By James Beattie, Victoria University of Wellington

During this worrying time, many of us are rediscovering our local nature and the joy and support it can give us. This might be in our own backyard while gardening or searching for bugs with our children, or while walking through parks or along tree-lined streets.

The legacy of finding in nature something restorative, something soothing, especially during a period of terrifying change, is a constant in many of the cultures that make up Aotearoa New Zealand—Pacific, Māori, European, Chinese, and many others besides.

This short blog reflects on the green-tinged heritage of the colonial period of Aotearoa New Zealand: a period in which parks, tree-lined streets, walkways and public gardens were laid out, very often over a rich and important Māori past.

In a world without antibiotics, in a society in which anaesthetics were only just coming into use, people in the nineteenth-century felt very vulnerable to a host of unseen diseases. Perhaps what we are experiencing now was something like that which people in the past felt when facing uncertain—and unseen—dangers, in an age before antibiotics.

Medicine, environment and plants

In a society lacking effective medical intervention, in nineteenth-century Aotearoa New Zealand environment—everything from trees and flowers, to weather and geology—assumed a power that we can today only imagine. Environment affected life and death, sickness and health. The rhythms of daily life moved in time with the patterns of seasonal disease. Agues, remittent fevers, malarias, and other diseases came and went at certain times of year. Travellers received doctors’ advice not to move to climates that differed from their own, lest their constitutions suffer.

To remedy ill-health, Tohunga, doctors (both Chinese and European), charlatans, quacks, and chemists plied a wide variety of plant-derirved remedies on the general public. The ubiquitous eucalypt, for instance, found its way into many tinctures, potions and remedies in New Zealand.[1] In this country some also were derived from the country’s native plants, often by drawing extensively on Māori knowledge-systems. The French-born nursing nun, Mother Mary Aubert enthusiastically explored and exploited something of the medical potential of New Zealand’s plants by preparing and selling herbal remedies commercially (initially in conjunction with Kempthorne, Prosser and Co., Whanganui), and using them for the care of many Māori whom she ministered.[2] These examples show the plurality of medical thought and the breadth of healing avialable in the early years of colonisation, but they also testify to the strength of what we today call alternative medicines as well as a relative lack of confidence in the efficacy of the medical profession.[3]

In nineteenth-century New Zealand people expressed the negative connection bewteen health and environment in the term miasma, which loosely referred to ‘a quality of particular environments’.[4] Frequently used as a shorthand for poisoned or impure air, people believed that decaying animal and vegetable matter poisoned the air, leading to a variety of diseases. But just as bad environments could could cause illness, so good ones could be healthy.

The health-giving tree

Eucalypts were widely acknowledged not only to filter miasma from the air but also to produce ozone in abundance and have a general sanitary effect on air.[5] Popularised by the Australian scientist Ferdinand von Mueller (1825-96, figure 1)—‘Baron Blue Gum’ to his supporters—word of its beneficial properties rapidly spread throughout the world, peaking in the 1870s.[6] According to the Baron, eucalypts could successfully combat malaria in southern Europe, render uninhabitable areas in California habitable, even redeem vast wastes of malaria-poisoned land in North Africa. In Mueller’s hands, there seemed no end to its usefulness. Various distillations and concotions of it could be rubbed on the body, taken internally, even sniffed.[7]

no-nb_bldsa_1c060 001
Fig 1. Ferdinand von Mueller (Public Domain)

Eucalypts proved especially popular in New Zealand from the 1860s, where they were favoured for their quick growth, utility for firewood, and health-giving properties.

In his 1880 article ‘Planting in Towns’, J. B. Armstrong demanded that, for health reasons, carbon-absorbing plants be introduced into New Zealand’s towns. He highlighted the qualities of ‘the Blue Gum’ (figure 2) as ‘the most active absorber of carbon known’, but also listed a number of other Australian and European species and two from New Zealand.[8]

Another author elaborated on the process that made trees so salubrious. ‘[T]he tree’, he wrote in 1882, ‘operates as a sponge. It sucks up all this unwholesome saturation, distils it, and exhales a part of it, purified, into the atmosphere.’ The author also recommended planting ‘gum trees’, as well as ‘weeping willows or other ornamental trees’.[9]

