This article was published in the Titirangi Tatler, March 2012
Everyone knows the Irish have fairies at the bottom of the garden, but not so many people realise we have our own mythical creatures. The darkest, dampest gullies in the Waitakere Ranges are home to taniwha, supernatural creatures that zealously guard their territory. They are often to be found lurking amongst the soft foliage of a plant sometimes called ‘NZ Begonia'. It frequently grows below waterfalls where the mists swirl and vegetation drips. Botanists call the plant Elatostema rugosum, while the Maori name is parataniwha, or home of the taniwha. Anyone who has pushed through chest high parataniwha will recognise the possibility of it hiding a mysterious creature the size of a dragon. Here in the cool, moist, dark conditions the parataniwha grows vibrantly with its leaves showing tones of bronze and purple. Its stems are soft and pliable but the combined strength of the stalks makes it tough work getting through it. And that is without slipping on wet rocks or tree roots and fighting off hidden taniwha.
When you drive around the Waitakeres and look at people's gardens, it is clear that parataniwha is losing the battle for the dark, cool sites to an attractive but invasive exotic species of Plectranthus.
It, too, has tones of purple. Indeed the underside of its leaves are a distinctive, vivid dark purple.
Here is a good example of the need for homeowners in the Waitakeres to be vigilant and observe the insidious spread of the exotic at the expense of our native species and the habitat it supports - including the taniwhas. Come to think of it, when was the last time you saw a taniwha? Perhaps we should all be planting more parataniwha to support the existence of the mythical beasts.
In the garden it probably will only grow 40-50 cm tall and so long as it stays moist, it will always look tidy and need very little maintenance. The leaves are up to 20cm long with serrated edges and a rather wrinkly surface (hence the specific name ‘rugosum'). In the home garden it is less likely you will have your own taniwha even if you do plant parataniwha in the coolest darkest spot. However, it is an attractive plant with soft foliage that is pleasant to touch, despite it being a member of the nettle family (and nothing to do with begonias at all).
I have used it as a useful weather vane and early warning system to alert me when the garden is drying out. In times of drought the leaves droop and turn leathery before shrivelling on the ground. Despite their appearance, a good watering works miracles and they bounce back to life quite quickly. While happiest in those dark sites, parataniwha will grow quite easily in drier bush or even on the bush edge to provide a tidy demarcation with the lawn, providing the sun does not scorch it.