China on a Plate: Willow Pattern Plates, World History and Gardening

James Beattie

As New Zealand’s Evening Post observed with accuracy in 1928:

The romance of two Chinese lovers, which is so quaintly pictured on willow pattern china, has greater world-wide interest attached to this design than to any other that has been evolved during the ages.[1]

World trade

Willow pattern ware owes its colour and origins to the Muslim trade for blue-and-white ware that developed during the so-called Mongol Peace of the 1200s and 1300s. For world historian Robert Finlay, this blue-and-white ware is the world’s first global style, “a collective visual language” in ceramic art.[2] Muslim merchants in China took advantage of technical improvements to Chinese porcelain to develop a highly irresistible—and highly profitable—trade good. Ships from the Middle East would bring cobalt oxide—huihui qing (Muslim blue)—‘over 6,000 kilometers’ to China in return for ‘customized wares manufactured in bulk at Jingdezhen for Islamic markets’. As a trade, it was ‘…unprecedented in world history.’[3] Blue-and-white ware was eventually exported throughout South East Asia and Africa along Indian Ocean trade networks.

The later vogue for porcelain, which reached Europe in the seventeenth century, begins with blue-and-white ware. Over a 200-year period from 1700, the Dutch imported about 43 million pieces of porcelain; other countries’ companies, at least 30 million.[4]

Willow pattern

Willow pattern was a design imagined in the British midlands—the particular design fantasy of one Thomas Minton (1765-1836), sometime in the 1780s. Its full development came somewhat later. Around 1790, Spode’s pottery manufactory in Stoke produced the first pieces combining the elements that subsequently became known as willow pattern.[5] Its signature features came to include ‘a willow tree in the central position; three figures crossing a bridge, heading away from the main building; a zigzagging fence stretching across the foreground; and two birds hovering in the top center’. By 1814, such was the popularity of the design that many other manufacturers were copying it (fig  1).[6]

Photograph by James Yolkowski, February 20, 2005 / Wikimedia Commons.

Its particular appeal lay not just in the quality of the porcelain and the design, but in the story the design illustrated – a classic tale of two star-crossed lovers. While there are several variations, the basic plot is this: A loyal book-keeper Chang works for a powerful-yet-corrupt customs official whose years of graft are about to be exposed. The mandarin resigns. So does Chang who loyally destroys his master’s account books, only to be summarily dismissed by him. Meanwhile, Chang and the mandarin’s daughter, Koong-se, have fallen in love, meeting secretly under fruit trees. Enraged upon hearing this—for he has plans to marry Koong-se to a wealthy and elderly duke—the mandarin banishes Chang from the house. But through a ruse, Chang returns to escape with his lover on a junk, taking some of the mandarin’s treasures with him, too. The willow-pattern ware depicts the “chase” scene through the three figures on a bridge and the escape on the junk.

The two lovers live in a house built by Chang—their house is depicted in the top-left in willow-pattern ware. Soon, however, with all of the jewellery pawned off, Chang is forced to find money by other means. He writes a book on gardens, which earns him a growing reputation, but also the attention of the mandarin. The mandarin, still seething from Chang’s deceit and the loss of his daughter, orders soldiers to find his daughter and avenge her elopement. The soldiers kill Chang, while—in most stories, at least—Koong-se also dies, either at her own hand or the soldiers’. The gods pity them, and they are turned into turtle doves, which are depicted in the top of the plate.

For years, it was assumed the story came from China. Yet, in fact, it originated as a classic piece of orientalist fantasy in the factories of the British Midlands. It was part in parcel of the mania for all things Chinese which took hold of Britain from the 1760s and which continued with the emergence of a variety of Chinoiserie. From Winnipeg to Wellington, from Bombay to Ballarat, before governors and governesses, Māori chiefs and missionaries, Chinese gardens appeared at breakfast, dinner, and tea in a clockwork regularity of culinary colonial chinoiserie. The blue-and-white ware tea and dinner services presented a fancifully flimsy chinoiserie fantasy world, ‘of doll-like lovers, children, monkeys, and fishermen lolling about in gardens embraced by eternal spring’.[7] Yet, willow-pattern ware—and its distinctive depiction of a blue Chinese garden scene on white background—became, as David Porter has written, ‘paradigmatic emblems of Englishness’.[8]

Chinoiserie—a mania for all things Chinese

‘Eighteenth-century consumers in England were…infatuated with Chinese and Chinese-style goods, even as they were amused, perplexed, or troubled by the alien aesthetic sensibility these goods embodied.’[9] That visual style was, of course, not just limited to England. Chinoiserie came to denote “the European manifestation of … various styles with which are mixed rococo, baroque, gothick or any other European style it was felt was suitable.”[10]

Willow pattern was woven into the very fabric of European culture in New Zealand, appearing on wallpaper, curtains, and becoming as English as tea—which of course had originated in China but which had nonetheless became a distinctively ‘English’ cultural activity. Everything in Aotearoa New Zealand, from plates and material culture and design to plays and music, drew on the willow pattern design.

Hawera’s Willow Pattern Garden

But perhaps the most fascinating manifestation of willow-pattern ware came in the form of its three-dimensional representation in garden form at King Edward Park, Hawera. Designed by Harry Beveridge, then Park Superintendent, the garden attempted to make in three-dimensions the design depicted on the willow-pattern plate (figs 2-3).

What is more, the garden was opened by the Republic of China Ambassador to New Zealand in 1968, and was used as an opportunity to attack the People’s Republic of China.

If you want to find out more about this, then go to: or email the author, James Beattie: This blog quotes from J. Beattie, ‘China on a Plate: A Willow Pattern Garden Realised’, Studies of the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes 36, 1 (2016), pp. 17-31, republished in Gardens at the Frontier: New Methodological Perspectives on Garden History and Designed Landscapes (London: Routledge, 2018). Ed. J. Beattie.


[1] Evening Post, 11 August 1928, p. 20.

[2] Robert Finlay, “Pilgrim Art: The Culture of Porcelain in World History,” Journal of World History, Vol. 9, No. 2 (1998), p.187.

[3] Finlay, 155.

[4] Finlay, 168.

[5] John R. Haddad, ‘Imagined Journeys to a Distant Cathay: Constructing China with Ceramics, 1780-1920’, xli/1, 2007, p. 63.

[6] Haddad, 63.

[7] David Porter, Ideographia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), p. 135.

[8] David Porter, The Chinese Taste in Eighteenth-century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 4.

[9] Porter, The Chinese Taste in Eighteenth-century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 4.

[10] Oliver Impey, Chinoiserie: The Impact of Oriental Styles on Western Art and Decoration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 10.

Upcoming Talk: ‘A Garden on a Plate: from fanciful design to Cold War propaganda, and much between’

Upcoming talk: On 8 July, James Beattie presents our next Garden History Research Foundation talk: ‘A Garden on a Plate: from fanciful design to Cold War propaganda, and much between’.

The talk will be held at Hamilton Gardens, in the Chartwell Room, on 8 July 2021, beginning at 7:00 pm. Discover the fascinating links between Muslim merchants, Kublai Khan’s Mongol dynasty, Cold War propaganda, blue and white porcelain and New Zealand’s garden-making.

Also look out for future talks in the series by Zoë Heine on Community Gardens and Annette Bainbridge on Women & Gardening.

Photograph by James Yolkowski, February 20, 2005 / Wikimedia Commons.

Le Jardin d’Ermenonville: a philosophical garden in pre-Revolutionary France

by David Maskill (for Peter Sergel, in gratitude)

When, in 1763, René Louis de Girardin (1735-1808) began the transformation of his country estate garden based on the philosophies of his hero, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), he cannot have foreseen that it would become the great philosopher’s final (…well, almost final) resting place. Although Rousseau spent only the last six weeks of his life as Girardin’s guest, his death and subsequent entombment on the Island of Poplars in one of the artificial lakes created by Girardin, transformed Ermenonville from an aristocrat’s private retreat into a place of pilgrimage from individuals as diverse as Maximilien Robespierre and Queen Marie-Antoinette of France.

