A garden through time

The Elms mission house is one of the most important colonial buildings in New Zealand, second only to the Treaty House at Waitangi – but it’s not only the building that tells a story, the garden does too.

Unfortunately, the garden isn’t obviously exciting, although there are good reasons for that. As the late historian and long-time member of The Elms Trust Jinty Rorke would ask, “which garden do you want to see?” – the Browns’ mission station garden of the 19th century, the early 20th century garden of the Maxwell women, or the late 20th century garden of Duff Maxwell. Read more about the historic property.

“And,” Jinty would say, “the trees have kept on growing. Even the garden that the Browns had couldn’t be replicated now because the trees are all a century older.”

The Elms mission house from the seaward side – the replanted elm is on the right and on the left near the house is a cairn marking the spot of the original raupo hut. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The towering English elm Ulmus procera on the seward lawn is a sucker from one of the trees that gave the property its name in 1873. The last of the original elms was felled in 1952, with this tree planted in 1945. The oldest tree on the property is however, the oak at the corner of the north lawn – grown from an acorn brought from England in 1829 by the Reverend Alfred Nesbit Brown (1803-84) and transplanted here in 1838.

The Reverend Brown’s oak dates back to an 1829 acorn. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Dr James Beattie, associate professor at Waikato University’s History Department, and Margie Smith, who completed a directed study of The Elms for a Bachelor of Arts degree under the guidance of Dr Beattie, say mission gardens were important repositories of meaning and sources of identity – and were often used to introduce Maori to European agriculture as a prelude to introducing them to European religion.

The Elms was home to Mr Brown, his first wife Charlotte (1795/6-1855) and second wife Christina. They, and others such as the Christian Mission Society catechist John Flatt, all played a part in establishing the garden from the mid-1830s.

“Along with whaling stations, missionary gardens had some of the earliest and most important introductions of Eurasian species into New Zealand,” Dr Beattie says.

The Araucaria bidwillii, or bunya-bunya pine, was planted about 1865. The tree, native to Australia, has extremely heavy cones (about 10kg) and so when it’s fruiting this part of the garden gets taped off. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The first plants to go in at The Elms from 1836 were fruit trees – the house we see today wasn’t finished until 1847 – and from Mr Brown’s permanent arrival in 1838 he threw himself into gardening, a survival skill as much as a creative one, and quickly created a nursery, with seeds, cuttings and plants seemingly freely exchanged between mission stations and other settlers. Figs, grapes, peaches and roses all made their way around the country via the mission stations (as did grass seed – ryegrass seed, for instance, arrived in Hawke’s Bay in 1834 or 1835 from the Bay of Islands).

Responsible for preserving the produce, whether by bottling or jam-making, the women probably worked in the gardens as well.

There were flowers, planted in a fashionable round bed at the front of the house, as well as exotic trees and shrubs sourced from around the world, and including the many elms that in 1873 saw the property renamed. The Browns also brought with them New Zealand’s first piano.

May 20, 1842: 114 bags of potatoes brought by the Natives from Maungatapu in payment for testaments supplied to them some months since. – Brown’s diary

Believe it or not (and perhaps Mrs Brown didn’t) the family lived in a raupo hut, a common building material for Maori and something like a bulrush, as first a free-standing library was built in 1839 to house Mr Brown’s many books, then a chapel for his converted natives, European helpers and frequent visitors to the mission … and then a timber home for himself and his family. The mission house was finished in 1847.

A diary entry by young Celia Brown, the daughter of Alfred and Charlotte, in 1848 records bulbs, aloes, cabbage roses and sweet peas, while new seeds had arrived from a friend – passion fruit, pomegranate, scarlet acacia, Chinese pink, American daisy, lavender, cockscombs and princess feathers.

“More eloquent than words, the garden remains as a statement of the accumulation of many centuries of history to which the Brown years contributed an important and significant part,” Dr Beattie says.

