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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

Hamilton Gardens future Medieval Garden

By Peter Sergel, Director of Hamilton Gardens

Many fantasy stories, from The Hobbit to Game of Thrones, are set in a European medieval world of kings, castles and dark magic. But while they usually have medieval social structures and technology, they’re always missing is the dominant thinking of that age: redemption and the forgiveness of sins. That was because heaven and hell were perceived as very real places and hell was even worse than the brutal world in which most people lived short lives. Disease was prevalent, especially the periodic plagues. Winters were harsh and medieval graveyards suggest that many people died from violent assault. Dark forests blanketed a lot of Europe, where wild animals and brigands made travel dangerous. It’s probably that sense of constant menace that appeals to the fantasy writers.

The Medieval Garden at Hamilton Gardens will be based on those found in western Europe, and not the contemporary Byzantine and Islamic gardens. The European gardens generally weren’t as elaborate of those being developed in the flourishing cultures around the Mediterranean because after the collapse of Roman power in the west, Europe became a continent of warring tribes. Things did start to improve around the start of the new millennium and the gardens gradually evolved into the grand estates of the renaissance.

While religious dogma of that age may have restricted progress because innovation was considered a sin, it was the monasteries that played a major role in keeping civilization alive. They were communities practicing the Christian virtues of prayer and study along with hospitality and help for strangers. Those roles are reflected in the two different types of medieval garden being created at Hamilton Gardens. There were other types of Medieval garden, including: cemetery orchards, vineyards, cellarer’s gardens, herbularius or physic garden, a hortus or vegetable garden, castle gardens, obedientiary gardens and hunting parks. However, in terms of the progress of civilization, the ‘Cloister Garth’ and the ‘Apothecary Garden’ were probably the most significant because they represented more significant functions than just producing food or making a castle space pretty.

Cloister Garth

These days when you visit old European monastery and cathedral courts they’re often filled with attractive planting. However, there’s no evidence of a medieval cloister garth alongside a church being planted with anything other than turf and sometimes a symbolic pine or juniper. They usually had a well or water basin for washing and the turf or ‘turves’ were beaten down with broad wooden mallets. The monks processed at regular intervals, day and night, around these courts and studied under the cloisters on most days. They were minimalist gardens for prayer and pious contemplation without any distraction, a little like the Japanese Zen gardens that were designed for Zazen meditation. The simple Cloister Garth at Hamilton Gardens will only be glimpsed through a window. While it’s a significant form of garden in the context of that age, the general idea can be presented with a glimpse and it’s important to have mysterious inaccessible areas in any good garden.

Medieval Garden, under construction, June 2019

Apothecary’s Garden

The other major change was the idea of Christian charity and helping strangers. The monasteries provided a sanctuary for travelers who often arrived ill or injured. In response, monks and nuns developed the skills to heal, becoming the physicians of the Middle Ages and established in a monastery, what eventually evolved into the modern hospital. Some monasteries specialized in the care of the sick, the injured and lepers, particularly the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, founded in AD600. However most large monasteries included an infirmary for the care of the sick, and for monks to convalesce in after their regular blood-letting. Monks were generally bled six times a year to relieve stress and then allowed to rest and recover. Their potions to help the sick were substantially made from an Apothecary’s Garden, which forms the main part of our Medieval Garden.

During the medieval period, medicine and the choice of medicinal plants relied heavily on medical texts from the ancient world, particularly Hippocrates (46—370BCE) and Galen. The medieval medicinal plants that will be grown in our Apothecary’s Garden will give it a subdued, very green character. However, they often grew plants other than pothecary ones, such as aromatic herbs to cover unpleasant smells and narcotic plants that helped with the pain of bloodletting. Some plants of high religious significance were often included, such as the lily and rose, each with their different meanings.  There are plenty of records of the medicinal plants used in Medieval times, and most of them are still available, unchanged.

The most influential thinker of the age was a Syrian called St Augustine, and his influence also included the design of buildings and gardens. His key aesthetic concepts were based on order and symmetry, numbers and proportion, with geometry given a sacred meaning. Surrounding columns, arcades and buttresses were planned to the proportion of the Golden Section. His ideal garden form was a pentagonal fountain, within a round pool, set within a perfectly square garden. Such a garden was usually divided with paths into ‘quadrads’ to represent the four winds and four seasons. That quadrant form was used in gardens throughout Europe and as far as the western provinces of China, Mughal India and North Africa for thousands of years, so it certainly wasn’t unique to medieval gardens. That’s why it’s been used as the symbol for Hamilton Gardens.

The end of the Medieval Age came gradually, not in the sudden burst of the renaissance. But during that succeeding 15th and 16th century renaissance period, there was certainly a wide breadth of achievement. That period is represented at Hamilton Gardens with: the Italian Renaissance Garden, the English Tudor Garden and perhaps most importantly, the proposed Hortus Botanicus Garden. That Dutch renaissance garden also included a medicinal plant collection, but its purpose was very different from the monastic apothecary garden, reflecting a fundamental change in thinking that had occurred since medieval times.

Medieval Garden, under construction, October 2019

The usefulness of gardens as historical archives: Louis XIV and the gardens of Versailles

By Hanneke Stegen, Bachelor of Arts student, The University of Waikato

Earlier this year I undertook a research paper in History at the University of Waikato, supervised by Dr Kate Stevens. Inspired by a trip to the Hamilton Gardens, I focused my essay on debating the usefulness of gardens as historical archives. I directed my research on the gardens of Versailles during the reign of King Louis XIV. Below is an excerpt from my final essay.

