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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 1 (April 1, 1937)

A Great Botanist's Tribute

A Great Botanist's Tribute.

Only a botanist can adequately describe the special value of Dr. Cockayne's plant experiments and surveys, and I turn gladly to an appreciation of his work written by Sir Arthur W. Hill, the famous. Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, Surrey, who visited New Zealand some years ago. What appealed to Cockayne so strongly, he wrote, and what fired him to pass on his vision so ably to others, was the study of the living plant in its natural surroundings.

“Unrecognised and unlabelled at first, Cockayne in New Zealand was already an ecologist waiting for the term to be adopted by botanists, and fully trained, with his keen insight, to lead the way not in New Zealand only but in the world. Ecology, as Cockayne himself briefly described it, is ‘the class of research which deals with living plants and their relation to their surroundings, and which gathers its data from actual observation in the field.’ Therefore it is fitted to provide ‘a more accurate knowledge regarding the maximum and minimum requirements of each economic plant and its behaviour when growing with other plants and animals’.”

In recognition of natural hybrids—which at the time was considered almost heretical in the botanical world—Cockayne opened up a new branch of study, and stimulated investigation. His attention was first drawn to the prevalence of natural hybrids in the New Zealand flora by his study of the native beech trees. Two distinguished botanists who visited the Dominion, the late Dr. K. Ritter von Goebel and the late Dr. J. P. Lotsy exercised a profound influence on Cockayne and stimulated him further in his special lines of research. When von Goebel came, in 1898, Cockayne was studying the seedlings of our trees and shrubs and their remarkable juvenile states.

The two great botanists deeply appreciated each other's worth and discoveries, and Cockayne wrote in 1933 that “Von Goebel's visit was the greatest stimulus to my botanical career.” It was owing to Goebel's representations that the honorary degree of Ph.D. was conferred on Cockayne by the University of Munich in 1903.

For his researches and writings on plant ecology Cockayne was awarded in 1912 the Hector Medal and Prize by the New Zealand Institute (now the Royal Society of New Zealand).