For a little quiet contemplation, the Cockayne Memorial Garden adjacent to the New Zealand section within the Christchurch Botanic Gardens takes a bit of beating. Leonard Cockayne is frequently described as New Zealand’s greatest botanist and founder of modern science in New Zealand. He realised the importance of studying plants in their natural environment, thus introducing the conservation of New Zealand native flora.
The Cockayne Memorial Garden is a large lawn interspersed with flora closely associated to the pioneer botanist; kakabeak, kowhai, manuka, lancewoods, varieties of hebe, totara and others. Tall New Zealand trees guard the garden perimeters. The garden is also a haven for native bellbirds, wood pigeons and, sometimes, kingfishers.
My guide is Christchurch Botanic Gardens Curator, John Clemens, an enthusiastic admirer of the English-born Cockayne telling me the botanist was from a family of successful drapers.
“Seems he was a lonely child who would spend his time roaming the forests, hedge groves and dales and these activities likely encouraged him to do something different.
He emigrated to Australia where he became a reluctant teacher and arrived in Christchurch about 1881, aged 26, with a modest income (following the death of his father) to work on the botany which was to ensure his fame.
He was the first to take a holistic approach to New Zealand flora with an emphasis of studying plants in the natural environment rather than from specimens. He wrote papers and books. New Zealand Plants and their story (1910) is a selection of his newspaper articles. His subsequent The Vegetation of New Zealand (1921) became a standard reference for decades.
“I think of him as a great botanist and a real pioneer” says Clemens.
“He was the first to come to grips with the huge variety, and explosion, of plant species in New Zealand. He was instrumental in setting up the field station at Cass in the Waimakariri Basin for Canterbury universities. Having worked extensively in the region, he realised it was essential for students to understand how plants grew in their natural environment.”
Elsewhere he was fascinated by the red flowers of Kakabeak and yellow of Kowhai (frequently referred to New Zealand’s national flower) and keen to get those into cultivation.
“Cockayne has been described and enthusiastic and romantic with a ringing voice. He was full of praise and criticism. He always looked neat even when out in the bush which is where he mostly was.”
“His first public lecture was on the daffodil. Harry Ell (then involved in his Summit Road project) said daffodils ought to be in rectangular beds. This brought an immediate response of disagreement from Cockayne who had grown up with wild daffodils in England.
“After a distinguished career in botany, ecology and horticulture he said he didn’t know what he had achieved but he liked becoming a good gardener.”
The Cockayne Memorial Garden, still popular for botany students, was established in 1938 by the Canterbury branch of the Royal Society of New Zealand and local Domains Board. Go and have a look. Better still, combine it with a Welcome Aboard Caterpillar Garden Tour. Spring, now in full swing, is the ideal opportunity.