Plant Hunters

A florist, a photographer, a campervan and a controversial piece of botanical history.

Plant Hunters

A florist, a photographer, a campervan and a controversial piece of botanical history.

Case Studies South is the second piece of an ongoing collaboration between me and photographer Mark Smith. It began as an investigation into my grandmother and great-grandmother’s love of gardening, and their desire to bring a little bit of England to Aotearoa. But it has become a much bigger story about colonisation and the environment. 

Central to the project is the Wardian Case, invented in London in the early 19th-century by Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, and used to ship plants all over the world, often with profound environmental consequences. 

From the need of early European settlers to provide a sense of home, through to the destructive desires of ownership and control, our project hopes to further the understanding of horticultural appropriation and varying cultural approaches to land management, or kaitiakitanga.

Following our first project in 2019, we turned our attention to the South Island. We flew to Christchurch, picked up a campervan, then hit the road for two-and-a-half weeks, foraging for plant material as we travelled. We used a new Wardian Case – designed by Chris Pitts and built by Grant Bailey for more contemporary modes of travel.

Lupins were a big part of the trip. They’re such a controversial import: while they’re nutritious for cattle and fix nitrogen in the soil, they also change its chemistry, killing off native tussock. 

The images we made all have their own narrative, but there were some highlights. We created a miniature Central Otago garden within the Wardian Case and photographed it beside Nevis Road.

At Lake Ohau, we photographed broom – another problematic import – with power lines, another alien in this landscape, in the background.

In Alexandra, we photographed Euphorbia wulfenii against Henderson House, which was designed by Ernst Plischke, and built in 1950 with local stone. 

And in Ōtautahi Christchurch, we photographed a rare anthurium at Cuningham House, a glasshouse at the Botanic Gardens. These glasshouses represent humankind’s fascination with exotic plant life, which can sometimes lead to obsession. Here, the theft of several valuable plants has led to them being locked away. We were honoured – and slightly nervous – to be given access for our project.

As well as raising environmental issues, our project has opened my eyes to horticultural appropriation and colonisation. As a plant nerd, I've always used the Latin names of Carl Linnæus. Although useful, the system comes from a colonial mindset where plants were ‘discovered’, then transported and renamed. The current botanical debate is generating discussion around the importance of reclaiming indigenous plant names. The task of incorporating indigenous names is ongoing.

None of this should stop us from enjoying plant life. We hope to draw attention to history and for there to be joy in sharing this ongoing project.

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