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Botanical Discovery in New Zealand: The Resident Botanists

William Colenso (1811–1899)

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William Colenso (1811–1899)

Colenso was born at Penzance, Cornwall, in 1811, and was as a youth apprenticed to a printer there. He joined the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society, and read his first paper to it when he was eighteen. At that time he had not had any systematic scientific training, though his bent towards natural history was already evident.

Soon after he was out of his apprenticeship, he went to London to work for the printers to the Church Missionary Society. He was already deeply interested in missionary work; and when the Society decided to send out a missionary-printer to New Zealand, Colenso applied for, and obtained, the position. Before he left England he went several times to look at the animal and plant exhibits in the British Museum and in the Zoological Gardens, and he promised to send ‘specimens of the geology, ornithology, ichthyology, entomology, conchology, and botany’ of New Zealand to the Penzance Natural History Society.*

He arrived at Paihia in the Bay of Islands at the very end of 1834, and at once began the work of printing for the Mission. During the next three years his duties kept him in the Bay of Islands, so that he was glad to seize the chance of visiting the East Coast with the Rev. William Williams in 1838. They were to travel in the only way possible at that time—by mission schooner, and on foot. (On the longer trips they would have the help of Maori guides and porters.) They landed from the Columbine at Hicks Bay on 16 January and next morning set out for Turanga (Gisborne). On the way Colenso investigated, without success, reports on the existence of the moa, visited the localities where Banks and Solander had collected nearly seventy years before, talked with Maoris who remembered Captain Cook, and probably collected some plant specimens for himself.

Towards the end of the same year Allan Cunningham, the Government botanist of New South Wales, spent three months in the Bay of Islands. His example, advice, and help undoubtedly directed Colenso's bent for the natural sciences towards botany in particular. Cunningham carefully trained the younger man

* He kept his word, and in later years sent specimens, chiefly botanical. He also wrote some papers for the Society.

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William Colenso (1811–1899)

William Colenso

in botanical collecting, and provided him with a small vasculum and acid for preserving plants. After he returned to Sydney he had made for Colenso a much larger vasculum (plant container) specially designed to protect specimens against any rough handling they might receive during long journeys, and he sent him other botanical materials.

Bagnall and Petersen in their biography of Colenso* say: ‘The practical attention of one who possessed the energy and charm of the Colonial Botanist of New South Wales marks the turning point in Colenso's interests, and the correspondence between the two men, tragically cut short the following year by Cunningham's death, shows the deepening interest of the student.’ In his last letter to Colenso, Cunningham urged him ‘Not to lose sight of the vegetation of the land you live in, and do not scatter to the winds that little you gather'd regarding the peculiarity of those vegetables, when I was with you.’* Cunningham died a month later, but 'he handed on almost prophetically the torch of New Zealand botany to one he had trained so well.’*

* William Colenso, his Life and Journeys, by A. G. Bagnall and G. C. Petersen, Wellington, 1948. The quotations on this page and on page 264 are taken from that book.

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During his missionary excursions in the North Auckland district Colenso always kept a look out for new plants. In 1839 he and the Rev. W. Wade walked from the Bay of Islands to the north coast. First they crossed the island to Hokianga Heads, then tramped along the west coast to Cape Te Reinga.* Colenso climbed down the cliffs and stood under the sacred pohutukawa tree. The two missionaries made their way back along the east coast to the Bay of Islands.

On this trip, near Ahipara, Colenso discovered for the first time in New Zealand two small Australian plants, a sundew (Drosera pygmaea), and a club moss (Lycopodium drummondii). Neither species was again met with for over fifty years. Colenso also saw the beautiful plant which Richard Cunningham discovered in 1834 and which his brother Allan, in 1838, named Lobelia physaloides. Hooker, however separated it from Lobelia under the name Colensoa. This is now accepted as a genus containing a single species found nowhere else in the world other than the northern part of the North Island of New Zealand. It is the oru of the Maori.

