Over the last 2 years I’ve traveled across the US and have visited 8 countries. When I visited Iceland a year ago I thought nothing would compare to its alien landscapes, but now having been to New Zealand I know differently. New Zealand has some of the most beautiful farmland and the strangest plants I’ve seen thus far. I only had a week to explore all that New Zealand has to offer, and I’m afraid that week didn’t do it justice since New Zealand is one of the most biodiverse, beautiful places on the planet. In fact, according to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai, “New Zealand is estimated to have more than 80,000 native animals, plants and fungi,” but “only about 30,000 have been described, named and classified.” The animals, plants, and fungi evolved isolated from the rest of the world and their genetic diversity is something to be prized. Since the arrival of humans to the island 1,000 years ago these species have been in decline, so my trip was in hopes to see as much of this diversity as I could before its gone. I started my journey on the North Island a scenic 60 minute drive from one of the North Island’s major port cities Auckland.
During the first part of our trip, my partner Jeffrey and I stayed at the Hunua Homestead, which is a bed and breakfast that includes a self-described “railway glamping cabin” where we stayed. I don’t tend to mention the places we stay, but I felt I should make an exception for this bed and breakfast. Our hosts Glenn and Mark were incredibly friendly and welcoming. They provided us with a delicious homemade breakfast of organic blueberry pancakes with syrup and fresh cream, English tea, and cereal with dried strawberries and fresh milk. The cream and milk were from the cows that roam on the outskirts of their property. This little place was our home base for the entirety of our time on the North Island, and I couldn’t have asked for more gracious hosts or a more beautiful view. If you get the chance to stay in New Zealand, I highly recommend Hunua Homestead.
When we arrived on the North Island it was 6 AM, the sun was just rising, and the air was cool and crisp. I wasn’t the least bit jet lagged, but desperately needed a morning coffee. So after a flat white and an English tea at a rest stop just outside of the airport, we immediately took to the road to Hamilton Gardens, which is about 2 hours outside of Auckland.
Hamilton Gardens was once a garbage dump that was transformed into a highly successful public garden in the 1960s by the Hamilton City Council. According to their website, Hamilton Garden is not a botanical garden, but a historical concept garden that explores the history, context, and meaning of gardens across the cultures around the world. The garden’s collections are well cultivated and finely attuned to “historic integrity and provides a window into the story of civilisations, their arts, beliefs and lifestyles.” There are about 22 different gardens at Hamilton and these are organized into 5 collections: Paradise Collection, Productive Collection, Fantasy Collection, Cultivar Collection, and Landscape Collection.
Of all the gardens that make up the Hamilton Gardens, I was particularly fond of the Paradise Collection which was a series of 6 attached gardens that demonstrate architecture and plants from around the world. I was smitten by the Indian Char Bagh garden. The name “Char Bagh” means “enclosed in 4 parts” and these gardens were meant to symbolize the universe. The Char Bagh garden at Hamilton was inspired by the Taj Mahal and stays true to the designs used in what is modern Iran including the use of bubbling and trickling water features. The Paradise Collections also includes a Modernist garden Japanese garden, Chinese Garden, Italian Renaissance garden, and an English flower garden. Unfortunately, my trip coincided with early, early spring so not many of the English flowers had come up.
The Paradise Collection then transitioned into the Fantasy Collection, which included a Tudor garden and a Tropical garden. The Tudor garden was spectacular and was honestly much better cultivated than the actual Tudor garden I visited in Hampton Court Palace. I liked how much the Tudor and the Tropical gardens contrasted with each other. Although both are planned gardens, the Tudor garden was much more controlled and manicured while the Tropical garden felt much more wild and natural.
The other collection I liked was the Productive Collection, which featured a traditional Maori garden called a Te Parapara. According to the website, this garden is divided into two realms: “Te Ara Whakatauki (the path of proverbs), which […] is the realm of the uncultivated food from the forest and grassland;” and the “Te Taupa (the garden), [which] is the realm of cultivated food.” The other Productive garden I enjoyed was the Kitchen Garden, which is a European designed minimalist vegetable and flower garden. I liked these gardens in particular because they are an interesting look into pre- and post-European settlement in New Zealand. If anything, I would have liked to see an example of a modern New Zealand kitchen garden and would have liked to see how the Maori and European gardening traditions have come together.
I also loved visiting the greenhouse in the Victorian flower garden, which we accidentally came across while walking through the Hammond Camelia Garden. This green house displays plants and flowers that have been specifically “bred for their color and curiosity.” This particular display emulates “the English gardenesque tradition,” which is a gardening style that is based on the premise that gardens are works of art and should showcase the skill of the gardener by including novelty and exotic plants in formal beds and mixed borders. The greenhouse was divided into 3 rooms. The main room was filled with beautifully and brightly colored flowers, such as primrose, mums, and daisies as well as variegated tropical foliage like crotons, philodendrons, and calatheas. This main room was perfect representation of the gardenesque style in that its mixed borders included plants from all over the world that complimented and contrasted each other. The second room, or the room to the left, was a temperate tropical garden that included orchids, bromeliads, and ferns. The third room across the hall was a desert garden that I was completely impressed with. The succulents and cacti in this garden were tall, sturdy, and beautifully colored. There was no sign of rot or disease in these plants like in so many other glass house desert gardens I have been to. Not only were the plants healthy, but the room was well populated so no matter where I looked I saw something different at every turn. It was truly delightful to see so many cacti and succulents from different continents in such a compact space. It made me think about my plant colony at home and how I can potentially expand it.
