WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand's wild beauty — from majestic seashores and deep fiords to the towering, glacier-tipped Southern Alps — is often likened, with some justification, to that of a paradise on earth.
But the nature-blessed Kiwis appreciate the cultivated beauty of their gardens, pastures and farm fields with equal fervor, so much so that their land has been described as "a veritable Antipodean Garden of Eden" by, of course, the nation's Heartland apple-growers, who should know considering their fabled product. Their orchards produce the Braeburn, Royal Gala and (yes) Eve varieties, among others, for the taste buds and fruit baskets of the world.
And when you've traveled across the Pacific to this beautiful island nation (dominated by the big twins, North Island and South Island) a few times, as I have, you also realize that New Zealanders love to create civic and private botanical "gardens of Eden" of some sort in virtually every burg of any size.
One of my trips Down Under came at the invitation of my brother and sister-in-law, Phillip and Reesa Boren, of Highland, avid gardeners themselves, who lived in New Zealand for a year-and-a-half on an LDS mission. They took every opportunity to see the sights.
"We loved every kilometer of it," Phil says — and that includes the civic gardens, "filled with every variety of bulb, plant and tree. Europeans came to stay. They brought their manicured flower-garden lifestyle," adding to the beauty already there.
"Even small towns, like Te Awamutu in the center of the North Island, boast a world-class rose garden equal to those in Canada," my brother says.
Indeed, "New Zealanders love their gardens," the Web site www.nzescapes.com acknowledges. "From the landscaped front lawns of their detached suburban houses to public parks and gardens — there are a wealth of botanic delights waiting to be discovered."
There are literally scores, and to visit them properly all would take a lifetime. The New Zealand Gardens Trust Web site www.gardens.org.nz powerfully illustrates just how many the public can visit.
The trust and its Web site, established by the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture, make it easy for travelers to create an itinerary, if it is gardens they seek. Based on high standards set by the trust, the site divides and guides the curious through more than a hundred civic and private (but open to the public) gardens, judged to be "internationally significant," "nationally significant," "significant" and "registered."
And when the snow begins to fly in the United States, it's easy to let one's mind wander back to New Zealand at this time of year — for it's summer in the Southern Hemisphere.
Pretty much all of the gardens I've visited adhere to the trust's high standards — and the municipal botanic gardens are certainly "nationally significant." So here is a sampling of my favorites — and entry to all is free.
The world-spanning, 58-hectare garden complex in Hamilton, on New Zealand's North Island, certainly has to be counted as among the nation's very best. The travel consultants at Fromers.com boil their list down to seven throughout the country, and those at Hamilton — near the Hamilton LDS Temple, which is actually in rural Temple View — are at the top.
"At Hamilton Gardens, 'the story of gardens' is explored through five collections of gardens," a towering forest-green sign explains near the entry. For, in fact, Hamilton Gardens have not one theme but many: There are the Paradise Gardens, the Productive Gardens, the Fantasy Gardens, the Cultivar Gardens and the Landscape Gardens, with garden subsets within each of the five.
"Hamilton placed its famous walking gardens next to the Waikato River," Phil says, "where you feel like you are in Italy, England, Japan, America or some other place graced by the flowers and architecture found in each country."
He and Reesa lived for a year in Hamilton and took many a walk, especially along the Waikato, which makes a deep cut through the city's center, and in Hamilton Gardens.
Without leaving the gardens' expansive site, one can time-travel through the Egyptian and Chinese Scholars gardens, the contemplative Japanese Garden, the modernist American "West Coast" garden (complete with a pool presided over by a pointillist image of Marilyn Monroe) and a spectacular Italian Renaissance Garden, as well as patches showcasing English flowers, and herbs and vegetables grown as demonstrations for native Hamiltonians.
Web sites: www.hamiltongardens.co.nz
CHRISTCHURCH BOTANIC GARDEN/HAGLEY PARK
Christchurch, on South Island's eastern shore, is considered New Zealand's "English city," and the reason is plainly there to see in the city's center. (Or should one say "centre"?) Here, straw-hatted punters pilot their long boats, plump with tourists, on the serpentine Avon River through the vast botanic garden and Hagley Park. The city's museum is next door. Across the way is the stately old stone University of Canterbury, now an arts and crafts center.
At the park's principal entry sits the fabulous, multi-colored, cast-iron Peacock Fountain, an Edwardian artifact from 1911, made in England. It is named for an area lawmaker and businessman, not the birds, though on the three-tiered fountain are herons, water-spouting dolphins, lilies and other plant designs.
Beyond the fountain are the botanic gardens — a tribute to the settlers' homeland traditions: 30 hectares of majestic, century-old trees with curving branches; swaths of grass; and a floral bounty:roses, giant hydrangeas, rhododendrons, bright lilies, daisies and mums.
Blooms fill such enclaves as the Rose Garden (250 different kinds), the Heather Garden and an Herb Garden. And while there are plants from around the world, indigenous New Zealand flowers and foliage are featured in the native sections. These include, as the park's Web site notes, the Cockayne Memorial Garden, a tribute to Leonard Cockayne, one of the country's pioneering botanists, and "a 'bush area,' where plants have been established to grow naturally."
Conservatories shelter some of the exotic offerings, like the Cunningham House, which features tropical plants; the Fern House, which houses ferns, of course; and the Garrick (cactuses), Townsend (flowering plants) and Gilpin (succulents) houses.
