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Horticultural use of native plants

by  Maggy Wassilieff

Today gardeners use tree ferns, tussock grasses and some of the hundreds of varieties of hebe to create fascinating gardens. But for a long time native plants were seen as drab. Apart from some spectacular exceptions, native plants don’t have showy flowers. In the 1970s and 1980s, interest in natives bloomed.


Māori use

The early Māori were gardeners. They brought crops from the Pacific, and learnt to grow a few native ones. Rengarenga lily (Arthropodium cirratum) was grown for its fleshy, edible roots. Karaka (Corynocarpus laevigatus) was planted near coastal routes and settlements. Māori processed its poisonous berries into a nutritious food. In the southern South Island where it was too cold to grow tropical crops from Polynesia, they planted and cultivated tī kōuka (cabbage tree, Cordyline australis), and baked its young stems and roots for food.

New plants to England

The first Europeans to explore New Zealand sent seeds back to Europe. New Zealand plants were being sold in England in 1776, just seven years after James Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand. In 1778 a Surrey nurseryman advertised four forms of mānuka for sale. The tradition of sending plant material to Britain continued throughout the 19th century. The British love of exotic plants was in full swing.

Gold medal garden

The British fascination with New Zealand plants continues. In 2004, a New Zealand landscape team won the gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show, with a garden that showcased 81 varieties of native plant. Of the 1,400 plants in the display, 1,000 were sourced from British nurseries.

Plants for shelter

One of the first tasks for European settlers was to clear their land of native trees and tall tussock and sow introduced grasses for pasture. They had little interest in growing any native plant, although a few settlers kept stands of native trees for shelter or as a garden feature.

The settlers quickly learnt that they needed windbreaks. They began growing a range of shrubs and trees, both native and exotic, for shelter. Of the natives, taupata (Coprosma repens), ngaio (Myoporum laetum), New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax), akiraho (Olearia paniculata) and cabbage tree proved fast-growing and hardy, and were widely planted for low shelter. Trees grown for taller shelter were almost always exotic: usually radiata pine (Pinus radiata), macrocarpa (Cupressus macrocarpa) and Lawson cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana).

Early advocates of native plants

Between 1850 and 1900, public gardens were dominated by exotic plants such as oaks, elms and roses. The first major collection of living native plants was started in the 1870s by John Armstrong, in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. William Hall started a native arboretum (a collection of living trees) at Thames in Coromandel around the same time. The pioneer ecologist Leonard Cockayne championed the use of native plants in gardens and in 1924 wrote a popular guide to growing them. Later he was involved in setting up the Ōtari Open-Air Native Plant Museum at Wilton, Wellington.

Pōhutukawa, the New Zealand Christmas tree (Metrosideros excelsa), is such a feature of Wellington that few people realise it only grows naturally further north. J. G. McKenzie, Wellington City Parks supervisor from 1918–47, had it planted in many parks and suburbs around the city. McKenzie was so strongly associated with the tree that he is remembered as ‘Pōhutukawa Mac’.

Popular native plants in the early 1900s

In spite of Cockayne’s work, natives weren’t widely used in private gardens until the 1970s. The layout of traditional New Zealand home gardens followed the British style, with flower beds, lawns and borders at the front and vegetables at the back. A few popular native plants were grown in the front garden: hebes and kōwhai (Sophora species) for their flowers, cabbage trees for a dramatic touch, and shrubs such as pittosporum, coprosma, New Zealand flax and five-finger (Pseudopanax arboreus) for greenery and shelter.

Growers found plants in the wild or had them delivered. A New Plymouth nursery, Duncan & Davies, was the main supplier of native plants from 1918 until the 1980s.

The native garden

Changing attitudes

In the 1970s Muriel Fisher, a suburban gardener in Auckland, and Lawrie Metcalf, a South Island parks horticulturalist, wrote highly influential books on growing native plants. These two books popularised native plants and helped break down the widespread perception that they were drab and difficult to grow. Specialist native nurseries sprang up in response to the growing demand for native plants, and offered a wider selection of plants.

Return of the native

In the mid-1970s many gardeners believed that native plants were fussy, slow growing and dreary. Mark and Esme Dean set out to debunk these myths with talks, articles and displays. By 2005 their plant nursery, Naturally Native, was producing 1 million native plants a year.

During the 1980s native plants started to come into their own. The conservation movement was gathering strength, and there was a lot of publicity about the destruction of native forests. Many New Zealanders realised that they valued their natural heritage, and wanted to recreate or celebrate it by planting natives in their gardens and local areas.

Native gardens aren’t based around colourful, seasonal flowers. Instead, gardeners create year-round interest by contrasting form, texture and foliage colour.

Flower colour

Most New Zealand plants have small, white flowers. The notable exceptions are:

  • pōhutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa) – red
  • kōwhai (Sophora species) – yellow
  • kākā beak (Clianthus species) – red
  • Marlborough rock daisy (Pachystegia insignis) – large, white and yellow
  • Chatham Island forget-me-not (Myosotidium hortensia) – blue
  • Mt Cook lily (Ranunculus lyallii) – large and white.

