John P. Adam[2]

Landscapes are constantly changing, both ecologically and culturally, and the vectors of change occur over many time scales. In order to plan landscapes they must be understood within their spatial and temporal contexts.[3]

Daniel J. Marcucci, 2000.

It may come as a surprise that in nineteenth century New Zealand, many urban dwellers and some very wealthy pastoralists had a love affair with trees. Millions of mainly exotic trees were planted during the 1870s and 1880s in Auckland, Canterbury and Otago. Earlier in the 1850s, willows and poplars had been planted, followed by eucalyptus and then conifers. The young conical form of the very fast growing gum and pine trees were protected from cattle grazing along roadsides by being enclosed by large timber fences.

In 1875, one Auckland horticultural journalist described the types of tree in a Newmarket nursery: ‘First of all was the age of poplars and willows; afterwards the eucalypti came into fashion; and now the run is chiefly on pines – the Insignis particularly.’[4] There was feverish activity in both town and country to shelter roadside ‘runs’, beautify town streets and parks, clean the air of ‘miasmas’ and attempt to cease the drying of the climate by attracting rainfall, the latter by retaining mountain vegetation and planting dense ‘plantations’ on lowlands.[5] There was also additional employment for timber merchants and live tree businesses.

Street trees in the Auckland Province

In December 1859, during the visit to the Auckland province of the Austrian Novara Expedition there was an editorial ‘Trees for the City’ published in the New Zealander newspaper. It referred to a meeting of the Auckland Horticultural Society, where a debate took place between the Chairman (Mr. Fischer) the Superintendent (Mr. Williamson) and Mr. Heaphy. ‘All dwelt strongly on the great want of trees that exist, especially in the higher portions of the City.’ It was further suggested that both the ‘Colonial and Provincial Legislature should pass Acts compelling every landholder to plant so many quick-growing trees each year on the more hilly parts of his land, both for the sake of shelter for sheep and cattle and as a preservative of a water supply from our hill-streams …’[6]

The first record of planting trees – lime trees, Tilia x europaea – is around 1873 or 1874, with the planting done by the Auckland Improvement Commissioners in Princes Street. The three North Shore area Highway Boards, called ‘North Shore’, ‘Devonport’ and ‘Lake’, organised tree planting along their roads and streets in 1874 and 1875. The Auckland Provincial Council through its Highways Act, 1874, which was in turn enabled by central government legislation, funded them:

It shall be lawful for any District Board out of the expenses of procuring and planting upon any public highway public recreation ground river or creek bank public reserve or upon waste lands of the Crown within the district any forest or other trees and the Superintendent may out of monies to be placed at his disposal for that purpose by the Provincial Council pay to any District Board any such sum or sums of money as he may consider reasonable as a contribution towards the expense of procuring and planting trees as afforested.[7]

To support its tree-planting reform, the Auckland Provincial Government allocated seven hundred pounds to, for example, the Devonport and Mount Eden Highway Boards. Over time, some of these boards later became boroughs in their own right.

However, the first record of direct public involvement in street-trees planting, motivated by the wider debate about the environmental values of trees, was in autumn 1876, when Auckland City Council announced that ‘a letter was received from the residents in Hepburn Street [Ponsonby] requesting permission to plant trees in the streets fronting their houses, and also asking the Council to assist in planting trees in that locality …’[8] The Council allocated a further two hundred pounds in May 1876.[9]

While land was being increasingly cleared across New Zealand of native forest, during the early 1870s legislation to encourage tree planting was passed by both the central and provincial governments. Tree cover was valued at this time, with an international debate about the value of trees to ameliorate climate by attracting rainfall. This is now called ‘desiccation theory’ by environmental historians.[10] Native vegetation until this time was managed for some economic uses such as for construction timber, dyes, firewood etc.

