Historic garden looks forward

The Elms mission house in Tauranga is one of the most important colonial buildings in New Zealand but it’s not just the house that tells a story – the NZ Gardens Trust last year endorsed the property as a ‘garden of national significance’.

“This is a heritage garden,” volunteer guide Bev Corbett says. “And as such is about unique stories and authenticity. People shouldn’t come expecting a beautifully landscaped garden.”

And come they do, in 2017 almost 13,000, including cruise ship passengers and school groups. Among the highlights of a garden tour – which covers nine eras within the garden –  are heritage roses, king ferns (Ptisana salicina, declining in the wild), mamaku (black tree fern), bunya bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii, planted in about 1868) and Toona ciliata (red cedar, a type of mahogany).

From small acorns: The Elms manager Andrew Gregg (right) and gardener Troy Edgecombe. In the background is the English oak transplanted in 1838. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Thanks to ground custodians Troy Edgecombe and Rosie Burr the site is an organic workplace, with the 176-year-old shell paths weeded by hand and edging being installed to protect tree roots.

But this is also a story of a family, for The Elms was in private ownership from 1873 to 1997 and the connections haven’t ended – Julie Green, who lived with her Maxwell grandparents at The Elms in the 1960s and 1970s, is a volunteer guide and holds a collection of historical images for The Elms Foundation, while her son was married there in 2018.

Sense of history: Julie Green (left), a descendent of the Maxwell family that owned The Elms, and her fellow volunteer guide Bev Corbett. The women have put together a brief, illustrated history of the heritage garden.

The Reverend Alfred Brown, his wife Charlotte, their 7-year-old son and 8-month-old daughter moved from Matamata to Tauranga in 1838 with three other missionaries and their families. The site had been chosen for a Church Missionary Society (CMS) station in 1835 and it’s believed some sort of productive garden was in place.

Although a CMS schooner came irregularly and trading with Maori took place, being able to grow food was vital. Fortunately, it was said of Alfred “if Brown can’t grow it nobody can”.

His diaries and journals record potatoes, kumara, turnips, carrots, peas, beans, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, corn, wheat, gooseberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, red currants, blackberries, grapes, passionfruit, nut trees (including walnuts, chestnuts, almonds and hazelnuts) and an orchard of 200–300 fruit trees (including apples, pears and peaches) on the original 12ha site.

The family lived in a raupo hut for nine years – the library was finished in 1838 but the home wasn’t completed until 1847. “He clearly had priorities,” Bev says, “but I do wonder how Charlotte felt about it.”

The Elms mission house. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Despite a busy life as a missionary, Alfred also planted many ornamental trees. The garden contains three of Tauranga’s six ‘heritage’ trees with the English oak the oldest – believed to have grown from an acorn Alfred brought from England or Sydney and transplanted as a sapling in 1838. At the same time two Norfolk Island pines went in by the entry gates at the top of the bluff, landmarks both for sailors and the natural crosses at the tree tops marking the property as a mission station.

In 1848 Celia records bulbs, aloes, cabbage and damask roses and sweet peas, while newly arrived seeds included passionfruit, pomegranate, scarlet acacia, Chinese pink, American daisy, lavender and cockscombs.

In 1873 Alfred and his second wife Christina (Charlotte died in 1855) purchased the house and 6.8ha from CMS, renaming it The Elms. At Christina’s death in 1887, the house passed to her niece Alice Maxwell on the condition Alice’s sister Edith and their mother live there also. By 1913 just 1ha was left as the women fought to remain solvent.

Native plants: A shell path leads to what was once the main entry on the seaward side of the house. In the foreground (right) are king ferns. Photo: Sandra Simpson

After their mother’s death in 1919, Alice and Edith visited Motu in the Waioeka Gorge and many of the garden’s native plants were collected there. The women also began opening the house and garden, sharing knowledge gleaned from Archdeacon Brown himself. In turn, Alice passed The Elms to her nephew Duff Maxwell (Julie’s grandfather) who established a trust to preserve the property before his death in 1997.

But history isn’t standing still –a new, 800 square metre garden, which reclaims an adjacent lot sold in 1926, is under way and there are plans to add a Soldiers’ Garden next to the coach house.

Royal connections: The garden’s hollyhocks are descended from seed said to have come from a Buckingham Palace gardener in the 1920s, sent to his friend working at The Elms. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“Alice and Edith grew a lot of old-fashioned violets and other picking flowers to sell to raise money for soldiers in World War 1,” Bev says. “And in the winter we still enjoy patches of sweet-scented violets. The history here just wraps around you.”

The Elms is open 10am-4pm daily, Mission St, Tauranga. See www.theelms.org.nz or phone 07 577 9772.

This piece was originally published in NZ Gardener and appears here with permission. Read an earlier post about The Elms here.