WELLINGTON BOTANIC GARDEN
Built on slopes above the city proper and its harbor, Wellington's municipal garden is a wonderland of trails through shadowy native forest, rivulets, ponds and orderly floral displays — not to mention great views of the nation's capital city — that should not be missed.
Phil and Reesa lived in Wellington for a half-year, and walks in the gardens were favorites. Reesa gave one spot a name: the "Hollow of Hydrangeas," where you'd take a turn on the path and, voila! "The flowers were the size of soccer balls," Phil says.
On a tour I took with friends, we rode a days-of-yore cable car from Lambton Quay amid Wellington's bustling midtown to the top of the gardens, planning a leisurely stroll back into the city. It was an excellent choice.
This is another park with early roots: Settlers from the New Zealand Company set aside land in 1844, and the garden was officially established in 1868. Today, 25 hectares are managed by the city, and it is both a "Garden of National Significance," as designated by the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture, and a Historic Places Trust Area.
The Lady Norwood Rose Garden and glasshouse has an incredible variety of, yes, roses (among other complementary plants) — in colors from pale oranges to golden yellows and ruby reds.
The gardens host a number of special events throughout the year. We chanced upon preparations for one of them: A young woman and boy were "dressing" the trunk of a tree near a lower park entrance with a pattern of doilies. Other trees were attired in ribbons and ropes of bright yarn.
Gilding the rose, indeed – albeit, in a quirky and pleasant way.
Web sites: www.friendswbg.org.nz
DUNEDIN BOTANIC GARDEN
Even during a break on a somewhat drizzly summer day, the bountiful blooms in Dunedin's civic garden are spectacular. Many plots are beautifully grouped, often among low hedges, like a gigantic gift basket.
The garden is situated on and below Signal Hill, on the northern end of this, New Zealand's "Scottish city," on South Island. ("Dunedin" is an antique name for Edinburgh.)
The gardens, advertised as New Zealand's oldest, dating back to 1863, include upper and lower sections; an Edwardian-style hot-house enclosure, which gives shelter and heat to such plants as cactuses from around the world (including the United States); an arboretum; a pond and an aviary. Special areas highlight camellias and rhododendrons. A centerpiece Rose Garden spotlights modern hybrids, from teas to floribunda and climbing roses, yet also includes "old-garden" originals, wild roses and miniature roses.
Even a pastel patchwork of raindrop-laden petals that have fallen on the ground can be eye-catching and lovely in the gardens of Dunedin.
Beautiful, hilly, seaside Auckland — to me, sort of a bustling Down Under cousin to San Francisco — is rife with gardens and public "domains," and one could simply make Auckland a vacation headquarters from which to venture to summer gardens both public and private, as well as to natural splendors all around.
The city's great, high park, Auckland Domain — built upon a 50,000-year-old extinct volcano — is home to the city's fabulous (and imposing) War Memorial Museum. The 75 hectares include sloping lawns, cricket fields, an extensive arboretum – including European trees that date back to 1841 — and the glasshouses of the recently refurbished Wintergardens.
The area's principal floral attraction, however, is the 64-hectare Auckland Botanic Gardens, which features more than 10,000 plants, from natives to exotic African varieties.
The coach tour I joined did not stop at the principal Auckland garden complex but did take in smaller manicured parks like Nancy Steen Gardens, a haven for heritage roses (and their friends, the bees) of virtually every light-to-pastel color imaginable.
Another stop was to visit the Michael Joseph Savage Memorial and mausoleum at Bastion Point, a manicured and monumental garden park with a reflective pool and spire in memory of Savage, an iconic prime minister who led New Zealand through the Depression and into the World War II era. He died in 1940.
Web sites: www.aucklandbotanicgardens.co.nz
WHAKAREWAREWA FOREST & GOVERNMENT GARDENS, ROTORUA
North Island's Rotorua — whose Government Gardens spa and huge, titular lake have been prime New Zealand tourist attractions for 120 years — is also home to one of the country's most unusual "gardens": Whakarewarewa Forest, one of my favorite and most unexpected "gardens" in the land.
Government Gardens in urban Rotorua, beside Lake Rotorua, is stately and lovely, with a rose garden, of course; antique bathhouses employing the area's sulfuric thermal springs; and well-kept lawns (including a bowling green) and flowerbeds.
But Whakarewarewa, just outside of town, is something else: a little bit of America in far-away New Zealand.
The forest is composed of towering stands of California coastal redwoods — Sequoia sempervirens — along with native ferns and less-substantial trees. Beginning at the visitor center, six marked trails wind through the groves, and it has become a popular place not only for tourists but for joggers and mountain bikers as well.
These redwoods, the oldest planted in 1901, are youngsters, of course, for their American siblings can be up to 2,000 years old. But they are already tall, fat and a wonder to behold.
"The Redwoods are successful in this grove because they like sheltered sites in deep, fertile, well-drained soils with an even rainfall," reports the preserve's Web site. "They do not tolerate frosts and in harsh sites are very slow growing and easily smothered by weeds."
Web site: www.redwoods.co.nz
"The Garden of Eden," Phil says, "could not be more beautiful than some of the places we visited, with their rows of rhododendrons and greenhouses lined with hanging begonias.
"Life is good when we stop to smell the roses - especially the flowers blooming in New Zealand."