Lynn Bublitz is not walking away from Pukeiti.
That's the first thing he wants to make clear, handing over a copy of the Pukeiti Journal he now edits and pointing out he took most of the photos. "And I'm still a member of the board."
He was elected to the chair of the Pukeiti executive committee in 1977, a position he held for about 20 years. When the executive committee was discontinued in the late 1990s, Lynn was elected to the Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust Board, of which he later became chair for nearly 10 years. In spring this year, he stepped down and received an accolade that overwhelmed him.
If you head to this garden of national significance on the lower slopes of Mt Taranaki, you will find the Bublitz Education Centre.
"To me, that was a moving tribute," says the man who spent 38 years in education, including 15 years as deputy principal of New Plymouth Boys' High School and 11 years as principal of Inglewood High School.
He is also on the New Plymouth District Council. His first stint was 24 years, then he was voted off for a term, but came back in the last local body election in 2010. He won't be drawn on his plans for next year. "I know what you journalists are like . . ."
Now we have the roles ticked off, it's time to talk of inspiration and volunteers, of botany and learning, of passion for a place.
Lynn's love of plants began when he was a student at Boys' High. He was mates with a lad called Bruce Dyer, whose parents were Helen and Jack Fairbrother. Sitting on the deck overlooking his home garden, Lynn looks westward. "They lived just across the river (Te Henui) from here. It was their garden that inspired me to be a gardener."
They were also keen members of Pukeiti and, in 1955, Lynn and Bruce joined them on a working bee.
"There were a number of azalea mollis in flower and they were attractive and I enjoyed the experience very much, and the enthusiasm of the company," he says.
"You always need enthusiasts to plant seeds."
Lynn went off to university and gained an honours degree in botany, returned to Taranaki and joined working bees at Pukeiti in 1964.
"It was the native forest that held the first attraction for me. I probably knew two rhododendrons because Mum had them in her garden."
They were the Countess of Haddington and White Pearl, the latter of which he thought had wonderful silver leaves. "But in actual fact the leaves were sucked dry by thrips," he laughs.
He learnt a great deal from three plants men, Jack Goodwin, Alan Jellyman and Graham Smith.
Jack, the curator of Pukekura Park for many years, was also dedicated to the rhododendron haven. "He was the man who designed Pukeiti. It was covered in bush and scrub and he could envisage it without scrub. Still the basic plan of Pukeiti is Jack's plan - so 60 years on, it's changed very little," Lynn says.
"He would walk around Pukeiti with me when he was an old man and say, 'Lynn keep the margins back.' If you walked away from Pukeiti, within three years it would be reclaimed by the forest."
If Jack walked around Lynn and wife Robyn's garden, he would be giving him the same advice. Their New Plymouth haven is like a baby Pukeiti, filled with special plants from around the world and, of course, rhodos.
Alan, who became New Plymouth director of parks and Graham, a long-time director at Pukeiti (now retired) were Lynn's plant teachers.
"I used to follow Graham and Alan around like a little boy. They used to say 'that's so and so' and I used to absorb all this knowledge and I thought I knew quite a few plants."
But one day Lynn was reminded he still had a long way to go. A man named Charles Puddle from Bodnant Garden in Wales visited Pukeiti and Lynn took him on a tour pointing out the name of plants.
"He would say 'no it isn't'."
That happened a few times, until Lynn began to wonder if tutors Alan and Graham had led him up the garden path. That's not what happened. "I just got it wrong," he concedes.
A timeline of Lynn's accomplishments at Pukeiti show he got things right most of the time.
It talks of hosting international visitors, establishing alliances with other gardens around the world, of leading successful donation and sponsorship drives, of political negotiations and helping to improve the garden and facilities in every way. In 1987, he was awarded the Winston Churchill Fellowship and went to Britain to look at visitor facilities in public gardens to glean ideas for Pukeiti.
Over the years he's watched the big-leaf rhododendrons grow to huge specimens and the collection of Maddenia rhododendrons and vireyas thrive. "There would not be another garden in the world that could display the range of species in those three groups."
Many of the plants growing at Pukeiti have been collected from the wild and have since become endangered because of deforestation and climate change.
"In the world, rhododendrons grow in a narrow climatic range," says Lynn.
One of those places is the Cangshan ranges in Yunnan, China, which he has visited 10 times (he's been to China 13 times). "The top of the range is has high as Aoraki/Mt Cook and is covered in a carpet of small-leaf rhododendrons."
He's been lucky enough to see them in bloom.
But it seems the best place in the world to grow rhododendrons is at Pukeiti. Cold winters and high rainfall (about 3 metres per year) means that visitors will find rhodos in flower for seven to nine months of the year. "Some of the rhododendrons that do well up there simply will not flower down here in New Plymouth - the winters are too warm."
That climate isn't so pleasant for staff and volunteers working at Pukeiti. "The raindrops are as big as cups I think sometimes," Lynn says.
Over the years, the 360-hectare property has been planted with thousands of rimu, helping to re-establish the native rainforest, which he believes is a stunning backdrop to the 25 hectares of cultivated gardens. A large tract of that land is leased off PKW Farms.
But wait, there's more.
"When you go around with mad plants people like Alan and Graham, you cast your eyes downwards and you see another world of plants - things like primulas, autumn crocuses and trilliums to name a few," he says.
"One of the things we did was import a range of perennials, including hostas and ajuga."
It's not always been great for the plants up there because nature can be harsh. For Lynn, the hardest times were after cyclones Bernie in 1982 and Bola in 1988.
It's the latter Lynn recalls most. "I remember going up there during the storm and I walked with Graham down the hybrid block and the rhododendrons rolled past us like tumbleweed," he says.
"Over 150 rhododendrons were destroyed in that storm and the leaves were ripped from the forest - it was denuded. I never thought the garden would refurbish, but it did. The garden now is as glorious as it ever was."
Keeping Pukeiti afloat has also been an ongoing battle. "We tried desperately to increase the income through business initiatives, but we could never reach the desired cash flow we needed," he says.
"Five years ago we had to start dipping into the trust fund to pay the wages and realised we were on the slippery slope. We realised we could only last for 10 more years at that rate."
That's when the Taranaki Regional Council stepped in to buy the property and entered a relationship with the trust. "The objectives of the trust were accepted as the base of that relationship," says Lynn, the politician.
Then it's back to heart stuff. "Good gardens have a spiritual dimension."
Becoming reflective, he talks of feeling that many times at Pukeiti when he's been touched by the light and colour of that special place.
"It enlivens your spirit."
As does volunteering. "I think you just need to keep active and engaged in the community and do what you can do. I think you owe the community whatever talents you've got."
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