Figure 2: Blue gum; photo by Ian Brooker and David Kleinig, CC BY 3.0 au

City parks

Tree-planting in cities, it was thought, purified stale, sickly city air. Parks enabled ‘the lover of flowers’, as one contemporary put it, to ‘enjoy himself, and also [provided a space] where the invalid can breathe a little fresh air, mingled with the perfume of the surrounding flowers.’[10] Provision of city parks, trees and open spaces together with sanitation, town planning and other public works furnished important weapons in the nineteenth-century fight against disease. Establishing parks and planting trees further appealed to the spirit of the age—Romanticism—whose followers worshipped the spiritually and physically regenerative qualities of nature[11] and fervently believed that bringing trees and parks into cities would counter their artificiality and the poor health of inhabitants.[12]

Driven by fears of replicating many of Europe’s urban problems, even before organised European colonisation began in the late 1830s, the private settlement organisation, the New Zealand Company (NZC), had laid out public parks and spaces in its town plans, green havens in its blue prints for a better world for settlers.[13] Dunedin’s Town Belt (figure 3) is one such example. Indeed, most newly established towns in New Zealand soon had land reserved for either a public park or domain, while urban gardens, aside from their value as food producers, also grew ozone-producing plants.[14]

Figure 3: Dunedin Town Belt (Photo by Grutness at the English Wikipedia; CC BY-SA 3.0)

Village greens in New Zealand, declared F. E. Wright in 1873, ‘would have a beneficial influence on the character and stamina of the future inhabitants of the colony’. They ‘should be left in a state of nature, except that the village club might level a place for their games’.[15] In the 1880s, conservationist and politician Thomas Potts (1824-88) argued along similar lines. He recommended setting aside ‘open spaces of land, conveniently situated, open for all, for sanitary and recreative [sic] purposes’.[16]

Park-making and the health-giving properties of those spaces enshrined the ideals of a progressive (white) New Zealand society intent on maximising its resources and improving both its nature and people. ‘Folks sought these shores to better themselves,’ explained a journalist in 1884, not ‘merely [through] the acquisition of wealth; [but also through] the happiness of freedom and health for themselves and their children’.[17] ‘[A]n adequate open space or lung for the well-being of future inhabitants should be dedicated for public use’, declared the writer, and should form an important part ‘of rational and social progress’ in the country.[18] The author believed that environmental reform should improve the human condition and shared with many others the aims of New Zealand’s social reformers who proudly regarded the colony as in the vanguard of ‘rational’ and social progress.[19]

Protecting trees and city parks

While recognising the need to remove trees to make way for cultivation in rural areas, when parks and trees in urban areas were threatened with destruction, settlers objected. In 1866, Dunedin lawyer Francis Dillon Bell (1822–98) reacted angrily to council plans to lease out portions of Dunedin’s Town Belt, originally gazetted in the 1840s before formal settlement commenced. As he explained in a letter to the local newspaper in 1866, its ‘scenery…is unsurpassed for beauty; the ground offers rare facilities for laying out with taste; and the health of the City would be immensely improved by proper use being made of these great natural advantages, and by rigidly preserving the land for the single object it was set apart for.’[20] Bell maintained that the leasing of the Town Belt should be prohibited on grounds of aesthetics, health and the principles of democracy wherein a minority should not unfairly control the resources of a majority.

So, now that we have time to contemplate the nature on our doorstep, as well as that of our neighbourhood, it’s time for us to consider the origins of some of the parks we are now walking in, or some of the trees and flowers you admire: for some of these are sure to have been planted in the ninteenth century, while the parks you walk in express the idea and concept of the ninteenth-century which believed in the restorative power of nature.

James Beattie is a historian of gardens, environment and health, and works at The Centre for Science in Society, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

This work draws from the following article:

Colonial Geographies of Settlement: Vegetation, Towns, Disease and Well-Being in Aotearoa/New Zealand, 1830s-1930s’, Environment and History, 14, 4 (November, 2008), pp.583-610: DOI: 10.3197/096734008X368457


Referenced Material

[1] Ashley Hay, Gum: The Story of Eucalyptus and Their Champions (Sydney: Duffy & Snellgrove, 2002); Ian Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 1860-1930 (Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 1999), 69-70.

