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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 24 January 2013 by John Richards

New Zealand Vegetable Sheep. Entry 233.


Well, the snow came as promised, not really until last Thursday, several days after the South, but we have ended up with about 12 cm. It has stuck around, too, for about a week now. However, the thaw is promised tomorrow, preceded by quite a lot of new snow tomorrow afternoon, and then perhaps we will be able to get on with the spring! If so, the cold snap will have lasted a fortnight. It has not actually been that cold here. I registered -6C before the snow, but since then the coldest has only been -3C, inside the unheated alpine house anyway. It has been notably grey and sunless though.

I need hardly say that nothing has moved into flower, and no real gardening has been possible for the last two weeks. I did bring a number of pots of Meconosis and asiatic Primulas which had been free-standing on the alpine house floor into the conservatory for fear that the unplunged roots might freeze. Then, once the snow had started, I put them outside and they are now well-covered. The melting snow will stop them from becoming too dry when I put them back into the alpine house in a day or two.

Kiwi sheep

A common refrain amongst those who, like me, have spent much of their leisure time photographing alpines in far-flung corners of the globe is 'what do I do with the thousands of old transparencies now that I have converted to digital photography'? The real point is that faced with the convenience of Powerpoint, the excellence of most digital projectors, and the ability to edit photos to their maximum potential (framing, colour balance etc), talks given with old projectors look clunky and dated in this digital age. Also, it has become so difficult and expensive to obtain film these days, that even the most dedicated Luddite finds it difficult not to succumb to the siren calls of the digital age.

The answer is to scan those old slides you really value, and if the results do not quite match the original, it is surprising how much of an improvement can be made very rapidly with a good editing programme. Having converted some north American pictures earlier in the winter (during another cold snap!), the present incarceration has caused me to turn to pictures taken during the January 2003 AGS Tour to New Zealand. This was led by Mark Hanger and Ross Graham, and I was lucky enough to be asked to be a third leader. I had visited many of the localities during a previous visit back in 1979, and a few of the pictures shown here were in fact taken during that visit.

I am started with perhaps the most iconic of all the distinctive alpines that occur on the mountains of South Island, the so-called vegetable sheep, belonging to the genera Haastia and Raoulia (both Asteraceae). These can form huge woolly cushions usually on steep scree slopes in the  drier mountains. At a distance they do indeed look just like a flock of sheep lying on the ground. Here for instance is a population of the famous Haastia pulvinaris on the Blackbirch range in Marlborough.

Kiwi sheep

It will not have escaped the notice of the most observant of you that in the above photograph, the sheep are of two colours. The cream-coloured animals are the Haastias, but the silver cushions belong to the local Raoulia sheep, R. bryoides. Here, first, is the Haastia in close-up. It is in flower, or to be completely accurate, I think it is in early fruit and showing tufts of pappus (the 'fluff' on a dandelion clock).


One more picture of the Haastia, to show that its habitat is not so extreme that it cannot also support a fairly 'normal' looking alpine, even one that might not look out of place in a northern hemisphere alpine meadow, the buttercup Ranunculus insignis.

As I said, most of the 'sheep' tend to concentrate in the drier, more easterly of the New Zealand Alps, and Haastia pulvinaris is no exception, being limited to the north-eastern regions of South Island, principally in Marlborough east of Lake Tennyson. Only Raoulia buchananii of Fjordland is typical of a wetter zone. One of the features of the 'wool' that clothes these extraordinary plants is that it tends to be highly hygroscopic, and in the fierce drainage of the screes, and the ever-present dessicating wind, this may help the cushion to hold onto to every drop of moisture that falls. This may be efficient in the corioscating gales that typify this region, but in the garden it just causes the plants to rot at the neck, so that it is very difficult indeed to raise seedlings past a certain size. It is all very well to keep them dry and well-aired, but they also seem to deeply resent being too dry as well! Getting the water regime exactly right is certainly vital in this group, as they are not as forgiving of drought as are, say, dionysias.

Lets move onto to the other sheep in the first picture, the most north-easterly of the South Island raoulias, R. bryoides..The cushions formed by this species are not usually as large as those of mature Haastias, and it is more typical of semi-vertical rock, although both species can grow together.

In the last photo, the little celmisia growing at the top amongst the strands of straggling lichen is C. sessiliflora. We now move southwards to the mountains of western Canterbury where Mt Hutt and Mt Potts rise above the elevated western rim of the tilted, razor-flat Canterbury Plain.

If you can get through the gate, there is a good dirt road up Mt Hutt, and on steep scree slopes above the upper sections of the road are magnificent cushions of Raoulia eximia, perhaps the finest of all the 'sheep'. The first time I went up this road, in 1979, my host was the local nurseryman Jim le Comte.

Jim ran a fine nursery 'Alouette' on the plain below Mt Hutt, just west of Ashburton. He came from an old Kiwi family of French extraction, some of the original colonisers of the Banks Peninsula, hence perhaps the romantic French name for his business. His wife Jean however came from Devon stock, appropriate for one whose life was spent next to Ashburton! Jim propagated and offered a magnificent range of rhododendrons and other Ericaceous subjects, which in the heat and glare of the Kiwi summer was housed under shade netting and watered illegally by pump from the leat, supplied by snowmelt, that ran past his property.

Jim's philosophy when it came to selling alpines (especially bulbs) was simple. He claimed that he only offered 100 new items every year, so that his customers would always have plenty of new things to choose from. He assumed that they never killed earlier purchases!. He made a speciality of American bulbs, with long  rows of Fritillaria recurva, F. pluriflora and other good things, grown from seed and planted out into the local, well-drained and fertile soil.

Jim was rude, outspoken, foul-mouthed and had a heart of gold. I liked him very much and was very upset to hear of his untimely death from heart disease some years ago. Here he is with Raoulia eximia on Mt Hutt.

The next photo shows your diarist slumped beside the same plant 24 years later! It is interesting to see how the plant (identifiable from the lighter coloured seedling parasitic on its own cushion) has grown in quarter of a century, as indeed had your diarist!

Mt Hutt is also a 'two-sheep mountain'. The other Raoulia there is much more of a chasmophyte, although it is also occasionally found in steep rocky screes near the top of the mountain. This is R. mammilaris, known for the rather rough, granular nature of the cushion, very different from the smooth silkiness of R. eximia.


From now on I am going to cheat. There are other 'sheep', notably R. rubra from North Island and the northern extremities of South Island, R. goyenii from Stewart Island, and the aforementioned R. buchananii. However, there are many more Raoulias which have more of a mat-forming than cushion-forming habit, and these are collectively known as 'scabweeds', a rather ugly name for what can at times be very beautiful plants. Unlike the 'sheep', a number of these can form good garden plants, often forming large mats in scree. I have been unsuccessful with them in my present sheltered garden and think they enjoy good exposure and acute drainage, although they also resent drying out. I also suspect that they will not withstand prolonged heavy frosts in the absence of snow.

First, here is the familiar R. australis, growing on the Old Man of Otago.



Next, rather less familiar, is R. hectori, also from the Old Man, growing with the almost equally reduced Dracophyllum muscoides, a very little-known Epacrid related to much large, broom-like bushes.

Raoulia apice-nigra is a curiousity from the mountaiuns of southern Marlborough, very distinctive with its black flowers set in a silver mat. It grew beside the  road on Island Pass.

Finally, here is the attractive and abberrant R. grandiflora, very dubiously a Raoulia at all. This is sometimes offered, but is not at all easy to cultivate. This photo was also taken on Blackbirch, although this is a widespread species on South Island mountains.

I hope to cover Celmisia in the next issue!


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