Christchurch Botanic Gardens

As we pulled into Christchurch in late afternoon a few hours after our delightful lunch and garden tour at Akaunui Homestead and Farm, a few of us decided to leave the hotel and walk to the Christchurch Botanic Gardens less than a mile away. After the disastrous 2011 earthquake here, the city has been rebuilding for years, especially structures that were not earthquake-proof, like this old building en route.

The botanic gardens are open to the public from 7 am to 6:30 pm (conservatories 10:15 am – 4 pm) daily, except Christmas Day. Like all the botanic gardens we saw in New Zealand, there is no charge to visit. Covering 21 hectares (52 acres), they were opened in 1863, occupying a pretty site along the Avon River.  There is an excellent printed .pdf guide online.

We started in the Kitchen Garden adjacent to the former Curator’s House, which is now a restaurant (we would eat dinner there later).  I thought this was one of the finest edible gardens I’d visited…..

….with its focus on design…..

….and diversity of edibles…..

….and education.

We walked along the Avon River with its scrim of beech trees….

….past early evening picnickers.

With so little time until dark, we bypassed the lawn and adjacent heather garden.

The large Rock Garden seemed to need a little more TLC in the weeding and editing department……

….. but had clearly been an ambitious design with significant scale.

I liked seeing a new ornamental onion, Allium carinatum subsp. pulchellum, so happy here…..

…. and keeping the bees happy, too.

I had never seen Francoa sonchifolia in a garden, so was delighted to find it here along with its foraging honey bees…..

I walked slowly through the New Zealand Gardens….

….full of indigenous plants which in this country seem to be so understatedly…..

…. green that the overwhelming perception is unremarkable.

But it takes time and local understanding to appreciate each of these plants, the smallest and the large, like the iconic totara tree (Podocarpus totara), below….

….and how they relate to wildlife, including this insect chorus on a Christchurch evening in mid-summer. Listen…..

Adjacent to the Native Plant Garden is the Cocayne Memorial Garden, designed in 1938 to honour Leonard Cocayne (1855-1934), New Zealand’s pioneering botanist and ecologist and author of The Vegetation of New Zealand (1921).

Given our limited time, we hurried through a cactus garden….

….. with some interesting large succulents that I later discovered were Furcraea parmentieri. A monocarpic Mexican species, these plants will grow until they achieve flowering, after which they will die.

A female paradise shelduck hovered at the water’s edge with her duckling nearby.

There were pretty, South African Crinum x powellii at the water’s edge here, showing why its common name is “swamp lily”.

Time was fleeting so we turned back toward the entrance past this lovely stand of fragrant lilies.

Nearby was a giant redwood (Sequoidendron giganteum), below, one of seven grown from seed that was ordered from California in 1873 (just 21 years after William Lobb first collected seed of the newly discovered trees in Calaveras Grove in the Sierra Nevadas for Veitch’s Nursery in England), making them 145 years old. Interestingly, though North Americans call this species “Sierra redwood” or “giant redwood” or “big tree” (since it is often confused with the smaller Coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens). New Zealanders and the British call it “Wellingtonia”, a name that recalls England’s race to be the first to name it. After Lobb returned to England with seed, seedlings and herbarium specimens, taxonomist John Lindley named the species Wellingtonia gigantea to honour the recently deceased Duke of Wellington (1769-1852).  Meanwhile, as tourists poured into Calaveras Grove, botanist Albert Kellogg was working to sort out his big tree specimens in his herbarium at the brand-new California Academy of Natural Sciences in San Francisco, intending to call the species Washingtonia.  In 1854, the Duke of Wellington would lose his “official” taxonomic honour when French botanist Joseph Decaisne placed the tree in the genus Sequoia as S. gigantea (Sequoiadendron came later), but the common name Wellingtonia stuck for giant redwoods grown in the Commonwealth.

We peeked in to the lovely Rose Garden with its 104 beds, but kept walking.

Two more trees caught my eye. The Madeiran lily-of-the-valley tree (Clethra arborea) was attracting bees to its pendant blossoms……

….. and I was happy to see a young kauri  (Agathis australis) growing here, having loved walking under towering kauris in their protected forest at Bay of Islands.

At the southeast fringe of the Rose Garden was the extensive Dahlia Garden, with 90 percent of the collection sourced from New Zealand breeders.

This is ‘Velvet Night’, a 1985 introduction from Dr. Keith Hammett, one of the dahlia world’s icons and New Zealand’s leading breeder of ornamental plants.

We walked past an old Kashmir cypress (Cupressus cashmeriana), with its elegant pendulous branchlets.

