In 1926, a gorse-tangled clay bank was tunnelled into by hand during what was the humble beginning of Pukekura Park's Fernery.
A Mrs H Lovell, of Hawera, put the design together based on something similar she had at home.
In July 1927, planting started and houses one, two and three were filled with more than 1000 ferns, many of which were donated by Duncan and Davies.
The Pukekura Park Fernery was officially opened in 1928 by the Mayor, H V S Griffiths.
Nearly all that remains of that original design is a pile of photographs, says park curator Chris Connolly.
"This has taken us from the dark ages through to the 20th century," he says of the upgrade.
"It's been absolutely life changing for the team here."
As well as a complete makeover of its landscape, the fernery received a new roof, contemporary growing areas, and a new administrative hub which sits among the greenery.
It doesn't take long to notice the superficial changes when approaching the fernery.
Gone is the traditional ponga fence that enclosed the area for so many years, with two rounded, red brick structures standing tall in its place.
The design was carefully chosen to fit in with the park, and depicts an old- fashioned, Victorian-style vogue, Connolly says.
Although the same footprint is being used, the buildings have been elevated to catch more sunlight.
The ergonomics of the site were a major focus during the $1.6 million upgrade, in an attempt to make life easier on staff, Connolly says.
"It's been a particularly difficult and challenging site to do because we had four different levels and all these had small tracks for shifting plants and materials.
"Things used to be dumped and wheelbarrowed by hand, which was just a nightmare. We've done our best to eliminate and solve those issues."
Perhaps one of the most exciting changes, according to horticultural technician Judi Lee, is a new hopper attached to the potting shed.
In the past, potting mix was lugged around difficult tracks by wheelbarrow. It can now be loaded into the hopper, sent down a shute and land at the fingertips of the potter.
"We probably get about two cubic metres of potting mix a month and it was shifted by wheelbarrow, so that's a lot of work. This would probably save us a couple of days' work at least," she says.
A new control system has replaced hand-operated vents.
Senses within each structure can pick up humidity, record wind speed and measure light, which prompts the vent and watering systems into action.
"Before, all that not only had to be done by hand, but we had to guess what the conditions were," Connolly says.
"This system makes it physically easier for the staff, but also, technically it's a lot more accurate."
Lee laughs when the Taranaki Daily News suggests she will have nothing to do all day, what with these hi-tech systems.
"Oh, there's still plenty left for me."
Heated pipes, pads and blow heaters throughout the propagation and tropical houses are having a major impact on the growth of plant cuttings and rare flowers.
Lee says there has been better plant growth even in the first month of the new system.
As we walk through to her pride and joy, the Tropical House, she sees an unfamiliar sight.
"I've never seen that flower before in the 10 years I've been here," she says pointing to a Costus speciosus.
"The extra heat in the tropical house is just wonderful. I have a passion for those plants and when I see them suffering in the winter cold, and you can't get them to perform, it's a shame.
"It's so nice to see them flowering better already."
The extra heating and ventilation will allow them to grow new things.
"These houses were originally built to house ferns, not flowering plants, so we weren't really situated in the right place.
"Having a bit more heat and air movement helps us overcome those challenges. The fans help to dry off the foliage and make the flowers a bit longer lasting."
As one wanders through the lush green of the Tropical House, colours of bright orange, blue, yellow and red pop from within the foliage.
You need only to look at the visitors' book to realise the display houses and fernery are held in high regard.
Many of the plants have been in Pukekura Park's collection for nearly 50 years.
"Plant collectors who used to go all around the world and come back with treasures can't do it any more because of biosecurity restrictions," Connolly says.
"That just makes these plants much more special and rare."
A lot of the rare plants have been lost during the past few winters because of the cool temperatures.
"We can now be more assured about preserving these plants. In the wild, a lot of them are on the endangered list."
One of Connolly's favourites is a zygopetalum orchid, which is not only unusual, but has an exquisite scent.
"It has the looks and the smell. What more do you want?"
Being able to wander through the facility and admire the plants without having to travel overseas is something special in Connolly's eyes.
Although the centre is used by some community groups and schools, he hopes more of the Taranaki public will start to use it as an educational resource.
In the next 12 months, staff at the park will focus on making the most of the new facility and looking at the new options that may come about as a result of the upgrades.
"I think, when you're growing things, you need to go through that growing cycle and see what works, find things out, and measure the results against what it used to be like."
The revamp of the fernery, the proposed playground and the water- quality improvements taking place mean it is an exciting time in the park, he says.
"The benefits will come quickly back to the community.
"They will see them here in the displays, the improvements in the lake and the kids and families will enjoy the new playground, I'm sure."
- Taranaki Daily News
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