Ilam Gardens -
The Home Of World Famous Azaleas
Dorothy - 30/10/98
An interview with Peter Cadigan, Superintendent of Grounds, University of
I have walked in the gardens at Ilam homestead since I was child and always
enjoyed their beauty, but the gardens had a new meaning for me after I
walked through them with Peter Cadigan while he talked about the azaleas
and rhododendrons and about the development of the site by the University
Peter Cadigan in the azalea garden
Peter Cadigan, Superintendent of Grounds, University of Canterbury
Peter has given his life to gardening. He began with his childhood garden
carved out of bush in the Buller Gorge on the West Coast of New Zealand.
An after-school job in a Christchurch plant shop sparked an interest in the
propagation of plants and led to an apprenticeship at the Christchurch
Botanic Gardens and the National Diploma of Horticulture. After a period
as Assistant Parks Superintendent for the Hamilton City Council he applied
for a position as horticulturist working for the Commonwealth War Graves
Commission. To his astonishment he was appointed and worked in Italy,
Egypt, France and London.
Then he returned to Christchurch to a new appointment as superintendent of
grounds at the University of Canterbury in 1974. This was a challenging
job as the new campus at Ilam was just being built. I plan to write about
that side of the work in a future issue of NZine, but in this article the
emphasis must be on the development of the gardens at the Ilam homestead as
the gardens are at present at their very best - a riot of colour with
azaleas and rhododendrons in full flower.
Ilam gardens and homestead
The first person to settle at Ilam was J. C. Watts-Russell, a pioneer who
came to Canterbury in 1850, sailing on the George Seymour, one of the first
four ships to bring organised settlement to the area. He received a grant
of 500 acres and named the property Ilam after his Staffordshire home. He
imported a beautiful wooden house, erected it on brick foundations at Ilam
in 1858 and developed a beautiful garden around it. Lady Barker, who has
left a fascinating collection of writings about early life in Canterbury,
went there in 1866 and described the garden. "The Avon winds through the
grounds which are laid out in the English fashion - though with a certain
absence of the stiffness and trimness of English pleasure grounds. There
are thick clumps of plantations which have grown luxuriously."
Watts-Russell's name appeared frequently in reports of horticultural
Ilam purchased by Edgar Stead
Ilam had several owners after the death of Watts-Russell in 1875.
Unfortunately the house was burnt down in 1910. In 1914 Ilam was bought by
Edgar Stead who rebuilt the house. It was said to have a similar
appearance to the original homestead, except that it was built in brick.
The house is now used as the Staff Club for the University of Canterbury,
and is not open to the public.
Homestead built by Edgar Stead at Ilam
Ornithology Stead's first interest
Edgar Stead first began bird watching at his parents' home, Strowan, now
the site of St Andrew's College, and wrote "Life Histories of New Zealand
Birds". He trained as an electrical engineer and worked for a time in
America. When he returned to New Zealand and bought the property at Ilam
he developed extensive aviaries and there he treated native birds which
Azaleas and rhododendrons at Ilam
In 1860 Sir John Cracroft Wilson came to Christchurch from India and
brought seeds of a few varieties of rhododendrons and raised seedlings.
Rhododendrons growing along the drive at Strowan kindled Stead's interest
in these flowers, but there were few varieties available in New Zealand.
He imported some for Ilam each year and from 1918 used cool storage for
The soil at Ilam is a heavy clay which is slightly acid, and is known as
Ilam pug. It is particularly suited to rhododendrons, azaleas, and other
Stead began trying out layering, grafting and raising seedlings to produce
larger and more brilliant flowers. He was a pioneer in using pinus radiata
sawdust as a mulch for the plants.
In 1917 Stead was given seeds of the North American varieties and began
experimenting with hybridising them.
In 1925 he went to England to further his knowledge of rhododendrons and
azaleas and was invited to the homes of some great hybridists - Lionel de
Rothschild, Lord Snow, and Gerald Loder. He was invited to judge at the
Chelsea Flower Show. He was given 520 plants by de Rothschild and Loder
and 490 of them were planted at Ilam. He returned to England in 1930 and
again visited Lionel de Rothschild who had developed the famous Exbury
hybrid azaleas. Stead was allowed to make some crosses of his best named
varieties. After this the seeds were sent to him and he produced the
beautiful azaleas for which Ilam is famous.
Ilam purchased by the University of Canterbury
When Edgar Stead died in 1949 the property was purchased by the Government
as the new site for the University of Canterbury. One of the conditions of
the sale was that the garden be maintained as a whole. For a time the
homestead was occupied by the Rector and his family. The gardens were not
developed further until the University began its move from the city site
and Peter Cadigan and his team of groundstaff began work in 1974.
Types of azaleas
Peter explained that all azaleas belong to the rhododendron family
botanically. They come in two types, deciduous and evergreen. The
deciduous azaleas are larger than the evergreen. They come in a variety of
colours. For some deciduous azaleas two colours have been crossed resulting
in two colours in the flowers. The dark red deciduous azaleas are rare.