Girardin inherited the château and estate of Ermenonville, about forty-five kilometres northeast of Paris, together with the titles marquis de Vauvray and vicomte d’Ermenonville and a substantial fortune in 1762. He resigned his army commission and position at the court of the Duke of Lorraine and spent time travelling. In England, he visited several gardens including Stowe (which he found too overdone and too political) but at The Leasowes he was enchanted. The gardens had been laid out by the poet William Shenstone in the new picturesque, as opposed to the older formal, style. Shenstone’s The Leasowes accorded perfectly with Girardin’s own tastes which had been formed by the reading of Rousseau. In particular, it was Rousseau’s description of the garden of Elysium for his heroine, Julie in Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761) that had initially inspired Girardin. At The Leasowes, Girardin saw Rousseau’s literary garden brought into being or at least he saw the possibility of it being so. On his return from England, Girardin set about transforming the gardens and park at Ermenonville. The uncultivated area to the northwest of the château was transformed into a wild Désert. It was here that Girardin had erected a rustic hut which he named appropriately, Maison de Jean-Jacques, (marked by a yellow circle on the plan in Fig.1). For Elysium, Rousseau imagined a place where the young Julie was at one with nature, nurtured and replenished in both body and soul, and immune to the corruption of the city and the court – an age-old notion that can be traced back at least to the bucolic verse of the Roman poet Virgil. But Rousseau’s Elysium contained a far more dangerous political message. His garden provided the young heroine with all she needed to sustain her moral and spiritual well-being without the need for Church or King! Despite his aristocratic lineage, Girardin was something of a political radical. He opposed hunting on his lands in defiance of noble edicts which claimed the right to do so. His opposition led to his having to go briefly into exile. At the Revolution, he joined the radical Jacobin Club alongside Robespierre and Danton. But that was well into the future when Girardin began the transformation of Ermenonville.

Fig. 1. Le Rouge, Les jardins d’Ermenonville, 1775, etching and engraving (Paris: Bibliothèque national de France, source: Gallica).

Girardin then turned his attention to the area south of the château. A sunken womb-like grotto marked the entrance to this part of the garden [Figs 2 and 3 and marked with a blue circle in the plan in Fig. 1]

Fig. 2.
Fig. 3.

Only on emerging from the grotto, reborn as it were, via a rough-hewn stone staircase does the full vista of the garden become apparent, but not before a sublime moment is conjured forth by the cascade that threatens to overwhelm [Fig. 4].

Fig. 4.

Turning away from the threatening cascade, the extent of the south garden spreads out over an artificial lake. On the far left, among the trees, is the Temple of Modern Philosophy [Figs. 5 and 6] marked with a green circle in the plan in Fig. 1.

Fig. 5.
Fig. 6.

The Temple to Modern Philosophy is not such much a ruin as an unfinished structure – deliberately so to indicate that the search for knowledge is likewise never-ending. The temple is dedicated to Newton, Descartes, Montesquieu, William Penn, Voltaire and Rousseau himself. Alongside Rousseau’s name appears the word ‘Natura’. The garden was largely completed by 1775 when Girardin published his influential treatise, De la Composition des Paysages, ou des moyens d’embellir la Nature autour des Habitations, en joignant l’agréable et l’utile.

Despite several attempts, Girardin had failed to lure his hero to Ermenonville, until, that is, 1778, when abandoned by many of his patrons, Rousseau and his mistress Thérèse Levasseur agreed to Girardin’s protection and came to live in a house on the estate. In May 1778, Maximilien Robespierre came to find the great man there. Rousseau’s stay was short-lived. He died on 2 July 1778 only six weeks after his arrival. He bequeathed his unpublished papers to Girardin. The marquis saw his opportunity. He called for the court sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon to make a death mask from which he produced a bust [Fig. 7]

Fig. 7.

But Girardin’s more lasting gesture of admiration was to build a tomb for Rousseau and to place it on its own island at the far end of the lake, providing, as it were, the natural conclusion to the garden [Fig. 8] and marked by a red circle on the plan in Fig. 1.

Fig. 8.

Girardin constructed a temporary and then a more permanent tomb on the small island which he then planted with poplars, the traditional attribute of grief – hence the name the Island of Poplars.

Rousseau’s resting place became an almost instant site of pilgrimage. Now that he was safely dead, his more radical ideas could be quietly put to one side by those who were drawn to his ‘getting back to nature’ ideology. In June 1780, Queen Marie-Antoinette of France paid a visit and sat for some time contemplating the tomb. She had tried herself to reform the etiquette-laden strictures of the court at Versailles with the installation of her own model farm and dairy at the Hameau in the gardens of the palace.

Despite Girardin’s politics, he was put under house arrest with his wife in 1792 and their children were imprisoned until the fall of Robespierre in 1794, ironically one feels given Robespierre’s earlier visit to Ermenonville. At the same time as Girardin was put under house arrest, Rousseau’s remains/ashes were dis-interred and transported to the Panthéon in Paris. The château and gardens were subject to Revolutionary vandalism and although Girardin did survive the Revolution, he did not return to Ermenonville. He died in 1808.

On the title page of Girardin’s De la Composition des paysages….1777

“A happy rural seat of various view”

John Milton, Paradise Lost


Further reading:

Martin Calder, ‘Promenade in Ermenonville’, in Martin Calder (ed.), Experiencing the garden in the eighteenth century, Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang, 2006, pp. 109-144.

Gérardin, R. L. de [sic], De la Composition des Paysages, ou des moyens d’embellir la Nature autour des Habitations, en joignant l’agréable et l’utile, Geneva and Paris: Delaguette, 1777 and the English edition, An Essay on Landscape; Or The Means of Improving and Embellishing the Country Round our Habitations, London: Dodsley, 1783.

Marriage Bells and Gorse Bouquets: Garden Flowers and Weddings in the Colonial South Island

by Annette Bainbridge

Ritual ceremonies such as weddings have always been indicators of cultural change and evolution and nowhere more so than in colonial societies. The wedding ceremony in early colonial New Zealand was characterised by simplicity and a necessary improvisation of floral decorations and tributes. Basically, British settlers used whichever flowering plants were currently available in their (or their neighbours) garden, no matter how unusual or even unsuitable for bouquets or special occasions they were.

For the first generations of New Zealand settlers, about 1840-1880, the bouquet was handmade. A description of Ellen Harper’s wedding day in Canterbury, 1856, demonstrates the determination of settlers to partake in the floral traditions of church weddings no matter what the obstacles. Marrying at the very end of winter in the barely established settlement of Christchurch, Ellen’s bouquet consisted of “pretty little…white primroses” from a neighbour’s garden and “a bunch of gorse”. It is not clear how she managed to hold the bouquet comfortably, but the yellow gorse would at least have had the property of being highly scented.

Gorse flowers. Photo by PaleCloudedWhite, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The most popular colours used in colonial bridal bouquets were white, yellow or red. The colours were highly symbolic. White was, unsurprisingly, representative of purity or chastity. The popularity of yellow had its roots in the classical tradition as the colour sacred to Hymen, god of marriage in ancient Rome. Red, of course, symbolised love, as did the actual flower of the rose. In respect of colours at least, Ellen Harper’s bouquet was entirely traditional.

As we can see from the above example, the flowers originally used in bridal decorations reflected the composition of settler gardens. Looking at descriptions of wedding flora we can then get a fairly comprehensive overview of the type of flowers commonly planted by settlers. Most early settler plantings had easily transportable or propagated flowers such as rose bushes, lilies, and geraniums. There was also particular attention paid to bringing spring flowers such as narcissus and primroses out from Britain. All these flowers are the ones mentioned most often in surviving descriptions of bouquets and church decorations from 1840 to about the 1880s.

The spirit of improvisation prevalent in the settler’s approach to weddings can also be seen from the fact that from the very beginning of settlement they utilised many different varieties of New Zealand native plants. Tree fern foliage, Toe-toe and Cabbage Tree leaves were used to give structural form to bouquets and to festoon the church with greenery. This use of foliage was particularly fashionable and reflected the craze for ferns that had swept British gardening circles in the 1850s and 1860s. Many weddings were variations of Frances Tripp’s who was married at Raincliff Station, Canterbury in 1882 and walked down the aisle between an “avenue of tree ferns and cabbage trees”. This example shows how settler women drew on elements of their new environment, as well as the cultural norms of their European past to create hybrid forms of material culture suitable for their new lives as New Zealanders.

Forget-me-not, Myosotis sylvatica. Photo by Steffen Mokosch. CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The use of garden and bush foliage in bouquets might not seem alien to the modern wedding planner but a colonial custom, now long forgotten, of the female wedding guests carrying their own bouquets probably would. The guest bouquet is mentioned quite often in newspaper descriptions of weddings and the bouquets often contained coded messages for the new couple. The Hunter-Blair/Rhodes wedding that took place in Canterbury in 1893, saw some female guests carrying bouquets made of lilies (purity), forget-me-nots (so the bride would remember her friends as she embarked on her new life) and roses symbolising love. These bouquets could often be quite elaborate and obviously many people had put a great deal of thought into them.

Another colonial wedding tradition that has fallen into disuse is the creation of specific floral decorations referred to as ‘marriage bells’ that would be hung over the altar for the couple to stand beneath to be married. Marriage bells seem to have been a regional rather than a national tradition back in Britain, as not all settlers were aware of this custom. A journalist covering a society wedding in Timaru in 1895 referred to the marriage bell that hung in the church as an ‘innovation’ in decoration. In fact, far from being a colonial innovation this custom seems to have links with the old British tradition of hanging ‘maiden’s garlands’ in churches in memory of young people who died unmarried. Traditional ceremonies apparently linked with fertility rites, such as Garland Day in Derbyshire where a man rides through town on a horse dressed as a floral bell, could also have connections with the popularity of marriage bells. It is a reminder of the older pasts that still influenced the mental landscapes of British settlers.

