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Christchurch Botanic Gardens – a major inner-city botanic garden in transition

David Given - 01/07/05

The Christchurch Botanic Gardens attract over a million visitors each year. They are part of the historic precinct in the inner city, just a few minutes walk from the city centre. Some people seek the pleasure that comes from beautiful surroundings and these gardens have a strong 'Four Seasons' appeal. Some come seeking the inner peace that can be felt in plant dominated surroundings in contrast to the pressures of their home or work environment. Others come to advance their botanical and horticultural knowledge, perhaps to see plants that they can grow in their home garden. The library serves an important function as a specialised horticultural and botanical resource. Families come to picnic in a peaceful nook or to enjoy the children's playground. Some people from other countries (both tourists and residents) visit this garden rich in international plants to enjoy plants that remind them of their home country. The information centre and events in the gardens attract a wide range of people. Many English visitors enjoy the Englishness of part of the Gardens and of the adjacent Hagley Park. These are botanic gardens that have so many facets which appeal to a range of ages and cultures.

Why do we have gardens?
Gardens play a pretty fundamental part in human culture. Our lives are intertwined with plants, even indoors. Leaf and flower motifs are common in fabrics and wallpapers, and indoor plants are a high priority for anyone equipping a new office.

Eighteen plant species provide eighty per cent of human nutrition and mean for human beings the difference between starvation and survival. We use plant materials in building, plant and fossilised plant materials for fuel and plants for our pharmaceuticals. There is a very intimate relationship between humans and plants themselves, and most of us surround ourselves with plants in our homes – even if we have only a small apartment.

Green spaces and spaces with plants are very important in inner city areas, particularly in city centres. The site of the Christchurch Botanical Gardens in the centre of the city is one reason why the Christchurch City Council and the people of the city regard them as so important. They are within walking distance of Christchurch Cathedral.


Visitors enjoy the Copper Beech tree with the bedding display beneath
Visitors enjoy the Copper Beech tree with the bedding display beneath
Photo source: Christchurch Botanic Gardens
Click here to view a larger version

The origin of the modern botanic garden
If we look at the origin of the modern botanic garden it has come from a number of strands. One has been the gardens of medieval monasteries which were essentially teaching and pharmaceutical gardens. Then when the universities were founded during the Renaissance they included a teaching garden within the university. In the eighteenth century Linnaeus who first produced the modern classification of animals and plants sent his disciples out all over the world. On the voyages of Captain Cook and others the disciples gathered all sorts of extraordinary plants that people in Europe and North America had never seen and these were incorporated into botanical collections. The nineteenth century also saw the development of acclimatisation gardens where plants from various parts of the world were trialled for economic potential. In the same period came the rise of the gardens of the wealthy with big plant collections, particularly in Britain.

Superimposed on these developments, in the nineteenth century came the evolution of civic gardens, particularly in North America where gardens in the cities were more formal parks like Central Park in New York.

All these strands have led to the modern idea of a botanic garden. It is quite a complex kind of institution which involves plants and colour, and provides a place for enjoyment, relaxation, education and scope for scientific research. In recent decades there has been great emphasis on conservation with botanic gardens conserving plants that were threatened with extinction.

The actual name ‘botanic garden’ is important as it stresses its dual role – not simply a relatively sterile botanical collection, but also a pleasure garden. In the great gardens of the world we see both facets fused together.

New Zealand’s major botanic gardens venerable by world standards
Many New Zealanders do not view our major botanic gardens as old institutions, but they are venerable by world standards. The Christchurch and Dunedin Botanic Gardens go back to 1863, and the Wellington Gardens are only slightly younger. The major botanic gardens in Australia – in Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart – were established in the early part of the nineteenth century.

Christchurch Botanical Gardens in an advantageous site
The Christchurch Botanic Gardens are approaching 150 years old. The founders of Christchurch showed incredible foresight in setting aside land so close to the city centre. Originally they designated for the Gardens a site beside the Barbadoes Street cemetery, north of Cathedral Square, but fortunately the planners decided instead to site them to the west of the Square inside Hagley Park. The result of this is a fascinating juxtaposition of Heritage sites with the Botanic Gardens, the Canterbury Museum, Christ’s College, the Provincial Council Chambers, the Christchurch Cathedral, the Arts Centre and the historic tram being established recently as a Historic Precinct, all within easy walking distance of the city centre.


