It's possible Ian Hutchinson was born for his new job. The long-time New Plymouth District Council parks staffer retains staggering knowledge of botanical Latin as well as ease in pronouncing plant names. He's animated when he's talking botany. He laughs, provides precise detail and clearly gains satisfaction from immersion in a green world. Growing up, his father, a former deputy principal at Spotswood College, taught botany and science as well as volunteering at Pukeiti.
Hooking into the horticultural industry may have seemed, therefore, like Ian's destiny.
In April, he was named botanical records officer for Pukekura Park, a new position that current parks staff say is a first in their living memory.
Based in the curator's office - that stucco residential-looking building snuggled into a hillside adjacent to the cricket ground - Ian will work alongside park curator Chris Connolly.
"It's the first time there's been a person dedicated to that role. We've had people keeping records as an adjunct to other roles but that's never been their sole purpose," explains Chris Marshall, parks and operations team leader.
Chris and Ian, who both started with the parks department in the early eighties, recall "outwards" books being kept - notebooks listing what was planted where and when. Decades of such material is held by Puke Ariki and the parks department. Stuart Robertson, parks operations manager, says aside from staff, plant material is the most important resource in the park.
"If we don't have a decent handle on what we have got, how do we manage it. It's getting harder and harder to bring new plants in [to the country] and many of these old parks have plant material that basically has been forgotten about, and we may be able to disseminate it out to other like-minded organisations rather than spend thousands bringing something in."
Aside from that collegial approach it's more efficient to manage what you have, he says. This means, for example, if plants are dying in a particular spot someone is recording that data, to save mistakes being repeated.
Previously, it came down to the passion of former curators and staff as to whether records were kept, suggests Stuart.
"We have some fabulous people in the Friends of the Park [group] and in former curators who assist us but this will formalise that knowledge." In the late nineties Ian worked with former curator Ian McDowell on a project to catalogue all plants. However McDowell's death in 2000 halted the work. Some of the information is in hard copy, some on floppy discs using a word processor system now well out of date.
Ian can think of examples of areas where better record-keeping will enrich a spot.
Take Cannon Hill, he says, hauling out paper plans of landscape drawings. That's the hill in front of the main boating lake, just above the band rotunda. Drawings are dated 1981 and "in fact there are quite a number of plants shown that don't exist any more and that's going to be part of the job, keeping track of not only what's alive but what existed in the past. We want to create a whole picture of plants, their history, their lifespan and that sort of thing." Just as a museum has an inventory of its collection, so a park needs the same.
"The only difference with this is you are dealing with living organisms so you'll have some things that drop out, others come in." Computers and digital information will be at Ian's disposal but so will old-fashioned stuff - paper, pencils and pages with books. On his desk sits one of those books, a large bound journal called an Accession book. It resembles a ledger: Columns are ruled, headings given and information recorded in loping pencil script. There's a date, a botanical name, the number of plants that went into the ground and an accession number.
There will always be a hard copy because paper is accessible and people's levels of computer literacy vary, says Ian.
The park contains unusual species and answering questions about those rare materials is also part of the job. Within a month of starting Ian had already fielded at least 12 queries, including a handful from the Environmental Protection Authority. Others come from the Friends of the Park, who're creating their own database of significant park plants.
Gaps are expected. He already knows of periods in the park's history when written records - according to existing archives - were sketchy. But tracking all plants minimises the chance of important but nondescript specimens falling prey to neglect, he points out. The Glastonbury Thorn, a small contorted tree on the Vivian St side of the St Mary's vicarage, has links to the introduction of Christianity to Britain. A wooden plaque briefly details its history; if that vanished and time passed, its worth might fall into obscurity. While the tree isn't in Pukekura Park there is hope that in time other reserves and parks will come under the records officer's jurisdiction.
Once much of the information has been collated it will be loaded into a global database called Botanical Gardens Base. Taranaki Regional Council began using the database about two years ago for its regional gardens. Botanic gardens in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin are hooked into the same system. Sharing information across botanical collections will be easier and in time, the public should be able to access it once a critical mass of local material is loaded on.
Ian envisages a boost for visitors to the park. For example at Auckland Botanic Gardens visitors can generate reports about particular species. "The other reason I think it will give me great satisfaction is I think it will pull information together that over time means visitors and the owners of the garden [the ratepayers] will be much better serviced with information regarding what they see, or what the park contains."
Ian's role must have made his dad proud. Alec Hutchinson was named the inaugural Taranaki winner of the NZ Gardener magazine gardener of the year competition. A stalwart at Pukeiti, he was also the driver of thriving plant sales held as part of the St Chad's Anglican church gala days.
Ian recalls helping his dad at the stall, joking that they pulled in more profit than those at the cake table.
"I guess he spurred the interest in plants." In his early teaching days at a posting to Kawhia Alec Hutchinson taught horticulture and started work on a national diploma. At Spotswood as a biology and science teacher he also ran horticulture classes.
Starting at NPDC, Ian completed a four-year apprenticeship before he became qualified. Most recently he's been the parks technical officer.
"It's amazing what changes we've made in just one month," he says talking of the new job. "There's an excitement developing because once you have to start fishing for information your curiosity gets piqued - the more you know the more you want to know."
A passion springs from him. It's a cliche - we march "passion" out for anyone displaying enthusiasm. But his is an open, laugh-out-loud enthusiasm.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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