Marriage bells were usually handmade by female friends of the bride and provided an outlet for young women to demonstrate their creative and artistic abilities.The flowers that they used often had personal connections with the bride, whether it was through use of her favourite flowers or using flowers that had some sort of emotional resonance for them all. On Estelle Allen’s wedding in 1897, her friend’s hung “floral devices of daisies” as marriage bells over the altar. This represented the nickname by which only her friends knew her – Daisy. Sometimes the meaning behind the choices of specific flowers used could remain enigmatic, as in Miss O. Hitchcock’s wedding in Oxford in 1901. Miss Hitchcock was married under a marriage bell of hanging fuchsia blossoms and as the journalist covering the social event pointed out the flowers used “appear to have some mysterious meaning, but if any of the young ladies are asked to give the true solution…they simply smile and pass on.”

As settler society became more established and interconnected with global trading networks, the increasing availability of previously rare or exotic plants began to influence New Zealand wedding traditions. Similarly the new technologies available from about the 1880s onwards such as reliable rail transport and the use of refrigeration saw a boom in professional floristry as a profession. The traditions of handmade bouquets and decorations gradually petered out for the middle and upper classes in favour of the more socially prestigious hothouse flowers and new fashionable varieties of plants from the Far East.

International trends meant that Japanese and Chinese flowers became increasingly popular from about the 1880s. Surviving newspaper descriptions of weddings regularly mention chrysanthemums, cherry blossoms and camellias being used as the main components of church decorations. The newly accessible dahlia varieties also became much sought after. The use of exotic flora, preferably sourced directly from overseas, proved a family’s sophistication, wealth and social status. At Amy Rhodes’ wedding in February 1893, the church was a “mass of artistically arranged flowers” including Japanese lilies. When her sister Emily Rhodes was married later in 1893 her family decorated the wedding marquee with “1250 blooms of lilies of the valley”. Just as with her sister Amy, Emily’s wedding flowers spoke of a family with the time, money and hothouse technology to devote to the cultivation of sometimes rare and valuable plants for their beauty alone.

Mrs. D. Margan, formerly Miss Gladys Boyce, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. C. W. Boyce, of Cambridge (with her wedding bouquet of lilies of the valley), NZ Herald, 20 October 1936

The increase in ostentation and commercialisation in floral wedding decorations did not go unnoticed or uncriticised. Archdeacon Averill, a prominent Anglican leader in Christchurch, railed in the pulpit against wedding ceremonies that had become “disfigured” in this new era of “telephones and florists” by a “love of show and parade”. There was in fact a significant undercurrent of people who similarly lamented the passing of the “church decorated by loving hands with flowers from the old garden”.

However many people objected to it, professional floristry creations became and remain an integral part of New Zealand wedding traditions. Few weddings today occur without some sort of commercial flowers or plants being used. Interestingly, just as rapid changes in the wider world such as the evolution of refrigeration technology made more elaborate floristry possible at the end of the colonial period, so the rapid change that modern New Zealand is experiencing, and will continue to experience, through climate change might link us back with the very beginnings of the colonial period. We know that the importation, transportation and storage of flowers has an environmental cost. Could it be that the approach of the earliest settlers to handmade, seasonally appropriate wedding decorations might reflect a potential way forward? Gorse bouquet anyone?

The pre-1950s reporting of odd-shaped root vegetables in New Zealand

Ian Duggan, Te Aka Mātuatua – School of Science, The University of Waikato

People have long shown a peculiar interest in oddly-shaped vegetables grown in the garden, such as root vegetables whose growth has diverged greatly from their symmetrical expectations. This may be in part due to vegetables bought from stores being more uniform in appearance, which has represented a norm based on consumer preferences for many years.

Root vegetables can become misshapen for a number of reasons. For example, some can split if the tip is damaged early in their growth, forming multiple roots attached to a single point. Further, to prevent damage to the developing root, root vegetables will detect, then grow around or avoid obstacles such as rocks in the soil, resulting in an even broader variety of shapes. Other reasons given for vegetables developing into unusual shapes includes them being grown too densely, with an excess of nitrogen in the soil, or due to changes in weather (and thus soil) conditions during growth.

Many oddly-shaped vegetables have in the past been deemed newsworthy, often due to their perceived ‘amusing’ appearance. For example, some have been thought to resemble animals or body parts. I used PapersPast to examine New Zealand newspapers for photographs of unusual-shaped vegetables prior to 1950; these were remarkedly common in the 1930s and 1940s, in particular. Below I provide a non-exhaustive series of examples, concentrating on some of the major trends observed.

Perhaps the strangest of photographs published are those said to resemble humans or pop-culture characters. These have usually been potatoes, and were commonly altered somewhat to enhance any perceived similarities. For example, Dunedin’s Evening Star reported in 1938 “a potato which, after a few additions, closely resembles Mickey Mouse” […it didn’t; Fig. 1], while in 1942 The Press, Canterbury, covered a “strangely-shaped potato”… “grown by a Christchurch school girl, who gave it match-stick arms, legs, and buttons” [Fig. 2]. The Timaru Herald reported an unaltered “freak potato” in 1932, “with its human expression and curiously shaped ears”, which “startled a New Zealand grower recently while he was digging up tubers for his Sunday dinner” [Fig 3].

Vegetables resembling birds have been remarkedly commonly reported. Otago Daily Times reported “a freak potato” in 1937, “grown by a resident of Sawyers’ Bay”, that “bears a striking resemblance to a bird” [Fig 4]. Similarly, the Evening Post, Wellington, published a photograph of another “curious potato” in 1931, “grown in Aro Street, Wellington, by Mr, Max Eller. It has the appearance of a swan” [Fig 5]. The Press (Canterbury) provided a photograph of a potato in 1932 that was perhaps so convincing that they did not even feel the need to name it as a bird: “This weird specimen was grown at Tirau… by Mr M. Fell” [Fig 6]. In case the reader was doubting its authenticity, they added: “Our photographer assures us that the potato was not “faked” in any way”. While potatoes provided the most common bird-shaped vegetables, the Manawatu Standard ran a picture of another “garden freak”: “A peculiarly-shaped kumara, grown by a Green Lane resident” in 1930 [Fig 7].

Hands and feet, primarily derived from carrots, are so common that I provide only a small subset of representative examples here. Setting the scene, in 1946 the Otago Daily Times published a carrot, “grown at Hyde”, which they state “bears a remarkable resemblance to a human hand” [Fig 8]. The Evening Star, similarly published “a freak carrot with a remarkable resemblance to a human, if slightly pudgy, hand” in 1936 [Fig 9]. “It came from the garden of Millan Aitken, a boy living at Anderson’s Bay, and assumed this peculiar form by natural growth”. Not all are so convincing, or deemed “remarkable”, however, including a “Shorthorn carrot freak, grown in Cutten Street, St. Kilda”, published in the Evening Star, 1935 [Fig 10].

Finally, there were some photographs of other strange, more one-off objects. In 1935, the Evening Star published what it described as “one of nature’s jokes”… “no, not another prehistoric animal discovery, nor yet the religious symbol of a savage race; only a common potato of freakish form unearthed by a Dunedin gardener” [Fig 11]. In 1926, the Auckland Star reported that “an Auckland dealer found this peculiarly-shaped potato in his first sack of this season’s crop”. This one, slightly modified by “the inking in of the eyebrows (the only addition by the finder)” apparently gave it “a particularly human look” [Fig 12]. Finally, the Otago Daily Times reported another “freak of nature” in 1947: They stated that, “at first glance this potato, dug up in South Dunedin garden bears a distinct resemblance to “Joey”, a “sea lion which frequented St. Clair beach some time ago” [Fig 13].

Planting a Colony: gardens, ecology and environmental change in the Otago Settlement, 1848-1861

James Beattie, Centre for Science in Society, Victoria University of Wellington


This blog explores the gardening culture of the early years of the Otago Settlement.

A Scots settlement planted in southern New Zealand

The Otago Settlement scheme of 1848 had a distinctly Scottish, Free Kirk flavour. Its founders had a mutual loathing of urbanism and industrialisation and sought to keep Dunedin a concentrated community of family-orientated, small-farming Presbyterians of the Free Church.[1]

Following full-scale colonisation begun in 1848 by the New Zealand Company (NZC), a permanent European presence on Ngāi/ Kāi Tahu land in Otago grew considerably. The Otakou Block, of c.400, 000 acres, comprising the first Kāi Tahu sale to the NZC in 1844, expanded over the following twenty years to encompass almost all of Te Wai Pounamu.[2] And the handful of Europeans and other groups living there as whalers in 1840 steadily grew in number to some 590 by 1850, and over 12,000 by 1860.[3] The Māori population and settlement in Otago also dropped, in response to colonisation, the effects of disease and their concentration on reserves—the economic and social effects of which are still keenly felt today.

