by Ian Duggan, University of Waikato
Despite J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, having never set foot in New Zealand, he is indirectly responsible for what is arguably New Zealand’s most popular garden. ‘Hobbiton’, near Matamata, is one of New Zealand’s biggest tourist destinations. It features the doors to at least 40 hobbit homes, with their distinctive round doorways, each fronted by a small garden. Beyond these, the whole of Hobbiton – featuring a variety of vegetation maintained, displayed and enjoyed – can more broadly be considered a garden in itself.
Tolkien himself appeared to have a love of gardens, gardening and plants. He greatly enjoyed relaxing at Oxford Botanic Gardens, for example, and reportedly had a favourite tree to rest under there – a large black pine (Pinus nigra), dubbed ‘Tolkien’s Tree’; this unfortunately had to be cut down for safety reasons in 2014. In ‘The Hobbit’, ‘Lord of the Rings’, and associated books, he described many plants. Many are common garden plants from the real-world, including chestnuts, daisies, heather, ivy, roses and nasturtium. Many others, however, were his own fictional inventions, under names like Aeglos, Alfirin, Elanor, Lairelossë and Mallos.
Hobbiton itself began to be developed as a film set in 1999, in an area of Waikato farmland with its rolling hills being converted into Peter Jackson’s version of ‘The Shire’, home to the hobbits, including the main protagonists of the books, Bilbo Baggins, Frodo Baggins, Sam Gamgee, Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took. Hobbiton, the tourist attraction, opened in 2002, following the release of the first of the Lord of the Rings films. In their initial years, however, all there was for tourists to see were doorless, empty Hobbit holes, twisting pathways and the party tree by the lake. Nevertheless, with the release of ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy, the set was revitalised in 2011, this time in a more permanent form, including a bridge, mill and The Green Dragon pub. The gardens of the hobbits were also redeveloped at this time and have been maintained since.
Plants grown in the garden are primarily those that might be expected in a historic English country scene. In front of each hobbit hole, individual hobbit gardens are designed to reflect the character of its owner; some are kept tidy, and others border on abandoned. Plants across the site include 1.2 km of barberry hedges, apple and pear trees, as well as ‘old-fashioned’ flowers’ such as roses, foxgloves, geraniums, dahlias, pansies, violas and cornflowers. A lot of the vegetation are edibles, such as thornless raspberries, currents, artichokes, grapes, and a variety of vegetables and herbs. Another important utilitarian plant maintained is Nicotiana tabacum, referred to in the books as pipe-weed. While much of the vegetation has been grown on site, some of the trees have been transplanted from orchards and neighbouring properties. Trees and shrubs found on the site include magnolias and flowering cherry, but so too are a few New Zealand natives, including corokias and coprosmas. One of the dominant trees at the site, though, is an oak tree on the hill above ‘Bag End’. This, however, is a fake, constructed of fiberglass with leaves of silk – the original tree from the Lord of the Rings movies have been transplanted there, and by the time the Hobbit was filmed it was dead. As such, an exact replica was produced, replete with 376,000 leaves that have been individually attached by hand.
The gardens of course require maintenance year around; the site is usually closed only on Christmas day. This is done by a team of gardeners, said to comprise of a core of five or six, but with numbers fluctuating according to seasons.
These gardens are fantastic for all ages, but especially if you are familiar with the movies. And a highlight is a stop at the end of the tour at the Green Dragon, for a complimentary ale, cider or ginger beer.