Government support emerged by the late 1870s for the creation of new public places such as the ‘plantation reserves’ beyond the wide productive grass ‘run’ we now call a road or street. Older suburbs of Auckland such as Onehunga and Ponsonby have several very wide grass berms planted in trees today. Plantation reserve blocks were approved by crown institutions such as the Crown Lands Board. For example, in September 1881 the Auckland Board granted the Epsom Road Board ten acres as a ‘plantation reserve’.[11] Trees such as Eucalyptus and Pinus were planted, together with wattle or Acacia. It is probable that those plantations reserves located on the coast, near beaches, were planted to supply firewood and potentially take pressure off the coastal pohutukawa, Metrosideros excelsa, that were used as firewood by campers but were also increasingly valued for their beauty. The age of the urban ‘Beautifying Society’ and regional ‘Conservation Society’ was dawning across New Zealand and ‘native’ trees began to take pride of place in public parks and reserves.[12] The case to preserve native vegetation was argued by those same farmers planting the new fast-growing exotic trees.

Dunedin tree dispersal

The first Forest Tree Encouragement Act, 1871 was followed by the Forest Tree Encouragement Amendment Act, 1872, and later reformed further by the passing of the Forest Tree Encouragement Amendment Act, 1879 and attendant regulations.[13] These early 1870s acts were similar to the Otago Wastelands Act, 1872 that allowed for the appointment of rangers and formalised tree planting.[14] In July 1873, there was discussion in Parliament over the ownership of the thousands of trees, both exotic (mainly conifers) and native (Kowhai), being grown in the then Government-funded ‘Otago’ Botanic Gardens.

… Mr. Green asked the Secretary for Lands – If he will inform the Council on what principle the forest trees and ornamental shrubs grown in the [Dunedin/Otago] Botanical Gardens have been distributed by the Government, and if it is to supply those districts with plants that have not yet received any?

The Secretary for Lands answered – They have been supplied on application to the public gardens, cemeteries and other places of a public character only, and not for private individuals, applications from whom have always been refused.[15]

Disappearing trees

Where were those many millions of trees actually planted during the 1870s to 1900s, and what happened to them once they were mature?

Fig 1: Aerial view of Middlemarch, from H. M. Thompson, East of the Rock and Pillar: A History of the Strath Taieri and Macraes Districts, Whitcombe & Tombs, Dunedin, 1949.

In the mid-2000s a Middlemarch farmer, Anne Elliott, and a Dunedin arborist, David Baird, wrote a small book Notable Trees of the Strath Taieri: A Collection of the 22 Best Trees in the Area with Historical Information.[16] Anne Elliot’s Strath Taieri (Central Otago) research provides one of the first published answers to the question of what became of the nineteenth-century tree plantings.[17] She documents the activities of small mobile sawmills that travelled about the Strath Taieri farms during the 1940s milling the old farm plantations for the use on government projects, probably including hydro-electricity infrastructure. An example is scaffolding timber, which was required in large quantities for hydro dam construction.[18]

Central Otago historian H. M. Thompson published his East of the Rock and Pillar: A History of the Strath Taieri and Macraes Districts, in 1949, with an aerial image of the Strath Taieri and Anne Elliot’s farmland surrounded by a persistent plantation (Figure 1). The same book recorded that some of these trees were the result of plantings for ‘free lands.’[19] This suggested that money came via funds established under one of the Government’s Forest Tree Improvement or Wasteland Acts.

There is also a map in the Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives of New Zealand (AJHRNZ) from 1913 illustrating the Strath Taieri Valley near Middlemarch.[20] The plan shows rows of plantations marked on a map as a series of green strips organised in an east-west axis (Figure 2). While cycling to meet Anne Elliott through a landscape of contemporary plantations the author could see that the plantations were planted on a north-south axis several kilometres long on the western side of town. He began to realise that he was probably cycling along a replanted and or relict 100 yard wide plantation planted north-south and wrongly illustrated on the AJHRNZ map![21]

Landowners chose their own places to plant the trees, such as around the Teviot (Figure 3) and Awamoa (Figure 4) homesteads of Cargill and Anderson[22] and Matthew Holmes.[23] This activity was described as ‘ornamentation of private property or residence, or the gratification of a hobby on the part of an individual,’ and was criticised by the New Zealand Government-appointed and Indian-trained forester I. Campbell Walker in his official report of 1877.[24] This extensive private planting practice was concurrent with 1870’s Auckland Provincial Government-subsidised tree plantings, for which only public places were chosen, and with some of the monies used to run open competitions to design layouts for and fund professional planting of the trees.