Europeans arrived in a highly modified environment, following over 500 years of Māori occupation and landscape authorship. Significantly, extensive forest clearance and its replacement with native grasses by Māori provided ideal conditions for the later introduction of sheep consequent with European settlement. As biogeographer and historical geographer Peter Holland notes, ‘the widespread tussock grass, herbaceous, and low shrub communities [created by Māori burning] were a blessing as a source of palatable tissues for livestock and for shelter from the cold winds of winter and spring’ (Figure 1).[4]

Figure 1: Forest distribution in Murihiku, c. 1840.
Source: Author’s own, adapted and based on M.A. Bathgate, ‘The Maori occupancy of Murihiku, 1000-1900 A.D.: A Geographic Study of Change’ (Masters thesis: University of Otago, 1969), figure 7, p.57.
Putting down roots

The importance of gardening and introducing new plants is apparent early in Otago’s history, from the widespread growing of potatoes and other introduced plants by Kāi Tahu to the very first activities of the New Zealand Company. Charles Henry Kettle (c.1821-62), Chief Surveyor of Otago who oversaw the planning of Dunedin and the Otago area, established experimental plots of wheat and corn in 1846.[5]

In the early years of settlement especially, an established and productive garden represented the difference between life and death. Just how much so is illustrated by Otago migrants’ reliance on Kāi Tahu for their food supplies in the first years following settlement. Māori supplied settlers with both fish and potatoes, as well as engaging in a thriving export trade with Sydney.[6]

Most colonists introduced plants familiar from their home into their garden. Jane McGlashlan’s (1827-94) diary entry typifies many of the time. In 1853, she observed that ‘[w]e have many of the old home favourites here. Roses, Pansies, Carnations, daisies, hedges of Sweet Briar and the “bonny bonny broom[*]” which is perfectly glowing just now.’[7] Flower-growing, rather than raising vegetables or keeping stock, exemplifies best the effort given over to purely matters of the heart, rather than to the needs of the belly. The effort given over to raising flowers from home demonstrates, at least in the early years of settlement, the difficulty of Europeans sometimes having to shift their gaze and appreciation to native species.[8]

In terms of garden seeds, Otago colonists benefitted from the later timing of its settlement in Australasia, which meant that settlers could obtain seeds and plants from other parts of the country and abroad.[9] As early as 16 June 1849 Mr Cutten’s store as well as A. Anderson on Princes St were offering for sale vegetable seeds, and kitchen garden and flower seeds respectively.[10] A rival, J.H. Stirling, also operating on Princes St., advertised ‘well selected garden seeds’ on 7 July 1849.[11] The relative scarcity of plants kept prices of some varieties high for a time. In 1849, Sarah Low wrote that 100 hundred strawberry plants cost £3.[12] By the 1850s, Otago settlers could purchase a wider variety of plants locally, from several nursery firms.

Exchanges of gardening knowledge and appreciation of native nature

Some exchange of gardening knowledge between Kāi Tahu and colonists took place. As noted above, Māori supplied settlers with food when they arrived. Thomas Burns (Otago’s religious leader) employed Māori to labour on his garden, and planted his potatoes in the ‘Maori fashion’. This refers to the manner in which Māori grew potatoes by planting them in mounds, which was how they had grown other tropical tubers.[13]

While settlers enthusiastically introduced plants from their homeland, they also appreciated the beauty of native plants, including collecting seed for their garden (Figure 2). For example, Jane Bannerman ‘took great pride in watching the development’ of their manse through bush clearance, yet she still appreciated native flora. Her brother, Arthur, would row across Otago Harbour to collect native plants for introduction into the garden of their father’s property (Grants Braes) on Otago Peninsula.[14] Settler environmental change did not mean that Europeans failed to appreciate existing scenery, or to rue its passing in the name of progress.

Figure 2: William Cargill was a keen plantsman, as evidenced from this photograph of his house, Hillside, in 1860, shortly before his death. Neat and well-tended, Cargill’s garden contains many New Zealand native species, including Harakeke (Phormium tenax) and Tī Kouka (Cordyline australis). Visible in the front left of the house is an extensive glasshouse. ‘Photograph of “Hillside”, Captain Cargill’s Residence in 1860. The Captain is visible on the deck of the house’, unknown photographer, 1860, 179 x 245 mm, CS.13803-1.
Source: Reproduced with permission from Toitū Otago Settler’s Museum
A community of professional gardeners

Dunedin was well served by gardeners. One of these, William Martin (1823-1905), set up business at Fairfield, Dunedin, laying out 10 acres in garden.[15] He advertised a variety of fruit trees for sale in July 1850: apples, pears, cherries as well as gooseberries and other currents.[16] Thereafter Martin’s business grew. Another early Dunedin nurseryman, George Matthews (1812-84), arrived in 1850, and set up a nursery at Moray Place. Later, Matthews bought property at Mornington on which he developed a shrubs and trees nursery, named Hawthorn Hill (now Hawthorn Avenue).[17] Many, like Martin and Matthews, had been apprenticed on the larger Scottish and English estates, and brought considerable garden experience (and seeds) with them to Otago.[18] Several had also received a good education. Martin, for example, had taken papers in botany, mathematics, Hebrew, Greek and surveying at Edinburgh University.[19]

Martin brought many plants with him from Britain and elsewhere. By 1861 Martin’s nursery had ‘a wide variety of trees, shrubs, fruit trees, pines, hedge plants, and herbaceous plants, many of the importations coming from California.’[20] In addition to seeds, Matthews brought to Dunedin everything from fruit and ornamental trees to flowers, mosses and cacti.[21]

Despite the later success of both Matthews and Martin, introducing plants from northern climes to southern ones represented a great challenge. Many plants failed to make it even half way around the globe. Erratic watering, extremes of heat and cold, and the ever-present danger of salt water served to destroy many a collection of living plants. Although chances tended to improve following the widespread use of the Wardian case—invented in the 1830s, and effectively a miniature glasshouse—and the reduction of voyage times with steamers, the shipment of living plants and seeds halfway around the world proved a chancy affair.[22]

As well as obtaining plants locally, many settlers continued to receive seeds from friends, relatives and commercial nurseries in Britain and elsewhere. In respect to access to seeds, New Zealand settlers benefitted from the boom in gardening that took hold in the British Isles from the 1840s. In Britain and, by dint of emigration, its colonies, gardening, along with natural history, became a marker of respectability and civility, especially among the burgeoning middle- and working classes. Aside from publications, a large number of commercial firms catered to demand for plants from near and far.[23] As noted above, Dunedin nurserymen relied upon British firms to send them seeds.

In the 1850s politician John Richardson (1810-78) developed extensive vegetable and flower gardens on his Willowmead estate, Inchclutha. Richardson grew an astonishing number of flowers. One entry for 2 February 1857 lists an order of 32 varieties of flowers from Sutton’s Seeds. These ranged from Geraniums and Cowslips to Dahlia and ‘Forget-me-nots’.[24] In 1857 he also paid £8, 18 shillings and 5 pence for considerable quantities of seeds from the UK nursery firm of Chatwood (?) and Cummins, sent through the wholesaler George W. Wheatley, London. Richardson received asparagus, peas, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cabbage, celery, turnips, cucumber, spinach, red beet, Scotch kale, Windsor beans, Brussel sprouts, American cress, mustard, ‘a collection of flower seeds’, as well as ‘2 Bushels [of] mixed pasture grass.’[25]

Protecting the Garden

While settlers enthusiastically set about establishing gardens, keeping them, as well as crops, free from unwanted grazing animals was a challenge in the early years of settlement. This concern was addressed by two ordinances, passed by the Otago Provincial Government in the 1850s. (In addition, lease conditions also stipulated improvements to property, including fencing.) The Otago Provincial Government’s Fencing Ordinance, 1855, reflected environmental realities in much of Otago, in which timber was in relatively short supply.[26] The Otago ordinance, as environmental historian Michael Bagge notes, added a new section on live hedges, and legislated against ‘the destruction of well-trimmed live hedges’ and their replacement with a new fence without an owner’s consent.[27]

Settlers in relatively poorly timbered provinces, such as Otago and Canterbury, generally favoured live fences over ones constructed of timber.[28] The 1855 ordinance itself represented an awareness by Otago authorities of environmental limits, in this case of the limitations of timber supply, in their region. Although, as noted, the immediate area around Dunedin was relatively well forested at the time of first European settlement, this was generally not the case for inland and northern areas.[29]

The second measure enacted by Otago authorities to deal with the problem of wandering stock was the Cattle Trespass Ordinance, 1858. Under its provisions, individuals whose cattle strayed within the town boundaries of Dunedin or Port Chalmers could be liable for a fine of up to £5 and have their stock impounded.[30] Not only did the ordinance attempt to prevent loss of private property, but it also sought to minimise tensions within the community by providing a clear system of complaint and redress.


