Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Sturm was born in Germany or Austria, probably in 1810 or 1811, the son of an army officer. His mother's name was Eliza Kuhne. According to family tradition Sturm received his education at court and became an apprentice gardener. In the 1830s he was a member of a botanical expedition to England, South Africa, India, China and Australia. After visiting the Swan River in western Australia, Sturm left the expedition in Sydney in 1838. He came to New Zealand on the Harlequin in 1839, calling at Nelson and Wellington before landing at Ahuriri (Napier) on 2 August.
Sturm soon went to Nukutaurua on the Mahia peninsula, where he lived on and off for some years. About 1840 he formed a liaison with Ani Hinetai, a high-born Maori, who died giving birth to their daughter, Elizabeth, in 1842. From Nukutaurua Sturm 'wandered about', making various journeys 'in search of curiosities'. He collected botanical specimens and planted seeds as he travelled.
In 1839 Sturm travelled with Captain W. B. Rhodes down the Hawke Bay coast. The following year he made the first of several journeys to Wellington on foot. He was back in Nukutaurua when the Treaty of Waitangi was brought to the area in May 1840. He spent some time in the 1840s at Captain J. W. Harris's whaling station in Poverty Bay and in 1845 at Rangitukia he was engaged for six months as a tutor to J. W. Stack.
In the late 1840s or early 1850s Sturm settled at Nuhaka with Henriette Puke Puke (or Tiarere). They had four sons (two of whom died as children) and one daughter. Sturm imported five cows and a bull from Sydney, and leased 1,000 acres. He planted orchards and vineyards, but had no liking for pastoral farming. By 1851 he was acting as an interpreter in the Native Land Court and travelled frequently to Napier. Henriette died in August 1859 and Sturm moved his family to Napier.
Sturm is said to have gone to Australia in an unsuccessful search for gold early in the 1860s, and to the West Coast goldfields on his return to New Zealand. By 1865 he was back in Hawke's Bay and had established himself as a nurseryman. From the 1870s his nursery was at Mangateretere, near Clive. He grew peach and apple trees for the first orchards near Hastings, and predicted a great future for horticulture in Hawke's Bay. He claimed to have grown 86 species of apple in the district. He supplied local needs and dispatched New Zealand plants overseas. The trees he planted at Tomoana showgrounds and in Hastings are a feature of the area today.
Sturm was a member of the Hawke's Bay Hunt Club and kept a number of thoroughbred horses. He was a member of the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Institute from its foundation in 1874 until 1890 and contributed on botanical and historical matters to the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute. William Colenso named after him a species of cabbage-tree, Cordyline sturmeii, which Sturm had discovered and raised in his nursery. Only fragments of Sturm's long and adventurous life are now known, as a fire at Mangateretere destroyed his huge collection of artefacts, letters and papers, including his memoirs. He died at West Clive on 23 May 1896.