation.
The foundation members inherited 150 acres of densely bush-clad, undulating
country. It had originally been logged over 40 to 50 years previously and the
resultant secondary growth had already reached large tree proportions. Old
logging tracks criss-crossed the area and afforded reasonable access. All
this was in 1951. By October 1954 the Trust's area had grown to 450 acres and
a fine Lodge had been built by the members. Membership, fixed at 2 guineas per
annum, had risen to 500. Today, cost of membership has barely risen to $5 N. Z.
but total membership is near the 3000 mark and is worldwide.
By the end of 1955 the Trust area had reached the 900 acres it stands at today.
The first plantings of hybrid rhododendrons had been made and hundreds of young
plants were lined out in a nursery in front of the Lodge. The bulk of these had
been imported from Britain. Rough tracks were being formed through the bush,
taking in delightful mountain streams and other natural features. The Lodge
was supplied with water and power via a waterwheel, and even though power is
taken from the National Grid today, the waterwheel continues to provide water
for two houses, and all irrigation.
A resident Curator was living at the Lodge at this time but the bulk of the work
was still done by volunteers. The administration was handled by a Committee headed
by the Honorary Superintendent, Mr. J. W. Goodwin, and they were responsible
for the basic layout of the garden. Rhododendron species are grouped within their
series and generally kept separate from hybrids. Particularly sheltered areas were
set aside for the planting of large leaved rhododendrons and the open spots left
for the hybrids.
Few people had tried to garden in such conditions and inevitably mistakes have been,
and still are, made. The dense native bush dominated by Kamahi (Weinmannia racemosa),
Hinau (Elaeocarpus dentatus), Tawa (Beilschmiedia tawa)
and Maire (Gymnelaea cunninghamii) provides good shelter but
any alteration by clearing causes wind problems. Plants do not form good roots
in the constantly moist soil and are readily wrenched by strong winds. Phytophthora
root-rot is present and a few losses can be expected each year. It is basically
a problem we must live with as nothing can really be done of a practical nature
to control it. The soil is as free draining as could be imagined and all plants
are sited on mounds 12" above normal soil level. It certainly makes the root
system develop more strongly, but is not infallible. To reduce wind damage we
do not now clear large areas of bush for planting but concentrate on small bays
either side of winding tracks. Aesthetically it is more attractive and
maintenance is reduced.
Pukeiti is evergreen rain forest and not readily suited to deciduous subjects.
After initial success with Magnolia, Prunus, Betula and other subjects
associated with woodland gardening, problems occurred. The Australian opossum,
originally introduced by settlers for fur breeding is now a major pest, and they
developed a taste for most of the exotic deciduous subjects.
They have killed dozens of trees and establishing a Magnolia today is nearly
impossible. The climate is also against these plants except where they naturally
grow in high rainfall areas. i.e. Prunus campanulata is happy, but
Japanese cherries are marginal. Subjects which have done well include Stewartia, Enkianthus,
Rhus americana, Corylopsis, Forsythia, Cornus controveisa,
Styrax japonica, Acer hookeri and Magnolia cambelli when established.
Of the evergreen exotics Michelia doltsopa is the best and flowers
profusely in spring. It even sows itself around the place. Autumn colour is not
the feature it can be where cool nights are followed by warm, sunny days.
However, Rhus, Enkianthus, Stewartia, Fothergilla and deciduous azaleas all
give a good display.
With the basic establishment of the layout of Pukeiti by 1960 things settled
down to consolidating what had gone before. The main walking tracks were
reshaped and drained where necessary and then grassed down. What was the
rhododendron nursery in front of the Lodge became an acre of velvet lawn
surrounded by mixed borders, beds of dwarf conifers and terrace beds for
alpines. The winding drive from the road was sealed and wide herbaceous and
rhododendron borders created each side. Once again the unique climate offered
unusual opportunities to try different plants, and big drifts of Primulas, Hostas,
Rodgersias, Astilbes and Iris kaempferi are a feature today.
Meconopsis, represented by about ten different species, are very much, at home
and regenerate naturally. All these are grown in full sun to give best value.
Cardiocrinum giganteum, the Giant Himalayan Lily, is an outstanding
feature around Christmas time and looks particularly affective amongst
large leaved rhododendrons. The original bulbs were grown from seed scattered
around the bush margins. Seedlings now appear like a grass sward in many areas
and instead of having a few hundred towering flower spikes they will
eventually number thousands.
By the mid-sixties a second staff house was built and general maintenance,
which was increasing to beyond volunteer labor capabilities, was improved.
New rhododendrons were constantly being added to the collection. An overseas
trip to Europe by the Honorary Superintendent brought a rush of new material,
especially rhododendron species from seed. A major development of this period
was the creation of a Himalayan valley, planted with large leaved rhododendrons.
The slopes of the valley are steep and a winding path around the top gives
fascinating views down on top of the plants. In time, the rhododendrons will
be at eye level and it will be a tremendous spectacle. The species planted,
which include R. mollyanum, sinogrande, magnificum
and macabeanum, are now about ten feet high and starting to
flower regularly. The "Valley of the Giants'",
as it is called, is really something for the future.