Together with Māori before them, early European colonists brought with them a well-established culture of gardening, attempting to grow what they could, where they could, but also admiring the beauty of existing plants in their new home. The last they adapted to their gardens, as illustrated by the activities of the likes of Arthur Burns, as well as the image of the garden of William Cargill.


James Beattie is an environmental historian who teaches at the Centre for Science in Society, Victoria University of Wellington. The material from which this blog comes from ‘Fashioning a future. Part I: Settlement, improvement and conservation in the European colonisation of Otago, 1840–60’, and is published in the refereed, online journal: International Review of Environmental History (ANU Press).


[1] Tom Brooking, ‘The Great Escape: Wakefield and the Scottish Settlement of Otago’, in edited collection, Edward Gibbon Wakefield and the Colonial Dream: A RECONSIDERATION, Wellington, 1997, pp. 127-130.

[2] Harry C. Evison, The Long Dispute: Maori land rights and European colonisation in southern New Zealand (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1997).

[3] Peter Entwisle, Behold the Moon: The European Occupation of the Dunedin District, 1770–1848 (Dunedin: Port Daniel Press, 1998), 79–106. There were 307 males and 283 females in Dunedin in 1850: Otago Journal 8 (March 1850), 111.

[4] Peter Holland, ‘Room for All? European Settlers and Native Plants in the Southern New Zealand Lowlands: 1850–1920’, in Robert Sweeny et al., eds., Sharing Spaces: Essays in Honour of Sherry Olson (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2020), p. 43.

[5] Kettle to Wakefield, 4/46, 25 January 1847, Hocken Library.

[6] West, Face of Nature, 179-80. On shifts in Kāi Tahu food production, see the comments by Horomona Pohio (c.1825-81), reproduced in. Tremewan, Selling Otago, p. 62. Settlers also received supplies from John Jones’ settlement of Matanaka.

* Broom later became a curse to farmers because of its ability to spread owing to its dense root system and because of it did not fix nitrogen.

[7] Jane McGlashlan, 8 October, 1853, Journal of Voyage “Rajah”, 14 June 1853 – 3 December 1853, typescript, MS 35, Copy 67, Toitū.

[8] I am indebted to Paul Star for this observation.

[9] Louise Shaw, A History of the Dunedin Horticultural Society, 1851-2001 (Dunedin: Dunedin Horticultural Society, 2000).

[10] 16 June 1849, Otago News, Toitū.

[11] Otago News, Toitū.

[12] Shaw, p. 19.

[13] West, Face of Nature, p. 172.

[14] Bannerman, ‘Reminiscences’, p. 45.

[15] Wm. Martin, ‘Early History of Fairfield’, November 1963, typewritten, in Martin DC-0320, Toitū.

[16] Otago News, 20 July 1850.

[17] Ruth A. Gow, ‘George Matthews’, in The Advance Guard Series 1, ed. by G.J. Griffiths (Dunedin: Otago Daily Times, 1973), pp. 97-110.

[18] Shaw.

[19] ‘Mr William Martin, a Pioneer Horticulturist of Otago’, handwritten notes by Wm. Martin (grandson) 3 February 1953, Martin DC-0320, Toitū.

[20] Wm. Martin, ‘Early History of Fairfield’, November 1963, typewritten, in Martin DC-0320, Toitū.

[21] Shaw, p. 18.

[22] James Beattie, ‘“The Empire of the Rhododendron”: Reorienting New Zealand Garden history’, in Tom Brooking and Eric Pawson, eds., Making a New Land: Environmental Histories of New Zealand (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2013), pp. 241-257, 365-367.

[23] On which, see James Beattie, ‘“The Empire of the Rhododendron”’.

[24] JLC Richardson Diary 1857-1860, Toitū, AG-101. He grew 2 varieties each of lettuce and cabbage. See entry 4 October 1857, for example.

[25] Invoices & Sundries, supplied by Geo. W. Wheatley of London’ on the vessel Southern Cross, no date, but in 1857 Invoices, JLC Richardson Invoices 1856-60, AG-101, Toitū.

[26] ‘Fencing Ordinance, 1855’, in Ordinances of the Province of Otago, N.Z., session 1 to 14 inclusive (Dunedin: Otago Witness, 1862), 47A-48A. It replaced a New Zealand-wide ordinance: ‘An Ordinance to Encourage the Fencing of Land, 1847’, Session 8, 283.

[27] Michael L.S. Bagge, ‘Valuable ally or invading army? The ambivalence of gorse in New Zealand, 1835-1900’, ENNZ: Environment and Nature in New Zealand, 9, 1 (February 2014): 135.

[28] Ray Hargreaves, ‘Farm Fences in Pioneer New Zealand’, New Zealand Geographer, 21, 2 (1965): 150. Although live fencing of this kind generally found favour in provinces like Otago and Canterbury with relatively scarce timber sources, some North Island settlers showed a preference for this method of fencing, such as hawthorn in the Waikato and native Manuka fencing in Katikati, in the Bay of Plenty. Hargreaves, ‘Farm Fences’, 149.

[29] See Neil Clayton, ‘Settlers, politicians and scientists: Environmental anxiety in a New Zealand colony’, ENNZ: Environment and Nature in New Zealand, 9 4 (2014): 26.

[30] ‘Cattle Trespass Ordinance 1858’, in Ordinances of the Province of Otago, N.Z., session 1 to 14 inclusive (Dunedin: Otago Witness, 1862), pp. 103-4.

The History of Garden Gnomes in New Zealand

Ian Duggan, Te Aka Mātuatua – School of Science, The University of Waikato

Loved by some, abhorred by others, garden gnomes are iconic components of suburban gardens in many parts of the world, including England, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Despite their popularity, however, little attention has been paid to gnomes by scholars of garden history outside of England, and no mention is made of them in most of the books dedicated to New Zealand’s garden histories. To fill this gap, I published an article in 2016 titled ‘The Cultural History of the Garden Gnome in New Zealand’, from which I provide some brief highlights, below.

A gnome released by the popular New Zealand beer brand, ‘Tui’, 2000.

The garden gnome in history

Garden gnomes have traditionally been depicted as bearded ‘dwarf-like’ human figures, male, with a red pointed hat, a representation that has diversified in recent years. The first ornaments we might recognise as ‘garden gnomes’ were being produced from porcelain in Germany by the late 18th century, although these were not intended as garden ornaments, but as ‘house dwarfs’, for indoor display. The first gnomes constructed for outdoor use date to around 1840. These were encountered by English tourists and exported across Europe and to America by 1860. The first outdoor garden gnomes in England, however, belonged to the eccentric Sir Charles Isham; he initiated a rockery to his home in 1847 to which, as a complement to its dwarf and alpine plants, he introduced a number of house dwarfs. This garden featured in magazines in the late 1800s, and these articles are thought to be responsible for the popularity of garden gnomes in English stately homes from this time.[i]

A more traditional gnome, made of concrete (authors collection)

The first advertisements for garden gnomes in New Zealand appeared only in 1931. While today gnomes are generally considered ‘cheap’, the individuals advertised in 1930s New Zealand were anything but, and they were reported as residing in the homes of prominent, wealthy individuals. This was markedly different from England in the 1930s, by which time garden gnomes had lost much of their privileged status, and had moved from the stately homes onto suburban lawns or amusement parks.

Advertisement from Auckland Star, 14 November 1931

The earliest mention of garden gnomes, in situ, was at Wellington’s ‘Homewood’ gardens, owned by Mr Benjamin Sutherland, a New Zealand-born chain-store pioneer.[ii] Sutherland bought ‘Homewood’, in the Wellington suburb of Karori, in 1928, commissioning Christchurch landscape gardener Alfred Buxton to ‘lay out the whole garden, and no expense was spared’. In the early 1930s, between 12 and 20 men worked on the garden for a period of two years to build, among other structures, three walled gardens, as well as grottos and glow-worm caves, a large white-tiled swimming pool and 18 aviaries housing hundreds of birds. Sutherland held regular open days and charity events at his residence.[iii] In March 1932, Wellington’s Evening Post correspondent described a fundraising event for the ‘Free Ambulance’, and a special garden inhabitant: ‘The grey, battlemented house, with the stone lions in front, was well set in vivid borders of flowers, while the sardonic looking gnome, who presides over the fish pond, seemed to smile at the rain …’[iv] Several other reports of the gnomes at Sutherland’s property, as well as in the properties of other wealthy citizens, continued into the early 1940s. 

