Saturday, 5 June 2010

A town by any other name ...

Recently I overheard a woman in a shop in Rangiora loudly declaiming about the use of flaxes to replace herbaceous borders in public gardens. She was bemoaning the mindset that leads to this and other 'PC madness' such as Maori street names which English immigrants can't pronounce.

I asked her if she thought the town's name should be changed.

'Yes' she stated firmly, 'to something English'.

She was then distracted by the mental effort of having to enter her pin number so I wasn't able to suggest some English town names more in keeping with her mindset such as Nasty, Dull, Ugley or, especially apposite in her case, Pratt's Bottom.

This encounter reminded me of a column by Rosemary McLeod last year in which she wrote of her dislike of harakeke and wharariki - New Zealand flaxes – and her love of roses and all they symbolise. Well, with a name like hers who wouldn't love roses?

Perhaps, the woman in Rangiora also hankers for a simpler, whiter time when there was civic pride, band rotundas and a small army of gardeners to maintain the perfect lawns and formal plantings that spoke to some of 'home' - and 'home' was – well, not here.

The flax versus the rose is a semiotician's delight: the indigenous versus the exotic; the utilitarian versus the decorative; the authentic versus the artificial.

The native flax makes a sterling wind break; it feeds native birds, in the right setting it can be startlingly architectural, it is drought and flood tolerant, it more or less looks after itself and - it belongs here. I love it.

Roses on the other hand are about as unnatural and contrived as a plant can be and they are always trying to get back to what they were.

Hybridised roses are nutrient and water hungry, pest and disease prone and when they're not blooming they're miserable looking things. Pick them and they drop their petals in protest - sometimes within minutes; a shower of rain and the blooms rot or, let any one of our 3 prevailing winds blow and the petals fly off leaving stumps that have to be dead-headed.

If you don't prune them correctly they produce multiple small flowers or shoot out green branches from the root stock. The older they get the worse the thorns are - they become like some newspaper columnists – all spiky and defensive.

Rose growers have to use an array of chemicals to control the white, green and black fly, black and brown spot and scale insects that beset the poor hybrid things. This chemical arsenal includes products like imidacloprid which, along with killing plant pests, also kills bees and lady birds, causes egg thinning in birds, is acutely toxic to earth worms, freshwater fish and crustaceans and causes thyroid problems in mammals.

While there are organic sprays and disease resistant plant varieties the fact remains – most of the chemicals that are put into the ecosystem in NZ are to keep wanted exotic plants alive or to kill unwanted exotic plant, insect and animal species.

I love the tangle of an English hedgerow but here, for the most part, the vast array of exotic weeds that festoon our hills and road sides look fugly.

My house looks straight out at Maukatere - Mount Grey for those who don't know it by its original name – which is a lovely mountain despite all that's been done to it. There are a few tiny pockets of its original east coast beech forest left in gullies too steep for commercial planting but much of the mountain is a blighted landscape of pines and gorse. A few sad natives try to survive outside the gullies, and lupins do their best to brighten it up but mostly it's a miserable place.

I know that pre-European Maori did their own bit of species eradication but the scale and pace of European settlers' impact on this landscape in the 160 or so years of settlement is almost unparalleled. They set about deliberately trying to turn this unique group of islands into a little England.

Ironically, much of what was seen as quintessentially English was artificial. It featured plants imported from all over the world and hybridised by clever gardeners employed by land-grabbing men who became rich through the triangular trade.

The idealised 'English landscape' was a product of imperialism and about as natural as a tea rose.

That's not to say it isn’t glorious – it is - but it's also hugely expensive to establish and to maintain. The formal garden, like the perfect lawn, is an artifice and a status symbol – for those individuals and societies with the time, money, water and space to indulge in it.

Maybe, in these cash-strapped times, those who hate the humble but hardy native trees, flaxes and grasses, should volunteer to seed, pot up and plant out all the annuals, lift and divide the perennials, seed, feed, weed and mow the lawns; do the deheading, pruning, mulching and spraying to help maintain those blooming exotic emblems of empire.

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