The botanic gardens' guardian

02:42, Mar 27 2013
John Clemens
It's a big year for John Clemens, as he helps celebrate the Botanic Garden's 150th anniversary.

A Jurassic gift for the Christchurch Botanic Gardens’ 150th anniversary year is a symbol of exciting things to come for this beloved piece of turf.

It’s curator John Clemens’ job to help work out what to plant where for the next half-century.

In 1994, a Jurassic dinosaur was discovered living deep within the misty canyons of the Blue Mountains of Australia, 200km from Sydney. This was no scaly, muscular, lizardine beast with slavering jaws, but a silent, verdant inhabitant of the Wollemi National Park - a tree, Wollemia nobilis, simply known as the Wollemi pine.

Long thought to be extinct, the tree was found in a small grove of seedlings and mature trees by New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife officer David Noble, who recognised its species' singularity and notified the appropriate authorities.

The Wollemi pine is considered by many in botanical circles to be the find of the 20th century. It is a close conifer cousin of the kauri and monkey puzzle trees, and a remnant of a rare 200-million-year-old tree family.
Its discovery made international headlines. Botanists marvelled at the survival of the tree, previously known only from fossils, and rushed to Australia in the hope of seeing it for themselves. Many were disappointed. Now protected as a World Heritage site, the precise location of the cluster of Wollemi pines remains a secret to all but a select few researchers, but tissue samples have been taken and well-entrenched programmes are in place to study, propagate and promote the rare species worldwide.

Among those wishing to see the Wollemi pine in its rugged bush sanctuary was English-born John Clemens, the curator of the Christchurch Botanic Gardens since 2009.

"I visited the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Mount Tomah, which is quite close to it," he says, "and when I was there I asked, 'Well, whereabouts would it be?' They said, 'Oh, somewhere out there. Too far away for you to see.' "

John is, therefore, particularly excited to be heading the botanic gardens team this year, when, as part of the 150th anniversary celebrations of the gardens, the city has been given its own small Wollemi pine.

"Ours is the first Wollemi pine to be planted in New Zealand and it's wonderful that it's planted here," John says. "For reasons of biosecurity - and quite properly - it's taken some time to get that one propagated and ready for release in New Zealand. It's great for those people who've been patient enough to wait. It's been a dream that's been coming for a long time."

The tree was planted on January 30 and is the cornerstone of the Gondwana Garden project, which is already taking shape in the northwest corner of the botanic gardens.

John is a self-confessed romantic when it comes to wild nature. He grew up in "the leafy Chiltern Hills of Buckinghamshire" and passed many enjoyable hours wandering the hedgerows and taking walks through the Burnham Beeches outside London, where, they say, Shakespeare strolled on his journeys down from Stratford-upon-Avon.
This ancient woodland is an area of Anglo-Saxon myth and magic and has sparked many literary and painterly imaginations through the centuries. As well as more arcane rites associated with witchery, it has been used for film and outdoor theatre locations and now has a strong botanic conservation element, as well as being a centre for recreation.

A plant biologist and landscape architect, John began his studies at the University of Bristol, where he graduated with a PhD in organo-metallic chemistry. He then worked as a chemist in Switzerland and undertook further study in landscape ecology.

"One of the good things about becoming a chemist is that you're able, if you like, to do benchtop chemistry, synthetic stuff, doing things with your hands, creating beautiful compounds and trying to understand them," he says. "This enabled me to go to Zurich, where I could study the wildlife there and go for walks in the beautiful mountain scenery."

When he returned to England after his Swiss experience, he found he had no desire to return to chemistry. A yearning for academic adventure and an urge for change from "the old life and the homeland" saw him seek work abroad. Offered a job as a plant biologist at the University of Sydney, "chemistry was left far behind".

At the university, John's work entailed plant research, conservation, horticulture and education. He was there for about 14 years until another job offer in 1987 led to him and his young family shifting to New Zealand, where he took up a position running the New Zealand Nursery Research Centre at Massey University.
This "Australian, English-born Kiwi" says the research centre at Massey is "a halfway house between the cut-flower industry and researchers in Government departments".