There have been three or four distinct gardens – that started by Mr Brown in the mid-1830s; that dating from about 1887 when Euphemia Maxwell, sister and heir to Mr Brown’s second wife, and her daughters Alice and Edith were in residence; the native New Zealand theme from about 1919; and that dating from the residency of Duff Maxwell, nephew of Alice and Edith, who lived at The Elms from 1949 to 1992 and who added many of the more unusual plants.

Euphemia inherited the property from her sister on the condition that she live at The Elms and that it would pass to Alice and this was honoured. Read the biography of Alice Heron Maxwell. Alice and Edith sold flowers from the garden to raise money for troops going to World War 1 and, after their mother’s death, Alice began to plant native tree seedlings she had obtained from the East Coast, changing the character of the garden.

The garden’s oldest cabbage trees (Cordyline australis) are multi-trunked and multi-headed. The three trees were photographed in 1927 and said to be ‘young’. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Jinty, who first visited the garden in 1976 when it was “quite different”, tried to bring a sense of order to the garden as per a landscape plan prepared in 2004 by Richard Hart.

“For a long time the council has cared for the grounds and the reality is that it’s faster and easier to mow grass than it is to prune roses or have flower beds,” she said. “But we know from visitor comments that people would like to see more colour.”

The garden’s age, particularly the age and size of some of the trees, makes re-creation a moot point.

“Early photos show a circular shell walk around the front lawn but it would be difficult to reinstate because of the size of the trees,” Jinty said. “And because of the size of the trees, this has now become a shaded garden.

“We can’t go back to Brown’s time because the trees would only have been a metre tall – but the structure we enjoy today is his legacy.”

This sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) was planted by Mr Brown in 1838. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Some garden history:

The original site was staked out in 1834 with the Browns taking up permanent residence in 1838, the same year Brown purchased from Maori 12.5ha, an area that has been greatly reduced by succeeding generations. Today, The Elms sits on a generously sized urban section.

January 27, 1837 Brown recorded in his diary that My lads commenced raising the fencing around my garden.

In 1841 a visitor records … the Church mission-station surrounded with gardens and a planted shrubbery of acacias, ricinus [castor-oil plant] and peaches which was almost the only vegetation in the shape of trees we saw, as for several miles round the station there is no wood.

Mr Brown introduced wheat into the area and taught Maori how to grow it and mill it.

In 1857 a visitor described yellow Cape jasmine reaching the height of a tree, 3.6m-high rose hedges, and a home orchard including apples and peaches.

Hollyhock seed obtained from Buckingham Palace was planted in the 1930s and re-used for many years.

The garden in front of the library was destroyed by fire in the 1950s.

The original gate to the property for visitors arriving by sea. Thanks to reclamation, the harbour is now some distance from The Elms, but still visible. The stump in the foreground was one of the pair of Norfolk Island pines planted at the gate (the tree was removed after being struck by lightning). Norfolk Island pines (Araucaria heterophylla) were favoured by missionaries for the Christian cross, renewed in each year’s new growth. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Most of this article was first published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission.

Our native plants: White rata

Strolling through Pukekura Park in New Plymouth and  there in front of me was a breaking wave of white flowers, foaming all the way up a tree trunk and being much enjoyed by bees. A glorious sight.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

Metrosideros perforata is part of the pohutukawa-rata family, one of 12 species native to New Zealand. It has the typical small leaves of many plants native to the under-storey of Aotearoa and you’ve probably passed it in the bush without necessarily realising what it was as the vines make a distinctive ‘mosaic’ pattern as they ascend tree trunks. Read about Metrosideros and some of the family members at the informative O2 Landscape website.