Sadly because of the lateness of the day, we missed seeing the large water garden and the far reaches of Christchurch Botanic Gardens including Hagley Park. And the six conservatories had closed a few hours earlier: Cunningham House (tropical rainforest), Townend House (cool greenhouse), Garrick House (desert), Gilpin House (orchids, bromeliads, carnivorous plants), Fern House and Fowraker House (indigenous and exotic alpines).  And somehow we missed the herbaceous border. But it was time to head back to the entrance, past our riverside picnickers who had now been joined by friends and a few waterfowl, in order to enjoy our own alfresco dinner at the Curator’s House Restaurant before walking back to the hotel and hitting the sack. For tomorrow would be one of the best days on our tour, starring three stunning and very different New Zealand gardens.

Dunedin Botanic Garden

After travelling on the 10th day of our American Horticultural Society “Gardens, Wine & Wilderness Tour” from Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound to Dunedin in Otago on the east coast of the South Island, a 3-1/2 hour journey of 291 kilometres (182 miles)……

…. we arrived in the city late in the afternoon. Our route took us past the Dunedin Railway Station. Built in the Edwardian Baroque style in 1906, it provided train service for a city that had been founded 58 years earlier by the Free Church of Scotland. In fact Dunedin is the old Gaelic name for Edinburgh, and it was the Scots who were the first colonists, though the Māori had already occupied the land for some 700 years. It was a big whaling port in its early days, then the Otago Gold Rush of the 1860s led to its rapid expansion.

Where we had slept in a stateroom aboard a boat on Doubtful Sound in Fiordland the night before, tonight we would be sleeping in a rather lovely room at the Distinction Dunedin Hotel. What made it extra-special was the fact that the room was equipped with a clothes washer and dryer. If you’ve travelled for any length of time on a bus tour, you’ll know how welcome that would be.

Feeling a little tired after the drive, we ordered up a light room-service dinner of cheese plate & salad, and cracked a bottle of Marlborough Chardonnay.

The next morning, we headed out to Dunedin Botanic Garden….

…..where we were met in the parking lot for an orientation by Alan Matchett (left), Garden Team Leader/Curator and Collection Curator, Dylan Norfield.

Opened in 1863, it is New Zealand’s first botanic garden. It occupies 30.4 hectares (75 acres) on a property that slopes from native Lovelock Bush, the New Zealand Native Plant Collection, Geographic Collection and Rhododendron Dell at the top down a hillside through the Southern African Garden and Mediterranean Terrace  and Rock Garden – all considered the Upper Garden – to the Lower Garden where you find Herbaceous Borders, a Knot Garden, Glasshouses, the Clive Lister Garden, the Rose Garden, Theme Borders and a Water Garden. The main gates open to an intersection of three of Dunedin’s main streets.

We set off behind Alan and Dylan for a tour that was sadly much too short to see all the features of this wonderful garden.

The Native Plant Collection is vast, and includes traditional borders…..

….. featuring grasses and shrubs and with some of the country’s native tree ferns, like Dicksonia fibrosa, with its persistent frond ‘skirts’. (For more on NZ ferns, have a look at my previous post.)

There were cultivars and hybrids of natives here, like silver-leafed Brachyglottis ‘Otari Cloud’….

….. and the lovely variegated Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Irene Patterson’. Unlike the UK and the mild west coast, pittosporums are not much seen in northeast North America.  I wish I’d had time to search out many more.

In the shadier sections, the New Zealand rock lily or renga renga (Arthropodium cirratum) was in flower…….

…… and bush flax (Astelia fragrans) was already in fruit.

We toured a fascinating Alpine Scree.  On an island so dominated by the rugged Southern Alps (it is estimated that one-third of New Zealand’s flora exists in the alpine zone), it’s interesting to see plants adapted to the gravelly slopes of mountains…..

… giant Spaniard (Aciphylla scott-thomsonii), below. Though often called Spaniard grass or speargrass, the spiky Aciphyllas are actually umbellifers, members of Apiaceae that flower in November. The flowers in my closeup below have withered and blackened.

Here’s a vigorous clump of Marlborough rock daisy (Pachystegia insignis).

In the Geographic Collections, we noted South American plants like evergreen Luma apiculata from the Central Andes between Chile and Argentina…

….and Lomandra longifolia from Australia.

We made a brief stop at the Rhododendron Dell, which forms a large part of the 4-hectare (10-acre) Woodland Garden.  Naturally, as we visited in summer, nothing was in flower,  but I can only imagine what these massive ‘Halopeanum’ rhodos would have looked like in November.

Descending, we made our way through the large Southern African Garden.

There were beautiful king proteas here (P. cynaroides).

