Celmisia spectabilis (cotton daisy)
The cotton daisy is one of the more widespread species in the mountainous areas of New Zealand.
About this species
The genus (a group of related species) Celmisia was established in 1825 based on the Australian species C. longiflora. Of the 65-70 species now known, around 60 occur in New Zealand, and the remainder are from south-east Australia.
Celmisia is one of the most characteristic plants of the New Zealand mountains, and Joseph Hooker described 13 species of this genus in The Botany of the Antarctic Voyage. He later described the genus in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine as ‘one of the most beautiful of the New Zealand flora’ with many ‘extremely handsome’ species.
Celmisia spectabilis is one of the more widespread species in the mountainous areas of New Zealand, where it is commonly known as the cotton daisy. Joseph Hooker described it in 1844, in the first volume of his Flora Antarctica. The specimens he studied were collected by the English botanist John Bidwill in 1839 on Mt Tongariro, on New Zealand’s North Island.
Geography & Distribution
Occurs only in New Zealand, from the Raukumara Range on North Island to South Canterbury on South Island, generally east of the main divide.
It can occupy vast areas of hill country and is an early coloniser of disturbed sites.
The leathery leaves of this species are ovate (egg-shaped) to lanceolate (narrow and tapering to a point) or narrowly oblong, and can reach 30 cm long. They have a shiny, green upper surface, with prominent parallel grooves but their undersides are densely covered in soft, whitish or buff-coloured hairs. The leaf bases overlap and compact to form a stout pseudostem (false stem). Plants can form mats up to 2 m across.
The flower stems reach 30 cm tall and are densely covered with white hairs. A beautiful solitary flower head, 3–5 cm across, is borne at the end of each stem. The flower head consists of two types of florets: the ‘ray florets’ at the margins and the ‘disc florets’ in the centre. In Celmisia spectabilis, the numerous ray florets are white and the disc florets yellow.
Celmisia spectabilis is a variable species. In Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, Hooker writes: ‘The specimen of C. spectabilis here figured gives no idea of the stature which the species attains, or of the curious dwarf forms it sometimes assumes. In its largest state the base of the stem, clothed with silky leaf-sheaths, is as thick as a child’s wrist, and the leaves a foot long and twenty to thirty in number; whilst the smallest forms have only a few leaves, and these little more than one inch long.’
In Flora Novae-Zelandiae (1853), Hooker described C. spectabilis var. lanceolata, as having narrowly lanceolate leaves. It is found in the south-east corner of North Island, from Cape Palliser to Castlepoint. The larger forms of the species occur on South Island and were described as C. spectabilis var. magnifica by Harry Allan in 1947. The leaves of C. spectabilis var. magnifica can reach 30 cm long and 4.5 cm wide. These varieties were raised to the level of subspecies of C. spectabilis by the New Zealand botanist David Given.
Celmisia spectabilis is cultivated as an ornamental.
The fibres from Celmisia spectabilis, although not so commonly used by weavers in New Zealand today, were once used to make waterproof garments and other clothing. The downy hairs (tomentum) on the underside of the leaves were peeled from the leaves and attached in rows to a whītau (fibre) kaupapa (underlay) to create a raincape. The soft down was also worked into the whītau to make a garment waterproof. The leaves were packed into leggings and shin protectors for warmth and to protect against thorny plants.
Kew’s Economic Botany Collection includes a unique Maori cloak woven from the leaves of Celmisia (from a related species, Celmisia coriacea), a plant rarely used by Maori weavers. The hanging leaves are practical, draining off rain drops, but are also decorative and reminiscent of the famous feather cloaks of Maori culture.
Celmisia spectabilis is a hardy species but needs to be grown in a cool position in the open garden. Two different clones are generally required to produce fertile seed. Large clumps will benefit from dividing, as they can begin to degenerate in the centre, especially if conditions are damp and there is limited air movement.
Hooker also writes that this was the only species of Celmisia introduced into cultivation in Britain at the time it was featured in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in 1882.
This species at Kew
Celmisia spectabilis can be seen in the in the Rock Garden at Kew.
Pressed and dried specimens of Celmisia spectabilis are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers, by appointment.
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