The Occasional Journal

The Dendromaniac

March 2015

The Tree as Traveller: Sakura in space, kōwhai in Chelsea, and the oldest pohutukawa in Spain

Emma Ng

Before Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space, there was Laika (dog, 1957), Albert (monkey, 1948), a container of unnamed fruit flies (1947), and several types of seeds (maize, rye, and cotton, 1946). Neither Laika nor Albert survived their journeys, their big warm bodies particularly vulnerable to the uncertainties of such dark and unfamiliar waters. The seeds, on the other hand, were often returned to the earth after returning to Earth, eventually growing into established plants that sit incognito alongside their terrestrial counterparts.

Bearers of our aspirations, and of national pride, trees have been constant companions in our travels. And whether it’s space travel or the European discovery of continents and islands, acts of human endeavour have often been motivated by competitive nationalism. In 2008 Japan’s aerospace exploration agency sent seeds from their national tree into orbit. The patriotic potential of these sakura seeds was intensified by their provenance: they were collected by Japanese primary school children from ten trees, three of which are ancient plants, prized for their beauty and designated as natural treasures by the Japanese government. An official statement before the launch underscored the symbolism imbued in the journey: “Scientific exploration is one reason. But we also want the trees to travel into space on our behalf as few ordinary people can go now.”1

On their return the seeds were planted, and their trees blossomed almost six years ahead of their earthbound equivalents. With the cause of this prodigy as yet unexplained, there is an appealing mythical quality to these sakura – they appear as living embodiments of seemingly unattainable knowledge. This article is populated with trees in possession of stories not fully known, trees who have outlived their storytellers, and trees whose movements have slipped from history into myth. It is trees we turn to as a metaphor for the structure of familial relationships, and similarly these narratives present branches, roots, sprawling connections, and budding offshoots.

Unlike Japan, New Zealand has no official national tree (nor a government space agency) but we do have our own trees that have travelled – living records from that earlier era of endeavour and discovery. In tracing the planting of our natives elsewhere, we can begin to map out centuries of journeys, interactions and relations – played out, quite literally, on foreign soil.

The formula seems simple: the age of a tree, brought from the Pacific and planted in Europe, is an indication of Europe’s geographic reach into the Pacific at the time of planting. However this assumption does produce the odd historical curveball. A pohutukawa growing in the Spanish city of La Corunna is believed by locals to be up to 500 years old. As Spain is geographically opposite New Zealand on the globe, is it possible this tree travelled halfway around the world in the 16th century?

By way of explanation it has been suggested that perhaps the Spanish were the first Europeans to reach New Zealand (ahead of the Dutch and British). This theory links the tree to a (dubiously) Spanish helmet discovered in Wellington harbour and now held in Te Papa’s collections.2 The tree and helmet have even been extrapolated into ‘The Spanish Helmet’, a 2011 “conspiracy thriller” by author Greg Scowen. This fiction, and the tree’s age, are disputed by Dr Warwick Harris, a Landcare researcher. He instead believes it may have been brought to Spain by the British during the Napoleonic Wars, or that it was part of the later commercial trade of New Zealand trees throughout Europe.3 For now, La Corunna’s pohutukawa harbours its history within itself – old, smug, and silent.

Elsewhere in Europe, an English publication called Botanical Magazine featured an illustration of a flowering kōwhai on its cover in 1791: one of the earliest instances of a New Zealand species being illustrated and published in colour. Inside the magazine, the accompanying text identifies a tree flowering in London’s Chelsea Physic Garden, “planted by Mr. Forsyth about the year 1774” — evidence that by this time there were already kōwhai growing on the other side of the globe.4

It is likely that this kōwhai was grown from seeds brought back on Cook’s first voyage, which returned to England in 1771. Connecting the expedition with the Chelsea Physic Garden is the figure of Sir Joseph Banks (b. 1743 – d. 1820). Banks, who acted as a botanist aboard the HMS Endeavour, was closely acquainted with the Physic Garden’s chief gardener, Phillip Miller, having spent time at the garden while studying at Oxford University. Later in life, Banks held positions at London’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and as President of the Royal Society. Through this work, both the Kew and Chelsea Physic Gardens developed into leading gardens for repository and research in Europe.

Today, over 200 years later, the Physic Garden kōwhai still flourishes alongside the River Thames. It sits within the Garden of World Medicine, which is described as ‘an ethnobotanical display that demonstrates the uses of plants by a wide variety of peoples.’5 A search for information about the curative uses of kōwhai turns up a 1925 story about the All Black George Nepia, which has all the elements of a foundational New Zealand myth: a legendary rugby player, and a kōwhai miracle.

The story features in Nepia’s 1963 autobiography, where he writes of how he refused surgical attention for a thigh haematoma sustained in a tackle:

I had already been told by Lui Paewai’s mother that she would treat me. Kōwhai, she said. The bark of the kōwhai. That is what you need. […] Mrs Paewai told me what I must do. Only the bark facing the rays of the sun was to be taken from the trees. Then we started. Not until we had filled two big sacks with bark did we stop. Later, I was told to cut the strips into short lengths of about a foot and to hammer each length until it was bruised. Next the strips were put into a copper full of water and for two or three hours I kept the water at the boil until it had turned to a dark tan in colour. This was ladled into a bath and as soon as the temperature was right I stripped off and lay full length. A full hour I stayed there before Mrs Paewai returned to inspect the leg. By now, it was discoloured in many places. When she went out of the room, I heard a bottle break. When she came back, she made me hold my leg out of the water. In two of her fingers, she held a smallish piece of glass and with this she started to dab my thigh, cutting little nicks all around the leg from the knee up.