View of the Avon River from the Armagh St bridge
View of the Avon River from the Armagh St bridge
Photo source: Christchurch Botanic Gardens/font>
Click here to view a larger version

The Gardens attract visitors from all round the world and 1.2 million people pass through the gates each year. Two thirds of all tourists staying in Christchurch visit the Gardens.

Therapeutic value of plants and gardens
Research done in the United States in recent years shows the therapeutic value of plants and plantings. It is certainly advantageous that the Gardens are adjacent to the Christchurch hospital. There is clear evidence that restful plant-dominated surroundings are beneficial for calming people and so for public health.

On a visit to Singapore two years ago I was impressed by the development of rooftop gardens. As part of the promotional campaign one newspaper headline on a full page feature read, “Having row with spouse? Go upstairs.” In other words the garden and its plants will calm you down.

This means that the range of activities offered in the Gardens will probably include plays and dance, and orchestras or bands playing soothing music empathetic to the calming atmosphere of large gardens, but a rock concert is unlikely to feature.

Consultation with the visitors This is a period of major redevelopment for the Gardens, and over the last year four quarterly surveys were done focussing on the use made of the Gardens. Over two and a half thousand people were interviewed and statistics related to visitor numbers and patterns were recorded. This has produced an interesting profile of the people using the Gardens, the reasons for their visits and their expectations. The overall satisfaction rate was well over 95%. Dissatisfaction related mainly to minor criticisms of facilities or services.

Wildlife in the Gardens
During the interviews people discovered some aspects of the Gardens which were new to them. One of the questions was, “Before you came to the Gardens for the first time what were your expectations of New Zealand wildlife, particularly birds?” The general expectation was relatively low, but in answer to a further question many people said that their expectations had been exceeded. This is because a large green area attracts much more wildlife than a suburban garden. Recently there has been quite a change in the birdlife in the Gardens and Hagley Park with more native wood pigeons (kereru), and with the arrival of the water bird, the scaup. After many years when the paradise ducks were not breeding in the ponds at least two pairs have returned in the last two years and have been breeding very successfully.

Planning for Hagley Park and the Gardens
In the new master planning process to be used for the Botanic Gardens Hagley Park will be included and planning for the two areas will be more closely integrated. One question asked during the planning was, “How significant are the Gardens and Hagley Park on a world scale?” It is one of the world’s largest open green spaces in an inner city centre. It seems certain that the area is in the top twenty such green spaces. It is the Christchurch equivalent of Hyde Park in London or Stanley Park in Vancouver. Again we must be grateful to the foresight of the founders of Christchurch for setting aside such a large area which was to be free of commercial development and available to the public.

One of the disappointing results of the development of Hagley Park was the draining of the last native plant wetland during the building of Victoria Lake at the time of the 1905 exhibition. Now if we want to show people the plant life of a wetland we have to deliberately recreate it at considerable expense.

What should be the proportion of native or exotic plants?
Public consultation on this question showed that most people want the mix to be very much as it is at present in the Botanic Gardens, but for Hagley Park the perception of its Englishness is seen as important. That in my view does not rule out careful planting of native species blending with the English trees in Hagley Park.

Christchurch and Dunedin Botanic Gardens probably have the biggest range of plants in terms of numbers of species and cultivars. Christchurch has some outstanding collections. It is known for its trees, which are a big feature, its orchid collections, cacti and succulents most of which cannot be displayed because of lack of space. It has probably the best publicly accessible collections in the country. The begonia collections which people come to see in early summer are of world standard with a lot of material which is not seen anywhere else.

Defining core collections
One role being considered at the moment is the definition of core collections on a national and international basis. These are the collections which we will concentrate on building up and featuring, not just for public display but for their scientific, horticultural and conservation use.

Relating people to plants
Most people are not going to come into the Gardens to be educated in a formal sense, so much of the education is likely to be by a kind of osmosis. This is where the skill in interpretation is vital, connecting people with plants and providing leads so that they get fascinated and want to know more. Fascinating stories about the history of plants told by guides or presented in interpretation panels can lead people to their own questions and research.