When the British Antarctic Expedition** spent three months at the Bay of Islands in 1841 Colenso made many excursions with the great botanist J. D. Hooker.

This friendship, kept up by correspondence for over fifty years, still further strengthened Colenso's interest in the plants of New Zealand. Hooker, writing to his father, said: ‘Colenso has been extremely kind to me … He is a very good fellow in every respect, and has shown me the greatest attention … his time, however, is too much occupied at present with printing … and other higher duties of a Missionary's life.Of this class of men Mr Colenso is among the most superior.’

For fourteen years Colenso sent large shipments of plant specimens to the Hookers at Kew Gardens.

In the summer of 1841–2 Colenso was granted leave from his printing duties and again went to the East Coast district, returning overland by way of Lake Waikaremoana. Arriving at Hicks Bay, he first went to Te Kawakawa where he made the Maoris return what they had plundered from a wrecked ship. He then

* At this place the souls of the Maori were believed to have left this world for the world of spirits, by diving into the sea from a pohutukawa tree that overhung the waves at the tip of the headland.

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Specimen of double crepe fern (Leptopteris superba) which Colenso collected at Lake Waikaremoana in 1842

Specimen of double crepe fern (Leptopteris superba) which Colenso collected at Lake Waikaremoana in 1842

began the long journey southward by way of East Cape. At Te Hekawa he noticed the healthy state of the taro plantations; the dark green leafy blades, which often measured as much as two feet in length, showed up well against the ground which, he said, was strewed with white sand. At Rangitukia he made inquiries about the large bird of which he had been told on his former visit, and to his surprise several moa bones were brought to him. His paper in the Tasmanian Journal of Science in 1843, describing these bones, was the first account of the moa written by a resident of New Zealand.*
A long tramp, some of it in heavy rain, brought Colenso at last to Poverty Bay. So far he had done little botanizing though he had found a kind of tutu with small crinkled leaves. In his story of the journey he named this plant Coriaria kingiana: it was not again recognized by botanists for nearly a hundred years. From Poverty Bay Colenso tramped on to Lake Waikaremoana. Here, while waiting for the weather to clear, he had a little time for collecting plants, and was greatly excited by what he found. For instance, he saw growing on the lake shore some pohutukawa trees. This species is found chiefly on the sea coast of the Auckland district; but here, as on several lakes in the Rotorua district, it was found on the shore of an inland freshwater lake. In the depths of the damp forest Colenso found a wealth of ferns, including several kinds of filmy ferns, some of which had not been described before. One very beautiful filmy fern whose leaves hung

* Richard Owen described the moa to the Zoological Society in England in 1839. See Post-Primary School Bulletin Vol. 5 No. 7 Moas and Moa-hunters.

page 6 from the branches of the trees he named Hymenophyllum pulcherrimum, that is, the ‘most beautiful filmy fern’. Another discovery was a fern about six feet tall: the base of the stems, when young, was covered with soft woolly hairs. He described this in the Tasmanian Journal of Science,* and named it Dicksonia lanata, that is, the woolly Dicksonia. It can now be seen in abundance by the track from Lake Waikaremoana to Lake Waikaremoana-iti.

With one guide and some porters, Colenso crossed the lake by canoe, and began the long ascent of the Huiarau Range. Eventually he crossed this amid stormy weather, and reached the Rangitaiki river. He then walked to Rotorua and on to the coast at Tauranga. Here he spent four days and then continued his journey by way of Matamata, the Waikato river, and Otahuhu to the Bay of Islands, where he arrived two months after leaving Poverty Bay.

