Ewen's garden

A collection of columns, paintings and photographs about gardening on an offshore island in New Zealand.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

One for the birds

On the weekend we had the sad task of burying our cat. I chose a place where there was nothing in particular growing and planted a kowhai tree. At the base some catnip Nepeta faasenii, a plant addictive to cats, so much so that ours would literally eat the leaves, rolling around with eyes partly closed obviously in some state of bliss! The Kowhai tree will hopefully attract the nectar feeding tuis in the spring and provide some shade in this otherwise rather hot part of the garden.

Whilst thinking about plants that provide a source of food for nectar feeders I thought I would mention a few. Another native with ample nectar is the flax, Phormium tenax, this is just now sending up large flower spikes and will be flowering next month. At the base of each flower is a nectary full of the sweet stuff the tuis love, and bell birds if there were any on the Island. Many of the Australian plants are favourites of the tui, including many of the Banksia sp., the waratah, Telpea speciosissima. These shrubs produce red flowers some what like the Leucospermum of South Africa, both of the same family. The bottle brushes too produce food for these birds, including the little wax eyes. Another tree to provide food and a singing post is the flame tree, Erythrina sp. This is a large tree and partly deciduous, shedding its leaves before the flowers appear in the spring. I would not recommend this tree for a small garden as it grows very large and its branches are brittle and are prone to coming down in a blow. It does take readily from cuttings which in fact will often grow where they fall, forming thickets of the tree.

Other birds such as pigeons prefer the berries of trees and shrubs, such as the karaka, corynocarpus laevigatus, whose orangey yellow fruits are poisonous to us unless treated as the Maori did, but palatable to the birds. Another couple of forest trees are the puriri Vitex lucens and the tarairi Beilschmiedia tariri. Firstly the puriri has small red berries often occurring at the same time as the clusters of wine red flowers, while the tariri has purple blue oval shaped fruit up to about two centimetres long. The pigeons love this fruit and swallow them whole. At our previous house the pigeons sitting in the trees adjacent to the house would, after having feasted on the tariri then purge the stones the ones landing on the roof sounding like gun shots! Once through the digestive tract of the pigeons, they emerge with a substance some what like jelly surrounding them and it would seem this assists in the germination of the seeds. Certainly the pigeons are an important dispersal mechanism for many of the large forest trees. The pigeons will even be tempted into eating the small orange berries on the common karamu, Coprosma robusta, I have witnessed the clumsy antics of a pigeon hanging upside down on a flimsy arching branch, scoffing the small fruit.

Here I have only touched on a few plants that will encourage birds into the garden at the same time as being usually pleasant to have amongst us. For more information I am sure there are books on the subject and a visit to the library may be rewarding in this regard.

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