Blog Posts

When Ferns went Viral: New Zealand Women and the Global Fern Craze

by Annette Bainbridge

In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, New Zealand and the rest of the British Empire was swept up in a nature craze that permeated popular culture in a way that we would now describe as ‘going viral’. This was ‘pteridomania’, or ‘the fern craze’.

New advances in technology. such as the invention of the Wardian glass case that could transport growing plants safely over long distances and the increasing travel efficiency of booming railroads. meant most people were able to participate in plant collecting as never before. But why ferns? What was their appeal for British settlers?

Ferns had a special place in British plant lore. Connected particularly with woodlands, ruined buildings and craggy hillsides, they were part of a natural environment that many Britons loved, but in their urbanised industrial cities were no longer able to access easily.

British folklore linked ferns with the magic of midsummer’s eve and fairies. The lack of knowledge of the reproductive cycle of the fern led to old rural beliefs that the fern reproduced invisibly. Thus, it was considered to have the magical ability to render humans invisible too. For all these reasons ferns had a romance and magic to them quite apart from their innate structural beauty.

Ferns were also connected with the far-flung exoticism of the empire, with Australia and New Zealand particularly well-known for their own fern species, distinguished by variations in size and colour unknown in British native ferns. The sheer flamboyance and size of some specimens such as the silver New Zealand tree fern (Cyathea dealbata) made ferns collected from Australasia much sought after.

Despite the amount of wealthy private collectors and male-dominated institutions involved in fern collecting, pteridomania became particularly connected with women. The very thing that Victorian critics of the craze complained about in its effects on women were almost certainly the very things that made it so attractive to females of all ages. It caused them to act in ‘unseemly ways’, romping around the countryside, scrambling down banks and hills. Fern collecting parties were often a mix of the sexes so they were often unsupervised in secluded woods with young men (gasp!). Lastly, of course these (mainly male) critics worried that it taxed women’s delicate brains by forcing them to analyse the plants they were collecting and grasp the meaning of difficult Latin words to label them.

British women brought their love of ferns with them to New Zealand
whatsthatpicture from Hanwell, London, UK, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Here in New Zealand, women seized upon the opportunity to become involved in the popular craze. Fern collecting expeditions and parties into the bush were common and keen gardeners such as Emily Acland and Jessy Rhodes of Mt Peel and Bluecliff Stations in Canterbury brought back beautiful specimens for their own gardens from the nearby bush. Public parks also benefited from the enthusiasm of women collectors, such as Miss Brown of Mount Thomas Station who donated a rare fern that she’d discovered to the Christchurch Botanic Gardens.

Finding ferns was not always a happy experience, however, in New Zealand’s more rugged terrain. When Mrs Giblin of Hawkes Bay went on a fern collecting expedition with her husband and some friends to Waihi Falls, she watched with horror as their friend Colonel Herrick plummeted to his death from atop the waterfall and she and her husband had to wade into the water to drag him out in the hopes of saving his life. She and the Colonel’s daughter then waited with the body for a night in the bush while the men went to get help to have the body removed.

Obviously it was wise to be cautious given the dangers of the New Zealand bush, but as fern collecting was so popular globally it was quickly seized upon by New Zealand’s infant tourism industry as a moneymaker. In tourist areas, such as Queenstown and Te Anau, even the local grocers provided equipment for fern collecting such as trowels and specially designed tins for posting the plants to various national and international destinations. Scottish tourist Constance Astley visited New Zealand in 1897 and was pleasantly surprised at how slick the entire tourism operation was at dealing with her fern collecting needs. “There were simply any amount of dear little fern plants near the Ada Lake and if I could have foreseen such undreamt of facilities for sending them off I would have taken more trouble to get them. They actually supplied one with boxes for keeping them in on board [the steam ship]”

