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From Tahiti with love

Former chef Rebecca leader is not just a great cook. Turns out, she also has green fingers . . .

It turns out former chef Rebecca Leader, who has recently shared her pesto and burrito recipes with the Weekender, also has green fingers. Here’s what happened when she fell in love in Tahiti.

A few years ago my family and I took a holiday to Tahiti. Upon arrival at our resort in Moorea, the first thing I noticed were the big beautiful fan-like palms. As soon as I had wifi I googled this stunning palm to discover its identity. It was a traveller's palm (ravenala madagascariensis).

I was in love! I was on a beautiful tropical island — the heat, flora and fauna had me in awe.

When I returned home, I was determined to find my very own traveller's palm . . . which actually isn't a palm at all but closely related to the strelitzia (bird of paradise) family. It is called a traveller's palm because the fan of leaves grow from east to west.

I started calling nurseries but no one had heard of it. Some people said they may have heard of it but they had it confused with a strelitzia nicolai or giant white bird of paradise.

I finally found one growing in a glass house up north — this was a huge discovery because most of the inquiries I'd made had come back with a firm “that will not grow in New Zealand”.

However, I still did not have a plant of my own. I had called nurseries all over the top half of the North Island, then one month into my search, I found one. A little 20cm three-leaved traveller's palm. I had it shipped to me and when it arrived, I was so excited. It was so tiny. That was May 2017.

I feed all my house plants with liquid seaweed and “Moorea”, as I have named her, was no different. She had pride of place in a north-facing window.

My Moorea grew and grew. Within a year she was three times the height and had needed repotting.

Then in another year's time she was so big she was touching the ceiling. My traveller's palm that “couldn't be grown in New Zealand” was now too big for the 75cm high pot she was in and scraping the ceiling.

The next challenge was finding a new pot. I needed one large enough to hold Moorea and let her grow, but it had to be an indoor pot, not clay and had to allow water to drain from the soil so the roots didn't rot.

I was given a new pot for my birthday from my daughter which was a perfect fit. Time to repot.

You would think this would be an easy task but it took my husband and I a good couple of hours. Moorea had grown so much that we literally had to saw the old pot off her roots while trying desperately not to damage them. She was all root. Hardly any soil remained — she was completely root-bound. I hope the new pot lasts a lot longer than the last one as there will be no easy way to get her out next time.

We moved Moorea from the north-facing window as she was now too tall, and placed her in our front entrance which has a six- metre high ceiling with big, high windows on three sides. She's not growing as fast as before but I think once she reaches the bottom of the windows she'll be off again . . . which brings me to my next issue. All house plants need their leaves cleaned as dust settles on them and they can struggle to “breathe”.

I now have to use a ladder to climb up and clean her leaves. It's quite a mission, but well worth it as she shines brightly once she's dusted off.

Determination was key in finding my traveller's palm. Even when I was told it wouldn't grow here, I knew with the right love and care it would thrive.

I spotted some more plants recently online and I'm tempted to purchase a couple and see if I can grow them outside. They are close relatives to the bird of paradise and the banana after all. Both of those species grow in abundance around Gisborne.

I'll keep you posted!

Rebecca's traveller's palm (ravenala madagascariensis) named Moorea, aged five months. Pictures by Rebecca Leader
Growing fast in her new pot — Moorea aged one year.
Touching the ceiling at 17 months.
Moorea (above), aged three years, in her new location after recent repotting. Picture by Liam Clayton