There were so many gardens and aspects of Hamilton Gardens that were truly spectacular and amazing, so it’s been nearly impossible to decide which gardens and experiences I would include. If you’re looking for a garden experience that is diverse, well researched, and well executed I would recommend traveling to Hamilton Gardens.
The Redwoods & Whakarewarewa Forest
Our first day on the North Island wasn’t complete until we visited the Redwoods and Whakarewarewa Forest, which is a swath of California redwood trees and native plant species. The forest has an interesting history in that this forest didn’t have trees when the Maori people settled there in 1886. In fact there was only native brush such us manuka, ferns, and flax. It wasn’t until after the European government of New Zealand purchased this land in 1890 that trees began to be planted in an effort to restore forests that were rapidly being cut down by European settlers. In 1898 the government created nurseries in an effort to determine which foreign species of tree to plant throughout the country because the native trees in New Zealand took 200-300 years to mature, which was far too much time. The government picked the California redwood in 1901 and by 1925 the grove of redwoods became a memorial. The forest was first open to the public in 1970 and the land was returned to the Maori in 2009. I think it’s important to point out that the trees themselves do not belong to the Maori. The redwoods are managed by the Rotorua District Council and the forest is managed by the company Kaingaroa Timberlands until the contract expires. If you would like to know more about the history of the redwoods and Whakarewarewa Forest, you can read more on the official wesbite and here.
Walking through this forest was eerie and surreal. Wandering among the ferns and trees I felt as if I was going to run into an ancient ancestor of this forest at any moment. It was like being transported back in time where there was only quiet and the rustling of birds. It was a rooted place where I felt that if I stood and looked up long enough I might turn into a tree myself.
The Pacific Coast Highway
On our second day on the North Island we took the Pacific Coast Highway to Auckland to get all the beautiful coastal views. I had expected the coast to be rocky and jagged, but what I found was incredibly diverse and beautiful. We first stopped at Umupuia beach, which is part of the Nga Tai Umupuia Te Waka Totara Trust outside of Clevedon. This beach was rocky, full of cockle shells, and was surrounded by the Umupuia forest. There was nothing jagged or scary about this beach. We then made our way up the highway to the town of Mareatai at Magazine Bay where we found a beach that looked like it belonged in the Caribbean with its fine sand and aquamarine water. Our final stop along the highway was on Omana Beach which is about 25 miles outside of Auckland. This beach was a mix of fine sand, rocks, and shells and had some tall trees and low lying coastal plants, which to my surprise included a blooming succulent called African ice plant (Carpobrotus edulis). African ice plant is an invasive species from South Africa which has hybridized with and choked out the local New Zealand ice plant (Disphyma australe). These succulents don’t usually bloom until October, but we found many early bloomers during our frolic on the beach. We also came across pōhutukawa trees, which are a type of myrtle native to the North Island. These trees used to grow in coastal forests, but by the 1990s these pōhutukawa forests were reduced by 90% because of farming and the introduction of brushtail possums, which strips away the tree’s leaves. Luckily there were no possums in the tree we found and we could enjoy it in its crooked splendor.
The Auckland Domains Wintergardens
After a long scenic drive up the Pacific Coast Highway, we finally came to our Auckland destination: the Wintergardens. The Wintergardens consist of 2 green houses as well as an outdoor fern walk. The first green house is a temperate green house that keeps both exotic native and foreign plants. The second green house is heated and is home to tropical plants. There were SO many amazing flowers in both houses that I have never seen before, such as Abutilon orange, which is a kind of mallow plant indigenous to the “tropics and subtropics of the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia;” or Hoya carnosa compacta otherwise known as the Hindu rope hoya, which is native to eastern Asia and Australia and has an uncanny resemblance to tortellini. The one amazing plant that I saw both in this garden as well as in the forests around the North Island was the black tree fern (Cyathea medullaris). This fern is native to New Zealand as well as to Fiji, the Marquesas Islands, Tahiti, and the Austral Islands and Pitcairn. Click through my gallery to see the other beautifully strange plants I fell in love with.
After 2 full days in the North Island it was time to fly to the South Island where the landscapes and plant life were by far and away different from the North Island. Coming up: Part 3 of my New Zealand adventure where I explored the rocky inland and coasts as well as the public gardens of South Island.
Do you have questions about my visit to New Zealand’s North Island? Are you looking to plan a trip? Or do you just have questions about your indoor and outdoor plant babies? If you’d like to know more about my travels or if you have questions about your plant colony, leave a comment below or feel free to contact The Garden Generalist. I would love to hear from you!