Dunedin Botanic Gardens are the oldest in the country and this year are celebrating 150 years of bringing pleasure to visitors.
The gardens were originally where the university is, but after a flood in 1868 washed away part of the gardens they moved to the present 28ha site between the campus and North East Valley. The flood-prone Waters of Leith has since been canalised but during our recent visit, my husband said he could remember it topping its high walls in the 1970s.
I’ve visited the gardens a couple of times in recent years and while they’re not as obviously outstanding as, say, Christchurch Botanic Gardens, which are also 150 this year, they do have a certain charm. I haven’t been in Dunedin during rhododendron season and this is a collection of plants for which the gardens are renowned (the International Rhododendron Conference will be in Dunedin in 2014).
Both my visits have been in summer and both times I’ve been slightly disappointed at the number of weeds in the large and interesting rock garden but have excused it on the basis that it’s holiday season for staff, just like it is for everyone else, and, who knows, it may be policy to let it be a little wild. (Councils have very particular policies about things like how often reserve lawns are mowed, how short the grass is to be and how often weeding is to be carried out.)
This time we entered through a side gate that led into a native plant area and this was well worth seeing, even if all the plants weren’t named.
There were swathes of Brachyglottis greyi Sunshine in flower, huge bushes that really did look like sunshine on an overcast day. Sunshine is one of a set of Brachyglottis hybrids known as the “Dunedin Group”.
Lawrie Metcalf’s book The Cultivation of New Zealand Trees and Shrubs (Raupo, revised 2011) says that in the early part of the 20th century Otago (with Dunedin as the centre) was a prominent area for the cultivation of native plants with the botanic gardens leading the way.
However, crosses weren’t recorded and names weren’t kept and there is a lot of confusion as to what’s what among Brachyglottis. In 1980 a British publication coined the term Dunedin Group to cover the hybrids from crosses of B. greyi, compacta and laxifolia, and possibly monroi.
Summer Gold, Sunshine and Otari Cloud are three of the best known.