Dark red azalea
The evergreen azaleas are small and at Ilam are used as an edging for the
beds of larger deciduous azaleas. The predominant colours for the flowers
of the evergreens at Ilam are purple and pink, but there are also a number
of flame coloured evergreens.
The gardens have not been planned according to a systematic colour design.
The rich variety blends into a riot of colour. (See photo spread at end of article)
The Galaxy range of azaleas
A special project of the staff at Ilam is the development of new hybrid
azaleas - the Galaxy range - which will eventually be offered for sale.
The process consists of reselecting the original azalea seeds, sowing them,
letting them flower, picking the best and taking cuttings. The twelve best
are part of the Galaxy range which have been registered with the Royal
Horticultural Society. (See photo spread at end of article) Three have
been successfully propagated by tissue culture, otherwise known as
micro-propagation. For these three Ilam has obtained plant variety rights
- Ilam Galaxy Virgo - a white azalea, Ilam volcano - the orange red of
lava, and Ilam Sunlight - a golden colour.
Exploring the garden
If you walk from the homestead across the bridge beside the fountain and
the waterwheel, at the top of the path to the right of the redwood is the
trial ground for plants from which the seed is collected.
The seedlings are from the azaleas which Edgar Stead imported from Exbury
near Southampton. The site offers semi-shade and ample water is provided.
In the shade of the gingko tree to the left you can see part of the early
planting of rhododendrons. They have been carefully pruned and retained
for their historical interest and the colour they provide. Walk further
and you will reach the woodland area where daffodils bloom in August and
September and bluebells flower in October.
Trial ground for new azalea plants
If you walk further west along the Ilam Stream beyond the woodland you
reach a small bridge. Cross it and you come into an area of new seedlings.
Cherry trees in full bloom blend beautifully with the lower growing
rhododendrons and provide them with shade. Along the western boundary
alders have been planted to give shade and shelter from the nor'west wind.
Notice in particular the creamy lemon rhododendron, Ilam Canary.
(See photo spread at end of article)Rhododendron Loderi Venus with its faint blush
is some eighty years old. Peter has found that it is a good indicator of
the type of season to come. If it flowers well that is a promise of a good
Near the seat built around the cherry tree is the pink IMS rhododendron,
named after Irene Mary Stead, Edgar Stead's wife.
(See photo spread at end of article) This is one of the Loderi group
which can be recognised by the purple stalks.
Walking back towards the house along the Ilam stream you can see deep in
the shade the red blooms of Rhododendron Kingianum with its gnarled trunk
and branches indicating its age. It is thought to have been planted there
before Edgar Stead took over the garden. This type of rhododendron can be
cut well back and will rejuvenate.
Back from the track you will see Ilam Venus Loderi - cream flowers with a
blush on the bud.
Walking along the track to the south you will come to another large area
where young rhododendrons and azaleas are planted out and a rose garden.
On your right is the large shade house where the new azaleas are raised,
for the Ilam Gardens, for the gardens surrounding the buildings on the
campus, and also for sale. For inquiries about purchasing the plants ring
(03) 348 6548.
Developing the new azaleas
Developing azaleas by the traditional tip cutting method is a slow process.
>From seed to flowering takes five years. A new technique of micro
propagation by tissue culture has been trialled. Microscopic pieces are
taken off a growing tip and grown in a special nourishing solution in a
growth cabinet. This has been done in a commercial biotechnology
laboratory in Auckland. Back at Ilam they have to be weaned off the growth
solution in a sterile environment to get used to soil, form their own roots
and harden up.
The waterwheel and the fountain
Originally the water wheel worked on a site in the Heathcote Valley. It
was taken to Ilam to pump water for domestic supply from an artesian bore
near the water wheel to a water tank on a tower beside the homestead. In
the late fifties when high pressure water was reticulated throughout
Waimairi County use of the water wheel ceased and it fell into
In the mid eighties Peter Cadigan suggested that the water wheel be
renovated. It was done in the mechanical engineering workshops and the
civil engineering workshops under the supervision of Tom Dodd.
Tom suggested that a fountain be installed behind the weir and this was
done in 1988 at the same time as the waterwheel was renovated.
(See photo spread at end of article)
Waterways at Ilam
Two streams join in the Ilam Gardens - the Avon River and the Ilam Stream.
The flow in the Ilam Stream has tended to become very sluggish in dry
seasons. The University of Canterbury obtained a consent under the
Resource Management Act to pump some water from the Avon River to Ilam
Stream in the vicinity of Waimairi Rd to improve the flow in Ilam
These two waterways enhance the beauty of the property at any time but
especially when the rhododendrons and azaleas are flowering on their banks
and reflected in the water.
The gardens are open to the public from 10 a.m. The main entrance is in
Ilam Road. Buses from Cathedral Square stop at the gate. At the time of
writing the bus stop is on route 21.
Click here to view the photo spread.