Within the gardens of Versailles, there is a veiled message etched into The Fountain of a Slave or L’Encelade.[1] This fountain illustrates the classical myth of a giant in bondage to the earth.[2] Seeking his freedom, he grasps in vain to raise himself from a force greater than his own strength.[3] It was the will of nature and the natural order that destines him to failure.[4] The message is clear; those who nature predestines to rise will—all others are doomed to fail.[5]

The Fountain of a Slave or L’Encelade. Photo by Coyau / Wikimedia Commons.

When Louis XIV came to power, the French monarchy was weak, allowing a powerful nobility to flourish.[6] Under the traditional feudal system, the nobility dominated both France’s military and territory.[7] In this old system, the king relied heavily on the nobility to provide fighting forces.[8] Nobles also controlled the land through a powerful web of connected strongholds, from which they regulated trade and standardised political relations.[9] Thus, when Louis XIV ascended the throne, “the legitimacy of the French monarchy itself was not firm.”[10] Louis XIV had ambitious plans to strengthen the monarchy and increase his power over the aristocracy; he wanted “a powerful monarchy where only a weak one had existed before.”[11] Yet, was Louis XIV, like the giant in the myth, doomed to failure, or did nature and natural order, predestine him to rise above and conquer? The answer may lie within the gardens of Versailles.

Versailles’s gardens were destined, not by nature but by Louis XIV, to become instrumental in the King’s strategic ploy for recognised validation and greater power.[12] In 1677, Louis XIV established a seat of government outside Paris, forming a new court at Versailles.[13] Versailles became the centre of a new network that Louis XIV created to secure his power in the provinces.[14] Consequently, Versailles became magnetic for nobles who now were compelled, by a patron-client alliance, to seek royal favours from the King.[15] Nobles found themselves as bound to the court at Versailles as they were to the King, with their powers further weakened through the growing popularity of ideas about natural virtue [16] Louis XIV cunningly crafted the theory of natural virtue into the gardens, to justify his kingship and control his courtiers.[17] Previously, nobles had inherited their rulership, but France was now experiencing greater social mobility, brought about mainly through the growth in trade, which enabled many wealthy bourgeoisie to buy their way into the aristocracy.[18] Thus, with “nobles no longer a special breed,” commoners began to question the nobles’ authority.[19]

Louis XIV’s response to the upheavals of the time is echoed throughout the gardens of Versailles.[20] The idea of natural virtue maintains that some people are destined to rise above the masses as they possess qualities, such as learning, manners, strength of moral character and sense of place, which make them superior.[21] This philosophy was captured in the gardens’ numerous fountains. As the fountain’s waters rose and fell, so too, would the rightful rulers rise into power, while the illegitimate fall away.[22] Indeed, the chief gardeners of Versailles, Jean-Baptiste La Quintinie and André Le Nôtre, were both considered naturally virtuous men, who rose above the masses by displaying characteristics of taste and modesty that was admired, even by the King.[23] Their success was not attributed to the outcome of their personal effort but rather an “expression of natural endowments.”[24] Like the garden’s Cascades and Bosquet des trois fontaines, whose waters flowed down the step-like structures, carry a subtle message of everyone finding their own level in society, so too, did La Quintinie and Le Nôtre find their naturally ‘rightful’ level and position in the French aristocratic world.[25] This new faction of naturally virtuous, rising bourgeoisie was a useful political tool which Louis XIV exploited.[26] Unlike the nobles who inherited their rights, the King could entrust these naturally virtuous men with power because without him they could not seize control of the government.[27] The influx of new blood to the French court gave Louis XIV the perfect opportunity to take control of his courtiers.[28] Thus, it remained within his interests to continually perpetuate this philosophy.[29] Thus, the philosophy is woven throughout the gardens, in the battlement walls that guard and separate levels, or the distinct terraces regulating the view, communicating the idea of individuals’ permissible vision according to their rank.[30] The gardens naturalised this hierarchy, subsequently, becoming instrumental in preserving and perpetuating the philosophy.[31]

Bassin de Flore; Flora, resting on a flowerbed. Golden lead sculpture by Jean-Baptiste Tuby (1672–1679). Photo by Coyau / Wikimedia Commons.

Yet, what happened to those, who like the descending water down the cascades, fell from both the graces of the king and the aristocratic world. Hidden in Versailles’s Labyrinthe is the Le Paon et al Pie or the Peacock and Magpie fountain.[32] This fountain conveys the fable of a contest between a peacock and a magpie over what was more valuable: beauty or virtue.[33] The magpie, whose name in French also means piety, wins, illustrating the worth of virtue over beauty.[34] Such was the fall of Nicolas Fouquet, the once superintendent of finances, who descended from the heights of the aristocracy after hosting an ostentatious garden banquet for Louis XIV.[35] After a night of fireworks, and ballet in Fouquet’s garden, the proud young King walked away envious and threatened.[36] The consequence was calamitous for Fouquet, as less than three weeks after his garden banquet, on 5th September 1661, he was arrested and imprisoned.[37] Though endowed with a beautiful garden, Fouquet lacked the virtues of modesty to survive the egotism of the King.

The various images of natural hierarchy and natural virtue strewn about the garden, were clear reminders to all aristocracy of the consequences that occurred to those like Fouquet, who rose above their destiny. [38] The consequences are obviously illustrated in the garden’s two fountains, The Owl and the Birds and The Battle of the Animals.[39] Both fountains convey a terrifying message: nature itself excludes unworthy animals.[40] The fountains depict animals who were traitors to their own kind, ugly, or clumsy they are cast out of the sunlight and into darkness; cursed, they became nocturnal creatures.[41] The message within these fountains would have been bone-chilling, especially at Versailles where access to the king was essential to gaining social importance.[42] This example demonstrates how gardens display their creator’s purpose: in this case, Louis XIV’s message of natural virtue and how visitors were intended to receive this message.

