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A low, openly branched shrub usually under 2 ft high, with stout, blackish, spreading main stems, the laterals arching, and the ultimate branchlets of mature plants confined to the upper side of the laterals. It is a member of the whipcord group, the leaves closely appressed, about 1⁄16 in. long, deltoid, narrowed to a keeled, slightly incurved, blunt tip, olive-green, but strongly tinged with ochre-yellow at the tip and to a lesser degree along the margins, connate for about one-third of their length; on the ultimate branchlets the tip of each leaf usually reaches to the junction of the leaf-pair above, so that the internodes are exposed only below the leaf-insertions, but on the extension growths the leaf-pairs are somewhat more widely spaced. Flowers white, in short terminal spikes; anterior calyx-lobes united; corolla-tube as broad as wide, equalling or longer than the calyx. Capsules ovoid, longer than the calyx.
Native of the South Island of New Zealand, where it is confined to Nelson province. Although discovered towards the end of the last century, it was first described in 1961, having been previously confused with H. armstrongii and other species. The date of introduction to Britain is not certain, but it seems to have become widely available in commerce quite recently (for an older introduction grown under the name H. armstrongii see below).
H. ochracea is remarkable for the brown coloration of the whole plant, which derives mainly from the growing points of the ultimate branchlets, where the ochre-coloured tips of the leaves are concentrated. If a potted plant is turned on its side, the colour appears to change to olive-green.
There is another whipcord hebe grown under the name H. armstrongii which is not H. ochracea and does not agree well with the true H. armstrongii. It is of denser habit than H. ochracea and is golden green in colour, not coppery brown. The ultimate branchlets are shorter than in H. ochracea, slightly four-angled, and the leaves are sharply keeled from tip to base and end in a cuspidate point. This hebe seems to be rare in commerce and no mature plants have been seen. But it appears to be the same as one cultivated in the Edinburgh Botanic Garden at the end of the last century (as V. armstrongii) and figured (from a plant grown by Lindsay of Murrayfield, Edinburgh) in Gard. Chron., Vol. 26 (1899), p. 137. But in Flora of New Zealand it is remarked that the plant figured in the Gardeners’ Chronicle ‘does not well match Armstrong’s type’; not does it agree well with the authentic specimen of H. armstrongii in the Kew Herbarium.
The true H. armstrongii was described by J. B. Armstrong in 1879 from a plant collected by his father in the Upper Rangitata, Canterbury province, ten years earlier. It has dull, yellowish green leaves, which are thin, not keeled, rounded or truncate at the apex and abruptly narrowed to an acute tip; ultimate branches terete. Whether the true species is in cultivation in Britain is not known; there are no garden specimens in the Kew Herbarium that agree with it.
† cv. ‘James Stirling’. – In contrast to the familiar clone of H. ochracea (once wrongly grown as H. armstrongii), this is of low spreading habit. Raised in New Zealand, it did not reach Britain until the late 1970s, but is now well established in commerce.