White rata (akatea) can be found throughout the North Island in the west of the South Island and as far south as Banks Peninsula in the east. It can apparently form a small shrub if it’s not allowed to climb and my copy of Gardening with New Zealand Plants, Shrubs & Trees (Fisher et al, 1988) even recommends it as an alternative to box hedging! In fact, botanist Allan Cunningham (1791-1839) at one point named this plant Metrosideros buxifolia after noting its similarity to the common Buxus. The O2 Landscape website includes a photo of Metrosideros perforata growing in a shrub-like manner and suggesting that, indeed, it might be a useful hedging plant for anything from 40cm high to 1.5m. The Native Plant Centre in Albany, north Auckland, lists white rata for sale, as does Oratia Native Plant Nursery in west Auckland. Both appear to deliver around the country.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

Quoting Elsdon Best from The Pa Māori (1927), the website author says: “Metrosideros perforata had a valuable practical purpose for Māori, as it was one of the primary species used for lashing (of weapons as well as palisades). The thin young stems were tied in a green state, when they were still pliable, and subsequently dried to become very hard and rigid”.

Figs & honey


Our first summer figs. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Vege Grower came in the other night with an armful of figs. Yum. Believe it or not, this is our first-ever crop of summer figs – the forming figlets usually get blown off in the spring gales but with the winds about 3 weeks late the figlets were that bit bigger and able to hold on. We’ve still a lost a few in the interim, but reckon an armful is pretty good for a tree on a town section grown in a half wine barrel.

And it looks like we’ll have an autumn crop as well (that’s the one we usually get to enjoy). Technically, the autumn crop is the crop, the earlier one is known as a breba crop [from a northern hemisphere source]: A breba (breva in Spanish) is a fig that develops in the spring on the previous year’s shoot growth. In contrast, the main fig crop develops on the current year’s shoot growth and ripens in late summer or fall.

Our tree is a Mrs Williams, but there are plenty of fig varieties available in New Zealand, start your search at incredible edibles.

And with another 9kg of honey harvested yesterday, guess what we’re having for dinner?

Taranaki Orchid Show

Slipped off to New Plymouth for a long weekend with the excuse that it was about time I visited the Taranaki Orchid Society Summer Show. I talked myself out of the stress of trying to transport a flowering orchid in the heat of summer – I haven’t moved a flowering orchid any distance to a show before – and instead brought back photos, 4 small plants and some supplies!

Champion of the show was Dendrobium Gerald McCraith grown by Jenny Walsh. The hybrid was registered in 1995 and is named for the co-founder of the Australian Orchid Foundation. Read more about the plant here.

Dendrobium Gerald McCraith grown by Jenny Walsh of the Taranaki Orchid Society was adjudged the best in show. Photo: Sandra Simpson

About half-a-dozen Tauranga Orchid Society members were there, some showing, and among those with sales tables outside were people from Auckland, Wellington, Napier and Whakatane. Attending a summer show meant I was introduced to a whole lot of plants that I almost never see in flower. Lots of fun with the camera.

Disa Pukekura Park ‘Red Grandeur’ bred by the late George Fuller and named after his beloved Pukekura Park, a well-established city greenspace. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Read more about George Fuller here; he passed away last year. Disa Pukekura Park was first shown in 2011.

One of the champion orchids – Epidendrum Pacific Sparkle x Pacific Senorita – has its vital details recorded. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Another orchid on the champions’ table was Cattleya guttata, grown by Helen McDonald of Tauranga. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Bulbophyllum pecten-veneris has a striking flower. Another from the champions’ table. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Bulbophyllum pecten-veneris is native to part of China, Hong Kong, south Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. It grows in evergreen lowland forests at elevations of 800 to 1200m and is classed as a warm to cool-growing plant.

And I couldn’t resist this one shown below, Encyclia alata makes a pretty picture.

Apparently the flowers of Encyclia alata are lightly fragrant. Photo: Sandra Simpson


Tree of the moment: Grevillea robusta

I’ve been promising myself for years to photograph a Grevillea robusta when the trees are in flower and, finally, in the dying days of 2015 I got round to it!