Fortunately, there were those whose virtues enabled them to stay in the King’s sunlight. Appointed as Fouquet replacement, Jean-Baptiste Colbert—unlike his predecessor—was blessed with virtues which kept him in the graces of the King.[43] Colbert, an avid collector of books, generously donated part of his book collection to the King for a new royal library.[44]  In contrast to Fouquet, who kept most of “his collections away from general public view,” Colbert became a collector for France. [45] Evidently, the natural hierarchy and order had taken its course: where Fouquet had fallen, Colbert had risen.

Indeed, Versailles’s gardens reflect many realities of the French court. Where a giant had failed, Louis XIV had succeeded, turning a weak monarchy into a powerful one. Once a fragile monarchy, subservient to the nobility, now a powerful King, showered grace and light to whomever he deemed worthy—crushing those who fell from his favour. According to the gardens, natural hierarchy had judged Louis XIV worthy to rise to the very heights of power. Evidently, the gardens are a rich source into philosophies and historical issues of the time. They tell a history of power intermingled with narratives and political concerns of that century.

Parc de Versailles, bosquet de l'Encelade. Vue générale du bassin.
The Fountain of a Slave or L’Encelade, Parc de Versailles. Photo by Coyau / Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Chandra Mukerji, Territorial Ambitions and the Gardens of Versailles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 288.

[2] Mukerji 1997, p. 288.

[3] Mukerji 1997, p. 288.

[4] Mukerji 1997, p. 289.

[5] Mukerji 1997, p. 289.

[6] Tony Bennet and Joyce Patrick, Material Powers: Cultural Studies, History and the Material Turn (London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2010), p. 180.

[7] Bennet and Patrick, p.180

[8] Mukerji 1997, p. 48.

[9] Mukerji 1997, p. 2.

[10] Mukerji 1990, p. 654.

[11] Mukerji 1997, p. 113.

[12] Mukerji 1997, p. 2.

[13] Michel Baridon, A History of the Gardens of Versailles (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), p. 7.

[14] Bennet and Patrick, p. 180

[15] Bennet and Patrick, p. 184.

[16] Bennet and Patrick, p. 183.

[17] Mukerji 1997, p. 19.

[18] Mukerji 1997, p. 18.

[19] Mukerji 1997, p. 279.

[20] Mukerji 1997, p. 279.

[21] Mukerji 1997, p. 281.

[22] Mukerji 1997, p. 288.

[23] Mukerji 1997, p. 281.

[24] Mukerji 1997, p. 281.

[25] Mukerji 1997, p. 281.

[26] Mukerji 1997, p. 281.

[27] Mukerji 1997, p. 281.

[28] Mukerji 1997, p. 281.

[29] Mukerji 1997, p. 281.

[30] Mukerji 1997, p. 286.

[31] Mukerji 1997, p. 286.

[32] Mukerji 1997, p. 285.

[33] Mukerji 1997, p. 285.

[34] Mukerji 1997, p. 285.

[35] Christopher Thacker, The History of Gardens (Sydney: Reed, 1979), p. 147.

[36] Thacker, p. 148.

[37] Thacker, p. 148.

[38] Mukerji 1997, p. 281.

[39] Mukerji 1997, p. 283.

[40] Mukerji 1997, p. 283.

[41] Mukerji 1997, p. 284.

[42] Mukerji 1997, p. 284.

[43] Mukerji 1997, p. 177.

[44] Mukerji 1997, p. 177.

[45] Mukerji 1997, pp. 106, 177.

An early ‘Shakespeare Garden’ at Dunedin Botanic Garden

by Ian Duggan

‘Shakespeare Gardens’ are themed gardens that cultivate plants mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. Particularly common in the United States, Shakespeare Gardens began to be developed there in 1916, with the first representatives in Illinois, Cleveland and Central Park. Dunedin Botanic Garden in New Zealand, however, has a Shakespeare Garden that pre-dates these by several years.

Knot Garden in the Shakespeare Garden, Dunedin Botanic Garden; photo by James Beattie, June 2020

Dunedin’s Shakespeare Garden, in the Dunedin Botanic Garden, was first mooted in October 1913, by the Dunedin Shakespeare Club. The idea originated with Mrs. Christian Colquhoun, “an earnest student of the dramatist”, who, during a trip to England, visited the various gardens associated with Shakespeare, and suggested that a garden should be established on the lines of one at Stratford-on-Avon. It was noted that: “One of the most attractive sights at Shakespeare’s birthplace at Stratford was a garden devoted entirely to flowers mentioned in the poet’s works… Shakespeare was a great lover of flowers, and his plays were full of references to them.”

The Club approached the City Council, who offered £25 towards the cost, and referred them to Mr David Tannock, curator of the Botanical Gardens, who immediately adopted the idea. Tannock studied the works of Shakespeare, finding mention of 114 plants in his works, which were listed in several newspapers:

Aconite, oak, apricot, aspen, bay tree, bilberry, birch, blackberry, blessed thistle, briar, broom, burdock, brown furze, burnet, camomile, carnation, cedar, chestnut, clover, cockle, colocynth, columbine, cowslip, crab, hemlock, hemp, henbane, holy thistle, honeysuckle, ivy, kecksies, knot grass, lady’s smocks, lavender, leek-lilies, lime-tree, locusts, long heath, long purple, love in idleness, mandragora, mandrake, marigold, marjoram, mary-buds, medlar, mint, mistletoe, moss, mulberry, musk-rose, mustard, nettles, nightshade, oak, oakwort, onion, oxlip, pammy, parmacety, peony, petty whin, pignut, plantain, poppy, potato, primrose, mince, rose of May, rosemary, rue, rushes, saffron, crowflower, crown imperial, cuckoo buds, cypress, daffodil, daisy, darnel, dewberry, dogrose, cherry, eglantine, elder, elm, eringoes, fennel, filberts, fleur-de-lis, fumitory, furze, garlic, gilly flowers, harebell, charlock, hazel, hawthorn, hebenon, speargrass, strawberry, sweet flag, sycamore, thistles, vine, violets, warden pear, willow, woodbine, wormwood, wild thyme, and yew. 