For women who didn’t want to have to take care of living specimens in a garden, a popular way of participating in the fern craze was by buying or making their own fern album. Often involving drying or occasionally sketching various fern specimens, the popularity of these albums led to various newspaper articles aimed at women on ways to use items readily available in the kitchen to preserve ferns more efficiently. New Zealand women produced some of the most internationally acclaimed fern albums in the world. Mary Anne Armstrong of Dunedin combined artistic composition with careful scientific labelling and cataloguing in her fern albums. She displayed her work at international exhibitions and won awards for it. Her book ‘The South Pacific Fern Album’ garnered international attention and praise, although due to high production costs was not a commercial success.
The downside to all this interest was that many fern habitats were damaged or destroyed in a landscape already transformed by settler’s land clearances and the felling of native bush and forest. To this day in some parts of New Zealand, such as the Otago Peninsula, the fern populations have never recovered. It is a reminder that the interests and activities of women settlers could have as much of a transformative effect on our landscapes, for good or ill, as those of the male settlers. The history of the fern craze is an important reminder of both how beautiful and unique New Zealand’s plant species are and how fragile our environment is and was.

D-rew at English Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons: New
                           Zealand tree fern Dicksonia squarrosa.

There are many elements of the fern craze that explain its popularity with New Zealand women in the nineteenth century. It provided an intellectual challenge, it linked women with the physical freedom of the outdoors, and it made women feel included in the world’s wider scientific and natural history communities. Its fashionable status was enhanced by the international rise of the art nouveau movement which emphasised the beauty of plants and flowers in decorating motifs on everything from furniture to wallpaper. This coincided with the rise of a new feeling of national identity that emerged in the 1880s and ’90s in New Zealand. The new sense of nationalism was strongly linked with New Zealand’s unique indigenous flora and fauna, such as the kiwi and the silver fern. The world wanted spectacular ferns and we had them in abundance. By participating in a global craze, New Zealand women found pride, belonging and interest in their own local landscapes.

Further Reading
– Papers Past website
– The Gardens of Canterbury, Thelma Strongman
– Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania, Sarah Whittingham

Japanese Internment, Garden-Making and Environment

Through use of archival evidence, material culture and images, James Beattie examines the role of environment in providing comfort and enabling cross-cultural communication between Japanese internees, prison guards and the New Zealand public. Research on New Zealand’s Featherston POW Camp—which housed around 800 Japanese—is dominated by an incident in which 48 internees and 1 prison guard were killed. Examining the use of garden-making by Japanese as well as exchanges of plants and artistic depictions of the natural world between internees and the general public complicates the dominant image of poor race relations in the camp life. The work also details the environmental authorship undertaken by Japanese workers in the area, through raising vegetables on market gardens (for New Zealand’s war effort), general farm work and the construction of walls (many still there).

Plant Collections of the Pharaohs: digging into the origins of botanical gardens

by Annette Giesecke – Centre for Science in Society, Victoria University of Wellington

Trees were taken up in God’s Land, and set in the ground in
Egypt … for the king of the gods. They were brought bearing
incense therein for (giving of themselves) ointment for the
divine limbs, which I owe to the Lord of the Gods … he commanded
me to establish a Punt in his house, to plant the trees of God’s
Land beside his temple, in his garden.

(Inscription, Temple of Hatshepsut, Deir-el-Bahri, Egypt)

The gardens of ancient Egypt, together with those of Mesopotamia, stand at the fore of garden history as preserved by the archaeological and written record. However, it is Egypt that has provided the earliest known example of an expedition launched to collect non-native plant species for transplantation at a specific site on foreign soils. This notable and bold expedition was undertaken at the behest of Hatshepsut (reigned ca. 1479–1458 BCE), one of Egypt’s only two known female pharaohs. The plants she sought were myrrh (Commiphora) and, quite possibly, frankincense (Boswellia), which were to be planted in the grounds of her magnificent temple at Deir el-Bahri.

Botanical gardens have changed in character and purpose over time, and they continue to do so, but plant-collection has remained at their core. The botanical gardens of the Italian Renaissance were physic gardens geared towards scientific inquiry, while those of the modern era are gardens “in which plants are cultivated for scientific research, conservation, and display to the public” for purposes of education, recreation, and/or entertainment (OED, botanical garden). Post-classical botanical gardens looked back to the plant-collections of the Roman empire and ancient Greece, especially that of Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus (ca. 371–ca. 287 BCE), but these classical gardens had their roots firmly in the very much older gardens of Egypt and the Ancient Near East. It is thus with Egypt that the story of botanical gardens begins.