Fig 2: Part of the map with the wrongly-aligned plantations illustrated in ‘South Island New Zealand showing Forest Areas’ , in AJHRNZ, 1913. C-12.

Fig 3: ‘Plan of Plantations, Teviot Station, March 1885’, L85/3701, in LS53 6 1887/302-499. Cargill and Anderson Memo, 1887/420, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.

Fig 4: ‘Awa moa’, Matthew Holmes, with plantations marked. LINZ, Dunedin.


The 1870s Forest Tree Encouragement Planting legislation was repealed in 1885, ending the policy of allocating for each acre of trees planted (over a minimum of 20 acres) one or two free acres or from one to four pounds per acre up to a maximum of 250 acres. The land grant option only functioned in the early period of the legislation and the cash payments, reducing to one pound per acre, came towards the end of the scheme in 1888.[25]

The new direction was heralded in the new State Forest Act, 1885. A new tree- planting policy was also indicated by the decision to appoint the chairmen of all the New Zealand counties as ‘Conservators of Forests.’[26] One of the notable appointed chairmen was John Monk of the Waitemata County Council,[27] who in 1886 gave an enlightened speech about forest conservation.[28] Lake County established a tree nursery at Cardrona.[29] Other legislation provided for ‘plantation reserves’ in the 1880s locating the trees being planted in more public places.[30] In 1896, central Government appointed the Otago nurseryman Henry Matthews as the first State Forester. (There had, however, already been Scottish-trained foresters-cum-landscape-gardeners associated with the Auckland Domain (John Chalmers and William Goldie), John Armstrong in the Canterbury Botanic Gardens, and senior staff in the Dunedin Botanic Gardens.[31]

Auckland’s tree planting was influenced by tree fashions that encouraged both Pinus radiata and blue gums, Eucalyptus globulus, to be planted – although they only lasted a few years before being replaced by longer-lasting trees such as Lombardy poplars, Populus x nigra (in Princes Street, Central City) and a mixture of either plane tree, Platanus x hybrid, English oak, Quercus robur, or elm, Ulmus procera.

Old trees still grow in Hepburn, Princes and Symonds Streets in Auckland, and date from this period, while the very wide streets in the suburbs of Ponsonby and Onehunga are sometimes still lined with their original trees and still reflect the old urban land use laws. Tree planting also focused attention on nearby native bush reserves and the scenery preservation movement from the 1890s onwards. For example, Hamilton City’s urban bush areas date from the 1870s. And, by way of a final observation, ‘plantations’ also evolved as a distinctive reserve type by the 1880s, when fast-growing trees began to be used as a functional tool to smother weeds such as blackberry and gorse.

[1]An earlier version of this paper was published as ‘Plant trees: A short history of the Otago and Auckland Forest Tree Encouragement planting policy of the 19th century’ in Legacy, Journal of New Zealand Federation of Historical Societies, Vol 23 No 1 (2011), pp 8-11.

[2]John Adam is an Auckland-based garden/landscape historian whose business is ‘Endangered Gardens.’ Environmental history has been applied to his practice since reading Richard Grove’s ground-breaking book Green Imperialism (and meeting him) in 1997. Acknowledgements to Prof. M. Roche, Massey University, Palmerston North, Dr James Beattie, Senior Lecturer, History Department, University of Waikato, and Anne Elliott, Middlemarch, Central Otago and David Verran, Auckland City Libraries.

[3]Daniel J. Marcucci, ‘Landscape history as a planning tool’, Landscape and Urban Planning, 49 (2000), pp 67-81.

[4]I. Newmarket, ‘Our Nurseries’, Auckland Weekly News, 18 January 1875.

[5]The human influence on climate change was argued in Auckland by 1859 visiting Vienna scientist Ferdinand von Hochstetter. See New Zealander, 14 December 1859.

[6]Editorial, ‘Trees for the City’, New Zealander, 14 December 1859.

