Story: Public gardens

Page 2. The oldest public gardens

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Town belts and botanic gardens

The oldest public gardens in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin owe their origins, albeit indirectly, to decisions made in Britain in the late 1830s, when settlements were planned. In the case of the New Zealand Company settlements of Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, surveyors were instructed to set aside broad swathes of land – town belts – for public use at the edges of the young cities. Initially, no provisions were made for public gardens within the town belts, but subsequently each city developed one – Dunedin and Christchurch in 1863 and Wellington in 1868.

Dunedin Botanic Garden

New Zealand’s first botanic garden was located on a small site now occupied by the University of Otago. Established on 30 June 1863, it is 10 days older than the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. It housed a propagation unit that supplied trees for the Otago province. Following a severe flood of the Water of Leith stream in 1868, the garden was relocated to its current position at the northern end of the town belt, and began to be developed as an ornamental garden.

David Tannock's girls

Of the 90,000 women in paid employment in 1910, only one worked in public horticulture. This began to change with the appointment of Joan Hogg as a gardener at Dunedin Botanic Garden in 1924. By 1930 there were eight female horticulturists at the garden, known as 'Tannock's girls', after superintendent David Tannock. Their duties included plant propagation, the arrangement and delivery of flowers for the mayoral office, and work in the rhododendron, azalea and native gardens.

David Tannock – an inspirational gardener trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England – took up the position of Dunedin’s superintendent of reserves in 1903. His vision was to transform the gardens into a living collection of plants of great educational value. Over the next 28 years he established the major features of the garden, created new plant collections, organised seed exchange programmes with overseas institutions, and started planting a large gully in rhododendrons.

There was little development between 1930 and 1945, as council funds dried up in the depression years and there was a shortage of labour during the Second World War. However, the garden was revived and expanded in the second half of the 20th century.

In 2008 the Dunedin Botanic Garden covered 28 hectares, divided into a lower garden of formal design and an upper garden of regenerating bush and planted woodland. In all, it housed 25 large collections of plants, including 4 hectares of rhododendrons, a large winter glasshouse, an aviary of exotic birds and an extensive network of walking paths.

Christchurch Botanic Gardens

The 33-hectare Christchurch Botanic Gardens are alongside the Avon River in Hagley Park, the largest city park in New Zealand. At the time of European settlement in 1850, the area was swamp and sand dunes. Many European trees such as oaks, sycamores, elms and pines were planted to create a landscape of open parkland and formal gardens similar to those of England.

In 2008 the gardens contained New Zealand’s largest and most varied collection of exotic plants, with at least 8,500 different species.

Wellington Botanic Garden

The Wellington Botanic Garden was established in 1869. It covers 25 hectares and has a mix of formal gardens, regenerating bush, remnant native forest and old conifer plantings, and includes a winter house. The impetus for establishing the gardens was mainly utilitarian – to trial exotic trees for forestry and to provide experimental gardens for studying native and introduced plants.

Auckland Domain

Until the Auckland Botanic Gardens opened in South Auckland in 1982, the Auckland Domain served as the city’s major public garden. Set aside as a space for public recreation in 1841 by Governor William Hobson, Auckland Domain is an 80-hectare park on the slopes of an ancient volcano. It has large lawns, fine stands of introduced trees planted between 1841 and 1900, native bush, formal gardens, sports grounds and spring-fed duck ponds. The winter gardens – two large glasshouses and a connecting courtyard – were built in the 1920s. One of the glasshouses contains a fine collection of tropical plants, including a fruiting cocoa tree. The Auckland War Memorial Museum, which opened in 1929, was built on the highest point of the domain.

How to cite this page:

Maggy Wassilieff, 'Public gardens - The oldest public gardens', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 October 2021)

Story by Maggy Wassilieff, published 24 Nov 2008