By March 1914, the first preparations were being made by Tannock; around half an acre was set aside near Opoho Road, and he procured seeds and plants of all of the above species. The Shakespeare Society took advantage of a visit to Dunedin by the famous English Shakespearian actress, Ellen Terry, who was on a tour through Australia and New Zealand, by inviting her to plant a tree.

In June, two to three hundred people assembled to witness the planting of an already well-grown mulberry tree by Terry, with the assistance of Tannock. Terry also addressed the gathering. Other trees planted on the day were an oak, by Mayor Jon Bradley Shacklock, a silver birch by Mr T.W. Whitson, the President of the Dunedin Shakespeare Club, while Mrs Colquhoun planted an aspen. Not everything on the day went to plan, however, with a rustic bridge collapsing, upon which 15 or 20 people were standing, who fell into the bed of the creek, which was thankfully dry.

It was reported two months later that “excellent progress” had been made on the garden, and in September, that “Ellen Terry’s mulberry is burgeoning”.

Little was reported on the garden in the newspapers again until 1925, when “a fairly large branch was lopped off the historic mulberry”. Looking back, Tannock remembered that Miss Terry had “laughingly remarked” on the day of the planting that “some day she might have a box made out of its wood”. Though it was thought that Terry would have long forgotten the remark, Tannock had kept it in mind ever since. Thus, from the ‘large branch’, Tannock had a box constructed and forward it to Terry in fulfilment of her wish.

Modifications to the Shakespeare Garden were undertaken in 1926, when the “large and handsome fountain that Mr Wolf Harris [a successful Dunedin businessmen] gave to Dunedin [in 1890], which was shifted from the Queen’s Gardens to Logan Park for the Exhibition”, was moved to the lawn of the Shakespeare Garden.

Criticism of the garden came in 1932 from Edith Hodgkinson, in a piece in the Otago Daily Times, who believed that following the newsworthy beginnings of the garden, the enthusiasm of its founders had waned. The author noted that when they had “sought out the garden two or three years after it had been established it contained only some trees and discouraged looking herbs with identifying labels affixed”.

Perhaps in response to this criticism, in 1933 Tannock again made news with a revised aim, to develop the garden to make it a replica of the Shakespeare Garden at Stratford-on-Avon, but with combined elements of other Shakespeare gardens, including the garden of the cottage where Ann Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, lived as a child. The mulberry tree planted by Terry in 1914 was now noted to be “nearly 12 ft high, vigorous, and full of fruit buds”. It was at this time that Tannock proposed to shortly construct a knot garden, of Box (Buxus sempervirens) that, along with the formation of new paths, were put down in 1934; the knot garden is still a feature of the Dunedin Botanic Garden today.

In the Shakespeare Garden, Dunedin Botanic Garden, looking towards the fountain; photo by James Beattie, June 2020

The new Baroque Garden at Hamilton Gardens

By Peter Sergel, Director of Hamilton Gardens


Throughout history, garden design has reflected all sorts of changes in society. A good example of that is the role that the improvement in military cannon made in the emergence of baroque gardens. It does sound an odd connection, particularly since there’s no record of a cannon ball ever landing in one of those gardens.

Artist’s impression of the Baroque Garden, Hamilton Gardens

During the 16th and 17th centuries, cannon technology kept getting better. As the range, size and accuracy improved, it was no longer safe to retreat into a castle or walled city; you just became a sitting duck. Success lay in developing a regional power with the resources to train, equip and organise a more professional mobile army, who could attack or defend. That meant a garden no longer needed to be confined behind high walls near a city, you could spread out a bit. But a more important change was the accumulation of wealth and power, sometimes absolute power and wealth, by a regional aristocracy rather than a local lord.

That caused another problem. In fact, a lot of problems and constant war, as the Protestant Reformation and a powerful aristocracy challenged the power of the Catholic Empire. The Church fought back with the Counter-Reformation. One of their strategies was to improve the Church’s image by commissioning a great deal of inspiring religious art that could reach and influence a wider audience. That form of art became known as baroque art; it was very popular and, ironically, it was adopted and adapted by the Protestant countries.

The same science that had helped the improvement of cannons was also having an impact in other ways. In some regions, particularly northern Europe, the religious dogma of earlier times was giving way to a widespread acceptance of the value of reason, which is why that period in the 17th century is often referred to the ‘Age of Enlightenment’. Gardens also came under the influence of mathematicians and scientists.

It has also been called the ‘Age of Absolutism’, because the nobility controlled everyone on their lands and kings ruled by divine right.

So, a ruler could make their garden as large as they liked, with enormous wealth and a ready supply of cheap labour. Sometimes they even got their army to dig out a large garden canal. Their designers used the latest thinking in optics, surveying, hydraulics and geometry. But above all, the aim was to impress visitors and subjects with their wealth and magnificence. Perhaps more than any other form of garden, baroque gardens were an expression of power.