"That worked quite well for a starter, and then things changed, and I developed other interests."

John's burgeoning interests included the origins of New Zealand flora, land rehabilitation, nursery crops and landscape perception, and when his wife, Prof Paula Jameson, came home to Christchurch to head the School of Plant Biology at the University of Canterbury, the opportunity opened up for him to pursue his interest in landscape architecture.

He joined Lincoln University and graduated with a Masters in Landscape Architecture two years later, joining the team at Peter Rough Landscape Architects until he won the top job at the botanic gardens. "That was 2009, the year before everything changed."

The curatorial role at the gardens requires John to be spokesman and figurehead for public talks and communication; team leader for day-to-day maintenance, nursery operations and outreach programmes; and the person responsible for guiding the vision for the next 50 years.

"A botanic gardens is based, fundamentally, on its plant collection. Over the decades, people have been building up those different collections, and it's the curator's role to make sure that the individual people on the ground looking after those collections are doing their job properly, and assisting them to develop their skills. In and around the collections, we've got all sorts of things to do with education, the study of the collections and conservation of plants," John says.

He freely admits admiration for the lineage of curators he succeeds.
"I am deeply respectful of those people from the past, because they achieved an awful lot ... The first 50 years was when these botanic gardens were shaped. At the same time the formal flower beds and stately trees were being installed, because that was the popular way in which city gardens were set out, the early curators were also conserving the native plants and starting a native plant collection.

"Enoch Barker was the very first and he was responsible for having the foundation oak planted. Then, after him, came the Armstrongs ... who accumulated a huge collection of native plants that they recognised were going to disappear if they weren't going to do something about it."

By all accounts, these early curators were botanical visionaries, passionate about their vocation and floral charges. Yorkshireman Enoch, appointed as government gardener from 1859, established a nursery on 1.6 hectares and imported many of the English trees gracing the gardens and Hagley Park today. When Queen Victoria's son Prince Albert Edward married Princess Alexandra in 1863, Enoch oversaw the planting of the Albert Edward oak to mark the official opening of the Christchurch Botanic Gardens.

John Armstrong, a Scottish horticulturalist, and son Joseph, guided the development of the gardens throughout the 1870s and '80s with their nursery work with exotics and natives, and undertook the layout and planting of the gardens (now 21 hectares), as well as the surrounding Hagley Park.
"Right from the start, it was a mixture of display for display's sake and conserving of native plants."

Until early 2011, the majestic Cunningham House and the cluster of other, smaller conservatories and fernery surrounding it were repositories for particular collections. These Victorian glasshouses and conservatories have been closed for safety reasons and assessment since the February 2011 earthquake and aftershocks.

"We rescued the plants. Whatever we could, we transplanted or moved out of those conservatories and, if we couldn't move it, we took cuttings. They're in tiny little collections in small greenhouses out the back and other Christchurch City Council facilities in various places," John says. "The botanic gardens is only one part of a network throughout the city. We do conservation work here and study, but an awful lot of work goes on in the regional parks, too."

Adaptation as everywhere else in the city, post-quake - has been the modus operandi, and nursery work continues apace in various back rooms and available spaces near the present visitors' centre. In December this year, a new visitors' centre and operations block, a major project for the 150th year, is scheduled to open. There, the nursery work and close study can continue in pristine, purpose-built premises, which are to be glass-walled for public viewing.

In the meantime, study programmes in the field continue and John is working with the council botanist, Dr Trevor Partridge, to reinvigorate conservation and research activity within the gardens.

One piece of work, the plant sentinel project, studies the insects and fungal pathogens growing on different plants to possibly predict where some of those associates might turn up in other parts of the world.

