Bringing back the golden glow

ROSEMARIE SMITH
Last updated 14:49 25/09/2013
Kim
Guardian for Hart’s Brewery daffodils Kim ‘‘Dusty’’ Murtagh, with self-appointed assistant Tiny, holds just a small bunch of early daffodils, signalling the wonders of Benjamin Hart’s golden bequest to Lawrence.

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It's stating the blooming obvious to say gardening lends itself to magnificent obsessions.

A feature writer gets to see a good few of these, but they don't come much grander than Hart's Black Horse Brewery daffodils.

It's not just the scope of the original plantings by Lawrence brewing magnate Benjamin Hart - who indulged a very Victorian floricultural passion, starting in the 1890s, and eventually taking in 4 hectares of his 10-hectare industrial and personal estate - it's also the passion driving the 21st-century project to bring back a golden glow to the former Wetherstons goldfields.

Hart has come down in history as a larger-than-life figure, a successful goldminer, great sportsman, astute businessman, benevolent employer and philanthropist.

"We shall not look on his like again," his obituary writer concluded.

The passion for daffodils was just one of many interests - other enthusiasms shaping his estate included rhododendrons and poultry-breeding.

His story reads like a mini-version of tulip mania, with up to a million bulbs planted and no expense spared in sourcing them from as far as the Netherlands. The legend even includes the purchase of that elusive prize, a black daffodil bulb, for [PndStlg]100 (this when the average wage was [PndStlg]5 a week), only to find it rotten on arrival.

Wetherstons became daffodil central, with the Hart family opening their fields to public daffodil picking, raising funds for charity, initially for Plunket and Dr Barnados homes, then in wartime for patriotic funds.

Daffodil Day began here in 1900, continuing after Hart's death in 1917 and the sale and ultimate closure of the brewery in 1923.

The legend cites 1937 as the golden year, when 1500 people travelled by three special trains from Dunedin.

Daffodil Day caught on as a fundraiser, but the annual day here withered after the late 1950s.

Rhododendron woodland garden engulfed the Hart residence and brewery, buildings fell into ruin, weeds invaded the daffodil fields, and Wetherstons, once the fun capital of the goldfields, fell silent.

However, the seed of the idea (or, in this case, all those bulbs) remained firmly in the ground.

Fifty years later, a group of volunteers took on the task of reviving the daffodil fields and woodland garden, forming Hart's Daffodil Charitable Trust in 2008.

Its goals encompass developing the site, creating educational opportunities, scientific and community links.

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This includes hosting an annual Daffodil Dayze event, the proceeds of which still go to charity, this year Ronald McDonald House South Island.

As much as the trust desperately needs funds itself, honouring Benjamin Hart's vision is at the core of their work.

The trust statement is magnificently Victorian and moral.

Hart "set out to bring his vision of beauty and joy to an obscure valley and created something of extraordinary magnificence, beauty and inspiration".

The trust will be guided by his example, and the "principle of learning to move toward our goals and desires one step at a time and learning to love the doing".

But where Hart had the financial resources and the staff to indulge his passion, the trust has to look to what is optimistically described as community funding initiatives.

But gold fever has ever been infectious, and many organisations have chipped in as sponsors.

Community service workers have laboured long and hard to clear weeds, cut back overgrowth and build pathways on steep gully slopes.

Volunteers stepped up to administer the trust and to run events - this in a community of 900 who impressively support some 50 groups.

Not the least of those volunteers is the irrepressible Kim "Dusty" Murtagh, who fronts for the trust as guardian of the garden, dressed in Victorian costume and full of the joy of growing things.

Not just daffodils either. All sorts of treasures are reappearing as the thick tree canopy is reduced, the likes of aconites, aquilegia, hellebore, snowdrops and violets, while primroses (apparently another Hart passion) pop up alongside paths through the daffodils. There are also trees of aged grandeur.

After the daffodils, the garden will be awash in pink rhododendrons, extending the main visiting season September 1 to November 30, when the site is open daily, and by arrangement at other times.

Tree damage from a heavy snow dump in June, just when all was in order for the new season, hasn't diminished Murtagh's enthusiasm, buoyed by the recent Historic Places Trust Category 1 recognition of the site's significance.

This was the result of eight years' research and lobbying, and will hopefully open avenues for funding.

The citation includes the importance of the daffodils on scientific, aesthetic and cultural grounds. This year's theme for Daffodil Dayze on September 29 is Circus Dayze, offering a "an atmosphere of olde world charm". Buses run from Dunedin, Balclutha, Alexandra and possibly Gore for $10 return.

For more information, contact Dusty (03) 485 9968 or see hbhb.co.nz and is.gd/B9nlGq.

Story suggestions or feedback on this page are welcome at timesgardening@gmail.com.

- The Southland Times

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