Baroque Garden, under construction at Hamilton Gardens

Characteristics of Baroque Gardens

Despite baroque art being promoted by the Catholic Church as part of the Counter-Reformation, its influence spread through most European cultures. While there was a wide variety of forms, there were also some common characteristics, most of which we have tried to reflect in the Baroque Garden at Hamilton Gardens.

  • The form was generally simple and clear, usually at a large scale, with large scale, heroic features like steps.
  • Solid as opposed to two-dimensional geometry was based on axiality. These axes effectively welded the garden, house and landscape into a unified, geometric composition.
  • Sometimes these axes extended out into the landscape, with a distant focal point. The garden claimed ownership and power over the wider landscape.
  • They were often formed as though they were carved out of an ordered woodland and crisply defined by high hedges and walls.
  • The science of optics and geometric proportions were important, particularly the ‘Golden Mean’.
  • Common features were avenues, a canal, green walls, a building on the main axis, focal points within and outside the garden, and axially coordinated steps, terraces, and statues.
  • The sky became an element of the garden with large pools reflecting the sky and sometimes avenues leading out to a broad skyline (not possible in our garden).
  • The gardens and statuary were usually dramatic and theatrical. Sculpture was realistic, usually religious with a sense of movement and energy.
Features Specific to the Baroque Garden at Hamilton Gardens

Each of the gardens in the Fantasy Garden Collection is associated to one of the arts and there’s certainly a strong connection between baroque gardens and the theatre. The gardens themselves provided a dramatic setting for extravagant theatrical performances and the garden designers usually also designed stage sets. You can clearly see that influence with the layered frame that was often given to a central view. But above all, a baroque garden provided a theatrical setting for the nobility to promenade and display their extravagant cloths, powdered wigs, high heels, and enormous French farthingales. In their design and their use, they were pure theatre.

Baroque Garden, under construction at Hamilton Gardens

While sculptures are a key element for such a garden, there don’t appear to be baroque style sculptures available for sale, which means commissioning our own. But rather than religious figures, it is proposed to pick up the theatrical theme with four well known figures from Commedia dell’arte. This was the foundation of European theatre and a subject of baroque and rococo art. The figures proposed are of Harlequin, Columbina, Pierrot and Pantalone.

In the mid-18th century, high baroque merged into rococo, with gardens that were smaller, colourful and softer than the raw power of the massive baroque gardens. The curved steps in our garden are more rococo than baroque and the building facade is new-rococo. In some ways it’s a hybrid baroque /rococo garden, as many gardens and buildings were.  That cross over worked particularly well in parts of Venice. The style of our baroque garden isn’t relevant to a specific country, but much of the detail is based on King Ludwig’s Bavarian garden, and the setting within a coniferous woodland will certainly give it a northern European flavour.

There are some elements of our Baroque Garden that are deliberately back to front. There isn’t a grand entrance-way, just a narrow passage to increase the surprise and dramatic impact on entering the Baroque Garden. False perspective was commonly used, either with smaller objects in the distance or apparent parallel lines gradually narrowing. That has been used in this garden, but in reverse to the usual form. From one end the rococo facade seems distant and large, from the other the far riverbank will appear closer.

Advances in cannon technology contributed to the rise of the baroque gardens but in some respects, cannon also contributed to their demise. After the French revolution, a 2nd lieutenant of artillery rose up through the ranks to lead France in the conquest of most of Europe, relying particularly on his superior French cannon. It was probably also inevitable, anyway, that there would be a reaction to the excess and opulence of baroque gardens and that response took a completely different form. It’s represented at Hamilton Gardens by the 18th century ‘Picturesque Garden’ and the proposed ‘English Landscape Garden’.

A Buxton Garden in Wadestown, Wellington

By Janet Waite

Alfred William Buxton was a nurseryman and ‘colonial landscape gardener’; a garden landscaped by Buxton in the early 20th Century was considered a symbol of affluence. Janet Waite lives in a bungalow at 42 Wadestown Road, Wellington, with a garden designed by Buxton. In this blog, Janet shares some history of her house and garden.

20200529_100524 (002)The house is a well-built bungalow, designed by Frederick de Jersey Clere, built in 1916. It has had four owners, most of whom made significant contributions to New Zealand. It is in good condition; I have had architectural help from Philip Porritt to bring it up to reasonably modern standard.

The house is built on the grand scale, with a large master bedroom, a large guest room, a small bedroom for a child and a maid’s bedroom next to the kitchen. It has a formal dining room, sitting room, old-style kitchen with original features, the flour and sugar bins, and laundry. The local Home Guard met upstairs at the house during WW2.

The house was included in a Thorndon Walk brochure produced by the Onslow Historical Society, likely sometime in the 1980s. Judy Siers was involved in its production.

The house sits on two sections and the garden was designed in 1935 by New Zealand landscape designer, Alfred Buxton. The garden design has not been changed since this time and contains a puriri, several large kowhai, cabbage trees, a bush “grotto”, an oak, black beech and weeping elm, a rimu planted to commemorate Mary Fleming’s PhD and a kauri gifted to Sir Charles Fleming when he retired from the Royal Society; The Flemings were previous owners.

The garden is typical of Buxton’s work and retains his design with garden rooms, a rock garden and a retaining wall of rocks to create a flat lower lawn. The garden pool in the grotto was drained, being deemed dangerous for children.

The land was the first section bought in the immediate area, part of the Highland Park Estate Development, subdivided in 1913 from a farm of one hundred and fifty acres, owned by William Barnard Rhodes.