Figure 1. “Funeral Ritual in a Garden, Tomb of Minnakht,” 20th-century facsimile of an original tomb painting. Dynasty 18, reign of Thutmose III. Original ca. 1479–1425 BCE from Upper Egypt, Thebes. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1930. Accession Number: 30.4.56

The ornamental gardens of ancient Egypt, as opposed to strictly agricultural enterprises, shared a recurrent set of features. In terms of design, their plan tended to be axial, and plantings symmetrical. There was a unity or dialogue between the garden and the structure—whether temple, tomb, palace, or house—to which it belonged, and a water feature, rectangular or t-shaped, was inevitably included. As for the plants commonly appearing in Egyptian gardens, these included waterlilies (Nymphaea lotus and N. caerulea), papyrus (Cyperus papyrus), date palms (Phoenix dactylifera), sycamore-fig trees (Ficus sycomorus), and tamarisks (Tamarix articulata). Both the plants and design elements of these gardens were filled with symbolism, being sacred to various deities and/or associated with stories about them. The sycamore-fig was sacred to the Sky Goddess, variously identified as Nut, Hathor, and Isis. Tamarisks served as favorite resting places for the bird(-shaped) soul of the god Osiris, lord of the afterlife and also the god of vegetation. Papyrus, the symbol of Upper and Lower Egypt, was the plant in which the goddess Isis hid her infant son Horus when she set out to find the scattered limbs of her husband Osiris, murdered and, in a grim power-play, torn asunder by his brother Seth. Date palms were sacred especially to the Sun God, Amun Re, but were also sacred to the Moon God, Thoth, and, due to this plant’s distinction as a producer of abundant fruit, had ancient and deep links with fertility. The lotus was associated with rebirth and life, for it was from this plant that the Sun God first rose skyward. The pools in which lotus and other water-plants grew were replicas in miniature of the chaotic, primeval Waters of Nun from which the first landmass, a great mound, emerged at the commencement of Creation. Pools and plants, symmetrically arranged, are represented in the gardens of the dead painted on the inner walls of many Egyptian tombs (Figure 1). They also feature in small “model” houses, complete with gardens, created as grave offerings and, like the painted gardens, avatars of the gardens to be enjoyed by the deceased in a paradisiacal afterlife (Figure 2). As will be shown, they feature in Hatshepsut’s “botanical garden” as well, though necessarily, and by design, on a grander scale.

Figure 2. “Model of a Porch and Garden.” Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 12, reign of Amenemhat I, ca. 1981–1975 BCE. From Upper Egypt, Thebes, Southern Asasif, Tomb of Meketre. Wood, paint, and copper. Dimensions: L. 84.4 cm; W. 42.5 cm; H. 39.5 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund and Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1920. Accession Number: 20.3.13. In the centre of the garden is a pond surrounded by sycamore fig trees bearing red fruit. Facing the garden is the porch of a house. The rear row of columns supporting the porch roof have capitals in the form of papyrus stalks bound together, while the capitals of the front columns take the shape of lotus bundles.

Hatshepsut had been chief consort of her half-brother the pharaoh Thutmose (also known as Tuthmosis) II and, upon the pharaoh’s early death, she found herself in a challenging position politically. Thutmose III, her half-brother’s successor and son by a lesser queen, was under age, and Hatshepsut first became regent on his behalf. However, she would soon succeed in establishing herself not merely as regent but, near-unprecedentedly, as pharaoh, to this end assuming male attributes in her portraits (Figure 3). Legitimation of her status was key, but a successful military venture under her leadership was unfeasible. A significant venture of another sort, on the other hand, was in her grasp. As inscriptions attest, it was at the behest of the Amun Re, the Sun God himself, that Hatshepsut launched an expedition to God’s Land (his land), the legendary land of Punt, which is believed to lie in northeastern Africa, somewhere in the area of modern Eritrea, Ethiopia, and southern Sudan. Her stated goal was to secure the god’s sacred, fragrance-yielding resinous trees, convey them to Egypt, and plant them in a replica of their homeland. What she achieved strategically was economic control of this region and its most precious commodities, myrrh and frankincense. Further, like other regents in the Ancient Near East before and after her, she was now in a position to present herself as a “gardener king,” an effective means by which in a lasting way to project her godlike, pharaonic status. In the arid Egyptian landscape, lush, water-filled gardens, especially those containing exotic plants, would have been ample evidence of divine favor and an innate ability to nourish the kingdom’s people.

