1769 Garden, Gisborne

It is appropriate to start this portfolio article with an acknowledgement of the wider project to which the Welcome Shelter and 1769 Garden form the entry point. Waikereru Ecosanctuary was established by Anne and Jeremy Salmond on land near Gisborne to revitalise the mauri of this particular area – which stands adjacent to one of the most intact remnants of riverine forest in close proximity to Gisborne.

Throughout the project, we have been fortunate to learn from (and form friendships with) experts with several valuable perspectives on botany, land management and culture, including Sarosh Mulla (of PAC Studio, who introduced us to the project), Graeme Atkins (a remarkable conservationist who Anne correctly describes as a modern tohunga), Malcolm Rutherford (who guides the development of the garden in an active, intelligent manner) and Ewen Cameron (who compiled botanical records of Banks and Solander’s collections together with Anne). And of course, Anne and Jeremy, who have driven this whole adventure with boundless energy.

What does this land look like to people with no knowledge or expectations of it ? In an age with a seemingly limitless capacity for the spread of information and imagery, this is a question that we find difficult to comprehend.

Yet despite our information-drenched age, it is a question that is as relevant to New Zealanders exploring unfamiliar areas of these remarkably diverse islands as it was to the naturalists who were aboard Cook’s first voyage to Aotearoa in 1769, notably Daniel Solander and Joseph Banks.

In the case of our native flora, familiarity can be a double-edged sword. On the positive side, the role of indigenous vegetation and ecology in defining the character of our landscapes is now emphatically recognised. However, on the flip side, the idea of the ‘native’ has become a somewhat loose notion within landscape architecture, due to broad, ill-defined concepts of what constitutes a ‘native’ – at its least critical, simply any plant from anywhere across Aotearoa.

For the design of the 1769 Garden, we were interested in the idea of ‘native as exotic’ – whether viewed through the lens of early botanists experiencing a novel flora or contemporary New Zealanders exploring parts of our country (or unfamiliar species) for the first time.

One species that exemplifies this is Scandia rosifolia; a highly attractive member of the carrot family (with flowers like Queen Anne’s Lace) that most people would not recognise as a native, and which was collected by Banks and Solander on their first days ashore (one of several ‘curious plants in flower’). As one can see from the image below, this mounding coastal subshrub sits outside of common perceptions of what our flora looks like.

The timing of Banks and Solander’s arrival was remarkable, for in addition to Scandia rosifolia, a range of other species were in full bloom, including kōwhai (Sophora tetraptera and Sophora microphylla) and a cream-flowered native Clematis (C. forsteri). The fact that those first days were associated with a blaze of yellow along the Tairāwhiti coast must have formed a strong, visceral impression, as well as signalling a change in seasons for Māori – who were of course observing these strange people. Accordingly, the first space that visitors to the 1769 Garden see upon arrival (and pass through) is a grove of kōwhai – as the start of one of three routes up to the Welcome Shelter (which Sarosh Mulla designed, in addition to driving its construction).

Another central strand to the garden’s design is the fact that this land was not discovered when the Endeavour arrived (or during Tasman’s earlier, abbreviated visit). Those are simply when Europeans first encountered Aotearoa. Well-organised settlement was already apparent on the land, including large areas of meticulously-maintained horticultural land.

Within his journal, Banks noted large areas of cultivated mounds, many of which were arranged in a quincunx layout (also commented on by Monkhouse). Aside from contributing towards emphasising an accurate impression of the status quo in 1769 – wherein these islands had been long occupied by people who understood them well – the stark geometry of those cultivation patterns act as structures for the cultivation of the kinds of rare native herbs that Banks and Solander collected.

These include 2 species commonly known as matua-kumara (Geranium solanderi and G. retrorsum), which were collected on the first days ashore, as well as an attractive ‘fireweed’ with narrow silver leaves, called pahokoraka (Senecio quadridentatus). Kopata (Pelargonium inodorum) seeds enthusiastically into the gravel surrounding the stone mounds, and the rare native puha (Sonchus kirkii) perpetuates itself here as it does on steep coastal banks (especially where there are seepages). We have Graeme Atkins to thank for many of these herbs, as he generously provided material from his own garden.

The presence of visitors like the korimako (or kopara, as it is known by Ngati Porou) pictured above is testament to the efforts and energy of Anne and Jeremy, ever since they became stewards of this area. The interconnectedness of animals, plants, geology and landform is one aspect of the education programmes that have taken place in the 1769 Garden for years.

Puawananga (Clematis paniculata, shown above left) is a fine example of how education within an immersive space can establish tangible knowledge of natural history, including the role of whakapapa in how Māori have formed knowledge about Aotearoa for centuries. In the case of puawananga, it sits in relation to Rehua (Antares), and serves to indicate (together with puahou, or Pseudopanax arboreus) that the time will soon come for tuna (eels) to run within rivers.

Advocacy is an important part of conservation, for promoting greater awareness of (and affection for) the full diversity of species that have evolved here. Some are well-known but in serious trouble, such as the ngutu-kaka, Clianthus maximus (pictured below left). This spectacular shrub has dwindled to around 100 individuals remaining in the wild, with Tairawhiti its stronghold (where its tenure in the wild is, in large part, due to Graeme Atkins’ efforts).

Others, like Geranium retrorsum (below, right), are almost completely unknown. One of the benefits of looking intensively into the earliest forays of Linnaean taxonomy on our shores is that Banks and Solander were fascinated by everything that they were able to encounter (for their movements were limited)  – including minutiae and species that don’t fit the contemporary canon of native horticulture (and landscape architecture).

Another species that was flowering in early October 1769 was the vibrant, yellow-flowered daisy pictured below, Senecio rufiglandulosus. This is the kind of plant that fires the imagination about what our coastal banks (and other ecosystems) once looked like; especially before mammalian herbivores. The combination of Scandia rosifoliaSenecio rufiglandulosusWahlenbergia spp., Geranium solanderi and Linum monogynum must have looked like gardens in many places.

And this is precisely what we set out to achieve with the 1769 Garden; to awaken curiosity (within visitors and the kids who learn here) and to open up differing ways of imagining how these varied islands once looked – and can develop again with the kind of enthusiastic kaitiakitanga (stewardship) that Anne and Jeremy have fostered at Waikereru.

All photographs of the project described above are kindly provided by Malcolm Rutherford (with the aerial photo taken by Dan Burgin). They may not be reproduced without permission from O2 Landscapes and the photographers.