Perfuming the bush - Toropapa - a modest shrub with a beautiful fragrance

In the bush, it‘s as if toropapa is hiding in plain sight - the appearance of its foliage blends in with the plants around it. But follow your nose when it’s flowering, and you’ll find this small shrub. There are five species, with variation in the shape of the glossy green leaves. The one pictured was labelled Alseuosmia quercifolia (the leaves didn’t look much like oak leaves to me, but the shape of oak leaves does vary too, depending on the species.)

Alseuosmia apparently means “perfume of the grove.” While the flowering of toropapa is said to be erratic, when they do appear the clusters of small (up to 4cm) cream to pink trumpet shaped flowers really do the job. They have a lovely perfume - it can seem to fill the air. And toropapa can flower for months through winter and into spring in a good year. Lovely.

The sweet flowers of the toropapa, found flowering at Otari Native Botanic Garden in Wellington

The sweet flowers of the toropapa, found flowering at Otari Native Botanic Garden in Wellington

Toropapa has bright red berries, described as sweet tasting (and therefore edible!) But whether they have viable seed is related to the presence of plenty of nectar feeding birds, who presumably pollinate the flowers while drinking the nectar from the flowers. And alas, in many areas there is little viable seed because the numbers of these birds has plummeted. We haven’t just lost their song.

Toropapa, or karapapa - another Maori name for it, grows in places that are shaded and cool and moist but not water-logged. If these conditions are provided, it can be grown as a rather shy but lovely garden plant.

Farewell to Alfie, a great Sheltie companion

I guess most people think that the companion dog in their lives is pretty special, if not the best ever. But without doubt we were very very fortunate to have Alfie. He was a Shetland Sheepdog - chosen because they are intelligent, loyal, easily trained, great family dogs - and we had no prior dog experience. He was with us for 14 years and died just last week.

Alfie the Sheltie keeping a characteristic eye on everything at Island Bay beach, as the sun was setting.

Alfie the Sheltie keeping a characteristic eye on everything at Island Bay beach, as the sun was setting.

The close bond that developed between our human ancestors and the wolf ancestors of the modern dog had benefits for both sides. Dogs can work for us - we benefit from the amazing sensitivity of their noses and ears, their alertness and their drives to perform particular tasks. Alfie showed his herding dog genes in his watchfulness - scanning the environment, barking to alert us to the arrival of potential predators, and in his actual herding habits - lacking sheep he would confuse retrieving dogs by following them, watching them collect the object they were after, and then ensuring they returned to the person who threw it for them. Some retrieving dogs clearly thought that he was after their stick or ball - no, he was not interested in that, he just wanted to make sure they went where they were meant to go.

The so-called “nonworking” breeds also work wonders for us. We have responsibilities to care for them, and in turn they offer a degree of acceptance and apparent non-judgement which can be in stark contrast to many of the damaging human to human interactions that are on show all around us. Living with a dog means being able to learn about their ways of reacting and being. Maybe we also find a bit of humility - we humans behave as if we are superior to other animals, but being close to other species helps us to gain perspective about the complexity of life and relationships that other species enjoy.

Most of all, he was fun, friendly, smart, energetic, upbeat, determined, protective of our cats, interested in the world, and apparently happy to see us every time. (He was also very generous in shedding his floof.) What a gift to have had him in our lives!

Late winter magnolia flowers - beauty prevails. Maybe caring for the planet can too.

It’s late winter here and it’s cold, wet and windy. But elsewhere things are on fire. We humans are having a devastating impact. In the rapidly warming Arctic there are widespread fires on an unprecedented scale. They are releasing huge quantities of the very greenhouse gases which we are responsible for and which are causing the conditions that make fires more likely. And fires in the Amazon appear to be caused deliberately - to displace the indigenous peoples who live in and care for the forest, to prevent the implementation of conservation projects, and to enrich the people who take over the land. Vicious circles, greed, indifference, failures to act and brutal actions. So ugly.

Late winter magnolia flowers look so pretty against the sky - but they are growing on the edge of a hill, exposed to battering by gales. Still they thrive.

Late winter magnolia flowers look so pretty against the sky - but they are growing on the edge of a hill, exposed to battering by gales. Still they thrive.

When I see the magnolia flowers open up in the heavy weather, I am almost shocked by their beauty and resilience. How can they stay so lovely? I see that they might bruise, but they seem to hold on regardless.

So, you might ask, what’s that got to do with the climate ghastliness which is becoming impossible to deny?

We are faced with the enormity of the damage already in place. We are faced by obstinate attitudes of “business as usual” - continued and accelerated coal and oil extraction and use. We see deliberate refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation or to act to change the trajectory we are on. All this could be overwhelming, like the gales that batter the magnolia plants. I know that recently I’ve been feeling very disheartened.

But then I see the magnolias on the windblown hillside and I realise the importance of tenacity. People who care about stopping the accelerating climate damage which endangers life on earth can be like the magnolias which hold on and open up and show the beauty of their flowering. There is beauty in tenacity, in holding on, in caring for life here on Earth, and doing better.