Figure 3. “Hatshepsut in a Devotional Attitude.” New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, ca. 1479–1458 BCE. From Upper Egypt, Thebes, Deir el-Bahri. The Metropolitan Museum, Rogers Fund, 1928. Accession Number: 28.3.18. Hatshepsut is represented here as an idealised male. This granite statue was one of a pair that stood on either side of a doorway on the upper terrace of Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri.

Hatshepsut’s replicated Punt took the form of a temple complex rising in a series of terraces up along the face of the desert cliffs of Deir el-Bahri, which lie on the western side of the Nile opposite Luxor (Figure 4). Perhaps the design of Senemut, royal Overseer of Works, the temple was at once architecturally in harmony with the landscape and, in terms of its gardens, in striking contrast to it. The lushly-planted forecourt contained two t-shaped pools that contained live papyrus and that flanked the great ramp by which visitors to the temple made their ascent. These pools were enclosed by a formation of circular planting pits that contained what is thought to have been a grove of trees—among them, one imagines, the sacred trees from Punt (Figure 5).

Figure 4. Mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut (foreground, reigned ca. 1475–1458 BCE ), and that of Menuhotep II (reigned ca. 2055–2004 BCE), Deir el-Bahri, Egypt. De Agostini Picture Library, G. Sioen, The Bridgeman Art Library.

Figure 5. Reconstruction of the mortuary temple and garden of Hatshepsut, Deir el-Bahri, Egypt. Color lithograph, Italian. Private Collection, De Agostini Picture Library, The Bridgeman Art Library. The archaeologically-attested t-shaped pools are shown as planters in this construction. Pools are shown on an upper terrace.

It can be no coincidence that Thutmose III (reigned as pharaoh ca. 1458– ca. 1425), who ultimately succeeded Hatshepsut upon her death, had a penchant for plant-collecting too. In this case, it was not just one or two foreign species in which he showed an interest but, instead, a vast assemblage. The plants in question appear on the so-called “botanic garden reliefs” adorning the Sun Rooms in the Festival Temple of Karnak built by the pharaoh (Figure 6). The Sun Rooms that house the Karnak reliefs are tucked away in a special offering area to the rear of the sanctuary, which itself was a memorial to Amun Re, the Sun God and Thutmose’s symbolic “father.” No earlier Egyptian painting or relief approximates the extent and diversity of plant species represented here: some fifty different plant species together with at least twenty-five species of birds and several cattle, goats, and gazelles appear. Interestingly, the botanic specimens include plants that are familiar from the garden paintings of Roman Pompeii, preserved by the 79 CE eruption of Vesuvius—iris, myrtle, oak, and bay laurel, for example. The Sun Room’s reliefs, which may well have been accompanied by living specimens planted in adjoining beds, are all identified by inscriptions as having been brought to Egypt by Thutmose on his return from military campaigns in what are now Palestine and Syria: “Plants which His Majesty found in the Land of Retenu. All plants that grow, all flowers that are in God’s land.” These plants, like Hatshepsut’s myrrh, are offerings to Amun Re, and the botanic garden itself is a reflection of empire, conquered lands and control of their wondrous resources. Presumably Thutmose’s living, transplanted booty would have thrived, bathed in the nourishing light of Amun’s Sun. The plants depicted in stone, meanwhile, have endured to this day, offering an invaluable insight into the nature and extent of plant-collecting in antiquity.

Figure 6. Botanical Garden-Relief of Thutmose III. Festival Hall of Thutmose III, in the Precinct of Amun-Re, Karnak, Egypt. Ca. 1450 BCE. Photo by Solbaken, Wikimedia Commons.


