This article was published in the Titirangi Tatler, December 2010
Lopdell House Gallery is holding an exhibition entitled "Where are we?" which looks at place names and our responses to them.
There are many street and place names in Auckland that are named after native plants - Karaka, Totara Avenue, Kaurilands and Waikowhai among others. They are all obviously named after trees but there is a native shrub that is not so well known, after which a suburb was possibly named. Hebe speciosa is a delightful and popular plant with a vivid magenta flower. Known to the Maori as titirangi, it was very likely named after the area, or conversely, the area was named after the plant. Certainly the plant gave its name to the area in the Marlborough Sounds called Titirangi Beach. It was there in Pelorus Sound that early explorers saw the Hebe and were told it was called titirangi. However, modern genetic science reveals the Marlborough population is directly descended from the biggest population growing in Northland on the south head of the Hokianga Harbour. This indicates that ornamental plants were admired and transplanted, possibly even traded as a taonga for pounamu, by pre-European Maori.
The nearest population to Titirangi, the suburb, was found in recent years by Auckland Museum botanist, Ewen Cameron, in a small reserve of native bush in the pines of Woodhill Forest. The plants there are quite distinct and can be genetically separated from the Hebe speciosa of the other main populations at Maunganui Bluff and Hokianga. Other places it has been found are now considered to be planted populations on cliffs west of Aotea Harbour, Mokau, Urenui and at Titirangi Beach (Marlborough Sounds).
In all likelihood there once was a population of Hebe speciosa on the shores of the Manukau Harbour which again gave its name, titirangi, to the locality. Or alternatively, perhaps one of the coastal cliff sites resembled a mountain in Hawaiiki which Maori legend records was called Titirangi.
Titirangi, the plant, is generally a sprawling shrub that is tucked amongst other coastal cliff-dwelling species and for much of the year is not obvious. Flowering time can vary and when it does occur the bright magenta colour stands out vividly from the green of the coastal vegetation.
In cultivation it needs pruning after flowering to retain a tight form, although some selected forms are better garden plants. A well-shaped cultivar called Hebe speciosa ‘Dobbies Delight' was collected from Maunganui Bluff by a DoC ranger Alec Dobbins.
Other cultivars have been introduced by nurserymen, among them a variegated form and a popular purple-foliaged form called Hebe ‘La Seduisante'.
Every garden has room for Hebe speciosa which can accommodate itself to life in the shrubbery, or be the focal feature plant lining the main entrance.