Sarah King, William Barnard Rhodes, and daughter.
The first owner was Mr Morice, Assistant City Engineer. He designed and built the Orongorongo Water Reservoir. An Edinburgh University trained engineer who emigrated to New Zealand, he married late. He had one daughter, Isobel, who lived in Wadestown her entire life and told me many stories; she was my immediate neighbour. Isobel lived alone, never married, studied at London and Durham Universities and returned to new Zealand with a PhD. She worked for the DSIR, publishing primarily on the oils and fats of seeds, and she was proud to be related by marriage to Sir James Hector, The Government Scientist and explorer. I am sure he was an inspiration to her as she pursued her career in science. Her Grandfather was the Rev John Ross who started a school for local farmers’ sons in the Turakina district, which became Turakina Maori Girls’ College.

The second owner was Mr McMorran, Director General of Lands and Survey. He and his family lived in the house from about 1935 – 1948. The house had been let during the Depression for ten years and was in bad condition when they bought it. The McMorrans employed a Jewish emigre architect from Auckland to carry out major restoration work. The F de Jersey Clere footprint remains the same. The house still has many original features, including the maid’s bedroom, bell in the dining room and flour and sugar bins in the kitchen.

Sir Charles Fleming and family were residents from 1948 until 1993. He was a member of the Royal Society, a leader in the “Save the Manapouri Committee” and was the Director of the Geological Survey. His daughters, Robin, Mary and Jean, are writers, broadcasters, scientists and feminists of some note.

I write as the present house owner in the belief that the house and its garden have important historical value to the suburb and city.


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How has Covid-19 affected New Zealand’s gardening practices?

by Zoë Heine

Science in Society student at Victoria University of Wellington

Within an hour of the move to Level 4 being announced I had placed an order for seeds. It was a panic buy; I already had plenty of seeds on hand, it was simply an act to reassure myself amid uncertainty. I wasn’t the only one. The seed company sent a newsletter later that week declaring: “Every day is like the busiest day in spring.” While happy to have the orders, they went on to urge gardeners to be careful about what seeds they were planting: “According to sales over the last two weeks, ANYTHING GOES but realistically…. don’t be tempted to sow heat lovers any time soon.”

This newsletter made me wonder, exactly how would Covid-19 impact on gardening practices in New Zealand? In this blog, I collect together some notes on how Covid-19 has affected New Zealand’s gardening community.

Garden meme
Source: MemeZila

Facebook groups dedicated to garden chat began to fill up with references to lockdown, including satirical memes on how much gardening would get done. First-time gardeners began posting questions about what to grow first. Some long-time gardeners despaired – all the plants had been bought up at the garden centres, and they’d probably just die in the hands of inexperienced gardeners (though I’d hazard plenty of plants die at the hands of experienced gardeners too). However, the majority were gardeners sharing tips and inspiration on every aspect of gardening.

The Facebook group “New Zealand Gardening on a budget” took the opportunity to encourage resilience through vegetable gardening. A post at the start of lock-down suggested starting winter gardens. Experienced gardeners were encouraged to share their knowledge, and newbies encouraged to ask questions.

Winter garden Kyla Roma
CC: Kyla Roma Flickr

While online discussion could continue uninterrupted during lockdown, other gardening practices had to pause. A Wellington Facebook group for swapping plants was quick to put a halt on all trade. An admin post from 25 March reads:

“Sorry if you’re grumpy, but this is non-negotiable. The more strictly we stick to the rules of this lockdown, the sooner it can end. Let’s play our part in keeping our most vulnerable safe and just use what we’ve already got in our gardens – propagate EVERYTHING!”

The page has instead become a space for identifying mysterious plants and tips on what to grow in Wellington in Autumn. As one user commented, instead of plants “we’re sharing/swapping advice and knowledge.” For home gardeners, lock-down has meant a pause on visiting garden centres and reliance on the suppliers still shipping. For many community gardens it meant a complete pause on garden activity. On March 27 Taupō Community Gardens posted the below on their Facebook page:

Thank you all for being so passionate about this wonderful resource. We know that there are many  of us that have found peace and purpose and a special connection with this community space – and this also means that some who pop down casually don’t realise how many others are doing the same…which is why we cannot do other than say please resist the temptation to be there until it is safe for all once more.

Vegetable gardening is often associated with community resilience.  Andrea Gaynor, has written on the role gardens play in both independence – our ability to feed ourselves; and interdependence – our ability to feed our community.   Gardens create community resilience not just as places to grow vegetables, but as restorative spaces for mental and spiritual wellbeing. With working bees off the table, some community gardens remained open as part of wider green spaces; Berhampore Community Garden posted, “You are more than welcome to walk through the orchard and you might even find some ripe Granny Smiths. Enjoy the serenity (once the bloomin’ southerly dies down!)”

Source: Taupō Community Garden (re-used with permission)

I spent the past year researching at community gardens in Wellington, and my own garden took a back seat. After six weeks of enforced home gardening, I am now harvesting fresh rocket and mesclun from the packets I ordered.  Aotearoa is now entering a new stage, one where more contact will be allowed, and community gardens will begin to re-open. My collection of observations in this blog seeks to illustrate the possibility of further research into gardening and Covid-19.

The Mansfield Garden, at Hamilton Gardens

by Gail Pittaway

Hamilton Gardens is a unique public park in the upper North Island city of Hamilton, in which the history of the garden is being recreated, by geographical and historical sections. Rather than a Victorian-based botanical collection or an arboretum, the gardens celebrate the garden as an art form. Under the guidance of Peter Sergel, their visionary director, gardens have been created in consultation with experts from the countries and eras of origin. The Chinese Scholars’ Garden, Japanese Garden of Contemplation, Char Bagh Garden from India, an Italian Renaissance Garden, an English Flower Garden, an American Modernist Garden and Te Parapara (a Māori Garden), form the core of plantings. There are plans for a Baroque garden, a Pasifika garden and a Mediaeval Cloister garden. All have cultural and artistic components of reference with the eras they represent, but most overtly so is ‘The Mansfield Garden’, which is inspired by a New Zealand writer and her short story, The Garden Party, but is in fact a replica of many postcolonial wealthy landowners’ gardens from the era before World War 1.