Beaux, Nathalie. Le cabinet de curiosités de Thoutmosis III : plantes et animaux du “Jardin botanique” de Karnak (Leuven: Dép. Oriëntalistiek, Uitgeverij Peeters, 1990).

Carroll, Maureen. Earthly Paradises: Ancient Gardens in History and Archaeology (London, The British Museum Press, 1990).

Creasman, Pearce Paul. “Hatshepsut and the Politics of Punt,” The African Archaeological Review, 2014, Vol. 31 (3), pp. 395-405.

Giesecke, Annette (ed. and contrib.). A Cultural History of Plants in Antiquity (London, Bloomsbury, 2022).

Giesecke, Annette. “The Good Gardener and Ideal Gardens of State,” in The Good Gardener? Nature, Humanity, and the Garden (London, Artifice Books on Architecture, 2015), pp. 78-95.

Giesecke, Annette. The Mythology of Plants: Botanical Lore from Ancient Greece and Rome (Los Angeles, The Getty Museum Press, 2014).

Hepper, F. Nigel. Pharaoh’s Flowers: The Botanical Treasures of Tutankhamun (London, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 1009).

Janick, Jules. “Plant Exploration: From Queen Hatshepsut to Sir Joseph Banks,” HortScience, 2007, Vol. 42(2), pp. 191-196.

Spencer, Roger and Rob Cross. “The Origins of Botanic Gardens and Their Relation to Plant Science, with special reference to horticultural botany and cultivated plant taxonomy,” Muellaria, 2017, Vol. 35, pp. 43-93.

Roehrig, Catharine (ed.). Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh (New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Press, 2005).

Wilkinson, Alix. The Garden in Ancient Egypt (London, Rubicon Press, 1990).

Wilkinson, Alix. “Symbolism and Design in Ancient Egyptian Gardens,” Garden History, 1994 Vol. 22(1), pp. 1-17.

Book Review: Dumbarton Oaks anthology of Chinese garden literature

Dumbarton Oaks anthology of Chinese garden literature, Duncan M. Campbell and Alison Hardie (editors and translators), Dumbarton Oaks texts in garden and landscape studies/Harvard University Press, Washington, D.C., 2020


The Dumbarton Oaks Anthology of Chinese Garden Literature is a monumental work of collective scholarship that is of incredible importance to the study of premodern gardens and landscape in China. As the editors note in their introduction, although the literature on gardens is enormous in Classical Chinese, there has been very little, and largely scattered attention to it in either translation or modern scholarship more generally. As a result, Chinese garden history remains relatively illegible to all but specialists, and even then, the complexity of the original language means that only truly dedicated readers can master the vocabulary and references needed to understand the texts. The Dumbarton Oaks Anthology addresses this great lacuna by presenting a very substantial body of premodern texts in well-annotated translation, while the editors’ insightful introductions effectively contextualize the groupings for specialist and general readers alike. Together, this carefully curated selection offers a representative sample of garden writing in China, ranging across periods and geographies, as well as addressing both its breadth and, through the case study of Canglang Pavilion, depth. By combining previously published translations, including many from the greatest lights of early Chinese studies in the West, with new, unpublished texts, the editors also offer perspective on the evolving field of Chinese literary translation. The volume is an enormous boon to scholars of premodern Chinese art, history, literature, and culture, not only for their own research, but also for teaching, for which the study of gardens has heretofore been confined to a few isolated textual exemplars. The Dumbarton Oaks Anthology also makes a much broader contribution, however, one with both practical and symbolic valences: by introducing the Chinese literary tradition to a field—garden history—that has been overwhelmingly Eurocentric in its orientation and interests, this volume expands our canon through rigorous scholarship deeply rooted in local expertise. The Dumbarton Oaks Anthology is destined to become a classic source in the field, and the editors and Dumbarton Oaks itself are to be commended for their dedication to this enormous and extraordinary effort.