More of the hot bark water was added. I must remain in the bath, Mrs Paewai said, for another hour.

I slept. When I woke, the water had turned a deep dark shade of brown. The colour seemed to be coming to the surface from the leg. I called out to Mrs Paewai. As she came in, I lifted my leg. From out of all the little nicks there was oozing dark blood. She was jubilant. She cried out in Maori, again and again, “Kua pai tou waewae” (your leg is better).6

Nepia was playing (and winning) only a couple of weeks later, despite having been told that he would not play again during the season. Built into the story of Nepia’s life, this anecdote neatly narrates a trope of mythic and miraculous recovery. Yet, despite its place in the Garden of World Medicine, the Physic Garden kōwhai serves an exotic but nullified function – as it seems unlikely that the species has ever been used curatively outside of New Zealand.

One wonders at the original intention for this medicinal garden, which now reads as a telling artifact of collecting practices in Enlightenment England. The kōwhai takes its place as a ‘curiosity’, alongside other plants collected from places and peoples subsequently colonised by the British. In this context, while myths can be a source of shared power, they can also divest it. Wielded by the dominant party, myth can be used as a means of control, dismissing difference as quackery. Inside the Garden of the World Medicine the kōwhai is a display, with its use by Māori narrated but not adopted. Outside of the Physic Garden, the kōwhai’s appeal was driven by its popularity as a decorative tree, thanks to its golden-yellow, bell-shaped blossoms. Pretty and modestly sized, the kōwhai was thus both exotic and tame, easily assimilated into British gardens – just as it was into the Linnaean system of classification.

A huge number of New Zealand plant specimens were collected, illustrated, and classified aboard the HMS Endeavour. Banks worked with fellow naturalist, Daniel Solander and artist, Sydney Parkinson to complete this task. Solander was a favourite student Carl Linnaeus, the famed Swedish naturalist for whom the classification system is named. Philip Miller, the Chelsea Physic Garden chief gardener, also counted Linnaeus as a friend.7 As with many aspects of Cook’s voyages, this rational taxonomy exemplifies a type of scientific endeavour driven by Enlightenment ideals. Alongside flora and fauna in many places around the world, newly ‘discovered’ New Zealand species were seamlessly incorporated into a Eurocentric framework for viewing and structuring the natural world.

Banks’ own approach to exotic species heralded the impending era of colonialism. Seeking out economic use value, he intended to disseminate useful plants across empire and maximise the efficiencies of colonial power. As a committed botanist with the family fortune to fund his travel and work, Banks was well positioned to instrumentalise plants in this way. New species represented new resources, often in abundance. Harakeke (flax) was tested for making marine ropes, and Banks was instrumental in introducing breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies. Breadfruit was seen as a cheap and nutritionally complete product for feeding the native population in the West Indies, including British-owned slaves.8

Later in New Zealand, plants presented the opportunity to signify the supposedly harmonious union of colony and motherland. A certificate of attendance for New Zealand’s 1939-1940 Centennial Exhibition — an event that at its heart celebrated a century of colonialisation, European progress, and mass settlement – features a proud female Zealandia (an adaption of the figure of Britannia), flanked on either side by flowering kōwhai and pohutukawa.9 In what is perhaps intended to be a before and after representation of New Zealand’s ‘progress’, an Endeavour-esque ship, New Zealand bush, and a marae are featured on Zealandia’s left side, while a cityscape, large steam liner, and aeroplane form a vignette on her right. Visually at least, fraught colonial relations were thus brought into harmony through the ornamental reconciliation of cultural and floral motifs.

Today, a short walk from the Chelsea Physic Garden leads one to the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, where the Chelsea Flower Show takes place each year. Despite the show’s long history, it was not until 2004 that a New Zealand garden was presented for the first time. Sponsored by Tourism New Zealand, it represented a very different staging of New Zealand flora on foreign soil, one perhaps more aligned with a Lord of the Rings era conception of ourselves.10

The garden was titled ‘100% Pure New Zealand Ora – Garden of Wellbeing’, an interesting choice considering its proximity to the kōwhai in the Physic Garden’s Garden of World Medicine. Its plants were selected for their medicinal and culinary properties, as informed by Māori knowledge and uses. Both kōwhai and pohutukawa were included in the planting list, which sought to recreate New Zealand’s native bush. The garden also featured geothermal pools, faux-silica terraces, and a driftwood mokowaiwera (water lizard) sculpture that snaked a stream of steaming water through the garden.

‘100% Pure New Zealand Ora – Garden of Wellbeing’ was awarded a gold medal – a major coup for New Zealand and only the second instance of a first-time exhibitor receiving the honour. Interestingly, three-quarters of the garden’s plants were sourced locally from English gardens and nurseries, which gives some indication of how easily New Zealand natives can now be found in England. Of course these plants are all descendants of earlier travelling trees. Now common in British gardens, their ancestors accompanied humans on journeys by boat and plane, putting down roots in new soils, and slipping into new stories.


About the author

Emma holds a Bachelor of Design Innovation and a Bachelor of Arts Honours (Art History) from Victoria University of Wellington. She was the 2013 Blumhardt Curatorial Intern at Lower Hutt’s Dowse Art Museum, and is currently Manager/Curator at Enjoy Public Art Gallery.