The early Māori were gardeners. They brought crops from the Pacific, and learnt to grow a few native ones. Rengarenga lily (Arthropodium cirratum) was grown for its fleshy, edible roots. Karaka (Corynocarpus laevigatus) was planted near coastal routes and settlements. Māori processed its poisonous berries into a nutritious food. In the southern South Island where it was too cold to grow tropical crops from Polynesia, they planted and cultivated tī kōuka (cabbage tree, Cordyline australis), and baked its young stems and roots for food.
New plants to England
The first Europeans to explore New Zealand sent seeds back to Europe. New Zealand plants were being sold in England in 1776, just seven years after James Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand. In 1778 a Surrey nurseryman advertised four forms of mānuka for sale. The tradition of sending plant material to Britain continued throughout the 19th century. The British love of exotic plants was in full swing.
Gold medal garden
The British fascination with New Zealand plants continues. In 2004, a New Zealand landscape team won the gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show, with a garden that showcased 81 varieties of native plant. Of the 1,400 plants in the display, 1,000 were sourced from British nurseries.
Plants for shelter
One of the first tasks for European settlers was to clear their land of native trees and tall tussock and sow introduced grasses for pasture. They had little interest in growing any native plant, although a few settlers kept stands of native trees for shelter or as a garden feature.
The settlers quickly learnt that they needed windbreaks. They began growing a range of shrubs and trees, both native and exotic, for shelter. Of the natives, taupata (Coprosma repens), ngaio (Myoporum laetum), New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax), akiraho (Olearia paniculata) and cabbage tree proved fast-growing and hardy, and were widely planted for low shelter. Trees grown for taller shelter were almost always exotic: usually radiata pine (Pinus radiata), macrocarpa (Cupressus macrocarpa) and Lawson cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana).
Early advocates of native plants
Between 1850 and 1900, public gardens were dominated by exotic plants such as oaks, elms and roses. The first major collection of living native plants was started in the 1870s by John Armstrong, in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. William Hall started a native arboretum (a collection of living trees) at Thames in Coromandel around the same time. The pioneer ecologist Leonard Cockayne championed the use of native plants in gardens and in 1924 wrote a popular guide to growing them. Later he was involved in setting up the Ōtari Open-Air Native Plant Museum at Wilton, Wellington.
Pōhutukawa, the New Zealand Christmas tree (Metrosideros excelsa), is such a feature of Wellington that few people realise it only grows naturally further north. J. G. McKenzie, Wellington City Parks supervisor from 1918–47, had it planted in many parks and suburbs around the city. McKenzie was so strongly associated with the tree that he is remembered as ‘Pōhutukawa Mac’.
Popular native plants in the early 1900s
In spite of Cockayne’s work, natives weren’t widely used in private gardens until the 1970s. The layout of traditional New Zealand home gardens followed the British style, with flower beds, lawns and borders at the front and vegetables at the back. A few popular native plants were grown in the front garden: hebes and kōwhai (Sophora species) for their flowers, cabbage trees for a dramatic touch, and shrubs such as pittosporum, coprosma, New Zealand flax and five-finger (Pseudopanax arboreus) for greenery and shelter.
Growers found plants in the wild or had them delivered. A New Plymouth nursery, Duncan & Davies, was the main supplier of native plants from 1918 until the 1980s.