Dr Stephen Whiteman

Senior Lecturer in the Art and Architecture of China

The Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London

The Giant Pumpkin of Zaccheus Wells; A Legend that Lived in Memories for 50 years

by Ian Duggan

What is a pumpkin? The question is a little more difficult than you might think, being based in part on geography. In the USA, a pumpkin is specifically a cultivar of ‘winter squash’ (Cucurbita sp.) that is round, with a smooth, slightly ribbed skin, which is most often deep yellow to orange in colour. Referred to as jack-o’-lantern and pie pumpkins, these are a cultivar of the species Cucurbita pepo. In New Zealand, however, we take a more liberal approach to our naming, using the moniker ‘pumpkins’ for any of the rounded varieties of winter squash (though typically varieties of Cucurbita maxima). Nevertheless, what the Americans – and we – refer to as ‘Giant Pumpkins’ all belong to this latter species – C. maxima.

Not Wells’ pumpkin: A 190 lb pumpkin, 7 ft. in circumference, grown by Mr Thomson, Gisborne. New Zealand Mail, 29 May 1907.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, the culture of growing giant pumpkins emerged out of North America. Unusually large pumpkin cultivars having been sold there since at least 1834, when the ‘Mammoth’ variety was first offered. Increasingly large pumpkins have been produced by selective growing, mostly by ordinary growers. The current world record for the heaviest ever pumpkin is 2624.6 pounds (or 1190.5 kg), grown by Mathias Willemijns of Belgium. This is a way ahead of New Zealand’s largest effort to date, that grown by Morrinsville’s Tim Harris, which was weighed in at Hamilton Gardens on the 28th of March 2021, totalling 844.5 kg. Records for the World’s heaviest pumpkins since 1900, and those of New Zealand pumpkins since 2011, can be found on the fascinating ‘Giant Pumpkins New Zealand’ website.

But who were the pioneers of heavy pumpkins in New Zealand? I looked at records printed in New Zealand newspapers primarily from the 1800s, a period of time when reports of giant pumpkins were common. Despite growing relative shrimps by todays standards, one grower – Zaccheus Wells – got a lot of press based on his monsters of the time.  I focus here primarily on the fruits of his efforts.

Perhaps the earliest report of a noteworthy pumpkin in New Zealand was in 1865, and thus by default takes the first record for heaviest pumpkin in New Zealand. This was “a choice pumpkin, weighing 122 lbs. [= 55.3 kg], belonging to Colonel Greer, C.B., who has grown it in his garden.” The pumpkin was “sent to Mr. Edward King… to be exhibited by him for the benefit of the Auckland public”. This pumpkin was used as an advertisement for the benefits of Tauranga; “This pumpkin speaks volumes of the capabilities and advantages which Tauranga possesses in having a mild climate and a rich, open, fertile country, not to be equalled in the Southern Hemisphere”.[i] Besides his largish pumpkin, Colonel Henry Harpur Greer also found fame as the commander of the 68th Durham Light Infantry, which he led in the Battle of Pukehinahina (Gate Pā), near Tauranga, where the British were resoundingly defeated. Defeat was near for his sizable pumpkin also, with a report appearing two years after his of a “Monster Pumpkin….”, “weighing no less than 185 1/4 lbs. [= 84.0 kg], with a circumference of over six feet”. It too was taken to Auckland, this time from Kaukapakapa.

Zaccheus William Wells of Mangorei, Taranaki, took New Zealand’s giant pumpkins to a new level in 1876. Born in London in 1830, Wells settled in Taranaki where he served in the militia and laboured both on the roads and in the bush; very religious, he built a chapel on his property in 1869.[ii] Prior to his giant pumpkin, he had already exhibited his vegetable growing prowess. For example, in the second ever Taranaki Agricultural Show, held in March 1870, Wells won various prizes for his apples, dried hops, and an “enormous cucumber measuring nearly two feet”, while his mangold wurtzel and collection of jams were also highly commended.[iii],[iv] Wells’ fame really began to bloom on 6 May 1876, however, when Auckland newspaper Daily Southern Cross reported the following:

“Recently a settler brought into New Plymouth a dray load of pumpkins, the largest of which weighed 213lb [= 96.6 kg]. It measured 7 feet 9 inches [2.4 m] in the widest part, and was grown by Mr Z. Wells, of Mangorei, province of Taranaki”.[v]

