Story: New Zealand species overseas

Page 1. Early exports

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First plants overseas

The first New Zealand plants in European gardens came from seeds taken back to Britain in 1771 by the botanists on Lieutenant James Cook’s voyage. In Britain they were successfully grown in the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, the Chelsea Physic Garden, and the gardens of various gentlemen. The showier flowering plants were particularly prized: kōwhai (Sophora tetraptera and S. microphylla), mānuka (Leptospermum scoparium) and flax (Phormium tenax), and also several species that New Zealanders might not think of as garden plants, including poroporo (Solanum laciniatum), horokaka or native ice plant (Disphyma australe), kōkihi or New Zealand spinach (Tetragonium tetragonioides), and even piri-piri or ‘biddy-bid’ (Acaena anserinifolia and A. novae-zelandiae) – a ground cover regarded locally as a nuisance because its small burrs catch on clothing and sheep fleeces.

By 1800, as a result of exchanges between gardeners and sales by nurserymen, these and other New Zealand plants were already growing in gardens right across Europe, from Dublin to Edinburgh, Paris and Moscow.

Darwin’s prediction

Nineteenth-century scientists including Charles Darwin believed that New Zealand species were less vigorous and competitive than European species and predicted that they would not be able to establish in Europe. They argued that there was more evolutionary progress on the large land masses of the northern hemisphere, where there were larger populations of plants and animals, and more competition. But some New Zealand species have managed to establish in the wild in Europe; Darwin’s prediction has not been borne out.

Flax for fibre

New Zealand flax is grown in many countries as a spectacular garden plant, and it has also been grown commercially for fibre production. In the 19th and early 20th centuries British imperial administrators saw it as a possible cash crop for various outposts of the empire. They tried to establish flax industries on islands such as Tristan da Cunha and St Helena in the South Atlantic, and the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. On Tristan da Cunha, where other materials were in short supply, the flax was used for roofing – it bleached in the weather to give the stone cottages a fine blonde thatch. On St Helena, flax was the mainstay of the island’s economy until the 1960s, when flax fibre could no longer compete with the new synthetic fibres.

Zoo animals

Kiwi (Apteryx australis mantelli) were first displayed in the zoo at Regent’s Park in London in 1851, and by 1875 there were tuatara (Sphenodon punctatum) and 17 species of New Zealand birds, including kākāpō (Strigops habroptilus) and a solitary huia (Heteralocha acutirostris, now extinct). There are now protective restrictions on exporting such species from New Zealand, but kiwi and tuatara remain prize exhibits, bred in captivity and exchanged between zoos around the world.

How to cite this page:

Ross Galbreath, 'New Zealand species overseas - Early exports', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 June 2022)

Story by Ross Galbreath, published 24 Sep 2007