Favourite native plant – subantarctic expedition 6

Pleurophyllum speciosum on the slopes of Mt Honey, Campbell Island

Pleurophyllum speciosum on the slopes of Mt Honey, Campbell Island

Today, our last day on Campbell Island, I was woken up at 5 a.m. because I had agreed to join a small party of hardy souls who were intending to climb to the top of Mt Honey, at 560 metres the highest spot on Campbell Island. The attraction for me was to get a last memorable view over this beautiful landscape. It was a tough old trudge and by the time we got to the summit the clag had descended and we could not see very much below. But on the way up I achieved what had attracted me to come south in the first place.

It was a photo of the megaherb Pleurophyllum speciosum which had caught my fancy – its cluster of brilliant mauve flower heads and huge leaves were obviously a sight worth coming a long way to see. I had decided to do just that. I had read that their major flowering occurred in late December – so I timed my trip to coincide with the season.

Well, I had so far been disappointed. The flowers and wildlife on Auckland Islands had been amazingly diverse. I will never forget the sculptural forms of Stilbocarpa polaris (Macquarie Island cabbage), and the brilliant yellow Bulbinella had been everywhere and were at their peak on the walk yesterday. But I had not caught a sight of Pleurophyllum speciosum on the Auckland Islands, and although on the walk yesterday we found plenty of examples in the megaherb fields high above Perseverance Harbour, the season seemed late. They were just budding, and I felt a bitter disappointment, and a bit cheated, that I would miss out on the flowers at their peak.

Pleurophyllum speciosum

Pleurophyllum speciosum

But today as we trudged up Mt Honey, there they were, in all their glory. The colour of the clusters of flower heads is indeed a spectacular purple, but I was struck how great was the variety among plants – some were pale pink, others close to white, and others a deep mauve. Apparently they cross easily with other Pleurophyllum varieties such as Pleurophyllum criniferum and Pleurophyllum hookeri, which helps explain their range of colour and the varied form of flowers.

Pleurophyllum hookeri flowers

Pleurophyllum hookeri flowers

As I got close to them to absorb their showy perfection, I began to examine too their fabulous leaves. They are thick and leathery and heavily ribbed, like a bright green corduroy, which apparently creates a warmer micro-climate in each trough. The leaves are covered in long white hair, which provides protection from the fierce winds. The leaves span out from the centre in a circular fan, and they are huge – up to 10 centimetres in diameter. Just why they should be so large is not entirely clear. If it was a response to a cold climate one might expect the leaves, and indeed the whole plant, to be small, not large, as are many varieties here. More likely it is not the cold, because despite the latitude and weather, the actual temperatures on Campbell are not that chilly – an average of about 7 degrees through most of the year. The real issue is that the place does not get much sun (other than on our visit, of course!), so the large leaves function like giant solar panels designed to extract every possible element of energy from the sun when it does shine. Perhaps after yesterday’s glorious weather, the plants had received a boost, which is why they were flowering this morning. More likely the slopes of Mt Honey, facing west, were simply better protected and more exposed to the sun than the east-facing slopes which we walked up yesterday.

Pleurophyllum speciosum leaves

Pleurophyllum speciosum leaves

Whatever, they are captivating plants. I fell head-over-heels in love with them and took far too many photographs, spreadeagled on the ground in ecstasy. Alex Fergus, who was leading us on this ramble and suggested that they might well be originally an Antarctic species, has proposed that Pleurophyllum speciosum become New Zealand’s favourite native plant.  I wholeheartedly second this, so even if you have only seen them in photos, take my word, they beat the petals off pōhutukawa or edelweiss. I was hoping to convince you to vote for this remarkable plant, but to my distress I discovered that the voting closed on 29 December. Even if Pleurophyllum speciosum does not win, it has made my trip.

We reboarded our ship at 11.30 a.m., sailed at noon, and as we left the rain came down and heavy mist shrouded the hills of Perseverance Harbour. Campbell Island had returned to normality.

Another plant enthusiast on our subantarctic journey was Jessie Prebble, a botanist and Te Papa researcher whose PhD studies focus on native New Zealand forget-me-nots. You can read Jessie’s account of the trip here.

One comment added so far

  1. Comment made by Alex Fergus || January 10th, 2014

    Great to hear you so enthused Jock, and thanks for the favourite plant plug. My only critique, you have grossly underestimated the leaf size of Pleurophyllum leaves, which can be up to 1/2 a metre wide, but otherwise, you make a wonderful botanical envoy.

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