NEW PLYMOUTH, New Zealand — People who can't tell a rose from a rhododendron still know that spring means flowers. Down Under in New Zealand, prime bloom time is early November, Kiwi spring, when casual flower fans and expert gardeners alike come out for the most anticipated floral event of the year, the Taranaki Rhododendron Festival.
The festival includes 100 extraordinary gardens (96 privately owned, four public) in New Plymouth, or in nearby small towns that surround Mt. Egmont, also known as Mt. Taranaki, an 8,200-foot dormant volcanic peak in Egmont National Park on the North Island. New Plymouth, the main town in the area, lies on the west coast, a bulge of land that protrudes into the Tasman Sea about halfway between Auckland and Wellington.
Last November was my third trip to New Zealand. I flew to Auckland and drove a rental car south, and several days and about 200 miles later I arrived in New Plymouth, where I heard about the flower festival. I've been an avid amateur gardener for years and have traveled to gardens all over the world. In Normandy, France, for example, I have seen magnificant, professionally cultivated gardens. But during this first trip to the Taranaki Festival, I quickly saw that the beauty and quality of these New Zealand gardens were a match for anything I'd seen in France.
What impressed me about the Taranaki gardens is how cleverly the colonists adapted their homeland influences while embracing what they found in their new land. The result is a traditional, controlled English gardening style that works within the New World's wild native flora. Over and over, I saw breathtaking cultivated plant varieties combined with primeval rain forest, or what the natives call bush.
Taranaki's annual Rhododendron Festival, which began in 1988, is spread over 10 days and last year drew 84,000 visitors. (This year, it runs from Oct. 30 through Nov. 8.)
Mt. Egmont, it seems, is the reason for the area's amazing fecundity. It has supplied the surrounding landscape with fertile volcanic soil and provides the ideal amount of rain and a temperate bush climate that has a 12-month growing season.
The first garden I toured is the best known. Pukeiti Rhododendron Gardens, established in 1951, is justly heralded as one of the world's great rhododendron collections. Half an hour outside New Plymouth, Pukeiti boasts more than 2,000 different varieties of rhododendrons among its 10,000 or so individual plants. Although Pukeiti covers 900 acres, only 50 of those have been developed into gardens; the remaining acreage is free-flowing natural rain forest.
"The fertile volcanic soil is free draining," Graham Smith, Pukeiti's director, explained to me. "Pukeiti has a wide range of flowering shrubs because it's closest to Mt. Taranaki, receiving 12 feet of rain a year."
When I visited the gardens, I was amazed at the overwhelming feeling of abundance. The rhododendrons, which are in a variety of colors, showed off their pinks that week. "Nancy Evans," an American hybrid, was a huge mass of yellow tinged with pink, and "Van Nes Sensation," a hybrid tree, was masquerading as a pale pink cloud. Nearby bloomed the delicate pink "Morning Magic." In this environment some rhododendrons become giants, such as the magenta "Sir Robert Peel," which stands 50 feet tall.
Pukeiti's layout resembles a park, with swaths of flowing lawn and 12 1/2 miles of paths that allow for easy viewing and, at the same time, afford a great opportunity to get some exercise. Other flowers I found here included camellias, magnolias and hydrangeas. From this sunny floral landscape, I entered the rain forest's damp, feathery shade for a bush walk. Light filtered through the luxuriant canopy, giving the forest the look of an impressionist painting. On paths among native plants, I admired the fleshy strap-like leaves and white flowers of New Zealand Rengarenga lilies and the bright green hen-and-chickens fern.
In New Zealand, only two gardens belong to the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust Heritage Gardens, an organization that preserves outstanding properties for future generations. Both of these--Hollard Gardens, in Stratford, and Tupare Gardens, in New Plymouth--are overseen by curator-manager Greg Rine. "You name it, we've got it," said Rine of the 500-plus rhododendrons at Hollard Gardens, a place celebrated for its fantastic variety. Rhododendrons bred here include the bold red "Kaponga" and the soft apricot-pink "Milton Hollard," named after the founding horticulturist.
Rines described Hollard's old woodland garden as "giving a sense of enclosure and intimacy--yet on a large scale." These five acres are densely packed with plants. Paths sensuously weave between high flowering azalea hedges, perfect places for lovers to linger awhile.