"If we study what's growing on our oak trees here, it might be useful for people in northern Europe to know that, and, conversely, people with New Zealand plants in other parts of the world, studying what's growing or associated with their plants. It might help us to anticipate what problems we could have from a biosecurity point of view.

"It's a massive project, but it's wonderful, because it involves people from Canterbury and Lincoln universities, as well as people from Scion, the old forest research institute. The context of it is that we need to work with the biosecurity agencies and the primary industries to make sure that we haven't got anything growing here that's going to be harmful; to make sure that we are alert to how we can help in any way."

Another research project involves bees and their culinary preferences.
"We've got a wonderful smorgasbord here for various insects, including native bees. We can give them a choice of plants from all round the world, and native plants as well, so we're looking to see what native bees prefer, and also the introduced bees.

"Many people don't realise how many native bees we have, including the more solitary, ground-nesting ones. They're very active here and we never realised how active they were till the universities got involved. They collect nectar and pollen and feed their brood, but not on a grand scale, like in a hive."

The botanic gardens are now, more than ever before perhaps, a sanctuary; a calm, refreshing microclimate in which to dream and escape the cruel evidence of the broken city a couple of blocks away. Automatic counters on the gates show that although numbers dropped off immediately after the February quake, they have tracked back up to where they were before at a surprising million visitors and more a year.

"One of the nice things about this botanic gardens is that, even though we have many formal areas, we've got lots of areas where people can escape and lose themselves - or find themselves - in nature."

Only one tree fell in the February 2011 earthquake and another 19 needed to be removed, but these gaps will be forgotten soon enough as future planning turns into planted reality. John is the guiding force at the vanguard of the council's management plan for the gardens' next 50 years.

"It was published and adopted by council in 2007 and there is an awful lot to do. It said, 'please continue to change at the same time as retaining the best of the past, so we can recognise where we've come from. Don't try to destroy history in the favourite parts of the gardens'."

A multi-sensory children's garden for learning, exploring and simply enjoying is in the pipeline and will be situated near the playground. Another key point of the plan is to emphasise the origins of New Zealand flora and our place in the southern hemisphere.

"So the Gondwana Garden idea was born. It's not a novel idea. There are various places around the world, as well as New Zealand, with Gondwana gardens or plantings, but ours is going to be somewhat more exciting for people. It will be accessible to the public, not just an academic exercise in botanical correctness, although that will be there as well," John says.

"We'll have the playground, the children's garden and the Gondwana Garden will wrap around the outside of that and appear to emerge from the river, as our little piece of Zealandia did a long time ago.

"The story of Gondwana is really the coming together of the continental plates in the southern hemisphere and their progressive splitting away; how Australia was eventually parted from what would become New Zealand, and from Antarctica, Africa and South America. We're going to start off with a steamy, strange forest, which, hopefully, will make people think a dinosaur might jump out of it (not sure we've found a way of getting that to happen yet), which will be the core of Gondwana. There'll be cycads, ferns, conifers and the Wollemi pine, and from there the different continents, if you like, will emanate and become an expression of some of the flora from those other countries.

"The Australian collection will be relocated and developed, and we'll put in all sorts of proteaceae and beech from Australia, and we'll have to grow some eucalyptus, but maybe not the giant ones."

Amid all the planning and administrative work, John still finds time to do a little plant propagation. It is, after all, the well-spring of his passion.
"I started on the plant propagation side of things - from walking through woods, looking at nature and taking some cuttings. It struck me as a miracle that you could take a piece of wood like that and put roots on it."

Leonard Cockayne was a seminal Canterbury botanist, who was internationally influential in print, and in practical terms, regarding conservation, agriculture, landscape gardening and the study of native plants. His memorial garden is 75 years old and the occasion of its November planting will be marked this year.
Leonard left behind a quote: "Well, I don't know how you're going to remember me, but I'd like to be remembered as a good gardener." One gets the impression that this is, perhaps, how John Clemens, lover of wild nature, might also wish to be remembered.

John Clemens
It's John Clemen's job to look after the gardens' past and future.