The Christchurch Botanic Gardens feature not just a collection of the plants of New Zealand, but also exotic species. The aim is for the Gardens to reflect the flora of the world. This is why there are orchid, cacti, tropical and sub-tropical collections. There also very large tree collections from temperate regions around the world. The aim is to develop them further as a major temperate Botanic Garden in the Southern Hemisphere. We are never going to be able to grow tropical plants outside the conservatory complex, but we will continue to monitor its use for tropical and sub-tropical plants as it is the largest conservatory area in the country.

Gardens reflect some of the international culture of Christchurch
The international aspect is important not only in terms of native New Zealand plants, but in reflecting the number of Asian people in the city. There are a number of Asian trees which are culturally very important for these people. It is evident that they have discovered them when in autumn they can be seen collecting the nuts that fall from the gingko trees. People from many different countries have elected to live in the city and are delighted to find in the Gardens trees which are familiar in their homelands. My son-in-law comes from Portugal and was thrilled to find a madrono tree in the Gardens. This important Mediterranean tree provided an immediate connection back to his homeland.

International Peace Bell
One development planned for the near future is the building and landscaping of a site for an international Peace Bell. This comes from Japan but is an international Peace Bell so the plan is for the part of the Gardens where it will be placed to have a theme of peace and have an appeal for people of any race. Over one hundred languages are at present spoken in Christchurch, so one suggestion is that paving stones around the bell be engraved with the word PEACE in all these languages.

Seasonality of the Gardens
The Christchurch climate has four distinct seasons, unlike the climate of a city like Auckland. We are planning to celebrate the changing appeal of the Gardens from one season to the next. This will fit in well with the City Council plans for celebrating the four seasons with various festivals.

Celebrating the seasonality of the Gardens as a Four Season Garden or a Twelve Month Garden should help to change their image as a place to visit mainly to see the daffodils and cherry trees in the spring, or roses in summer. Certainly in spring the daffodils and the flowering cherry trees provide a magnificent display and are a magnet for photographers, but at the same time there is a wealth of new spring growth in beautiful shades of green.

Summer is the general period for flowering and fruiting of most of the native and exotic plants. The rose garden with its varied and beautiful blooms attracts many visitors.


Central Rose Garden
Central Rose Garden
Photo source: Christchurch Botanic Gardens
Click here to view a larger version

Less well-known is the collection of New Zealand dahlia cultivars actually bred in New Zealand. These can found outside the south east hedge of the rose garden. Also notable are the bedding displays of annuals.

In late spring and summer the herbaceous border can be seen at its best. It is one of the most notable herbaceous borders in the Southern Hemisphere. The plants are of international origin, but it is still a very traditional English type of herbaceous garden and has been commented on with pleasure by many English visitors. It is found along the north border of the Archery Lawn, beside the boundary with Christ’s College.

Autumn is a great time for colour. The botanic gardens feature many autumn flowering and fruiting shrubs and trees. As the leaves of deciduous trees colour prior to leaf fall the gardens become a mosaic of reds, orange, yellow and brown. Special areas for autumn include Beswick Walk and the maple border west of the Archery Lawn.

In winter, which is regarded by many as the downside for gardens, there is a great opportunity to study the texture and different colours of bark. Recently in replanting an area with small trees we have deliberately selected some species very notable for their bark characteristics. When there are no leaves the form and the colour and texture of the bark will stand out. Some of the botanic gardens in Europe have been very good at exploiting that in winter gardens which feature the subtle colours on the trunks of elms, willows and maples.

There is some migration of birds in the winter, but the water birds and occasionally bellbirds are still there.

Whatever day people come to the Gardens there are things to see, appreciate and interpret.

Contrasted areas in the Gardens
There are different signatures in different parts of the Gardens. If you walk in from Rolleston Avenue and on to the Archery Lawn and the herbaceous border there is some degree of formality and tradition in this area.

Across the Avon River to the south in Hagley Park are the daffodil woodland and beyond the band rotunda the Harman Grove, an area which is a little higher and colder than the daffodil woodland area. Adjacent, by Murray Aynslie Lawn, is the heritage rose collection and possibly in the future it will be the area for a concentration of the heritage collections of plants brought to New Zealand in the early years. This could include a collection of the roses, fruit trees and crops brought here by the early Canterbury settlers.