The Mansfield Garden, Hamilton Gardens

Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) is perhaps New Zealand’s most famous literary export. After a happy childhood and schooling in Wellington, she was sent to a finishing school in London by her banker father, then returned to New Zealand in 1906 at the age of eighteen. But she was back in England within two years, having convinced her father to send her back for further musical training. From 1908 until her death from tuberculosis in 1923, she lived a nomadic life with various partners, infatuations and friendships, which culminated in a lasting relationship with John Middleton Murry, editor, writer and critic, part of a literary circle of Modernist writers (including D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf), which alternately embraced and rejected Mansfield. They lived in London, Cornwall, Switzerland for her health, and France where, when war broke out, she was reunited with her beloved brother, Leslie, before he was killed in Belgium in 1915. Some of her most settled times were spent at the Villa Isola Bella, in Menton, on the French Riviera, a property which today is run by the New Zealand government as a creative residence for New Zealand writers.

Katherine Mansfield

It was in the last few years of her life after her brother’s death that Mansfield began writing stories about her childhood in New Zealand, ostensibly simple and playful narratives that dealt with social issues such as the class system, and psychological issues such as depression, betrayal and loss of innocence. The Garden Party (1921) is one such story, from a collection that was published posthumously. In this story, a wealthy Wellington family plans to throw an extravagant garden party but on the planned day a poorer neighbour is found dead. Laura, the protagonist, goes through the excitement of planning, the shock of discovery and her first encounter with death, and believes the party should be cancelled. Then, at the last minute, she catches sight of herself in her party finery, sporting a glorious new hat and decides the party should after all not be stopped.

In this environment of storytelling through plant and architecture, every plant has been checked for temporal authenticity and any plants mentioned in Mansfield’s works have been included. The garden has the facade of a two-storied wooden villa with pretty verandas and fretwork, a circular driveway for horses, carriages and cars to turn in, which even sports a vintage car, surrounded by an outer ring with luscious borders of perennial flowers and shrubs. Off to one side is the lower lawn tennis court on which a marquee has been erected, sheltering a long trestle table set with jars of cordial, plates of cakes and sandwiches, and fruit. At the other end of the tennis course a piano and other instruments – violin, flute and ’cello – wait to be played for the party. It is to view only and as such, it is a party in waiting, immaculately kept and none of it is real, not even the 15 types of sandwich mentioned in the story. All is sculptured, plastered, thrown or cast. None of the food is edible, nor the instruments playable.

garden party Peter S
Peter Sergel, opening the New Zealand Symposium of Gastronomy and Food History, February 2020

It is a tribute to Mansfield, but also to that era of leisure and pleasure before the wars ruined everything. But the literary association with the writer and story reminds us of how none of this would have been created or maintained without the work of many servants and other low paid workers and in this case as well, dozens of volunteers and supporters, as the Hamilton Gardens still have a policy of free entry for all visitors.

Two site specific events have occurred in recent times in the Mansfield Garden. Every year in February, when summer is at its peak and the gardens are at their best, they form the backdrop for an arts festival. Some performances employ fountains, lakes and even the mighty Waikato River, which swirls by several parts of the gardens. Others adapt shows for the outdoor environment or the particular themes of each garden and, in February 2019, a production of a play about Katherine Mansfield was held in the Mansfield Garden.

Garden Party food
Welcome reception at The New Zealand Symposium of Gastronomy and Food History

The solo play, ‘The Case of Katherine Mansfield’, first appeared in the 1980s when Cathy Downes, who had devised and performed it overseas, toured it throughout New Zealand. With its combination of letters, diaries and short stories written by one of our most colourful and significant writers, the monologue uncovers some of the myths and mysteries about this author, using her own words. The play reveals some of Mansfield’s motives for writing about the homeland she had left, and which keep emerging in her stories, as well as her often cynical view of relationships and social expectations.

What a privilege it was, in February 2019, to see this play in the newly created Mansfield Garden – the perfect backdrop. The audience sat on the circular lawn with a fountain at our backs and relived a long-gone era, but one which produced this first truly modern New Zealand woman writer. That production, directed by Louise Keenan, made delightful use of the on-site vintage car, recordings of Debussy and light jazz, and the appropriateness of the setting and time of day. As the sun faded, so did Mansfield’s health and the last few scenes in gathering darkness were particularly moving and the site memorialised the inspirational writing and life of its namesake.

Then, in February 2020 in the same garden, an event was held that brought the culinary content of The Garden Party story to life. The New Zealand Symposium of Gastronomy and Food History was holding its annual meeting at Hamilton Gardens over the first weekend in February and, in recognition of the many food writers who would be attending and the perfect opportunity to celebrate New Zealand’s great writer, Hamilton Book Month (of which I am a co-director) hosted a welcome reception on the evening before the conference proceedings began. Well in advance of the weekend I researched the story and poured over the delightful monograph, The Katherine Mansfield Cook Book, which has been produced by the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace in Wellington. I also asked local experts about what food was served at the opening of the Mansfield Garden by the hosting stalwarts, The Friends of Hamilton Gardens, who had consulted their own experts in the creation of the sculptured food and drink displayed under the marquee in 2018, while I reread the original story and others by Mansfield for clues. The most detail is in the original story which mentions 15 different sandwich fillings, cream puffs and flagged (labelled) sandwiches, as well as ices and jellies. With my colleague and Co-director of Hamilton Book Month, Catherine Wallace, we planned a menu and sent invitations to local food writers, Book Month supporters and sponsors, an, of course the Symposium delegates — food writers, anthropologists, historians and chefs. After beginning with a budget for 25-30 guests we had to expand our offerings to accommodate the 55 people who accepted. Then came the planning and preparation for the reception catering.

