Plant People: Springheel Jack

When a place of settlement experiences a period of rapid and prolonged growth – as Tauranga has done since about 1990 – folk memory can be pushed to one side and, worse, lost.

The names of people and exploits from the past mean nothing to newcomers who are busy trying to establish themselves in their new home, and with the passing of the generations the stories vanish.

I had heard mention of Springheel Jack (1902-65), but no more than that and it wasn’t until researching the life of Frank Sydenham that I traced more of the story of Michael Hodgkins, nephew of the artist Frances Hodgkins, who lived much of his life in Tauranga.

People who knew Frank said Hodgkins called around from time to time to read his books but wasn’t allowed in the house because of his smell – I heard from a long-time Tauranga resident last week that Frank called on his mother occasionally but she wouldn’t let him smoke his pipe in the house because of the smell!

“Unwashed, clad in ragged clothes, with unkempt shoulder-length hair, ‘sun-blackened skin’ and piercing blue eyes, [Hodgkins] walked great distances in search of botanical specimens, once going to the top of the Kaimai range to see a flower bud open as the sun rose. He said he did not like treading on plants and that he could hear weeds scream as they were pulled out.”

The quote is from an entry for Springheel Jack in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, which appears on Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. The entry was written by Alister Matheson, who himself had a fascinating life story tied up with a family garden, and historian Jinty Rorke. Hodgkins was, by all accounts, a talented artist himself although seemingly only made pencil drawings and sketches.

“Specimens held by the Auckland Institute and Museum and the DSIR’s Botany Division herbarium in Christchurch show that Hodgkins collaborated closely over a long period with these institutions and with Canterbury Agricultural College. He identified plants for the Department of Agriculture, assisted the police to identify the first Cannabis sativa plants in the Tauranga area and had a good knowledge of New Zealand orchids. As well as writing newspaper articles on botany, he gave radio talks in his ‘mild, patient and cultivated voice’.”

Reading elsewhere, it seems that although Hodgkins was a generous teacher, his outbursts at the children who baited him resulted in him being banned from visiting schools.

Artist John McLean has painted a series called The Springheel Jack, see one of the paintings here.  “… the series is based on an eccentric, ascetic figure from McLean’s Tauranga boyhood … Renowned as a naturalist, he was a distinctive character with long grey hair – in an era of short back and sides – invariably shirtless in an old pinstripe suit, with horny toenails protruding from his sand shoes. He shared his knowledge with interested children and dispensed nature specimens from a sack.”

After his death it was discovered that Hodgkins had several of his aunt’s works in his hut by a salt marsh!

His small headstone, placed by the Tauranga Historical Society in 2009, describes him as “Solitary Gentleman, Botanist and Lover of Nature, Helpful to Young and Old”.

Tree of the moment: Cockscomb

In a front corner of the Botanic Park site in Brookfield, Tauranga is a magnificent cockscomb or cockspur coral tree (Erythrina crista-galli) planted by the late Frank Sydenham who has gifted his 3ha to the city. Oddly, this tree isn’t on Tauranga City Council’s lists of heritage trees or protected trees, or maybe it’s not so strange given that both lists are surprisingly small for a city of 110,000 people!

I noticed the Botanic Park coral tree on the way back from photographing a much smaller tree hanging over a garden fence in the Cherrywood area. Still, the photos will give you the idea (I hope) that a really big tree would look striking.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

As you can possibly see from the flower, coral trees are members of the legume family and are native to the world’s tropical belt – there are many, many varieties.

Stirling Macoboy, in his What Tree is That? book published in 1979, says the wood is brittle “and useless for woodworking”. He also advises that E. crista-galli needs annual pruning back to the main trunk in its younger years, which seems to be what the garden owner has done.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

Macoboy notes that the trees enjoy a climate on “the warm, dry side but seem indifferent to winter cold short of frost”. Tauranga ticks two of those boxes but couldn’t be classed as a dry area.

E. crista-galli, planted as street trees in California, are native to Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and southern Brazil (and is the national flower of the first two).

But not all coral trees are summer flowering – Erythrina speciosa is a winter-flowering tree that blooms on bare branches.

Seen in a Mt Maunganui reserve in September – the tui were enjoying it too. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Read a great article about many different Erythrina trees here.

Carnations wanted

Paul Lander of Hawera has been in touch wanting to know if we still had access to Frank Sydenham’s collection of carnations. He had seen Frank’s plant list on the Sydenham Botanic Park website and wanted to see if we still had Maori Chief available. Alas, Frank’s plants have long gone.

Paul is collecting carnations and dianthus, new and old varieties, although is particularly after old, scented varieties.

“I’ve got quite a number of modern cut flower carnations both standard and spray and probably 20 different varieties of Dianthus, again mostly newer varieties,” he says.

“I’ve got hold of the old carnation Otaki Pink and an old purple variety with red flecks that I don’t know the name of. I’m particularly after old scented and if possible named varieties of carnations. I’m quite happy to either pay or swap plants with anyone.”

For more information email Paul or write to Paul Lander, 228 Meremere Road, RD 12, Hawera 4672.

Read an article here about the history of Dianthus and some of the hybrids we know and love.