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

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


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

A Scots settlement planted in southern New Zealand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exchanges of gardening knowledge and appreciation of native nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting the Garden

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10] 16 June 1849, Otago News, Toitū.

[11] Otago News, Toitū.

[12] Shaw, p. 19.

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

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

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

[16] Otago News, 20 July 1850.

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

[18] Shaw.

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

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

[21] Shaw, p. 18.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The History of Garden Gnomes in New Zealand

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

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

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

The garden gnome in history

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

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

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

Advertisement from Auckland Star, 14 November 1931

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

[vii] Evening Post, 16 December 1939.

Garden Star: Supporting Urban Native Biodiversity

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

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

A vegetated garden with multiple layers

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

What role do gardens play in supporting biodiversity?

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

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

Garden Star concept

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

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

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

Garden star – steps to becoming a thing

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

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

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

Masonic Symbolism in the Picturesque Garden, Hamilton Gardens

by Peter Sergel, Director of Hamilton Gardens

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

Map of the Picturesque Garden, Hamilton Gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parapara, the maligned Bird Catcher Tree in New Zealand gardens

by Ian Duggan, The University of Waikato

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

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

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

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

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

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

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]

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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