An interesting theme in New Zealand newspapers, new and old, is of the theft of garden gnomes. Surprisingly, their disappearance began soon after their first availability, in the 1930s. A ‘Lost and Found’ notice appeared in the Evening Post in 1935, offering a ‘good reward’ for ‘information leading to the recovery of Two Garden Ornaments, one Gnome and Toadstool, removed from the Garden of 186 The Terrace’.[v] Similarly, the Hutt News provides a further report of theft in December 1939, advertising a reward of £5 for a 4-ft high garden gnome from a private residence in Lower Hutt.[vi]  Three days later, the reward was again offered in the Evening Post, which included a photo of the gnome.[vii] This trend continues today, with regular articles still appearing of gnomes lost, gnomes found but with owners unknown, as well as gnomes reunited with their owners.

The stolen gnome and reward offer. Evening Post, 16 December 1939.

From the 1940s, garden gnomes became more widely available in New Zealand, and began to be constructed of concrete. It was at this stage that the gnomes appeared to lose their elite status.

If you want to read more about garden gnome history in New Zealand, email the author for a copy of the article.


[i] Twigs Way, Garden Gnomes: A History (Oxford: Shire Library, 2009), 56 pp.

[ii] ‘Garden Parties for Free Ambulance: Weather Intervenes’. Evening Post (7 March 1932), p. 3.

[iii] Beryl Smedley, Homewood and its Families. (Wellington: Mallinson Rendel, 1980), p. 103; Rupert Tipples, Colonial Landscape Gardener; Alfred Buxton of Christchurch, New Zealand 1872-1950.  (Lincoln College, Christchurch, 1989). pp. 101-106.

[iv] ‘Garden Parties for Free Ambulance: Weather Intervenes’, Evening Post (7 March 1932), p. 3.

[v] ‘Advertisements’. Evening Post (27 February 1935), p. 1.

[vi] ‘Advertisements: Stolen: Reward £5’. Hutt News (13 December 1939), p. 8.

[vii] Evening Post, 16 December 1939.

Garden Star: Supporting Urban Native Biodiversity

by Yolanda van Heezik, Department of Zoology, The University of Otago

How well does your garden support native biodiversity? If native biodiversity in the town or city where you live is something you are passionate about, or even just want to contribute to, would you be interested in an accreditation that recognises the contribution your garden makes to city-wide native biodiversity, and also helps you identify how you could make your garden even better? Garden Star is an initiative that some of us are currently developing to try to promote native biodiversity in NZ’s urban areas.

A vegetated garden with multiple layers

As any gardener can tell you, gardens are places where we can create beauty, grow food, feel calm and relax, socialise, and also feel some spiritual connection to the natural world. For the very young and the elderly, and those with limited mobility, something we all experienced during lockdown earlier this year, our gardens become even more important places for supporting our wellbeing. Gardens can be home to many species of plants and animals, so the way we landscape and manage our gardens, and the plants we choose to nurture, all affect how well our gardens function as a space where other species can thrive. As an urban ecologist, I try to understand our cities from the perspectives of different types of creatures, all of which need appropriate spaces and suitable resources to grow and reproduce. City parks and reserves play an important role in providing appropriate living conditions for a range of native species, but on their own they are not enough. Fortunately, those public green spaces are all interconnected by the largest single green space type found in our cities – private gardens!

What role do gardens play in supporting biodiversity?

Gardens cumulatively make up the biggest green space across most cities and provide “stepping-stone habitat” that connects fragments of natural vegetation. All cities include inhospitable features that are very difficult for some creatures to live in or even to cross, such as busy roads, or areas of dense development with little vegetation. Street trees and gardens are potentially small oases functioning as stepping-stones, enabling animals to navigate through any unwelcoming areas. In Dunedin, 36% of the urban city area is covered by gardens, and even in very large cities in the UK private gardens are a significant proportion; e.g., between 22% and 28% in London, Glasgow and Sheffield. However, gardens vary hugely in their size and structure, meaning that some are much better at supporting native biodiversity than others. Given the large area covered by gardens, changes that individual householders make to their own gardens can significantly improve the liveability of our cities for other animals, even if each person’s changes are small. It would make a huge difference if a decent proportion of households were willing to play a part in managing their gardens to support native biodiversity, but how can householders be incentivised to do this?

A Dunedin back yard comprised mostly of lawn with few native species

Garden Star concept

Earlier this year, I attended a conference in Auckland called Urban Futures, which brought together city planners, urban designers, policy designers, civil engineers, architects and managers of urban infra-structure, with the goal of discussing how sustainable, liveable cities can be designed. While urban biodiversity was clearly not on the radar of just about every speaker there, my presentation on the importance of creating urban areas that support native biodiversity struck a chord with one conference attendee, who works for Kainga Ora, the organisation responsible for the construction of tens of thousands of houses across New Zealand. She was concerned at the absence of any requirements to protect or encourage biodiversity in the gardens and shared spaces of these future homes. My conversation with her, over a glass of white wine, lead to the Garden Star initiative.

She drew my attention to “Homestar”, which is an independent national accreditation, run by the not-for-profit Green Building Council, which evaluates the health, warmth and efficiency of New Zealand houses. A home is rated on a scale from 6 to 10. We thought, why not create a national accreditation scheme to recognise and encourage native biodiversity in private and community gardens? Could such a scheme acknowledge efforts made by developers and householders to protect or enhance biodiversity in gardens in new builds, and also provide guidance for those who wish to improve the native biodiversity in their own gardens? Although a biodiverse garden might not improve the value of a home in the same way that the “Home Star” accreditation does, neighbourhood initiatives might shift norms, and those who engage with the process could derive other benefits through partnerships between Garden Star and other entities. I had previously been considering some kind of local initiative, but after my wine-fuelled conversation I started to think nationally. All fired up I returned back home to Dunedin, where I enthused my colleague and husband, Prof Phil Seddon, with the concept, and together we are now working towards making Garden Star into a reality.

A suburb with gardens containing a lot of habitat for native species

Garden star – steps to becoming a thing

A first step was selling the concept to an NGO that, like the Green Building Council for Home Star, would be willing to adopt the scheme. Here’s where Phil’s networks paid off, with the result that the Endangered Species Foundation enthusiastically committed to supporting the development of the Garden Star accreditation. ESF CEO, Cheryl Reynolds has been super-enthusiastic about promoting the concept to various movers and shakers.

The next step for Phil and me was developing a tool that could be applied to gardens to evaluate their biodiversity value, on the basis of a single visit. At the scale we intended to apply Garden Star we would not have the time or resources to devote to collecting detailed ecological data from each garden. Tapping into our networks again, we assembled about 20 experts into what we call our TAG team (technical advisory group), which included animal and plant ecologists, entomologists, landscape gardeners, and people from councils, enviro-schools, universities, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, Plant & Food, polytechnics and private consultancies. We asked them to identify those features of gardens that they thought were important indicators of biodiversity – and they came up with a list of more than 160! We categorised these features and reduced them and then asked the TAG to indicate their relative importance. From this information we came up with an approach that involves evaluating vegetation extent and quality, but also surveys the householder to learn about garden management, and other factors that might affect native biodiversity, such as bird feeding or not enough pest control. We first tested our fledgling tool out on our own garden and found that it did a good job at identifying features we could improve on to raise our score (too much lawn and paved areas). This summer, we have two students, Emma and Jacqui, trying out the rating tool on a number of different garden types in two urban centres, and also in school grounds to see how well it performs.

When we have pored over the data provided by Emma and Jacqui we will evaluate how well the rating tool works: does it provide a range of scores that can be translated into star ratings? There are a number of issues we know we need to deal with. For example, the TAG came up with a number of features that were relevant to environmental sustainability (e.g. food production, water conservation) rather than native biodiversity: should these be acknowledged in the form of a sustainability tick, sitting beside the star rating? And how should we deal with small properties or very large ones? It is necessary to devise a rating method that doesn’t disadvantage householders with smaller property sizes. Our own research has also shown that the cost of implementing some of the measures to improve backyard biodiversity can be a major barrier for many people: should socio-economic status of householders be taken into consideration as well? And what if the garden is the only biodiverse garden in a neighbourhood of poorly vegetated yards? Should those householders gain extra points for being neighbourhood pioneers? As we move into a pilot phase across more cities, these are the some of the issues we will need to consider, as we refine the rating tool.

