Guest blog by Hannah Zwartz, the Cottage’s gardener

Red valerian (Centranthus ruber, aka Spur valerian, Kiss-me-quick, Fox’s brush, Devil’s beard or Jupiter’s beard) grows all over the garden at Nairn Street Cottage. It pops up in dry corners where nothing else will grow, and in cracks in the paving and walls. It’s a common sight across Wellington over spring and summer; colonising dry clay banks and sunny, rotten-rock slopes, self-seeding freely and flowering in all shades of pink and red alongside tall grasses, yellow wild turnip and white daisy bushes.

Red Valerian Hannah Zwartz
Red Valerian. Photo: Hannah Zwartz

When does a garden flower become a wildflower? And when does a wildflower become a weed – or vice versa? In England – from where the Wallis family, who built the cottage, emigrated – Centranthus is a wildflower that is also grown as a garden plant. With conditions in New Zealand/Aotearoa slightly more favourable for this particular plant, it’s looked on more as a weed.

Many plants in the Nairn Street garden tell the same story – brought from other parts of the world for practical or sentimental reasons, then ‘jumping the fence’ on arrival, to become something of a pest. The most commonly known example is gorse, brought from the UK for hedging before escaping to colonise whole hillsides – but in the Nairn Street garden you can also find honeysuckle, foxgloves, elderflower, purple toadflax (Linaria), crocosmia, arum lilies, agapanthus and hydrangeas. All these have at some point, or in some part of the country, jumped the picket fences to escape the gardener’s control and taken off into the wilderness on their own colonisation mission.

Elder Flower Hannah Zwartz
Elder flower. Photo: Hannah Zwartz

There’s tradescantia, for instance, aka Spiderwort, Wandering Jew/dew/willie. Nobody knows exactly who first introduced this South American plant into Aotearoa, but it’s grown in the UK as an ornamental or house plant, and was freely planted by early European settlers; Sir Walter Buller, for instance, encouraged large areas of it on his Papaitonga (Horowhenua) estate. Heavy frosts kill tradescantia, so it doesn’t become such a pest in the UK, but in NZ it can smother large areas of the forest floor, preventing native seedlings from getting a foothold.

Tradescantia Nik Bullard
Tradescantia. Photo: Nik Bullard

There are times when you’d love to turn back the clock, and ask more questions – is it really such a great idea to introduce possums, rabbits or ferrets? The questions in the Cottage garden are simpler – should we dig out the honeysuckle and elder, so the birds don’t spread the seeds into bush areas? Or is it OK to keep them if we make sure they don’t set seed? Why do we grow ‘weeds’ like purple toadflax, arum and red valerian at the Cottage?

The answers are partly cultural; elder for instance, is a plant with strong herbal and cultural significance (though it also spreads into disturbed habitats, inhibiting regeneration of native species.) Sometimes the answer, to be honest, is partly practical – the reason these plants become ‘weeds’ is that they are very well suited to local conditions, and grow extremely easily. They germinate quicker than more ‘desirable’ garden plants and thrive in poorer soil, with less water. Whether you call them weeds or wildflowers, these plants bring colour to the garden, feed insects and butterflies and can be cut back for use as mulch or compost fodder.

But on another level, they also help the garden tell the history of New Zealand/Aotearoa. Why did settlers – both Māori and European – carry with them, on their months-long ocean crossings, carefully wrapped packages of seeds and cuttings, keeping them alive to plant and take root in the new land? Which plants did immigrants deem essential, for food and medicine but also for cultural reasons? Māori brought kumara, and hue (gourds), and other plants that didn’t take root in the new environment such as coconuts and aute (the paper mulberry used for tapa cloth). Māori gardeners were also quick to adopt potatoes, which grow more easily than kumara in colder areas.  European settlers to Wellington brought fruit trees, berry canes, and herbs such as sage and thyme useful for everyday first aid.  They also brought roses and other flowers – the first dahlia shows in Wellington were as early as the 1840s, a strange (to our eyes) transplant of British culture/horticulture to a Pacific environment.

People often comment that the Nairn Street Cottage garden looks ‘natural’. Actually, a lot of art goes into making it look that way. There are ongoing decisions on which self-sown beauties to leave and which to pull out. Lines, however arbitrary, have to be drawn – that’s what makes it horticulture, as opposed to wilderness.

Cottage Hannah Zwartz
Nairn St Cottage. Photo: Hannah Zwartz

The garden and its plants can tell stories of colonisation, invasion, migration, aggression, refuge, assimilation, naturalisation, attempts at control and/or restoration. Questions facing the gardener – like what to allow in and what to root out – are, on a different scale, the same questions facing wider New Zealand/ Aotearoa culture and society. What makes a ‘worthy’ immigrant – and who gets to decide? The story of colonisation is a living story, not fixed in time in the nineteenth century, because waves of botanical and human migration, and the forces of globalisation, are still here today.

Nairn Street Cottage is open everyday from 1st January to 18 March 2018.
Opening hours: 12 – 4pm