Word rapidly spread around the country. The Colonist, Nelson, on the 9th noted:

New Plymouth is rejoicing over a pumpkin, weighing two hundred and thirteen pounds. The Herald says it took two men to carry it from the dray to the scales; the girth of this mammoth gourd was twenty-seven feet nine inches in the widest part. The soil on Mr Z. Wells’ farm must be very rich to produce such monstrous vegetables. [This vegetable monster, and four smaller ones, formed a good dray load for a team of four bullocks.]”[vi]

On the same day the Waikato Times also reported on what they called “A Whopper”, with some envy: 

“Talk about our Waikato pumpkin growers – they may reckon themselves small potatoes, and very few in a heap after which we learn from a Taranaki contemporary… As to the champion pie melon grower of Hamilton, whose productions were erstwhile chronicled in these columns, a melon-choly smile of despair will ripple over his face when he reads of pumpkins, five of which formed a good dray load for four bullocks… the biggest of the five weighed just 213lbs to its own cheek. It took two men to ‘assist’ it out of the dray into the Courtney’s auction room…”.[vii]

Advertisement for Wells’ pumpkin. Taranaki Herald, 6 May 1876

The Evening Post (Wellington) took up the story, keeping us informed of what happened to the pumpkin from there. They reported on the 20th of May that:

the monster pumpkin grown by Mr. Z. Wells has been cut up. Only a small quantity of seeds were found inside. Mr. W. Courtney is sending one half of the pumpkin to a seedsman in Wellington, and the other half to a seedsman in Auckland. We shall watch anxiously for the arrival of the moiety with which our Wellington hearts are to be gladdened”.[viii]

It arrived in Wellington a few days later, and on the 26th the Evening Post again reported on Wellington’s portion:

Half of the monster Taranaki pumpkin has arrived, and is now on exhibition in the shop window of Mr. C. K. Jeffs, Lambton Quay. The piece received measures 82 inches in circumference at the cut part. It is 31 inches broad and 21 1/2 inches deep, and the flesh averages a thickness of 5 inches”. [ix]

The New Zealand Mail provided more detail the same day:

Part of the Taranaki pumpkin has reached Wellington, Mr C. K. Jeffs having purchased it. It was on view in Mr. Jeff’s window all Thursday afternoon and evening, and attracted very great attention. The total weight was 213 lbs., and the Wellington part weighs 108 lbs., that part which went to Auckland being larger in size but a few pounds lighter. The grower, Mr. Wells, received £10 for the pumpkin”.[x]

And what was the pumpkin’s ultimate fate? The Evening Post reminded its readers on 5 June that the “big pumpkin grown in Taranaki was purchased by Mr. Jeffs, and exhibited in his window”. However, disaster had struck:

A few days ago he [Jeffs] removed to new premises, but obtained permission to leave his pumpkin in the old shop for a couple of days. On Saturday the [new] owner of the old shop went in and saw the vegetable there, and seeing a dustman passing, he called him, and ordered him to take it and throw it into the sea, and the dustman did as he was told. On Saturday night Mr. Jeffs thought he would go and see how his pumpkin was getting on, but to his astonishment it was nowhere to be seen. Then he learned what had become of it, and was very wroth. He says he owes the man who caused it to be removed £10, but he will deduct £5 for the pumpkin. We don’t remember having heard such a row about a pumpkin before”.[xi]

So, the Wellington portion came to an untimely end. But what of Auckland’s half? Well, nothing was seemingly published in the papers about any display of the Auckland half, but its progeny lived on. The Auckland Star took up the story the following year, reporting on 24 May 1877:

This morning we had the pleasure of inspecting an enormous pumpkin, grown by Mr Harding in Mechanics Bay from seed purchased from Mr Brewin. The parent stock was the monster Taranaki pumpkin which weighed 213 pound. It will thus be seen that the climate, and soil of Taranaki is not surpassing that of Auckland, but on the other hand that it only requires a little more energy to produce greater things. The pumpkin weighs 94 pounds [a mere 42.6 kg], and is only nine weeks growth. The circumference is six feet. The monster is on view at Mr Brewin’s shop”.[xii]