[7]Statutes of New Zealand, 1874.

[8]New Zealand Herald, 20 April 1876, p 3 col 5.

[9]New Zealand Herald, 2 May 1876, p 3 col 4.

[10]Richard Grove, Green Imperialism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996; Michael M. Roche, Forest Policy in New Zealand: An Historical Geography, 1840 -1919, Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 1987.

[11]Minutes of Crown Lands Board (Auckland), Auckland Weekly News, 17 September 1881, p 9.

[12]John Adam and Dinah Holman, ‘North Shore City Parks and Reserves History’ and ‘Schedule of Park Structures’, prepared for the Parks Division, North Shore City Council. 2001.

[13]Wilfred Badger, The Statutes of New Zealand 1842-1884 Vol 1, 1885, pp 344-5, 846. The 1879 Act redefined the access to tree planting monies by local government.

[14]The Statutes of New Zealand, 1872.

[15]Minute of Otago Provincial Council, 18 July 1873. In, Acts and Proceedings of the Otago Provincial Council. Some 30,000 trees are recorded in the Dunedin Botanic Garden live plant records as being available for distribution.

[16]Privately published. Second edition, 2006

[17]Mr. Burns Pollock from North Otago, a farmer/artist, confirmed to the writer in 2010 that the old runs/estates at both New Windsor (near Oamaru) and the Goodwood Station (near Omarama) saw mobile sawmills cut down many trees as a timber supply for use on the hydro towns at Otematata and Twizel.

[18]Ruth M. Houghton, Mearl Caskey and Una Gold, Social and Economic Impacts of Forestry in West Otago, 1898-1982, Business Development Centre, University of Otago, Dunedin, 1983. There were several other private experimental nineteenth-century conifer plantations milled in the twentieth century in places such as Canterbury and Browns Bay, North Shore.

[19]H. M. Thompson, East of the Rock and Pillar: A History of the Strath Taieri and Macraes Districts, Whitcombe and Tombs, Dunedin, 1949.

[20]‘Map of South Island New Zealand Showing Forest Areas’ attached to ‘Royal Commission of Forestry, 1913’, C-12. AJHRNZ, 1913.

[21]Anne Elliot’s research uncovered the names of the farmers who received money from the 1870s Forest Tree Encouragement Planting Acts.

[22]Cargill and Anderson Memorandums and estate plan. This includes 1887/420 ‘Re 62 [pounds] land grant for tree planting”, in LS 53/6, 1887/302-499. Archives New Zealand (ANZ), Wellington.

[23]Seeds for many of the trees planted by Mathew Holmes are believed to have come from the Philadelphia Exposition held at St. Louis in the 1870s. Some 250 genera and species are listed. See ‘List of Trees Growing at Oamaru’, New Zealand Gazette, 1876, pp 782-3.

[24]M. M. Roche, Forest Policy in New Zealand: An Historical Geography, 1840-1919, 1987, p 84.

[25]Section 30 of the Forest Act, 1885 paralleled Section 3 of Forest Tree Encouragement Act 1871 re ‘not exceeding two pounds per acre for tree planting’. Memorandum, Thomas Kirk, Chief Conservator of State Forests to Commissioner of State Forests, 12 May 1886. Pp 149-50 in LS 53/14, Outwards memorandum book (Forests), December 1885 – May 1889. ANZ, Wellington.

[26]Under section 12 of the 1885 Forests Act, chairpersons of county councils were declared ‘Conservators of Forests’. [Circular Letter], Commissioner of State Forests, 29 December 1885, in LS 53 14, Outwards memorandum book (Forests), December 1885 – May 1889. ANZ, Wellington.

[27]For John Monk, see David Verran, The North Shore: An Illustrated History, Random House, Auckland, 2010, pp 162 and 164.

[28]Waitemata County Council. New Zealand Herald, 6 February 1886, p 6 col 2.

[29]AJHRNZ, B-10, 1887.

[30]See Land Acts through the 1880s and 1890s.

[31]David Tannock, ‘The history, development and activities of reserves departments in New Zealand’, Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture, Vol 10 No 4 (1941).