Morning Story: Inspiration found in a cabbage tree

By Mark Story

When it comes to colour charts, I'm as good as blind.

I am simply unable to decipher these colour codes.

What I see on those thumbnails looks absolutely nothing like what eventuates on the wall.

So in the throes of preparing to paint my peeling weatherboard bungalow, I thought it best to adopt a new approach to choosing colours.

Thus my wife and I jumped into the car and traversed the residential contours of Napier Hill to spy on the frontages of homes, checking the hues of whare a similar period to our 1930s number in Hastings, living vicariously within those homes' colours.

Truth be told all that did was confuse me. I left with no ideas, no motivation.

All questions remained unanswered.

Driving back past Ravensdown fertiliser works in Awatoto I thought back to an interview I'd had with noted Wellington architect Ian Athfield.

I recall asking him what pieces of architecture he liked in Hawke's Bay - and the one I remember he admired was the enormous Ravensdown plant.

I was speechless.

One of this province's most maligned structures was feted by the country's most accomplished architect.

I guess ugliness is in the eye of the beholder.

It started me wondering why on earth I'd embarked on such a pointless mission to Napier. Truth be told I'm now slightly embarrassed to have assumed the hill would act as a colour muse.

That is, who cares what anyone else is doing, what anyone else is thinking.

But it did confirm one colour trend for me - this region's current penchant for a non-committal, quarter-strength tea. That, or coffee.

Hot beverage is the new black.

While I'm not a fan of any of these colours, I'd hesitate before slamming New Zealand's apparent preference for neutrals.

Neutrality, after all, has nice connotations.

Our agnostic stance on colour speaks to who we are as Kiwis: young and still fighting for identity.

It also literally reflects our natural aesthetic.

I know of no naturally occurring garish colour in this land. Notwithstanding pohutukawa and kowhai, most of our indigenous flora seems to flower a little self-consciously in a subtle landscape, amid a passive pallet.

So, I'm in somewhat of a bind. I love neutrals, but I also have an aversion to platitude.

The native matai and rimu that forms the skeleton of my home is possibly more than a thousand years old. That means the timber lived and breathed in local bush before these young islands were occupied by humans.

It was with this thought that it occurred to me perhaps the colour solution can be found in my favourite native number, the cabbage tree.

Like neutrals, the cabbage tree, or ti kouka, is one of our most understated specimens.

It hasn't the majesty of kauri, the height of kahikatea, the muscle of totara or the folklore of pohutukawa. Yet it has an understated beauty all of its own.

As I'm in love with this tree, I fell in love with the idea of mimicking these colours and splashing them on the house. Surprisingly, so too did my wife.

We took photos of our own ti kouka and flicked through a glossy book to come up with its "primary" colours.

It was tougher than I'd hoped. I had no idea the tree lily had so many hues.

There's the chalky-brown trunk, leaves of spearmint-green, ivory-white and burnt gold. Then there's the delicate creamy flowers.

Yet so far, when held up to the tree, none of the paint charts seem to match. The paint companies seem to be denying the palette I want.

Maybe that's because I'm trying to paint the lily.

But I'll persist.

After all, I'd like to think understatement and style can exist under the same roof.

Mark Story is assistant editor at Hawke's Bay Today.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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