That first pumpkin was not the last of Zaccheus Wells’ pumpkin growing exploits, however. The Patea Mail on 16 June 1877 noted he grew an even larger pumpkin the year following his previous famous example, and what was seemingly New Zealand’s first pumpkin to exceed 100 kg in weight:

Mr Z. W. Wells, of Mangarei, Taranaki, who grew the monster pumpkin last year, has again surpassed all other growers. A pumpkin grown by him this season weighs 243 lbs [110.2 kg].” [xiii]

This information was fleshed out in the Waikato Times, on 19 June:

A gentleman informs us… that he had this season grown on one plant two pumpkins from the one seed of the late monster Taranaki pumpkin, to which we alluded last week, and that they weighed together just one pound more, viz, 214 lbs [97.1 kg], and to his mind showing that the plant would probably not bear more, but the pumpkin grown this season by Mr Z W Wells is far in excess of this, weighing by itself 243 lbs”. [xiv]

Strangely, although lighter, it was Wells’ original pumpkin that continued to catch the imagination of the public, and continued to be widely referenced in future reports of large pumpkins. I can only find one mention of a New Zealand pumpkin that weighed more than Wells’ second effort in newspapers all the way through to 1950, and it was again in the 1800s. In April 1883, the Evening Post made mention of a “monster pumpkin weighing 244 lbs [110.7 kg]” – just 1 lb heavier than Wells’ – that “was brought over from Nelson a few days ago. This is said to be the largest vegetable ever seen in Wellington.[xv] For this pumpkin, the grower wasn’t noted, and the 244 lb pumpkin sunk into obscurity, seemingly never mentioned again.  But even as late as 1916, almost 50 years after it was grown – and a year after Wells’ death – it was still Wells’ pumpkin that lived on in people’s memories. Interestingly, new information was being introduced to the story of the pumpkin, including of the seed source and the special food it grew on, though it is difficult to discern at this point what was real, and what was simply the embellishment of a legendary story. A correspondent in the Patea Mail wrote:

With regard to the paragraph which appeared in the “Press” recently anent the large pumpkin on view in Waverley, the Taranaki Herald states that it is a fine pumpkin no doubt but a mere baby compared with one grown by Mr L. Wells [sic] in 1876. This mammoth we knew well. It measured no less than 27ft in in girth round the largest part and weighed 213lbs. It was grown from seed sent out by Messrs Sutton and Sons, of Reading to Mr Wells and was planted near a pigsty where it got the benefit of the whole of the drainage and it happened to be the only pumpkin on the vine”.[xvi]

Not Wells’ pumpkin: “An exhibit of field produce grown at Morrinsville. The Pumpkin in the centre of the photograph weighs 166 lbs”. Press, 1 June 1932.

[i] Tauranga. New Zealander, 23 March 1865, Page 3

[ii] A Matter of Life and Death: Zaccheus William Wells. Taranaki Daily News, 10 January 2015

[iii] The Agricultural Show. Taranaki Herald, 26 March 1870, Page 2

[iv] The Taranaki Agricultural Show, 1870. Taranaki Herald, 30 March 1870, Page 2

[v] Untitled, The Daily Southern Cross, 6 May 1876, Page 5

[vi] Local and General News. Colonist, 9 May 1876, Page 3

[vii] A Whopper, Waikato Times, 9 May 1876, Page 2

[viii] Untitled, Evening Post, 20 May 1876, Page 2

[ix] Evening Post, 26 May 1876, Page 2

[x] Town News., New Zealand Mail, 27 May 1876, Page 15

[xi] Evening Post, 5 June 1876, Page 2

[xii] Auckland Star, 24 May 1877, Page 2

[xiii] Patea Mail, 16 June 1877, Page 2

[xiv] Waikato Times, 19 June 1877, Page 2

[xv] Evening Post, 16 April 1883, Page 2

[xvi] Patea Mail, 31 March 1916, Page 3

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].