….. and masses of the dwarf Agapanthus ‘Streamline’.

How spectacular is this eye-popping planting of Crassula coccinea, native to the fynbos of the Western Cape?

With time running out, I raced through the Mediterranean Garden, with its formal pool…..

….. and balustrade overlook, with the hills of Dunedin in the distance.  But I knew I’d be coming back here today after another tour stop to spend lots of time retracing my steps to really explore the place!

In the Lower Garden, there was a Knot Garden patterned on the one in the Shakespeare Garden at Stratford-on-Avon.

And in classic public garden style, there was a stunning herbaceous border that I viewed from one end……

….. to the other.

Look at these lovely combinations:  alstroemerias and bright pink phlox with Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’…..

….. and salmon achillea with old-fashioned Shasta daisies…..

….. and unusual (for me) Lobelia tupa with Phlox paniculata……

…… and soft pink achillea with chocolate cosmos (C. atrosanguineus). Isn’t this fabulous?

There were loads of bumble bees foraging on the alstroemerias……

….. and on the lovely blue bog sage (Salvia uliginosa).

And just to add a little design intelligence to all that floriferous brilliance, the garden also features a number of “colour borders”, including yellow…..

….. and red….

….. and violet, featuring Lythrum virgatum, Monarda fistulosa and Agastache foeniculum.

I was impressed by the massive size of this English oak (Quercus ruber) – aka the ‘Royal Oak’ – which was planted in 1863 to commemorate the marriage of the Prince of Wales and the Danish Princess Alexandra.  The children in the playground seemed unmoved that they were frolicking atop the roots of a piece of Dunedin’s colonial history.

For sheer elegance, I loved the Clive Lister Garden – and also the story behind it, below. What a wonderful way to enrich a public space, especially one that has meant much to you during your life.

Look at this view of grasses and many native plants from one side of the bridge in the Clive Lister Garden……

….. and the other side, featuring hostas, Japanese maples and other shade plants.

The garden is full of textural plants…..

….. and those with attractive, coloured foliage.

Flowering seems less important than good foliage in the Clive Lister Garden, but there were some lovely surprises, like this ligularia-montbretia combination.

This is the shimmering Astelia chathamica ‘Silver Spear’, which we’re starting to see in N. American gardens.

Alas, our time at the fabulous Dunedin Botanic Garden had drawn to an end without me seeing the glasshouses, water garden, theme gardens, rose gardens or fully exploring the native and geographic collections in the Upper Garden we’d walked through so quickly. So I trotted out to the bus reluctantly and vowed to come back by taxi later in the day.


When I returned, clouds were gathering in the sky so I hurried to the Winter Garden Glasshouse. At its opening in 1908, it was said to be the first public conservatory in Australasia. It has three wings; the west wing contains a good cactus collection.

Tropicals find a warm, humid home in the central Tropical House.

And the east wing contains the sub-tropical collection, with plants like the lovely Vireya rhododendron, below.

It started to sprinkle as I left and eyed the Rose Garden – very nice, I’m sure, but I wanted to get back to the Upper Garden.

I decided to buy an ice cream in the visitor’s centre to see if the shower might abate, but it continued. So I headed quickly over Lindsay Creek to the Rock Garden…..

….. eyeing these spectacular red-hot pokers (Kniphofia sp.) as I walked. The climate here in Dunedin seems perfect for these South African natives.

The rock garden is stunning, and one could spend a half day just here examining all its lovelies, like…….

….. strange-looking Raoulia apicinigra, one of the “mat daisy” clan, …..

….. and Dierama pendulum, fairy bells.  But the rain had now intensified and having given my umbrella and raincoat to my husband to take back to the hotel (“Nah, I won’t need it.”), I found a plastic bag to partially cover my hat and tucked my phone under my shirt to keep it dry.  My cameras were now back in the camera bag as the heavens opened and the rain poured down.

One last shot, of a butterfly lily (Gladiolus papilio) that was as soaked as I was, and out I ran, down the steps and past the now deserted herbaceous borders to a bus shelter outside the gates, where I waited in the monsoon for 20 minutes to flag down a passing cab.

As sad as I was not to have had more time to spend at Dunedin Botanic Garden, I was so very grateful that I’d had the opportunity to see it at all.


Love botanic gardens? You might be interested in my blogs on New York Botanical Garden, Idaho Botanical Garden, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, UBC Botanical Garden and Toronto Botanical Garden’s fabulous containers and Piet Oudolf border. In South Africa, there is the mighty Kirstenbosch, the Harold Porter National Botanic Gardens and Durban Botanic Garden.  And outside London, Kew Gardens in autumn.