Get tropical in Dunedin

A conversation with the skilled gardener of Dunedin’s indoor tropical rainforest.

Danielle Lomas is the gardener at Tūhura Otago Museum, a three-storey indoor tropical forest that houses butterflies, parakeets, finches, and terrapins.

Working early mornings in the forest, before heading off to Otago University (where she is completing an MA in geography), Lomas’ dedication is inspirational, and it shows.

Gardener Danielle Lomas has daily encounters with the garden’s butterflies.

The colourful wildlife is not the only attraction for visitors, there are about 65 tropical and subtropical plants in the forest, so Lomas’ job is to care for the plants and keep the forest looking healthy and lush – but also to provide a habitat for the butterflies and birds.

You might also be interested to hear the forest – which is kept at 28 degrees and 75 per cent humidity year-round – also houses giant millipedes and tarantulas, although these crawlies aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Don’t worry, they have their own enclosures.

Many visitors to Tūhura Otago Museum won’t have encountered the plants there before, so it’s a wonderful opportunity for Lomas and the team to showcase a range of more unusual plants, and for people to get a sense of what a tropical forest looks and feels like.

Most of the tropical plants people are familiar with are house plants, but in the forest where it’s hot and humid all year, they behave as they would in their natural environment, becoming wild, huge and fascinating.

“It really feels like the tropics,” Lomas says. “The temperatures get over 30 degrees in the summer and the humidity is 70-80%, so the moment you walk in, feel the heat, and hear the birds squawking, it feels like you have been transported to the tropics.”

Every day the forest has a ‘first flight’ session, where the butterflies that hatched overnight in the breeding room are released into the forest for the first time. This popular and captivating event is a chance to see the butterflies close up.

If you think that sounds good, how about ‘yoga with the butterflies’. That’s right, the museum offers yoga classes in the forest run by local yoga teachers, a bit like hot yoga but being surrounded by butterflies and green plants.

For Lomas, working in the forest is a big part of her work-life balance. Busy working hard on her MA, which she calls ‘the work’, the forest is the balance she needs, giving her time to physically interact with the world away from a computer. The talented gardener believes that there are many mental health benefits from being in lush green environment around plants.

“The forest is special to me because I can let it become more unruly than public gardens,” Lomas says. “I can let logs decompose and plants collapse on each other because we want it to look and feel like a forest and acknowledge that forests are entire ecosystems, and all of it is important.

“It’s also special to have a forest connected to the museum’s science centre. Too often people have the perception of science as being something abstract, involving maths or technology, but science is also about connecting to the living world. Botany and ecology are sciences.

“Observation and awareness, developing a relationship with plants and animals and using all your senses is absolutely part of doing good science and having the forest connected to the science centre acknowledges that.”

There is certainly some trial and error in Lomas’ role. When introducing new plants, she is never 100% sure that it will succeed. The parakeets are also playful little critters, so occasionally have their own ideas about what should be done with newly introduced flora.

As well as visiting greenhouses, winter gardens and botanic gardens for inspiration, it’s often the forest environment itself that encourages Lomas to come up with a new idea or a way to problem solve.

“The upper stories of the forest are much hotter and drier than the forest floor and there is a limited amount of space for planters and pots, so I have to think in terms of epiphytes and plants that grow vertically or can be attached to walls,” Lomas says. “Then I have to work out a way to display them that will look attractive, and that leads me to look online at the various displays people have made with staghorn ferns, bromeliads and orchids, and usually I can find something I want to try.

“I’m always on the lookout for subtropical species that flower well to provide nectar for the butterflies, hibiscus being one of the best. Personally, I love the banana palms because they are so tropical and distinctive. It’s always incredible to see the speed they grow and watch them flower and turn into bunches of bananas. The flowers are really beautiful, and the butterflies love the nectar.

“Our parakeets are Indian Ringnecks and we have four – two yellow and two green, and no they don’t eat the butterflies, people always ask!”

Most of the plants in the forest are from either South America or Southeast Asia. Some species include Hoyas, Monstera, Philodendrons, Crotons, orchids, a vanilla orchid, a few different varieties of Dracena, several types of peace lily, including a giant variety that gets to about 1.5 m high and a Moores Kauri, which is a tropical relative of our kauri but native to New Caledonia.

With a lot of different niches in the forest, finding different plants to fill them is an important task to create variation and intrigue. Three floors means that small plants are not the only thing growing, and tall trees, including a fiddle leaf fig, grow so big they almost touch the roof.

“Most of the plants are quite easy to care for – once they have taken off and shown that they are happy in the conditions here, my main job is to keep them watered, fed, keep an eye out for pests and diseases and make sure it always looks interesting and attractive.

“Managing pests, however, can be a tricky job. I can’t use any chemical sprays or anything that might be harmful to the butterflies, so I find with most bugs I can blast them off with the hose, and occasionally I have to remove a plant if it keeps getting infested.”

Before moving to Dunedin and enrolling at university, Lomas was a full-time gardener. She grew an impressive quarter acre of organic vegetables and set up a CSA (community supported agriculture) scheme to sell the produce locally where she lived, in Motueka.

“I had experience with all sorts of greenery, but coming to work at the forest meant learning about an entirely different set of plants. It has been a learning curve but it’s great to get to know so many new plants in my time here.”

Advice from a gardener:

• House plants are hard to grow. Most come from the tropics and are now living in a pot in a house in New Zealand. It’s a completely different environment to the one they have evolved in, so we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves if we struggle to keep them looking good.
• Keep trying different house plants in different locations and don’t give up, there will be something that does well for you.
• My biggest tip for gardening in general is persistence and observation. There aren’t really any failproof guides for gardening because every environment is different and every day is a new set of conditions to work with, there’s no substitute for developing a sense of awareness around what is happening and what the garden needs.
• I don’t believe there is any such thing as having green fingers, I think people who succeed at gardening are huge optimists and just keep persisting and keep learning even as things go wrong.

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