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Cornucopia - A tale of two Astelias

A tale of two Astelias
Virginia Oakes

There are some plants you admire when you see them in gardens or illustrated in books but which you don’t acquire, perhaps for reasons of cost or availability. For me, one such plant was Astelia chathamica, often offered under the name 'Silver Spear' but this, it seems, is an incorrect name. As a native of the Chatham Islands, off the coast of New Zealand, it had, along with many plants from that part of the world, a reputation for being difficult to grow and always commanded a high price. Eventually, I could resist the temptation no longer and bought a plant. I understood from what I had read that it required a rich moist soil, unlike most other silver plants. The only place in my garden that has any moisture left by summer is a north-facing border in front of a fence so that was where it went, with a black bamboo, Bupleurum fruticosum, a pollarded paulownia, Fatsia japonica and Chamaerops humilis for company. I was concerned that a hard winter would kill it off but decided I was doing the best I could. It rewarded me well and exceeded my expectations. It looks fabulous all the time.

Then I saw what looked like a miniature version, which was sold to me as Astelia banksii. This is a plant of the lowland coastal forest on the North Island of New Zealand and is much smaller than A. chathamica, and less silver. I grew it for some time in a pot but eventually decided to divide it and plant some in the ground. One piece I put next to its larger cousin – I like that sort of juxtaposition, the same colour and form but a difference in size. Another I put in a shady, sheltered spot and a third in a much drier and sunnier position. They all grew into sizeable clumps and I started researching other astelias to add to my ‘collection’.

Then came the winter of 2008/9. All the A. banksii plants were reduced to dry, brown heaps with a few green shoots that struggled to recover the following summer. The Astelia chathamica shrugged off the cold without a problem.

Then came the winter from which we are just emerging. I could hardly bear to look outside, it was all so grey and dull and everything looked so dead.

Except – Astelia chathamica!

Whenever I looked, there it was reflecting every little bit of light and positively shining in the gloom.

There are now many conflicting opinions on the cultivation of these plants. Some advise dry shade, others sun with moisture and everything in between. What should I conclude from this? Have I been doing the right and the wrong thing or have I just been lucky and unlucky in equal proportion? I don’t know. But I recently bought a replacement Astelia banksii to try again, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for my star performer!

First published in the Kent Group Newsletter, Spring 2010
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 27.
© Copyright for this article: Virginia Oakes

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2011. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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