Form and foliage

Clumped plants with long sword-shaped leaves, such as flaxes (Phormium), Poor Knights lily (Xeronema callistemon), astelia, wild spaniards (Aciphylla), native irises (Libertia), dianella, Machaerina, and some mountain daisies (Celmisia), provide stylish sculptural effects in a border.

Small trees with long, spear-like leaves, such as cabbage trees, lancewoods, turpentine trees (Dracophyllum), juvenile rewarewa and hīnau, are often used as a contrast to large broad-leaved shrubs like rangiora (Brachyglottis repanda), kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum), whau (Entelea arborescens), pukunui (Meryta sinclairii) and puka (Griselinia lucida).

Divaricating shrubs

New Zealand has many small-leaved, wiry, branched shrubs. Known as divaricating shrubs, these have become a feature in wind-swept civic plantings. They include the orange-stemmed Muehlenbeckia astonii, many types of coprosma, and corokia (Corokia cotoneaster), a compact shrub that produces a mass of yellow star-shaped flowers in spring, and bright red berries in summer.

Grasses and sedges

Long overlooked by gardeners, tussock grasses and sedges have become increasingly popular. They are low-maintenance plants that provide texture and colour, rustling and waving in the wind.

New Zealand’s largest grasses, known as toetoe, are closely related to the South American pampas grasses. Their dense tussocks grow 2–5 metres tall, with spires of feathery plumes when in flower. Toetoe withstand a range of soil conditions and are useful as shelter hedging.

The snow tussocks (Chionochloa species) form smaller, tidier tussocks around 0.5–1 metre tall. Chionochloa flavicans is probably the most widely planted. It has attractive, light-green flowering plumes that last for months.

A number of grasses and sedges provide colour in the garden. Strong shades of red are found in:

  • red tussock (Chionochloa rubra)
  • flowering wind grass (Anemanthele lessoniana)
  • the hook grasses Uncinia rubra and U. egmontiana .

Orange and tan:

  • pīngao (Desmoschoenus spiralis)
  • Carex buchananii and C. flagellifera.


  • blue grass (Elymus solandri)
  • Festuca coxii (a Chatham Island endemic)
  • two fine-leaved grasses, Poa astonii and Poa colensoi.

Breeding native plants

Some native plants have been improved as garden specimens by breeding. The colourful hebes, mānukas, flaxes and cabbage trees that are popular are creations of human hands.


The hebe group has nearly 100 species. During the mid-1800s, British nurserymen began to take advantage of the great tendency for hebe species to breed together. The offspring of two species is called a hybrid. Hebe ‘Andersonii’ was the first artificial hybrid, raised in Edinburgh in 1849. Since then over 800 cultivars (cultivated varieties) and hybrids have been created, mainly by British and French breeders. However, Jack Hobbs, a New Zealand breeder, has overseen the development of about 20 cultivars, including the popular ‘Wiri’ series.


There are two species of New Zealand flax: harakeke (Phormium tenax) and wharariki or mountain flax (Phormium cookianum). They are clump-forming plants with fans of sword-shaped leaves. Māori recognised different forms, which they grew for weaving and rope-making. They also selected naturally occurring coloured and variegated forms, for ornament. The two flaxes hybridise easily. Walter Brockie bred the first red-leaved cultivars ‘Aurora’ and ‘Smiling Morn’ in 1940.

Gardeners have since bred many cultivars, from the small, purple ‘Platt’s Black’ to the 3-metre grey-green ‘Goliath’. New Zealand breeders are continuing to develop compact, multi-hued cultivars.


Mānuka (Leptospermum scoparium) is one of New Zealand’s commonest native shrubs. It typically has single white flowers, but sometimes double and red-flowering forms arise. The first red cultivars, such as ‘Nichollsii’ and ‘Keatleyi’, were selected from plants with naturally occurring red flowers.

In 1939, a Californian geneticist, W. E. Lammerts, crossed a red mānuka with a double-flowered pink mānuka, producing a range of attractive flowering cultivars, notably ‘Red Damask’.

A year or so later, Duncan & Davies released the ‘Nanum’ mānuka cultivars – 12 dwarf and semi-dwarf selections that came from a plant growing on the Volcanic Plateau.

Serious systematic breeding of mānuka in New Zealand began in the 1980s and 1990s. Scientists crossed cultivars with Australian Leptospermum species, in the hope of raising some lines that would be suitable for the cut-flower trade. Jack Hobbs introduced the ‘Wiri’ series of dwarf and semi-dwarf mānuka. Warwick Harris from Landcare Research collaborated with the French breeder Luc Decourtye in investigating the cold-hardiness of selected lines of mānuka.

Uncertain times

The flurry of systematic breeding of natives in the 1980s stopped in the 1990s. It is expensive to fund shrub and tree hybridisation programmes, which must run for two or more generations. Some breeders failed to secure funding, and some became wary of working with native plants while the Waitangi Tribunal hearing into the Indigenous Flora and Fauna of New Zealand – the Wai 262 Claim – remained unresolved. Under this claim Māori assert that the Treaty of Waitangi guarantees them ownership rights to indigenous plants and the genetic material they hold.

