JARS v49n2 - Pukeiti: A Rhododendron Paradise

Pukeiti: A Rhododendron Paradise
Keith Adams
New Plymouth, New Zealand

Pukeiti (in Maori "Little Hill") was founded in 1951 by two rhododendron enthusiasts, Sir Russell Matthews and Douglas Cook. Mr. Cook purchased 153 acres of New Zealand bush on the slopes of Mt. Egmont near New Plymouth in Taranaki and donated the land to a newly formed trust composed of a small group of keen rhododendron growers of a non-professional interest. They agreed to pay 50 per annum, for five years at least, to establish a rhododendron park (these were the days of .s.p - pounds, shillings and pence - and 50 in those days was a considerable sum). In 1952 a further 163 acres was purchased by a member and donated to the trust. Further land was acquired, and today the Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust owns approximately 900 acres. Except for the areas devoted to the planting of rhododendrons, about 50 acres, the entire property is in bush, as we call it in New Zealand - temperate rain forest in anybody else's language.
The reason for the choice of this location is that it is a near perfect environment for growing rhododendrons: 1,500 feet above sea level, a guaranteed rainfall of 150 inches and a free draining, slightly acid volcanic loam. How lucky can rhodos be! Also, Pukeiti seldom gets snow, which never lasts more than half a day, and frosts are comparatively rare. Because rhodos fit naturally into the New Zealand bush we grow the large leafed species to perfection, all the Maddenia, the small leafed high altitude species from China and Nepal and even, in one small area, vireyas outdoors. We also have a large collection of vireyas planted in an enclosed environment, which has recently been extended by taking in what used to be our propagating house.

Pukeiti vireya house
Vireya House
Photo by E. White Smith

Not only do we grow rhodos to perfection but many other associate plants as well. There is a magnificent Cornus controversa , possibly the largest in New Zealand, and two huge Michelia doltsopa , and magnolias abound. None of these is indigenous. There is an extensive herbaceous border and the giant Himalayan lily, Cardiocrynum giganteum , which has naturalized itself to such an extent that it can be found all over. These magnificent lilies on their 8-foot stems can be seen flowering in profusion at Christmas time every year.
In the early days we had no electricity so a large water wheel was constructed of wood, which drove a small turbine, which in turn supplied the members' lodge and curator's residence with low voltage power. Now that we are connected to the main electricity grid the water wheel pumps all our water requirements. This water, flowing as it does from the mountain, needs no treatment. We drink it neat! The proceeds from a sizable bequest enabled us to build a large gatehouse with restaurant facilities and souvenir shop in the early '80s. Pukeiti is a private trust comprising approximately 2,000 members, obviously mostly New Zealanders but with a worldwide spread, including many Americans. Since we receive no grants from government, our income is dependent on members' subscriptions, entry charges for non-members and sales of plants. The gatehouse is leased out, and we get a percentage of their takings and assistance from time to time from local businesses for special projects. Recently an audio-visual unit was added.
Staff consists of a director, Graham Smith, two permanent gardeners, an odd jobs man and an office lady. A part-time accountant keeps our books in order. We depend a lot on voluntary workers; otherwise we couldn't survive to present a tip-top garden to the thousands of visitors we get every year. International tours are a regular feature. Your own Barbara Campbell has brought several. Since retiring from my wholesale nursery business I have traveled extensively to visit a great many world famous gardens, and without the risk of sounding parochial I would place Pukeiti amongst the world's best. Certainly there's not a better vireya collection with the exception of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh's collection of species, which is a collection only and not generally available for public viewing.

R. laetum x zoelleri
Vireya R. laetum x zoelleri
Photo by Barbara Campbell

Local people often ask me, "When is the best time to visit Pukeiti?" My invariable answer is: "Start coming in July and visit on a regular basis once a month until the end of December." The peak times are October-November when most of the hybrids are flowering, but in July Rhododendron protistum var. giganteum 'Pukeiti' blooms, and this has got to be the biggest in cultivation - and that includes Brodick Castle on Arran. Seed came from Kingdon Ward's last expedition to China in 1952, and we waited 25 years for it to flower. We have a large leafed species area that leads into what we call the "Valley of the Giants." These trees are now upwards of 20 to 30 feet high, and are planted in the bush. One sees great splashes of colour against a background of verdant green and enormous tree ferns. Worth visiting just for that!

Pukeiti Valley of the Giants
Valley of the Giants
Photo by Barbara Campbell

Various species are planted in their series in many areas. You will find the Arboreum series in one planting and then other series, such as Barbatum, Azaleastrum, Campanulatum, Falconeri, Fortunei, Grande, Lapponicum, Maddenii, Neriiflorum, Saluenense, etc., all well separated by bush walks.

R. nuttallii
R. nuttallii
Photo by Peter Schick

If I write so much in the first person I crave your indulgence because I have been involved with Pukeiti since its inception. I was a member of the executive committee for many years and edited the newsletter for a long time. Visit Pukeiti any time of the year - there's always something to see. Come in January and there's rhabdotum , February you have auriculatum and in March the latest of all species, kyawii . The New Zealand bush is always attractive, and latterly we are concentrating on exotics to provide autumn colour - such as Cotinus americanus , Photinia villosa , Japanese maples and dogwoods. Hasta lavista!

Keith Adams ran his own wholesale nursery business for 35 years. He served on the executive board of the Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust for 25 years and edited the Trust newsletter for 10 years. He was made a Life Member in 1990. An upcoming issue of the Journal will carry an article on his plant hunting in Sarawak to collect vireya rhododendrons in the wild.