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Native doppelgangers

27 June 2022
Chatham Island forget-me-not flowers. Photo: Getty Images

Like the idea of introducing more natives into your garden, but prefer the look of more familiar exotics? Here’s a stunning line-up of local lookalikes that will have you thinking again. Words and photos Veronica Armstrong


If you like the idea of a bluebell wood and love the look of blue flowers under deciduous trees, look no further than our own Chatham Island forget-me-not (Myosotidium hortensia). This plant isn’t a bulb, like the English bluebell, but is a glossy large-leaved megaherb with oval, ribbed deep green leaves. In spring, a cluster of deep blue flower heads appear. They can be rather difficult to grow but if you have just the right conditions they will reward you with their beautiful flowers for years on end. In its natural habitat, the forgetme-not grows on coastal cliffs and beaches. But in our gardens they like moist yet well drained, compost-rich soil. They also prefer some shade. Chatham Island forget-me-nots grow well on the south side of buildings or under trees.


If you love perennial geraniums (cranesbills) because they are so easy care and just keep on flowering, then we have a native that is very similar too – the Chatham Island geranium, Geranium traversii. The leaves grow from a basal rosette. They may be green or purply bronze and, along with the stems, may be covered in silvery hairs (tomentum). The pretty flowers range in colour from white through to various shades of pink. It has a long flowering period over summer.

In its native home on the Chathams, this geranium grows on sand dunes and coastal cliffs. But it does well in gardens and is fairly easy care. It will spread through the garden looking for the sun and will self-seed too. It prefers full sun and good drainage and doesn’t like to be over watered. The cultivars ‘Pink Spice’ and ‘Purple Passion’ have bronze coloured leaves and pink flowers and are particularly attractive.

Try Chatham Island geraniums along the front of the border, as a ground cover, or in a pot. They
look good in a rock garden too.


Clematis are very showy spring and summer flowering plants. Exotic clematis can easily be replaced with one of our native forms. Clematis paniculata, ‘Flower of the Skies’ in te reo, has pretty white flowers and is a vigorous vine that can climb trees and flowers up in the canopy. Like its exotic cousins, this native likes a cool root run – but the rest of the plant needs to be in the sun. Unlike exotic clematis, ours are dioecious,
with male and female flowers on separate plants. The male flowers are more showy than the female ones, so many plants sold in garden centres will bear male flowers. The female plants produce flowers that develop into fluffy seed heads in autumn. If you prefer something more subtle and fragrant, try Clematis foetida, which has smaller, starry and creamy green flowers that are scented or Clematis forsteri, which has
whitish green flowers and a spicy scent.


If you like the traditional look of box hedging and white roses, it’s easy to replicate this look using natives. Replace the box hedging with a row of Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Golf Ball’. This little shrub has natural ball-shaped growth and glossy green leaves. They can be grown as individual ‘balls’ or planted closer together to form a hedge. The roses that are so often planted behind a box hedge can be replaced with a white form of kaka beak, such as Clianthus puniceus albus ‘White Heron’. A beautiful show of white flowers in spring and early summer will complement the little golf balls beautifully. Alternatively, white veronicas (hebes) would fit the bill such as ‘Wiri Mist’ or ‘Champagne’, which are lower, compact growing forms. Taller growing ‘Wairau Beauty’ or Veronica salicifolia are other options.


If you love lilacs then look no further than our own native lilac, Heliohebe hulkeana. This little beauty has glossy leaves and long sprays of the most gorgeous little lilac and white flowers in spring. It really is very pretty and deserves a place in any garden – I have two of these shrubs.

It’s easy care too, likes sun and well drained soil and can be tip-pruned to keep it in shape.


We even have a lookalike hydrangea, colensoa. Lobelia physaloides (syn. Colensoa physaloides) has dark leaves very similar to a hydrangea, although it isn’t related. In spring and summer the flowers appear. They are lilac or blue and white in colour and nothing at all like hydrangea flowers. Instead, they have two lips that are long and tubular and form blue or purple shiny berries in autumn. Colensoa occurs naturally in the far north of the North Island and its offshore islands, so likes a milder climate and is frost tender. Grow this beauty in a damp and shady place, similar to where you would grow hydrangeas.


For a tropical or Pacific Island palm look, you don’t need kentia, bungalow or date palms. Not when we have our very own stunning palm, the beautiful nikau, Rhopalostylis sapida. This is our only native palm too. Nikaus like some shade but will grow in full sun as long as they have moist, free-draining soil and are kept well watered. They have several anchor roots and feeding roots, which means they don’t transplant very well. They are slow growing but will eventually form the familiar bulb shape below the upright fan of leaves, although this may take several years! Spiky inflorescences of pinkish flowers develop below the leaves that develop into red fruits beloved of our native birds especially kererū. Along with the nikau, you can keep the Pacifica look going with puka, Meryta sinclairii. The large, glossy green leaves give the garden a very tropical appearance.


Admittedly our native hibiscus are not as colourful or showy as the tropical ones, but they are lovely in their own, understated, way. We have two native species: Hibiscus diversifolius and Hibiscus richardsonii as well as a naturalised one, the lovely little Hibiscus trionum. The often confused H. richardsonii (puarangi) and H. trionum (flower of an hour) are similar dainty plants with creamy yellow flowers. H. trionum has a distinctive maroon blotch in its throat and more open flowers. H. richardsonii is a very floriferous little plant, worthy of any garden. Grow as an annual or short-lived perennial.

Related species, H. diversifolius is slightly larger and forms a small, spreading bush. It’s less popular as it has prickly stems.


A good groundcover is the popular heliotrope ‘Cherry Pie’, which spreads easily and has scented purple flowers. A good native lookalike is the NZ ‘begonia’ or parataniwha, Elatostema rugosum. This perennial can grow to about 1m tall, but can be kept shorter if you want it as a groundcover. It has beautiful, deeply
veined bronzy purple leaves. If you grow it in deeper shade, its leaves will be green, but in sunny spots they turn a gorgeous bronzy purple.

Unlike the heliotrope, this native likes cool, damp, shady places so planting it under trees is perfect.


If you are an orchid lover, then you can grow our native orchid species too. Earina autumnalis, the Easter orchid or raupeka, is an epiphyte, so likes to perch. The flowers are white and waxy with little orange markings and the best part is their sweet scent, similar to vanilla. As its name suggests, this orchid flowers in autumn, around Easter.

More creamy yellow in colour is epiphytic peka-a-waka, Earina mucronata, which likes to hang from trunks and branches. The leaves are long and pointed and the flowers appear in summer, falling in long racemes. Another epiphytic beauty is Dendrobium cuninghamii, winika or Christmas orchid, which is white with a lilac centre. This summer-flowering orchid is also called the Ladies Slipper. New Zealand has many species of orchid (more than 160) – small but beautiful little treasures, like most of our natives.

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