Specialist plants

Tree ferns

Tree ferns are a distinctive feature of New Zealand forest, their umbrellas of fronds standing out against the dense mass of trees. Common in the understorey of native and exotic pine forests, they are some of the first plants that grow in cleared land, especially on damp slopes. They bear their fronds at the top of trunks. Ponga (the silver tree fern, Cyathea dealbata), mamaku or black tree fern (Cyathea medullaris) and whekī (Dicksonia squarrosa) are the three most popular with gardeners. They need shelter from drying winds when young, and grow best in a grove with other trees or tree ferns.

Smaller ferns

The smaller ferns are usually only grown by specialists. Some hardy species such as hound’s tongue fern (Microsorum pustulatum), scented fern (Paesia scaberula), shore spleenwort (Asplenium obtusatum), and button fern (Pellaea falcata) can be grown in average conditions, and stand some exposure to bright sunlight. Most native ferns require a moist, shaded environment with well-drained, humus-rich soils.


From the northern offshore islands of New Zealand, a number of large-leaved trees, shrubs and climbers were rescued from extinction and brought into cultivation in the nick of time. Browsing animals had reduced them to just a few specimens. In gardens they give a lush, tropical look. They grow well in warmer, frost-free areas of New Zealand.

Tecomanthe speciosa is the pick of the crop: it is a vigorous, woody climber with large, glossy leaves and bunches of tube-shaped cream flowers that appear in winter. The Poor Knights lily (Xeronema callistemon) is another beauty; in summer it sends up flowering stems, with a bottle-brush head of brilliant red flowers. It must have free drainage if it is to flourish.


New Zealand boasts over 65 species of mountain daisies (Celmisia species), including the splendid C. semicordata. This is a rosette plant with stiff, 60-centimetre silvery leaves. Its large daisy flowers have white rays and bright yellow-orange centres. A single mountain daisy cannot fertilise itself, so two or more must be grown together to produce seed. It can be a problem if there is more than one type of mountain daisy in a garden because they cross-breed readily.

The mat-forming Raoulia daisies are easy to grow. The iconic Mt Cook lily (Ranunculus lyallii) is difficult in anything but cool climates. However, southern gardeners who grow it successfully are rewarded with tall stems bearing 10–15 pure white, saucer-sized blooms in early summer.

Many of New Zealand’s rock garden and alpine plants need free drainage to thrive.

Revegetation and crop plants

Early revegetation

Replanting damaged landscapes with native plants began in the 1960s when the Department of Lands and Survey restored land around hydroelectric dams on the Waikato River. The department set up a native plant nursery at Taupō and grew large volumes of hardy natives. Over time, local bodies and community groups throughout New Zealand also began planting natives to restore plant communities and to provide food and habitat for native wildlife. Revegetation groups either raise plants themselves, or commission commercial nurseries to do so. By the late 1990s there were about 300 commercial native plant nurseries in operation.

Recent revegetation

Modern revegetation work uses only locally sourced plants. Plants that have been created by breeding (cultivars and artificial hybrids) are not used because their genetic make-up is different from that of local plants. The advantage of using local plants is that they are adapted to the soils and climate of the area, and once established require very little maintenance.

Restoration projects include:

  • Restoration of subalpine shrublands along the Ohakune Mountain Road, Mt Ruapehu
  • Forest revegetation of islands that had been farmed: Mana, Matiu (Somes Island), Tiritiri Matangi
  • Swamp revegetation, Travis wetland, Christchurch
  • Restoration of sand dunes, Long Bay Regional Park, Auckland.

Native crop plants

Apart from ornamentals, few native plants have been grown commercially. New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) was cultivated from the 1860s until the 1980s for its fibre, but plant disease and competition from other imported fibres spelt the end of the industry.

For a short period (1976–83) poroporo shrubs (Solanum laciniatum and S. aviculare) were grown in Taranaki because they contain solasodine, a plant steroid used in contraceptives. However, it proved cheaper to raise such plants in other countries or use synthetic substitutes. Poroporo is no longer cultivated in New Zealand.

The only native plant that is grown as a food crop is New Zealand spinach, or kōkihi (Tetragonia tetragonioides), a sprawling perennial herb whose stems and arrow-shaped leaves are boiled or steamed and eaten as a green vegetable. The plant was introduced to Britain in the 18th century and is grown there as an annual. Although not widely grown in New Zealand or overseas, it has the status of a speciality or novelty green.

Cut foliage

Few native plants have been successfully grown for the cut-flower trade. However, increasingly cultivars with colourful leaves are being grown for New Zealand and overseas flower markets. Pittosporum foliage is the main export, with 1.4 million stems exported in 2003–4, mainly to Japan. Foliage of mānuka, kamahi and New Zealand flax is also popular. New Zealand exporters compete with Italian and Irish growers of New Zealand flax, Pittosporum tenuifolium and Brachyglottis greyii.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Maggy Wassilieff, 'Horticultural use of native plants', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Maggy Wassilieff, i tāngia i te 24 o Hepetema 2007