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New Zealand Plants and their Story

Colenso and his Botanical Work in the North Island

Colenso and his Botanical Work in the North Island.

Six years before Raoul's visit, the Rev. William Colenso (fig. 6), then a young man of twenty-three, landed in the Bay of Islands, and from that time on, for a space of sixty-five years, he was a most ardent investigator in ethnology, the Maori tongue, zoology, and botany. This last alone concerns us here.

As a missionary amongst the Natives in the very early days of the colony, Colenso travelled much in the wilds, and was brought face to face with nature. He collected plants of all kinds most industriously, sending them in large quantities to Kew. Before Colenso's explorations comparatively little was known regarding the alpine vegetation, which is, indeed, in more ways than one, the most interesting of all. Enduring considerable hardships, in company with several Maoris he crossed over the Ruahine Mountains, being the first European to accomplish this feat. On the summit the alpine vegetation in all its beauty met his delighted gaze. But here are the explorer's own words: "When we emerged from the forest and the tangled shrubbery at its outskirts on to the open dell-like land just before we gained the summit, the lovely appearance of so many and varied beautiful and novel wild plants and flowers richly repaid me the toil of the journey and ascent, for never did I behold at one time in New Zealand such a profusion of Flora's stores. In one word, I was overwhelmed with astonishment, and stood looking with all my eyes, greedily devouring and drinking in the enchanting scene before me…. Here were plants of the well-known genera of the bluebells and buttercups, gowans and daisies, eyebrights and speedwells of one's native land page 20closely intermixed with the gentians of the European Alps and the rarer southern and little-known novelties—Drapetes, Ourisia, Cyathodes, Abrotanella, and Raoulia."

Further on, sentiment exhausted, the naturalist sought the practical. "But how was I to carry off specimens of these precious prizes, and had I time to gather them? These mental pictures completely
Fig. 6.—The late Rev. William Colenso.[From a photo in the possession of A. Hamilton.

Fig. 6.—The late Rev. William Colenso.
[From a photo in the possession of A. Hamilton.

staggered me, for I realised my position well. We had left our encampment that morning, taking nothing with us, so we were all emptyhanded, and no New Zealand flax grew there. However, as I had no time to lose, I first pulled off my jacket, a small travelling-coat, and made a bag of that, and then, driven by necessity, I added thereto my shirt, and by tying the neck, &c., got an excellent bag; whilst some specimens I also stowed in the crown of my hat."
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Colenso's botanical writings are voluminous, and consist chiefly of papers published, in the "Transactions of the New Zealand Institute," dealing with new species of plants, or what he considered to be new. Many New Zealand plants were named in his honour, including the genus Colensoa.