Various adventures, some very unpleasant, beset Colenso on his next visit to the East Cape district (1843). He and the captain of the Columbine were upset in the breakers near the East Cape, and the Columbine was forced to leave them and run to Turanga. Colenso and the captain had therefore to walk to Poverty Bay. Then as the schooner was attempting to reach Wellington, gales drove it off the land. Colenso was put ashore at Castle Point but the Columbine was again driven out to sea. So Colenso walked back to the mission station at Ahuriri.*

The hurried trip from Hicks Bay to Turanga to catch up with the Columbine gave no time for collecting plants but Colenso paid a Maori to climb to the bush line on Mount Hikurangi, from which he brought back an interesting collection of alpine plants. These included a fine large yellow buttercup (Ranunculus insignis), a mountain daisy with white woolly leaves (Celmisia incana), an edelweiss (Leucogenes leontopodium), and a shrubby daisy with shining serrated leaves (Olearia colensoi).

The following February Colenso returned overland to the Bay of Islands by way of Lake Waikaremoana. As in his first journey through this region, the weather was stormy; and while he was waiting for the weather to improve he climbed to the top of the

* Colenso published his first papers in the Tasmanian Journal of Science and the London Journal of Botany because until 1869 there was no scientific periodical published in New Zealand. Afterwards almost all his papers were contributed to the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute.

* Ahuriri harbour was approximately the present Napier harbour; but the coastline about there has been greatly changed by earth movements within the last hundred years.

page 7 bluff Panikiri, where he discovered a little green orchid belonging to the genus Microtis. The storm having abated somewhat, some hard paddling brought him to the north shore of the lake; and then began the long climb over the Huiarau Range. He followed the Whakatane river to the Bay of Plenty and then walked to Tauranga, through the Waikato district, and on to the Bay of Islands.

At the end of 1844, Colenso, now a deacon, was moved from the Bay of Islands to Ahuriri, his parish extending from Hawke's Bay to the Wairarapa. Two months later he tried to cross the Ruahine Range in order to reach the Maoris of Mokai Patea in the upper Rangitikei Valley. He had reached the summit of the range when the guides whom he had sent on ahead returned saying that the first villages were deserted and that they could get no food. Colenso decided to turn back at once; but he had had his first view of New Zealand alpine vegetation, and recorded it in the following 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, closely intermixed with the gentians of the European Alps, and the rarer southern and little-known novelties—Drapetes, Ourisia, Cyathodes, Abrotanella, and Raoulia.

Recovering from his excitement Colenso quickly got to work to gather as many specimens as he could. ‘But how was I to carry off specimens of these precious prizes, and had I time to gather them? These mental pictures completely staggered me, for I realized my position well. We had left our encampment that morning, taking nothing with us, so we were all empty-handed, 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, etc., got an excellent bag; whilst some specimens I also stowed in the crown of my hat.’

From 1845 Colenso regularly visited Palliser Bay and the Wairarapa, and sometimes continued on to Wellington. He thought it his duty to tour his extensive parish twice a year, though his page 8 only means of travelling was on foot. Perhaps the most notable discovery of these trips was the shrub Senecio greyii on the east coast north of Cape Palliser. This beautiful plant with greyish-green leaves and lax panicles of conspicuous yellow flowers is now a favourite horticultural plant in private and public gardens.

He made his first trip to Mokai Patea in 1847, by way of Tarawera and Lake Taupo. After crossing Te Onetapu desert, south of Lake Taupo, and before reaching the Moawhango river, Colenso found a plant new to him. The incident is worth recording in his own words because the species has never again been found. ‘The ice on the many pools and streamlets we had to cross after gaining the brow of the hill was not thick enough to bear one's weight, and so we were obliged to go through it. Crash! souse! into the cold water, of which my poor companions with their naked feet loudly complained. Here, in one of these watery hollows, and partly submerged (owing, no doubt, to the late rains) grew a little shrubby plant which I had not seen before, and never again found; I knew it to be allied to our Geniostoma, and it has proved to be a species of Logania (L. depressa). It cost me a good wetting and cold shivering to get specimens.’ The locality would be north of the present Moawhango township. The plant is a low-growing shrub looking like a small-leaved Coprosma and its interest lies in the fact that it belongs to an Australian genus not otherwise represented in New Zealand. Another plant discovered on the same day was a dwarf species of New Zealand broom (Carmichaelia nana). It has flat leafless stems up to four inches in height and small pea flowers. On the Ruahine Range, on the return journey, Colenso discovered a small species of koromiko with greyish-green leaves. It looks very different from the other species of koromiko and now bears the name Hebe colensoi.

