By Anna Lawrence, PhD Candidate, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge
Manuka bush flowers
Manuka bush flowers: By Tomas Sobek – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

In December 1874, the secretary of the Wellington Horticultural Society published an invitation in the Waka Maori newspaper (written in both Māori and English) for his ‘Maori friends’ to compete in the Society’s next show at the Odd Fellows’ Hall. In this invitation, he wrote:

As it is not likely that any of my Maori friends would compete for cut blooms or flowers grown in pots, I simply append a list of the prizes for fruit and vegetables.

This assumption that Māori horticulture was restricted to edible produce – with emphasis often on kūmara and other root vegetable crops – was common from the advent of settler colonialism throughout the nineteenth century. This narrative tied neatly into damaging characterisations of Māori as ‘uncivilised’ and lacking the (white) European sensibility so necessary for appreciating the beauty of ornamental flowers and plants.

Whilst there are archival traces of Māori floriculture from the nineteenth century, especially in the context of early Pākehā/Māori encounter, documentary evidence is scarce and almost always revolves around accounts produced by Pākehā. Māori voices are marginal at best, and often nowhere to be found. It was, of course, not the case that Māori were not growing flowers at this time. There is clear evidence from horticultural society show reports in late-nineteenth-century newspapers that Māori were participating in flower shows, with reporters commenting on the skill and accomplishment demonstrated by Māori in their exhibitions of fuchsias, geraniums, petunias and other flowers introduced by European settlers. There are also records of groves of manuka and kakabeak planted around whare, for practical as well as ornamental purposes.

Kakabeak flowers: By Avenue – Own work, GFDL,

My own PhD research follows these accounts of nineteenth-century Māori floriculture in order to interrogate the role of flowers and flower-growing in Pākehā/Māori relations and the colonial project. As noted by Christine Dann (1992), it is clear that a history of gardening in New Zealand has to rely heavily on oral history methods, especially in the case of Māori gardeners who were unlikely to be recorded in print.

To this end, I am seeking out potential Māori participants for my research who may be willing to talk with me about their ancestors’ flower gardening habits and routines, ideally from the period between 1840-1900 (especially with reference to dahlias!). I would also be very happy to hear from those with Pākehā ancestors who may have recollections about nineteenth-century flower and horticultural society shows, particularly those with Māori participation. If you know of anyone who might be interested in this project, please forward this piece to them and encourage them to contact me.

If you are interested yourself in speaking to me about this project, or want to ask me more questions about my research, please contact me via email at:

Accent Dahlias: By Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Dann, C. (1992) ‘Sweet William and Stick Nellie: Sex Difference in New Zealand Gardening and garden Writing’, Women’s Studies International Forum, 15(2), pp. 233-249

‘To the Editor of the Waka Māori’ (1874) Waka Maori, Dec. 29, 10(26), p. 7

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