The native flora has not taken a back seat during this period and wherever
possible track margins are strengthened by the inclusion of ferns and choice
shrubs. Several borders close to the Lodge are devoted entirely to native
plants. Here can be seen a representative collection of New Zealand trees,
shrubs, and ferns with a special emphasis on the good foliage plants that
abound in these islands. Red, yellow, cream and pink striped flaxes
(Phormium sp) silver Astelia, bronze and green cabbage trees (Cordyline sp)
and bronze and variegated five-fingers (Pseudopanax sp are just a few worth
mentioning. Even maintenance is geared to preserving the natural flora,
such as delaying mowing bush tracks until ground orchids have flowered and set seed.
It became apparent in the late 1960's that a staff of two was just not enough
to continue the expansion and maintenance and plans were laid to increase the
workforce. By this time Pukeiti's finances were reasonably healthy and the
very important step of forming an investment "Trust Fund" had been taken.
Pukeiti's relative isolation meant that another house was required for staff
and this third one was built in 1973. Despite this increase in permanent
staff the volunteer spirit is not lost and working bees are still held once
a month. Recently, members planted 250 specimen rimu or red pine trees
(Dacrydium cupressinum) to help replace those logged years ago.
With a life span of 300 years this was really planting for great-great-grandchildren.
Such is the spirit of the members that many are prepared to travel hundreds
of miles to help out. We hope one day to build simple cabin accommodation
for such members so that they may get maximum pleasure and participation from
I came to Pukeiti in 1969 when most of the pioneering work had been done and
early plantings were in their full glory. The rhododendron collection was
already extensive but heavily biased towards hybrids. I made a trip to
Britain in 1972 and since then using connections made at that time and
more recently the American Species Foundation, the collection has more
than doubled. Our aim is to grow as many species as our climate will
allow to give New Zealanders a chance of seeing and comparing this
wonderful genus of plants. We are just extending our range into the
Malesian rhododendrons and the major project of 1976 is the erection
and landscaping of a glasshouse for these. Malesians have been tried
outside at Pukeiti but to give them frost free positions generally means
a bush setting with a reduction in light intensity. Flowering is somewhat
retarded (or non-existent) under these conditions, therefore the glasshouse
will be a great step forward. This will be opened to the public on October
30 this year.
An article such as this would not be complete without a closer look at what
is grown and how they perform. The Grande, Falconert and Maddenii series
are very much at home. R. magnificum, protistum and giganteum
start the season off, appearing in July and August. Some are already reaching
tree like proportions with 25 feet being the tallest. A fine
R. giganteum grown under K. W. 21498 has enormous rich
pink flowers of great quality and would be the finest in the garden.
Within the same group a hybrid seedling of falconeri x macabeanum
is good. It was raised at Glenarn,
Scotland and has the foliage and habit of falconeri with fine yellow,
maroon blotched flowers like R. macabeanum. Of the Maddeniis
R. nuttallii, R. lindleyi and R. rhabdotum are supreme and
planted in large numbers. Another beauty is R. ciliicalyx K.W. 20280
with blush pink flowers, exquisitely
scented, which smother the compact plants in October.
Other series well represented
include the Arboreums, none of which are troubled by our frosts.
R. arboreum var. kermesinum is a dark red, small truss,
but very prolific and held above dark green shiny foliage which is
attractive all the year round. R. floribundum is good in both
flower and foliage and is late,
but later still, just before Christmas usually, is
R. insigne with lustrous, copper-sheened foliage and tight
trusses of pink flowers.
Evergreen azaleas are a feature of Pukeiti with September and early
October bringing a patchwork quilt of color provided by thousands of
hybrids. A bank of R. simsii is a wall of orange-red later in the season.
Deciduous azaleas are not as satisfactory, but grow and flower reasonably well.
The Fortunei series does well with pride of place going to a pure white
R. decorum with a bright pink style. A double form of R. griffithianum,
again pure white and scented, also causes a great deal of comment.
R. orbiculare, R. oreodoxa, R. houlstonii, R. hemsleyanum,
R. diaprepes and others are well represented.
If any one plant evokes comment from both expert and layman alike it is
R. yakushimanum. Our plant is the F.C.C. form and is now about 25 years old,
5½ feet high and 10 feet in diameter with perfect symmetry. Hardly
a leaf can be seen when in flower. A nearby youngster, moved last
year to give it room, is only 2 1/2 feet by 4 feet! We have long
since ceased going by nurserymen's descriptions of rhododendrons
where size is concerned. The hybrid "Winsome" listed as
"dwarf-compact" has been re-spaced twice, but at 8' x 10'
and still growing vigorously we have given up.
I hope this brief mention
has whetted your appetite to come and see for yourself the work of Pukeiti.
This is an important milestone for us and we welcome your participation.
See you in October!