Gardne Party preparations
Garden Party Preparations

With my Australian colleague and friend Professor Donna Brien from Central Queensland University, who was also a delegate to the symposium. I spent a morning making several hundred sandwiches — sadly only 10 fillings, but we faithfully created the egg and olive and lemon curd and cream cheese combinations mentioned in The Garden Party story. I had earlier prepared drinks, jellies, ginger and fruit cakes and purchased frozen cream puffs, and of course lamingtons, also as advised by the consultants. As we were not officially serving alcohol or hot beverages, cool drinks were relatively easy to provide — homemade punch and countless bottles of soda made with home soda streams, into recycled bottles.

On the evening of the garden party a small group of six volunteers set up the tables with embroidered tablecloths and set out seating for the few speeches we would enjoy, shortly before the guests began to arrive. It was all a huge success, but the highlight of it all was to be allowed to step down onto the tennis lawn on which the marquee and plaster food are all display only and not usually for public access. Our key speaker was Dr Peter Sergel who welcomed the delegates and guests and, after several other words of welcome and drinks and treats had been enjoyed, he produced the master key to take us down onto the special lawn, inside the staged set, so that story, food, drink all merged into one garden party.

Hobbiton: New Zealand’s Most Popular Garden?

by Ian Duggan, University of Waikato

hobbiton 5 Despite J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, having never set foot in New Zealand, he is indirectly responsible for what is arguably New Zealand’s most popular garden. ‘Hobbiton’, near Matamata, is one of New Zealand’s biggest tourist destinations. It features the doors to at least 40 hobbit homes, with their distinctive round doorways, each fronted by a small garden. Beyond these, the whole of Hobbiton – featuring a variety of vegetation maintained, displayed and enjoyed – can more broadly be considered a garden in itself.

Tolkien himself appeared to have a love of gardens, gardening and plants. He greatly enjoyed relaxing at Oxford Botanic Gardens, for example, and reportedly had a favourite tree to rest under there – a large black pine (Pinus nigra), dubbed ‘Tolkien’s Tree’; this unfortunately had to be cut down for safety reasons in 2014. In ‘The Hobbit’, ‘Lord of the Rings’, and associated books, he described many plants. Many are common garden plants from the real-world, including chestnuts, daisies, heather, ivy, roses and nasturtium. Many others, however, were his own fictional inventions, under names like Aeglos, Alfirin, Elanor, Lairelossë and Mallos.

hobbiton 2

Hobbiton itself began to be developed as a film set in 1999, in an area of Waikato farmland with its rolling hills being converted into Peter Jackson’s version of ‘The Shire’, home to the hobbits, including the main protagonists of the books, Bilbo Baggins, Frodo Baggins, Sam Gamgee, Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took. Hobbiton, the tourist attraction, opened in 2002, following the release of the first of the Lord of the Rings films. In their initial years, however, all there was for tourists to see were doorless, empty Hobbit holes, twisting pathways and the party tree by the lake. Nevertheless, with the release of ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy, the set was revitalised in 2011, this time in a more permanent form, including a bridge, mill and The Green Dragon pub. The gardens of the hobbits were also redeveloped at this time and have been maintained since.

Plants grown in the garden are primarily those that might be expected in a historic English country scene. In front of each hobbit hole, individual hobbit gardens are designed to reflect the character of its owner; some are kept tidy, and others border on abandoned. Plants across the site include 1.2 km of barberry hedges, apple and pear trees, as well as ‘old-fashioned’ flowers’ such as roses, foxgloves, geraniums, dahlias, pansies, violas and cornflowers. A lot of the vegetation are edibles, such as thornless raspberries, currents, artichokes, grapes, and a variety of vegetables and herbs. Another important utilitarian plant maintained is Nicotiana tabacum, referred to in the books as pipe-weed. While much of the vegetation has been grown on site, some of the trees have been transplanted from orchards and neighbouring properties. Trees and shrubs found on the site include magnolias and flowering cherry, but so too are a few New Zealand natives, including corokias and coprosmas. One of the dominant trees at the site, though, is an oak tree on the hill above ‘Bag End’. This, however, is a fake, constructed of fiberglass with leaves of silk – the original tree from the Lord of the Rings movies have been transplanted there, and by the time the Hobbit was filmed it was dead. As such, an exact replica was produced, replete with 376,000 leaves that have been individually attached by hand.

Hobbiton fake tree

The gardens of course require maintenance year around; the site is usually closed only on Christmas day. This is done by a team of gardeners, said to comprise of a core of five or six, but with numbers fluctuating according to seasons.

These gardens are fantastic for all ages, but especially if you are familiar with the movies. And a highlight is a stop at the end of the tour at the Green Dragon, for a complimentary ale, cider or ginger beer.

Health and Wellbeing in Parks and Nature in 1800s Aotearoa New Zealand

By James Beattie, Victoria University of Wellington

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

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

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

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

Medicine, environment and plants

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

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

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

The health-giving tree

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

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Fig 1. Ferdinand von Mueller (Public Domain)

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

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

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

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

City parks

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting trees and city parks

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

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

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

This work draws from the following article:

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


Referenced Material

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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