Masonic Symbolism in the Picturesque Garden, Hamilton Gardens

by Peter Sergel, Director of Hamilton Gardens

The ‘Picturesque’ or ‘Natural’ style garden was popular in 18th Century Europe. Inspired by painting, it also reflected changing attitudes to nature and its intended appeal was not only to the eyes but to the heart and mind. Such gardens often had a planned sequence of features or ritual journeys that would refer to a fantasy story, particularly a classical legend, where an individual’s character is tested. Gardens made in the late 18th century Picturesque tradition also often featured Masonic symbols because many of the owners at that time were Masons. Both of those elements have been introduced to the Picturesque Garden at Hamilton Gardens through a series of features that tell the story of the opera ‘The Magic Flute’. Sources have included: pictures of old gardens, old illustrations, historic Masonic records and traditional set designs for ‘The Magic Flute’.

Map of the Picturesque Garden, Hamilton Gardens

The Magic Flute is arguably the best-known and loved traditional opera. It was written in 1791 when the Picturesque Garden movement was at its height. Like most influential figures at the time its writers, Wolfgang Amedeus Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder, were both Masons and the story is one of Masonic initiation as well as being a fantasy fairy tale. Like many great works of art there are many layers of meaning, mostly related to personal improvement; the latter appears to have been a popular theme in that Age of Enlightenment.
The story starts at the eastern entrance to the Picturesque Garden with three traditional trombones set on a rough ashlar or stone base (1) representing the fanfares that start the opera and each stage of the initiation. E flat major is inscribed on each, being both the chord played at the start of the opera and the traditional ‘Masonic key’. Trombones were considered royal instruments, announcing the hero of the story as a prince. His name is Tamino and he starts the story in wild forest (or in our case bush) (2). The story takes place in Egypt, hence the sphinxes, but like the 18th century gardens and the opera itself there isn’t much similarity to the landscapes of Egypt. Tamino enters a cave or grotto (3) which was a frequent feature both of Picturesque Gardens and at the start of other stories of self-improvement.

He’s pursued by a large serpent (4) and faints. As he does so three veiled ladies come out of a woodland temple (5); they kill the serpent and then return to the temple. The curious figure of Papageno (6), the Bird Catcher, enters. His sculpture suggests he is part human and part animal or bird and he has a birdcage on his back. Tamino regains consciousness and assumes Papageno has saved him but the three ladies return and explain the true situation. The Queen of the Night then appears sitting on a throne in front of a Woodland Temple (7). She tells Tamino that he can marry her daughter (Pamino) if he rescues her from Sarastro the cruel magician and that becomes his quest and a search for wisdom, virtue and truth. He’s given a magic flute (8) and sets off with Papageno. They are assigned three boys, Higher Genii or guardian angels (9) to watch over them.

Those guides take them to three portals set in a wall (10), the entrance to Sarastro’s temple complex. The portals in this garden are inspired by a drawing of the original Magic Flute stage set designed by Mozart himself. The entrances are named Vernunft (Reason), Weisheit (Wisdom) and Natur (Nature) – (remember this is a German opera). Tamino wisely chooses the central one called wisdom. Garden visitors don’t get a choice – the other two doors are just used by maintenance staff. A procession appears with Sarastro riding a chariot drawn by six lions that in this situation sit along the top of the wall. (12) The central ruin structure (11) divides the garden into the Yesod sphere of the Moon to the west and the Tafaret sphere of higher consciousness to the east which Tamino is now entering. Tamino and Papageno discover that things are not what they seem. The Queen of the Night is a destructive plotter and Sarastro the good spiritual leader.

They then enter a dark passage (12) where they undergo their first test, ‘to resist the guiles of women in silence’. The three rather frisky looking women are represented in relief on the passage walls (13). Next, they enter a large hall represented here by a riverside meadow area orientated along an east-west axis (14). A table full of food appears within this space (15). Papageno eats while Tamino undergoes a second test of silence. For the third and final test Tamino and Pamino enter a cave (16) for tests of fire and water. Opera goers don’t see what these secret initiations are but on each side of the entrance these are symbolized by a bowl of water and a fire pot (17). Tamino and Pamino return to the hall and fulfill their destiny.

Masons in that Age of Enlightenment were usually associated with an educated elite who were changing society. In Europe, this included influential thinkers such as Goethe, Alexander Pope, Francis Bacon, John Locke and Voltaire, architects such as Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren, writers such as Robbie Burns and Mark Twain, composers like Mozart, Haydn, and possibly Beethoven, and most prominent members of ‘The Royal Society’ including well known scientists such as Isaac Newton.

Some of these 18th century Masons were plotting changes to traditional rule. They included American revolutionaries like Jefferson, Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Later, Lincoln was also a Mason. Some were also plotting to overthrow regimes and rulers like Catherine the Great of Russia. They preferred relatively wild, natural looking gardens to the gigantic, formal Baroque estates of the equally rigid, formal aristocracy. Picturesque Gardens themselves were making a revolutionary statement and in the context of other gardens of that age they are perhaps an indication of what was going on behind the scenes.

There seemed to be a greater acceptance in England of these wild romantic gardens with their banks of long grass and natural looking planting. Even Lady Catherine de Bourgh approved of the “prettyish kind of little wilderness” in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In other European countries, it was a more radical fashion often referred to as ‘Jardin Anglo-Chinois’. Loss and neglect of old gardens, lack of serious research and the secrecy associated with their Masonic symbolism means that the full extent of that influence is hard to gauge. Generally modern Masons I’ve spoken to aren’t particularly familiar with these old 18th century garden symbols.

But those Masonic symbols appear to have defined an underlying theme that ran through the sculptures and structures in 18th century gardens. At that time Europeans were very interested in India and the Americas yet they didn’t include many elephants, bears and totem poles in their gardens. Instead they favored objects that represented Masonic symbols. Many of the 18th century landed gentry were Masons and those who weren’t were possibly influenced by what appeared to be the current fashion. “Darling the Jones next door have had some men come in to make a pyramid in their garden. We must have one too – only bigger.”

The Masons of that time associated themselves with the ancient Egyptian masons, hence the pyramids, obelisks, palm trees* and sphinxes. They also associated their craft with the Knights Templar, hence the towers, keeps and fortresses. Then there were other historic references like the Greek and Roman temples, Palladian buildings and artificial Gothic ruins. Other common Masonic symbols were the circular pools, caves, hermit caves, hermitages, obelisks, lions, pelicans, bee hives and serpents (The elements found in our garden are marked with an *).

You can see other Masonic symbols with the Woodland Temple in this garden (7). The paving shows a silver moon crescent pattern that frequently occurs in Masonic symbolism. The pavilion faces west where the sun sets and the night starts. Pavilions like this made references to Pantheon and to Palladian architecture that were associated with renaissance masons. These buildings usually had a four-column portico that can be seen in famous Masonic gardens like: Charemont, Stowe, and Stourhead and there are even images of them on the front of old Masonic song-books (our pavilion doesn’t have the dome due to budget constraints). The ceiling of the portico in our pavilion is decorated like many old buildings with stars; in this case the pattern has been taken from
a famous stage set for the Magic Flute. The queen’s throne and the front of the portico are decorated with the seven silver stars that have long been an important symbol in Freemasonry and many ancient cultures. They represent the stars of Ursa Major, often referred to as ‘The Plough’, ‘The Dipper’ or ‘The Great Bear’. Where these garden pavilions or ‘Fabriques’ had Masonic links they often had names like ‘Elysium’, ‘Temple of Friendship’ ‘Temple of Wisdom’. Some, like the one in the garden of Chiswick, may have been used for Masonic meetings, but there were other gardens, like Worlitz in Germany, where a cottage or woodshed disguised the passage leading into a crypt or cave that was used for initiation ceremonies.

Several of The Magic Flute objects listed above are obviously also old Masonic symbols but there are others in this garden if you know where to look. For example the rough ashlar and the perfect ashlar at the beginning and end of the garden are symbols that are still used and represent man in his primitive and ‘civilized’ state; the keys like the ‘key stone’ in the passage arch or the Masonic key of E-Flat Major engraved on the trombones.

Similarly the three kinds of pillar significant to the Masons are represented in this garden. The Doric pillars on the Woodland Temple symbolise strength, the Ionic pillar holding the magic flute represents wisdom and the Corinthian pillars between the portals represent beauty.

Numbers were also important such as the seven stars on the Queen’s throne, the use of the ‘golden section’ (1.618), the three entrances, three trombones, three veiled ladies and three genii and the eighteen features that tell the story of The Magic Flute, eighteen being the number of seats or sieges.

Even some of the plants have Masonic symbolism. The palm trees represent what were called ‘Acacias’ which were used in rituals, pomegranates denote abundance and sharing, red roses represent the blood of Christ and white lilies are a symbol of peace. Oaks, fig trees and Cedars of Lebanon were considered important because of their historic associations.

Everywhere you look in this garden there are old Masonic symbols. This hidden symbolism and its historic associations are a feature that help make these 18th century gardens interesting and distinctive.

