Silene, Silybum and Stinkwood, Susan Budd

Pick of the Bunch: New Zealand Wildflowers
Peter Johnson
Longacre Press, $49.95,
ISBN 1 877135 06 2

As the title suggests, Peter Johnson’s is an idiosyncratic choice of New Zealand’s wildflowers, which include approximately 2100 native flowering plants and 1800 naturalised from overseas. Although he is the author of countless scientific papers, this is no dry academic treatise, but rather a collection of humorous anecdotes, childhood memories and unashamedly romantic riffs on mountains and tundra, lakes and sandy dunes. His journey zigzags from south to north, taking sandfly leaps through byways and backwaters to rubbish dump and mountain peak.

Sweet musk-roses and “weeds so loathly” are described with equal relish. For an enthusiastic, if spasmodic, gardener such as myself, it was rather less than unalloyed bliss to discover that my Wellington hillside contains more of the loathly kind than I had hitherto believed. What I had fondly considered to be rare cultivars are such unwelcome intruders as pink-head knotweed, ivy-leaved toadflax and the native small-flowered nightshade, to mention only a depressingly small number of my flourishing army of invaders. On the more positive side, it adds enormously to the pleasure of walks through bush, along the coast and even through suburban streets, to be able to identify the hosts of wildflowers from the collection of 260 photographs.

As well as numerous, and very good, photographs of individual plants taken in close-up, there are many dramatically placed in their mountain and coastal habitats: trees and shrubs silhouetted against the ocean in Rakiura; that “damnable plant to get rid of”, montbretia, with Mitre Peak in the badcground; a patch of catsear growing round a gigantic stone hand near Takaka. Ragged bunches filling a kete, decorating a sand saucer or tossed upon a rock are charming arrangements, both in remembrance of childhood holidays and as attractive arrangements of local colour.

Particularly enjoyable are quirky snippets of information. On the derivation of names, campions (Silene) are so named for the god Silenus, always drunk and covered with spittle, as they are often covered with a viscid secretion. Cooks scurvy grass, a now very rare native, was gathered by Cooks crew as prevention of the sailors scourge. Dangerously close to the Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo grows king devil as warning that evil is always at hand. New

Zealand shores have rendered that lusty native of South Africa, the winter heliotrope, celibate, as all the plants here are male. And who could have guessed that the poroporo (Solanum laciniatum or native potato) would become so widely cultivated in Eastern Europe for its contraceptive constituents that it is depicted on a Russian 10-kopeck stamp?

Biculturalism is firmly established in the plant world. Foxgloves are shown growing beneath manuka trees, Peruvian lilies flourish amongst the lush bush of the Buller Valley and varieties of puha from the Northern Hemisphere outnumber the natives. More diverse than human immigrants, plants have come here from Chile, Africa, the Canary Islands, the Mediterranean, Mexico, South America and the Himalayas; and although no threat in their native environments, exotics such as clematis, tradescantia and banana passionfruit threaten to strangle native bush.

A typically New Zealand childhood is celebrated in many of the anecdotes: a journey in an old Hudson Terraplane from Dunedin to Christchurch with only a hotty to warm the 5-year-old in the back of the car; sand everywhere during long days at the beach; a primary school headmaster who imbued his pupils with patriotic fervour for the red rata and golden kowhai; and student holiday jobs on the night shift at a biscuit factory.

Cities are not entirely neglected in favour of the wide open spaces. Auckland, with over 600 naturalised wild plants, a new one added every 88 days, and Wellington’s yellow- and white-flowered cliffs receive due mention. Even Invercargill’s rubbish tip is given a photograph with accompanying key in which sawdust and milk cartons (both mostly Pinus radiata) share the site with wild turnip and willow weed.

Of particular interest to dirty-minded schoolboys is the chapter on scatological plants, “A Scatty Bunch”. The variegated thistle Silybum, the cotton thistle Onopordum from Greek onos, an ass, and porde, fart, are only scatalogical by name, whereas the New Zealand Stinkwood

(Coprosma foetidissimi, abbreviated by field botanists to “cop foet”) is also unpleasant to the senses. There is a superb photograph of the disgusting Aesroe rubra, a flower fungus, that attracts flies with a smelly spore soup.

There is much of the schoolboy in Peter Johnson’s enthusiasm, his jolly perception that seizes upon incongruities of words and appearances. His work, however, is meticulous, particularly the end table giving botanical and common names, families, places of origin and flowering time.

This is a book for the bach or the boat, to he tossed into the back of the car with dog and fishing tackle, a friendly companion for family holidays.

Susan Budd is a Wellington reviewer.

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