Researching the histories of old gardens reveals much about the lives of those who tended and enjoyed them
Peter Tijsen pauses in the dappled light of Druid Path in Wellington’s Botanic Garden and looks up into a stand of 20-metre-high pine trees.
Contrasted against a watery blue sky, the uppermost branches resemble a delicate human bronchial system, dividing into smaller and smaller branches, eventually becoming invisible.
Peter is 65 and has spent 48 years walking this hill, yet can still feel moved by the stoic beauty of these old trees, impressed by their ability to hang on to the hillside long enough to become living portals to an earlier century.
To a 17-year-old Peter, these then-90-year-old pines barely rated a second look. Little was known about them when he started his horticultural apprenticeship in 1965.
At best, they were a frame through which to take in the views of Thorndon and Tinakori Road beyond.
More commonly, they were a visual marker that signposted the young man’s comings and goings from the propagation nurseries on Kew Way to the begonia house in Lady Norwood Rose Garden.
In 1989, however, Peter’s perception of the old conifers changed with the publication of a history of the garden by Winsome Shepherd and Walter Cook, The Botanic Garden Wellington: A New Zealand History 1840-1987.
The seminal text traced the origins of the exotic pines back to California and the enterprising nous of a Scottish scientist and colonist named James Hector.
As the government-appointed garden manager, James planted North American pines throughout the 25-hectare garden to test their potential as a commercial crop for the fledgling colony.
In time, many species (Pinus radiata particularly) flourished and were distributed throughout the country, effectively giving birth to New Zealand’s modern-day commercial forestry industry.
“I looked at these pines differently after that book was published. Once I understood their significance and the contribution they’d made, I valued them more,” says Peter, now the garden’s plant records officer.
Auckland garden historian John Adam believes Peter’s revelation highlights the value of collecting and publishing garden histories.
Historic landscapes, says John, are an extraordinary source of information about how people lived, what they ate, their relationships, their politics, how they made money and the things they held dear.
“For example, early records of Auckland’s Albert Park refer to it as the lungs of the city – a space designed to improve health and uplift one’s spirits.
“So we know people believed in the emotionally and physically redemptive quality of communing with nature. We know they prized the Victorian ideal of leisure time. We can also see a political agenda at play in the early days of Albert Park,” he says.
“Records show it was specifically set up by the Crown as a place for all classes to mix and socialise and where the Chartist notion of two gender, race and class equality could be upheld.”
Heritage New Zealand has kick-started a long-term programme of collecting garden histories, beginning with those related to the grounds of the 48 properties it manages.
Central Region Heritage Destinations Manager Amy Hobbs says: “It’s still early days. We made a tentative start back in the 1990s as the budget became available. Since then we’ve researched the histories of about half our gardens.”
Today, historic records include the gardens of Highwic, Kerikeri Mission Station, Alberton, Te Waimate Mission House and Hurworth Cottage.
Typically these bring together information about each garden, drawing on local histories and public records and data revealed through site visits by garden and landscape historians.
In 2004 Wellington Botanic Garden received DNA evidence suggesting that its oldest pines helped to kick-start the country’s commercial forestry industry.
The results came from a laboratory in Rotorua after garden manager David Sole sent scientists there plant material from 10 of the garden’s century- old pines for tissue culture propagation.
“The findings helped corroborate what we had already learned through Shepherd and Cook’s history,” he says.
“But they were able to go a step further by linking specific trees that appear to have a strong genetic relationship with those found in New Zealand’s forestry industry. They also discovered a relationship between one of our radiata pines and another parent tree involved in New Zealand’s commercial breeding programmes. This finding makes our tree a very important one.”
Wellington Botanic Garden has since gone on to propagate successfully more than 100 pines from the plant tissue and scion wood of its historic conifers. The information is then developed into conservation and reserve management plans that are reviewed by the public, iwi and Heritage New Zealand before being published.
Garden advisor Susan Clunie’s 1996 report on the garden of Highwic, for example, draws on old photographs, an archaeological map, contemporary gardening literature, interviews and Heritage New Zealand archives.
It features a detailed key of the garden’s historic plants, noting the plant type, the common name and the period to which each plant belongs.
Some of the oldest native and exotic trees noted on the property date back to the period from 1863 to 1900 and include totara (Podocarpus totara), titoki (Alectryon exceleis), Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla), magnolia (Michelia figo) and radiata pine (Pinus radiata).
According to Highwic manager Cheryl Laurie, Susan’s report (and the conservation plan into which it feeds) provides valuable insights into how generations of the Buckland family lived there for more than 115 years.
“We can see that the garden sustained the entire recreational life of the family. They enjoyed a formal garden, a whimsical garden, a fernery, a rockery, a lookout – even what’s referred to as the lovers’ walk,” she says.
“Lovers’ walk is a lovely private, looped walk designed for turn-of-the-century courting, with views out to Rangitoto Island. It is bordered by camellias and magnolias and was designed to maintain a suitable distance from the main house and the prying eyes of parents.”
The views to Rangitoto are now blocked by buildings and urban expansion but Cheryl believes garden histories undoubtedly enhance the experience of visitors to properties like Highwic.
“Ours has influenced the way we maintain and plant our garden, the practices we use, the events we plan and the interpretive information we publish.
“We find people engage with historic gardens just as they do with our early buildings. We encourage that and we encourage people to see the whole context of the house, the garden and the surrounds.”
People of the gardens
SIR JAMES HECTOR
James was a noted Scottish geologist, naturalist and surgeon who came to New Zealand in 1862, first to Otago and then to Wellington.
In Wellington he led several scientific institutions including the Colonial Botanic Gardens (the precursor of Wellington Botanic Garden), where he trialled a range of plants such as pine, flax, mulberry, sugar beet, olive and hops for commercial use.
He received a knighthood for distinguished services in 1886. His name is referenced in the Hector’s dolphin, the plant genus Hectorella, Lake Hector in Otago and the mining town of Hector on the West Coast.
THE BUCKLAND FAMILY
Alfred Buckland and his family were the original inhabitants of Highwic. Alfred was an auctioneer of stock, produce, wool and later horses and farm machinery. He was also a farmer and one of Auckland’s most substantial land owners.
He and his first wife Eliza left England for New Zealand in 1850, built Highwic and raised seven daughters and three sons (one died in infancy).
After the death of Eliza, Alfred married New Zealand-born Matilda Jane with whom he had another seven daughters and two sons (two died before adulthood).
This story was first published in Heritage New Zealand.