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Common Ground book cover

Common Ground: Garden Histories of Aotearoa by Matt Morris (review)

New Zealand Journal of History, 55, 2 (2021)

Common Ground: Garden Histories of Aotearoa. By Matt Morris.
Otago University Press, Dunedin, 2020. NZ price: $45.
IBSN: 9781988592572.

I discovered Matt Morris’s excellent PhD on Christchurch’s garden history some ten or so years ago when I was researching my book A History of Gardening in New Zealand. I was immediately impressed, both by his meticulous research and by his inclusion of many quirky details – perfect material to enliven any garden story. Morris gave me invaluable insights into many things, including early developments in composting and the importance of Christchurch Garden Clubs in educating the next generation of gardeners. There were a few colourful tales along the way. I was especially intrigued by the ladies of the Sunlight League who, in 1941, sent parcels of vegetables to overseas soldiers accompanied by a poem exhorting them to resist the temptations of the flesh!

In Common Ground Morris very ably combines stories of plants and people, often in a highly topical way. It was fascinating to get a glimpse of how the once-loved gardens of Christchurch’s abandoned Red Zone are returning to the wild. As ever, I was intrigued and charmed by the small details – the extracts from diaries and letters, as well as many first-hand accounts from interviews. Morris’s thorough description of Māori gardens, both pre and post European settlement, is also impressive. He consistently places a very thorough emphasis on the productive garden. His deep interest in sustainability is reflected throughout the book. I enjoyed his account of the developing compost movement and loved the many lists of vegetables grown – entertaining and fascinating.

But where, oh where, are the flowers so beloved by early European settlers? I was dismayed by Morris’s statement at the beginning of Chapter 3; ‘Few colonial gardeners had the time and resources to beautify their property with flowers or shrubs, so focused were they initially on food production.’ He briefly mentions an ornamental garden in the Hokianga, flowering bulbs nurtured by early settler Sarah Mathew and a search for a damask rose cutting in Nelson, but then quickly progresses to references that reinforce his argument that decorative flowers and gardens were of little or no consequence in the early years of settlement.

Unfortunately, Morris has almost entirely overlooked the many references to flowers and decorative gardens that occur in early diaries, letters and paintings. There is no doubt that the productive garden was pivotal to survival in these early colonial years, but the decorative garden was also important. Familiar flowers such as roses, fuchsias, daffodils and pinks were crucial to the happiness and mental health of homesick settlers, many of whom found the dense, dark-green and little-changing New Zealand bush gloomy and depressing.

The desire to grow something beautiful dates back to the roses introduced in the first days of European settlement. Reputed to have come to New Zealand with the first missionaries, the sweet briar was grown at most subsequent settlements. Old Blush China was planted in the garden at Kemp House in Kerikeri but is also said to have bloomed in the garden of Mrs Clendon (wife of the trader and United States Consul James Clendon) at Okiato. When Mrs Selwyn, the Bishop’s wife, returned to Waimate after a trip to Auckland in 1844, ‘young ladies scattered rose leaves on the path, and we specially admired an arch of flowers under which we passed, chiefly China roses – the elder girls presenting me with two beautiful bouquets’.

Missionaries and settlers asked friends in England to send flower seeds in their letters and packages. In September 1830 Henry Williams wrote to England from the mission station at Paihia: ‘I should like the buttercups and Sweet William of a dark kind. If they were packed in a bottle and sealed down they would come safely’. As early as the 1820s and 1830s his wife Marianne wrote of the crocuses, geraniums, moss roses and honeysuckle that grew in her garden. When Mary Ann Martin visited the Williamses at Paihia in 1835, she discovered gardens which ‘were all ablaze with flowers. Honeysuckle, passion flowers and cluster-roses hung in masses over the verandah’. By the 1840s Sally Dougherty, wife of whaler Daniel Dougherty of Port Underwood in Marlborough, was growing borders of marigold and mignonette, along with white jasmine, roses, hollyhocks, geranium and lavender. Through the rest of the century flowers and decorative shrubs were lovingly grown, and written about, wherever European settlement occurred.

Early horticultural societies similarly showed a strong interest in the ornamental garden. By late 1842 Robert Stokes, the treasurer for the newly formed Wellington Horticultural Society, was proudly writing of ‘magnolia, camellia, daphne, oleander, passion flowers, honeysuckle, jasmine, ranunculus, tulip and picottee’, noting that most of these had been obtained from Sydney.

This book is admirably comprehensive with regards to the productive garden and in its chronicling of the wider garden history and trends of the 19th and 20th centuries. However, Morris’s claim that there was little or no interest in flowers and ornamental gardens prior to 1900 is clearly erroneous. While an invaluable addition to the story of gardening in New Zealand, Common Ground is likely to be more at home on an academic historian’s bookshelf than that of mainstream gardeners who are looking for an informed, but engaging, read. There are rich gems to be discovered in its pages, but many will find it heavy digging.

First published in New Zealand Journal of History, Volume 55, Number 2 October 2021