The flowers look like a shrubby Grevillea. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Native to Australia, the tree’s common name is Silky Oak. Stirling Macoboy says in his handy What Tree is That? book that Grevillea robusta has been “an outstanding success as a street tree, a garden specimen and a source of hard, beautifully grained timber”, adding that it grows all over the tropical and sub-tropical world and has been mass planted for timber in Hawaii.

Kew Garden’s entry for the tree updates the situation in Hawaii, saying that the tree is now considered a serious weed, although is still used as a shade tree in coffee plantations there, as it is in Brazil and India. Grevillea robusta performs the same purpose in tea plantations in China, India and Sri Lanka. Read more here.

It’s even been given ‘weed’ status around Sydney and in the Blue Mountains in its native Australia! You can read more about that here. “It is so easy to grow from seed,” Macoboy says, “you wouldn’t think of propagating it any other way.” And therein lies its danger.

It grows to up to 50m as a tree but oddly enough, is grown as an indoor plant in temperate regions.

The tree’s flowers are attractive to nectar-feeding birds. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Grevillea family of plants was named for Charles Francis Greville (1749-1809), Earl of Warwick, Lord of the Admiralty, founder member of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1804 and vice-president of the Royal Society.

Greville, who never married, lived for a long time in London where he indulged his passion for gardening, including having glasshouses in which he grew many rare tropical plants, aided by his friendship with Sir Joseph Banks, and where he coaxed the Vanilla planifolia orchid to flower for the first time under glass, in the winter of 1806-07.

Greville Harbour forms part of D’Urville Island, at the very northern tip of the South Island (New Zealand), and was named to honour his memory  in 1820.

Our native plants: Dawsonia superba

Another gem from my visit to Maungatautari restoration project, a ‘mainland ecological island’, also known as Sanctuary Mountain, was spotting Dawsonia superba, one of the world’s tallest mosses. It also grows in Australia and Papua New Guinea, according to the Nature Guide to the New Zealand Forest by John Dawson and Rob Lucas (Godwit, 2000).

Dawsonia superba. Photo: Sandra Simpson

It can grow up to 50cm tall but its spores are only 6 to 10 micrometres, and are among the smallest of moss spores. They are spread by raindrops falling on the moss.

Seeds of 2016: Pukatea

The Vege Grower and I ended the year with a walk through Waikato’s Maungatautari restoration project, a ‘mainland ecological island’, now also known as Sanctuary Mountain. It is surrounded by the world’s longest predator-proof fence and contains a wonderful array of native birds. However, we were there in the middle of the day so apart from a group of captivating kaka active around their feeding station, we didn’t see or hear many other original birds of Aotearoa, but did sight blackbirds, a thrush, chaffinches and greenfinches…

The area is well endowed with informative signs so a walk along the tracks is educational as well as good for the cardiovascular system!

Pukatea (Laurealia novae-zelandiae) is a wetland tree grows up to 35m with a straight trunk for most of the way. The genus Laurelia has only two species – one in New Zealand and Laurelia sempervirens in Chile.  The genus is somewhat unusual in having both sexes separate on the same tree, and occasionally together on the same flower. Read more here.

The pukatea’s plank buttresses. Photo: Sandra Simpson

It’s notable for its plank buttresses to keep it steady – the only native tree that grows them and if growing in water it also sends up breathing roots.

With the draining of New Zealand’s wetlands (90 per cent of the North Island’s have gone) it’s a tree that’s not necessarily well known. A sign in the forest (taken from this Te Ara entry) reveals that Maori used the bark as a painkiller and that the bark contains pukateine, which has a chemical structure similar to morphine!

However, what intrigued us about it was its seeds  – you’d think that a big tree would have a big seed, but no. At first, I thought I was looking at a downy feather floating into the area known as The Clearing, but then realised it was a pukatea seed … and later we found a whole stalk of them.

What better way to head into 2016 than marvelling at the tenacity and variety of nature!

A stem of pukatea seeds. The ‘vase-like’ fruits split to release the seeds. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The single pukatea seed I saw floating to earth in The Clearing. Photo: Sandra Simpson