Sculpture in the Gardens
Auckland Botanic Gardens, Manurewa
17 November 2019 – 1 March 2020

Referencing the form of the plant identification signs which the Auckland Botanic Gardens uses to tell us a plant’s botanical name and other details, this research-based installation project annotates these existing signs with others which draw attention to the complex, layered and diverse histories that selected plants have to tell.

Within the Native Plant Ideas garden – designed to showcase and further encourage the local planting of native species and cultivars – my selection focuses on plants which feature in Aotearoa New Zealand’s national identity, economy, diet, medicine, and those with historical, ritual and spiritual significance. A recurring theme is the ways in which these plants speak to our post-colonial condition.

BOTANNOTATIONS seeks to enrich our knowledge of these plants’ roles in our culture by drawing on their pasts to enrich our perspectives in the present.

As an ongoing research project, further annotations to these plant histories will flourish in the margins as they are enriched and extended. Suggested additions are welcome, along with amendments should updated or more authoritative information be found. Email:

Sophora molloyi
‘Dragon’s Gold’

Kōwhai within the genus Sophora are native to Aotearoa New Zealand. The kōwhai is our unofficial national flower and the Māori word for yellow, reflecting the colour of its flowers.

Although associated with New Zealand’s national identity, and iconic representations of its landscapes, it also has a variety of traditional uses by Māori. The flexible branches were used as a construction material in housing and to snare birds. The strong timber has been used for tools and machinery, and the kōwhai flowers a source of yellow dye. Māori also used the kōwhai tree as medicine. The bark was heated in a calabash with hot stones, and made into a poultice to treat wounds or rubbed on a sore back, or made into an infusion to treat bruising or muscular pains. If someone was bitten by a seal, an infusion (wai kōwhai) was prepared from kōwhai and applied to the wounds.

Podocarpus totara
‘Albany Gold’

Podocarpus totara, or tōtara, is a large forest tree (though it appears in a shorter, highly sculpted form in the Native Plant Ideas garden) whose bark peels off in long papery strips. The swollen red peduncle which holds the seed is edible. Māori have traditionally washed these in a river and eaten them raw. A sugary gum exuded from the branches was also eaten by Māori, often to alleviate coughs or given to suckling infants. The leaves have also been brewed as a tea and used in making beer.

The timber is favoured for construction, and its traditional Māori uses include housing, palisades, carvings, bowls, paddles, adze handles, eel clubs, musical instruments and toys. Given their height, they were also used in the construction of waka tauā (war canoes).

Early European settlers felled large quantities of tōtara and used it for building timber, house piles, fence posts, telegraph poles, railway sleepers and bridges.

Tōtara Park is located near the Auckland Botanic Gardens and features a large number of these trees. Manukau City Council acquired Tōtara Park in 1965 from the owner after agreeing to protect the bush and preserve the park for public use and enjoyment.

Nanum Group ‘Tui’

Leptospermum scoparium, or mānuka (also known as mānuka myrtle, New Zealand tea tree, broom tea tree, or simply tea tree) is a species of flowering plant in the myrtle family Myrtaceae, native to Australia and New Zealand. The name tea tree arose because Captain James Cook used its leaves to make a ‘tea’ drink. It is thought to have spread from Australia, yet is now more common in New Zealand. Mānuka is commonly known for the distinctive, nutrient rich honey produced when honeybees gather the nectar from its flowers. An essential oil is produced by a steam distillation of its leaves, and the wood is often used in smoking meats.

Māori used mānuka in pre-European times and continue to do so. A decoction of the leaves was drunk for urinary complaints and as a febrifuge (an agent for reducing fever). The steam from leaves boiled in water was inhaled to treat head colds. A decoction was also prepared from the leaves and bark and the warm liquid was rubbed on stiff muscles and aching joints. The emollient white gum, pai mānuka, was given to nursing babies and also used to treat scalds and burns. Chewing the bark is said to have a relaxing effect and enhance sleep.

Phormium tenax

Phormium tenax, harakeke or New Zealand flax (or New Zealand hemp in historical nautical contexts) is an evergreen perennial native to New Zealand, though considered an invasive species in some of the Pacific Islands and in Australia. Harakeke is a coastal cover plant associated with significant habitat such as breeding areas for the endangered hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguin, named the 2019 Bird of the Year.

Harakeke has played an important role in the history of New Zealand for both Māori and later European settlers, and the wider economic and cultural exchange brought about by their trading. Its versatile fibres are used in traditional Māori textiles, rope and sail making, and tools for hunting and fishing. Māori first traded harakeke products for items such as iron nails and axes, though later muskets became the principal article of barter for flax, implicating this plant in the political economy of the Land Wars.

The use of stripped, dried leaves as broad bands are also used in the weaving of kete (flax baskets) and whāriki (mats). The ‘Kauhangaroa’ cultivar, from Te Matau-a-Māui (Hawke’s Bay), was used for these.

Harakeke also produce muka, a fibre made by scraping, pounding and washing the leaves, and used in tāniko (weaving) of soft, durable fabric for clothing.

Harakeke is also used as a decorative and structural element in tukutuku, panelling found within wharenui (meeting houses) which tell important ancestral histories and whakapapa (lineage), weaving past and present together. It is also used in rongoā, traditional Māori medicine. Nectar from the flowers can be eaten, along with the gum found at the base of the leaves, and the seeds made in to a kind of coffee.