Little of botanical interest has been recorded about Colenso's five later visits to Mokai Patea.* The last was made in 1852; and with it ended the series of long and arduous missionary and botanical journeys which Colenso had been carrying out for a period of fourteen years.

* Bagnall and Petersen in William Colenso give his customary route over the Ruahine Range as up the Makaroro branch of the Waipawa river to Te Atua-o-mahuru peak on the summit ridge, then down a spur to the Maropea river which was followed to below its junction with the Waikamaka. From here he ascended the Mokai Patea ridge and followed it to Te Awarua.

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Colensoa Physaloides Redrawn by Richard Sharell, after Miss Matilda Smith

Colensoa Physaloides
Redrawn by Richard Sharell, after Miss Matilda Smith

Colenso's botanical writings extended over a period of nearly sixty years. He published about fifty-five papers on botanical subjects, and wrote as many others on the Maori, insects, lizards, and birds, including the moa.

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Colenso sent most of his collections to Kew Herbarium, but he also built up a collection in New Zealand. This passed into the keeping of the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Institute, now the Hawke's Bay Branch of the Royal Society of New Zealand, which quite recently sold the collection to the Dominion Museum. Colenso's herbarium contains the type specimens of the species he described in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute. (A type specimen is one that is kept for reference in case any question should arise as to what species the author intended by his description. It is thus very important to botanists wishing to check the classification of the species.)

In 1886, at the age of seventy-five, Colenso received the highest honour that could be awarded to a British scientist at that time, a Fellowship of the Royal Society of London.

Many New Zealand plants have been named in honour of Colenso. One genus, Colensoa, has been founded on his name. It has only one species, Colensoa physaloides, a beautiful herb with large blue flowers. The genus is very closely allied to Pratia. The best known of the twenty-six species bearing Colenso's name are: a tree fern with prostrate trunk (Cyathea colensoi); the silver pine (Dacrydium colensoi); a mistletoe (Elytranthe colensoi); a nothopanax (Nothopanax colensoi); a koromiko with greyish-green leaves (Hebe colensoi); the taipari, a daisy shrub with thick serrated leaves (Olearia colensoi); a wild spaniard (Aciphylla colensoi); and the mountain flax (Phormium colensoi). The reason for so many kinds of plants bearing Colenso's name is that he was an untiring collector who explored the North Island at a time when the plants were little known.

Colenso's botanical achievements were due to a boundless enthusiasm for investigating the flora of New Zealand, to a tireless physical constitution, and to an active mind with a retentive memory. Once fired with a desire to delve into the secrets of an exceptionally interesting flora, quite unspoiled by European settlement, his interest became a lifelong passion, and this, combined with sustained physical energy, moved him to undertake difficult and hazardous journeys to the mountains. No other New Zealand botanist has made such long expeditions on foot as has Colenso.

He was a man of many parts—missionary, printer, botanist, explorer, and for a short period politician. He was always convinced that his own judgment was right and would without fear proceed to put things in order according to his own ideas though it meant brushing aside those whom he considered were in the page 11 wrong. Single-handed he made the pillagers of a wrecked ship return the goods to their owners, he roundly upbraided Maoris for backsliding from the path he had taught them to follow, he attacked religious institutions not quite in line with his own views, and he even challenged Maoris who might easily have killed him.

He read widely and could quote readily; he was the foremost authority on the Maori up to the time of his death; and his botanical writings contain a great deal that was new to science. He resented anyone criticizing his botanical identifications and continued to describe what he judged to be new species. During the last years of his life he did this at such an alarming rate that Cheeseman, when he wrote his Manual of the New Zealand Flora, decided to reject about three hundred and fifty of Colenso's species because he considered they were based on unimportant characters (differences). That part of Colenso's work which has been accepted is, however, extensive and important.