The different areas of the Gardens have a different feeling about them. In the native sections the paths are narrow and the area is closed in, which is a contrast to the open woodland or the formal layout in the front of the Gardens.


Ferns in the native garden
Ferns in the native garden
Photo source: Christchurch Botanic Gardens
Click here to view a larger version

The Botanic Gardens reflect the people who have been associated with them. The second curator, John Armstrong, and his son developed the Gardens from the late 1860s to the 1880s. They laid out the fabric of the front area of the Gardens in the east. They had a particular interest in native plants and eventually resigned from the Gardens on the basis that they had the onerous task of keeping a detailed diary and that they were forced to plant annuals rather than native plants. The eastern part of the Gardens by Rolleston Avenue still reflects the layout that they established.

Celebrating Leonard Cockayne
Cockayne, who spent much of his life in Christchurch, is often seen as the standard bearer for native plants, and the area known as The Cockayne Garden features native plants, but less well-known is the fact that it was Cockayne who pushed very hard for the planting of cherry trees and daffodils along the Avon. He was also a daffodil exhibitor. Perhaps few Christchurch people realise the world stature of Cockayne, one of the first botanists to be a modern ecologist. His Vegetation of New Zealand remains a classic book.

The future of the Botanic Gardens and Hagley Park
The Botanic Gardens are developing a Master Plan (this will also include adjacent Hagley Park) that will guide development for the coming decades. This will not only look at the public face of the Gardens, layout and collections, but also at neglected features such as education, research and a role in conservation. Just as the mid-nineteenth century was an exciting and challenging time for botanic garden development so is the present period. Botanic gardens have a vital role in bringing people and nature together in positive ways and in ensuring that botanical diversity world-wide is saved from extinction. As well, the Botanic Gardens in Christchurch have a potentially pivotal role in promoting both the Garden City and the ecologically sensitive city images of Christchurch.

David Given BSc(Hons), PhD, FLS, AHRIH(NZ), CTheol, AFIAP
David is Botanical Services Curator at the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, and a consultant and part-time lecturer at Lincoln University, where he is an Associate Professor with the Isaac Centre for Nature Conservation. Working in over fifty countries, including the Antarctic, during his scientific career, David has a passionate interest in conversation horticulture and botanic gardens. He co-chairs the global plant conservation programme of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Species Survival Commission. His books include Rare and Endangered Plants of New Zealand and Going Native.


David Given died on Sunday, 27 November, 2005, aged 62.

He had a distinguished career. He gained a first class honours degree and PhD in botany from Canterbury University and studied and wrote about botany, ecology, taxonomy and conservation. For many years he was in charge of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research's herbarium, was a lecturer at Lincoln University and was involved in the work of the Isaac Centre for Nature Conservation.

Dr Given's achievements in his field have been recognised widely at home and abroad. He won the Loder Cup, awarded by the Minister for Conservation, and was made a life member of the World Wide Fund for Nature. In his last year he wrote a large part of the draft master plan, setting the future vision for Hagley Park and the Botanic Gardens. Earlier in the year, he received two prestigious national awards for his research into plant conservation, the New Zealand Ecological Society's Te Tohu Taiao Award for Ecological Excellence and the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network's Lifetime Achievement Award.

He was very devoted to his family and his faith was very important to him.

A representative of the Friends of the Botanic Gardens wrote: "He was a foundation committee member of the Friends of the Botanic Gardens. To members of the Friends David was a person passionate about plants, a wonderful photographer and keen communicator about his knowledge and experience from his extensive travels, and a nature conservationist of world renown.....
His sense of humour and delight in acting up showed a different David ....
During Heritage Week celebrations he dressed up as John Francis Armstrong, the second Botanic Gardens Curator, and appeared in costume at the committee meeting and out in the Botanic Gardens grounds. He really acted as though he was Curator Armstrong in 1867 or so..... Members came to know him better once he was Curator and we were privileged to share times when he gave talks and took tours in the Botanic Gardens This was David at his very best, communicating with such enthusiasm his expertise about the quirkiness and wonders in the plant world."

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