Phormium tenax

Many of the cultivars in the Native Plant Ideas garden were sourced from specimens in Te Kohinga Harakeke O Aotearoa, the National New Zealand Flax Collection at Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research.

Manaaki Whenua is kaitiaki, or guardian, of this important collection which includes weaving varieties, ornamental garden plants, historical plants from the early flax industry, those taken to offshore islands by both Māori and Pākehā, and a collection of plants representing what grows in the wild.

This ‘Taniwha’ cultivar is a named after the mystical animal of significance in Māori mythology and folklore.

The Auckland Botanic Gardens also contain a dedicated Harakeke garden with interpretive signage detailing their pre- and post-colonial histories, and protocols for their propagation, harvesting and use.

Rhopalostylis sapida

Rhopalostylis sapida, or nikau, is Aotearoa’s only native palm tree. The immature flower (before the sheath opens) and immature green berries are edible. When the berries turn red they become extremely hard and were used by settlers as alternative ammunition for shooting birds. The heart (formed by the bases of the immature leaves) was at times eaten by pre-European Māori, and called rito or kōrito, particularly for pregnant women to relax the pelvis during childbirth.

Sir Joseph Banks, botanist aboard the Endeavour, described the heart as a “delicious meal”, while William Colenso (missionary, printer, botanist, explorer and politician) described it as having “an agreeable taste, and is very wholesome”.

Early colonial settlers are also reported to have eaten it – raw, cooked or pickled – and given it takes decades to grow and harvesting this heart effectively kills the tree, the dish was named ‘millionaire’s salad’.

Tecomanthe speciosa

A single remaining Tecomanthe speciosa plant (also known as akapukaea or Three Kings vine) was ‘discovered’ by W.R.B. Oliver in 1945 during a scientific survey on Manawatāwhi (the Three Kings Islands), a group of 13 islands approximately 55 kilometres northwest of Cape Reinga, Aotearoa New Zealand.

Cape Reinga, where the South Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea converge, is traditionally known as the point of departure for deceased Māori, their souls traversing mainland Aotearoa towards this northernmost tip. Near Cape Reinga is a gnarled pōhutukawa tree reported to be more than 800 years old. The spirits are believed to journey to this tree and down its roots into the sea bed. They are said to surface again on Ōhau, the third largest of the Three Kings Islands, to bid a final farewell to Aotearoa before moving on to their Pacific homeland of Hawaiki.

Manawatāwhi were also named the Three Kings Islands by Abel Tasman on 6 January 1643, three weeks after he became the first European known to have seen New Zealand. It was the Twelfth Night feast of the Epiphany, the day the biblical three kings known as the wise men visited Christ as a child. Tasman found the islands to be inhabited by Māori, but since 1840 – the year of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi – they have been uninhabited. In 1995, the islands were made a wildlife sanctuary.

From this single akapukaea plant ­– found and rescued from near extinction – many more were cultivated. It is now common in domestic gardens across New Zealand and readily available in most garden centres. However, in the wild, the plant remains classified as a ‘nationally critical’ threatened species. Apt then, that it appears here in the Native Plant Ideas garden – fervently climbing repurposed wharf posts and marine rope which frame the dilapidated remains of an old whaling boat – echoing the unique and now precarious plight of the whale.

The Latin word speciosa can be translated as ‘beautiful’ or ‘handsome’. The long cream-coloured tubular flowers of Tecomanthe speciosa provide nectar for, and are pollinated by, birds both native and exotic.

Pseudopanax ferox

Pseudopanax ferox, the horoeka or toothed lancewood, is an evergreen species endemic to Aotearoa New Zealand. The Latin Pseudopanax has been translated as ‘false cure’. The Greek name Panax translates as ‘all-healing’ and shares the same origin as ‘panacea’. Ferox can mean ‘fierce’ – in this case referring to the trees’ spiny, saw-toothed leaves. Hence, it can also be referred to as fierce or savage lancewood.

Horoeka has distinct juvenile and adult forms, also shaped by its role as a food source for the now extinct moa bird. Its juvenile form strikes an unwelcoming appearance to predators, with long, downward pointing narrow leaves which are very tough and feature irregular blunt bumps along their edges. Yet as the narrow trunk grows taller after 10 to 15 years – and hence harder for the tall moa to reach its leaves – these leaves become fleshier and with fewer teeth. The form of the tree also becomes more bushy as branches spread to form a round head, the leaves change colour (from a dark grey-brown/grey-green colour in to a dark green), and it bears small purple fruit.

The New Zealand Plant Conservation Network classifies it as ‘At Risk – Naturally Uncommon’. Horoeka used to be rare in cultivation, but is now a favoured gardening plant in Aotearoa. It is reported to have gained wider popularity following its use in the gold-medal winning New Zealand exhibit at the 2004 Chelsea Flower Show in the United Kingdom. Sponsored by Tourism New Zealand, the garden was entitled ‘The 100% Pure New Zealand Ora Garden of Well-being’.

The garden was based around a Māori legend of mythical guardians of the land and featured native bush, carvings, a misty thermal hot pool, miniature pink and white terraces, murals of Mount Tongariro, and a soundtrack of bird song and kōauau and pūtorino flutes. All the plants were native, some endangered or species of significance to the central North Island region. Others were chosen for their medicinal, culinary and bird attracting qualities. In 2007, the original creators rebuilt and replanted the garden at the Taupo Museum where it remains.