[2] Robin Woodward, Cultivating Paradise: Aspects of Napier’s Botanical History (Napier: Hawke’s Bay Cultural Trust, 2002), 41-47; also, note, R.C. Cooper and R.C. Cambie, New Zealand’s Economic Native Plants (Auckland; New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 116-131.

[3] As medical historian Michael Belgrave notes, only by the 1880s was public confidence increasing in ‘professional’ medicine to the extent that many doctors were now able to ply their trade. Prior to this decade demand for medical professionals was so low that many doctors were forced to seek alternative employment. Belgrave, ‘ “Medical Men” and “Lady Doctors”’, 145-6.

[4] Linda Nash, ‘Finishing Nature: Harmonizing Bodies and Environments in Late-Nineteenth Century California’, Environmental History, 8 (January, 2003): 36.

[5] Kenneth Thompson, ‘Trees as a Theme in Medical Geography and Public Health’, Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 54, 3 (1975): 518-523 (quotation, 521).

[6] For an lively chapter on the Baron, see Hay, Gum, 71-103. On its anti-malarial properties note especially, Hay, Gum, 88-90.

[7] Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods, endnote 18 from page 23, referenced on 69-70; see also Thompson, ‘Trees as a Theme’: 524. Its anti-malarial properties generally went unchallenged until the late 1890s, when the importance of the host, the Anopheles mosquito, in transferring malaria was discovered. Michael Warboys, ‘Germs, Malaria and the Invention of Mansonial Tropical Medicine: From ‘Diseases in the Tropics’ to ‘Tropical Diseases’, in David Arnold, ed., Warm Climates and Western Medicine: The Emergence of Tropical Medicine, 1500-1900 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996), 186-198.

[8] Others he endorsed included ‘the various varieties of Poplar, the Maples, Planes, Elms, &c’, the Tasmanian Wattle, Stringy-bark gum and ‘the Willow-leaved gum and the Peppermint gum’, but also included native beeches and Ribbonwoods. Armstrong, ‘Planting’: 50-53.

[9] ‘Sanitary Influence of Trees’, NNZS, 1, 4 (November, 1882): 69.

[10] New Zealand Herald (NZH), 21 May 1880, 6.

[11] On this vast literature note, for example, Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (London: Harper Collins, 1996); Peter Gay, The Naked Heart: The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud, Volume IV (Glasgow: Harper Collins, 1998).

[12] For this theme, Fairburn, ‘The Rural Myth and the New Urban Frontier: An Approach to New Zealand Social History, 1870-1940’, New Zealand Journal of History, 9 1 (April, 1975): 3-21; James Belich, Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders from Polynesian Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century (Penguin: Auckland; Allen Lane: London, 1996); Julian Kuzma, ‘Landscape, Literature and Identity: New Zealand Late Colonial Literature as Environmental Text, 1890-1921’ (Ph.D. diss., University of Otago, 2003).

[13] For a list of these towns, see Grahame Anderson, ‘Wakefield Towns’, in Edward Gibbon Wakefield and the Colonial Dream: A Reconsideration (Wellington: Friends of the Alexander Turnbull Library, 1997), 143-158.

[14] Winsome Shepherd and Walter Cook, The Botanic Garden Wellington: A New Zealand History, 1840-1987 (Wellington: Millwood Press, 1988); Eric Dunlop, The Story of Dunedin Botanic Garden: New Zealand’s First (Dunedin: Friends of the Dunedin Botanic Garden Inc., 2002).

[15] F.E. Wright, ‘On the Desirability of Dedicating to the People of New Zealand Small Areas of Ground, assimilating to the Village Greens of England’, TPNZI, 6, (1873): 416.

[16] T.H. Potts, ‘Out in the Open: On Recreation Grounds – The village green or common’, NZCJ, 8, 4 (1 July 1884): 277-287; Potts, ‘Out in the Open: A Countryman in Town’, NZCJ¸ 12, 1 (2 January 1888): 15-20. Quote from Potts, ‘On Recreation Grounds’: 287.

[17] 8, 4 (July, 1884): 277-287 (quotation, 281).

[18] 8, 4 (July, 1884): 278.

[19] On these ideals, note Erik Olssen, Building the New World: Work, Politics and Society in Caversham, 1880s-1920s (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995).

[20] Otago Daily Times, 17 December 1866, 5.


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