Parapara, the maligned Bird Catcher Tree in New Zealand gardens

by Ian Duggan, The University of Waikato

Parapara (Ceodes brunoniana[i]), also known as the Bird-Catcher (or Bird-Catching) Tree, is native to northern New Zealand, Norfolk Island, Lord Howe Island and Hawaiʻi. While the tree is almost extinct in the North Island, where it would once have been common, it is still utilised as a decorative tree in gardens. Nevertheless, its use in gardens has been controversial.

Ceona brunoniana (Parapara, Bird-catcher tree), Auckland New Zealand, by Kahuroa, 25 April 2008, Public Domain,

The moniker ‘Bird-Catching Tree’ comes about due to the tree’s production of sticky ‘fruits’, which are known to ensnare birds. Prior to human arrival, this stickiness would have allowed seeds to be dispersed by seabirds, such as boobies, gannets, petrels, mollyhawks and shearwaters, which were once common around the coasts of the northern North Island. The decline of the tree in natural settings is thought to have begun following the introduction of the Polynesian rat kiore (Rattus exulans), followed by other rat and predator species with European colonisation. These removed most of the bird colonies, [ii] or consumed seeds and seedlings. As a result, the species is now found primarily on predator-free islands.[iii]

Small birds have commonly been noted in newspapers to be captured by the tree. Here I look at some of the earliest reports of this occurring.

The first reports by Pākehā of Parapara ensnaring birds in gardens comes from the late 19thC. Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, on 26 September, 1883, R.H. Govett noted:

About a month ago my brother mentioned that in a shrub growing in my father’s garden at New Plymouth, two Silver-eyes (Zosterops) and an English Sparrow had been found with their wings so glued by the sticky seed-vessels that they were unable to move, and could only fly away after having been carefully washed.

A friend to whom I mentioned the circumstance just told, remembers a shrub in Mr. James Russell’s garden, at Auckland, being pointed out as remarkable for the same behaviour. There were tufts of feathers adhering to it also, and the shrub, if not of the same species, closely resembled the one at New Plymouth.[iv]

Fruit of Ceodes brunoniana (Parapara, Bird-catcher tree), Auckland New Zealand, by Kahuroa, 25 April 2008, Public Domain,

This finding was reported widely in newspapers at the time. It was noted that “Mr Govett’s sister, thinking to do a merciful act, collected all the fruit bearing branches that were within reach and threw them on a dust heap. Next day about a dozen silver-eyes were found glued to them, four or five of the pods to each bird”. She writes:

Looking at the tree, one sees tufts of feathers and legs where the birds have died, and I don’t think the birds could possibly get away without help. The black cat just lives under the tree, a good many of the birds falling to her share, but a good many pods get into her fur, and she has to come and get them dragged out.[v]

Govett observed that the tree was already known to Māori for its bird catching qualities:

[The natural historian John] Buchanan, too, tells me that he and Dr. [James] Hector recollect that when travelling to the north of Auckland, they were told of a tree which captured birds; but they did not pay any heed to what they regarded as a bit of Maori romance. It is clear, then, that Pisonia brunoniana [as it was previously known] is a confirmed bird-slayer, and that the specimen at Taranaki is not a depraved individual of a harmless species. [vi]

Newspapers also later acknowledge that the bird-catching tree was known as such to Māori, and that they had informed some of our earliest botanists of the fact, but they did not at that time credit the story. [vii]

Silver-eyes, also known as pihpihi and ‘blight birds’, appear to be particularly common victims of the Parapara. In 1910, Mr Hugh Boscawen, Auckland, noted that there

is a large bush of the New Zealand parapara (Pisonia brunoniana) growing up here at Government House. The seed is always covered with a sticky substance, like bird lime. This morning seven little blight birds had to be rescued from starvation. They had become stuck to the seeds, and were perfectly helpless. The more the birds struggle, the faster they get entangled.[viii]

Similarly, in 1923, “In the gummy berries of a parapara tree at Te Araroa [Poverty Bay] one recent morning, no fewer than 20 pihipihi or blight birds were found to have been caught”. [ix]

While pihipihi appear to be highly susceptible, larger birds have also been found to fall victim.

The particular tree, which a Taranaki Herald reporter saw on Saturday, is in the garden of Mr I John Wheeler, Vogeltown, New Plymouth. The method by which the birds die is one of the cruellest possible. Mr. Wheeler said that he often pulls off twigs with numerous small birds on them in the mornings. During its life the tree has caught hundreds of sparrows, fantails, goldfinches and silvery eyes. One day this week a much larger bird, a morepork, was caught, and died in the tree. It had apparently gone to the tree to feed on the smaller birds which were hanging there and was itself caught. [x]

As might be expected, concern was raised in the 1930s about whether such trees should be utilised in gardens at all, or even that they should be destroyed.

Concern is being expressed in Auckland because of the propagation of the parapara or “bird catching” tree, two or three dozen plants being nurtured in the Domain for transplanting. “It seems to me a very cruel thing to permit such trees, capable of dealing death to a great many birds, to be propagated in such a manner,” said Mr J. B. Donald, president of the Auckland branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “Birds that become entangled in these trees die a very slow and agonising death, and I am satisfied it is only because the authorities do not realise this that they contemplate for a moment increasing the number of such trees. The president of the Auckland Acclimatisation Society, Mr V. W. McKenzie, also does not think any of these trees should be planted. “From what we have read concerning their ability to destroy birds”, he said, “it appears that they destroy them in a particularly cruel way. This is so apparent that the Parks Committee of the City Council might seriously consider destroying any tree of this kind that exists in Auckland.[xi]

Soon after, it was clear that on a number of occasions, despite their rarity, trees were indeed being removed or pruned to stop them capturing birds: A report of 1933 noted that “A parapara was recently cut down on Moiti Island, near Tauranga, because birds were continually getting captured by it”. [xii] “At the time of its destruction,” observed a report from 1936, “84 dead silver-eyes were counted in the in tree”. [xiii]

“The parapara, or “bird catching” tree in Point Erin Park, Auckland, has nothing to indicate its fell work among members of the small feathered tribe. The proposal to grow it in other botanical reserves meets with little approval from bird lovers”. Manawatu Standard, 15 September 1932

Elsewhere, trees have been managed in a similar way to that used by Mr. Govett’s sister. In 1943:

Some mysterious person every year at this season breaks off the branches of a “bird catching” tree in Pukekura Park, New Plymouth, so that it cannot flower and trap any birds or insects… It is thought to have been the act of a bird-lover, who objects to the presence of the tree because of its danger to birds during its brief flowering season.[xiv]

Parapara has long been a controversial tree, and nothing has changed. Despite its rarity, calls are still being made to remove the trees. In early March 2018, a morepork/ruru (Ninox novaeseelandiae) was brought to the Whangarei Bird Rescue Centre, tangled in a mess of parapara pods. This was untangled using a citrus-based solvent and then set free the next day. In response, Whangarei Bird Recovery Centre’s Robert Webb called for the tree to be cut down and to be banned from sale in garden centres: “I know it’s a New Zealand native tree, but to me personally, with the amount of native bird those trees claim every year, I don’t think they’re worth having”.[xv]

In contrast, their removal has been successful from reserves, with calls to only keep the trees in gardens! A tree that had trapped fantails was cut down from a reserve in 2011 near Nelson. At that time, Council horticultural supervisor Peter Grundy said he saw no reason why people could not grow the plant in their gardens, but it was not appropriate in a reserve where it was affecting the birdlife.[xvi]


[i] Formerly Pisonia; Rossetto EFS & Caraballo-Ortiz MA. 2020. Splitting the Pisonia birdcatcher trees: re-establishment of Ceodes and Rockia (Nyctaginaceae, Pisonieae). PhytoKeys 152: 121-136.

[ii] Stanley B & de Lange PJ. 2005. Misunderstood our native parapara (Pisonia brunoniana). Auckland Botanical Society Journal 60: 150-151.

[iii] Stanley, R. 2005. City Slickers: Auckland’s Urban Threatened Plants [online]. Australasian Plant Conservation: Journal of the Australian Network for Plant Conservation 14: 23-24.

[iv] Govett RH. 1883. A Bird-Killing Tree. Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand 16: 364-366.

[v] Scientific Gossip. Lyttleton Time, 7 February 1885

[vi] Govett RH, 1883.

[vii] Auckland Star, 20 August 1927

[viii] In Touch with Nature, Star (Christchurch), 2 July 1910

[ix] New Zealand Herald, 6 August 1923

[x] Nature’s cruel trick, Stratford Evening Post, 2 August 1932

[xi] Press, 13 September 1932

[xii] Manawatu Standard, 4 November 1933

[xiii] Evening Star, 31 October 1936

[xiv] New Zealand Herald, 6 July 1943

[xv] Whangarei Leader, 28 March 2018,

[xvi] Kids’ detective work is one for the birds, Nelson Mail, 11 May 2011