Andrew Gregg[1]

Leonard Cockayne is known as New Zealand’s greatest botanist and first plant ecologist. Not only was Cockayne an influential and forward-thinking individual who promoted the appreciation and preservation of our indigenous flora, he also became New Zealand’s most nationally and internationally recognised pioneer botanist through his life’s work. First and foremost, though, Cockayne was – as the cover of one of his books described him – ‘a most enthusiastic gardener’.[2] Gardening was the activity that stimulated his interest in botany as a career, and the decades he spent observing and experimenting with plants at home and in the field underpinned his scientific authority and expertise.

I first became aware of Leonard Cockayne as a kid growing up near Otari Plant Museum in Wilton, Wellington. My family and I would often explore this open air sanctuary for walks and get lost in the beautiful and diverse flora on display. Each time I visited I found myself standing at Cockayne’s grave, where he and his wife Maude are buried, and wondering what had inspired the man’s fascination with, and dedication to the study and protection of, plants. I did not appreciate at the time that the answer to that question lay before my very eyes.

Fast forward two decades and I found myself revisiting this thought. This time it was research into the evolution of Tongariro National Park, as part of the Waitangi Tribunal claims process, which sparked my interest. Cockayne had conducted a botanical survey in 1908 that proved influential in ensuring that tens of thousands of acres of land around the three iconic mountains, Tongariro, Ngāuruhoe and Ruapehu, were reserved for protection. I wanted to know more about this early New Zealand scientist and discovered that little had been written about him. I could see that a biography was justified, so I decided to take on the challenge.

My biography of Leonard Cockayne is based around three broad themes of his life and work. First, I am looking at Cockayne’s involvement in the transition of New Zealand botanical research from the so-called ‘stamp collecting’ phase through to ecological studies of New Zealand’s native flora. Leonard Cockayne was one of the first New Zealand botanists to go beyond simply collecting and cataloguing native plants. The earliest botanists to arrive in New Zealand discovered a land with a unique flora, fuelling their desire to explore and collect specimens. These early explorers wanted to see plants in their native habitats, find new species and send specimens to museums and gardens in their homeland. In general, they saw native plants as mere curiosities, believing that in time the ‘superior’ plants and animals of their homelands would replace the indigenous biota.[3] Consequently, their ‘botanising’ focused on collecting, naming and sending specimens for scientific perpetuity.

Cockayne, however, sought to understand relationships between plants and their environment. In doing so, he helped pioneer a new plant science – plant ecology. In Cockayne’s words, ‘plant ecology is concerned with the study of plants as living organisms, not in the laboratory under artificial conditions, but in the field as they grow naturally’.[4] His substantive research began as a horticulturalist, studying plants in his immense garden to see how the form of a species changed in relation to different environmental conditions. This method of studying plants in situ, rather than from herbarium specimens, was an innovative approach within the field of plant science. Moving beyond his garden laboratory, he applied his knowledge to observing plants across the New Zealand landscape. Through his extensive observation and field work, Cockayne made the most thorough exploration of native vegetation of all New Zealand botanists.

The transition to this new science was, at times, a lonely pursuit. Few scientists were based in New Zealand during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and those that did reside here were isolated from colleagues in other countries. In 1913, Cockayne remarked that ‘[o]ne is apt to get a little lonely sometimes with so very few interested in the same study. Even [Thomas] Cheeseman and [Donald] Petrie are so wrapped up in deciding whether a certain plant be a species or no, that my perhaps wider pursuits are of little interest to them’.[5] To overcome this isolation, Cockayne corresponded regularly with botanical colleagues overseas, many of whom were leading the way in plant ecology. Cockayne exchanged ideas through these international connections, placing him at the forefront of this new scientific discipline in New Zealand.

The second strand to my biography is Cockayne’s contribution to the modern conservation movement. Cockayne recognised and promoted the protection of New Zealand’s indigenous flora at a time when bush clearance, wetland drainage and timber acquisition were all changing the New Zealand landscape. Through his commissioned botanical surveys, Cockayne collected scientific justifications to impress on governments the need to preserve New Zealand’s flora in its natural habitat. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, protection of the natural world was very much focused on scenery preservation for the purpose of recreation and spiritual fulfilment. Cockayne argued strongly, however, that ‘the special features of any landscape depend upon the combinations of plants which form its garment’.[6] For him, it was the uniqueness of New Zealand’s flora that justified its protection.

Cockayne was also an influential voice in the development of New Zealand’s earliest national parks and reserves. He saw national parks as ‘havens of refuge’ or ‘great open-air museums’, where plant communities should be protected in their natural state with minimal disturbance from introduced species and human activities. At a time of rapid environmental transformation, Cockayne was the scientific voice behind setting aside and protecting unique ecosystems. As mentioned earlier, Cockayne’s influence led to the expansion of Tongariro National Park to over one hundred and thirty thousand acres. While he acknowledged scenery preservation rationales for land reservation, he believed reserves should go further and incorporate representative plant life unique to an area. To him it was a matter of national importance, and in that sense Cockayne was a man ahead of his time.

Cockayne’s influence among the general public, within government and the scientific community is the third broad theme of my biography. Cockayne was a skilful publicist writing extensively in both newspapers and popular books to inform the public of his views, educating New Zealanders about the need to preserve their natural world in the wake of significant change. In 1910, he wrote one of his best known books, New Zealand Plants and their Story, to, as he put it, ‘stir up some interest here in the botany of the country’.[7] This and subsequent works were influential in shifting attitudes toward our indigenous plant life. His advocacy over many years also led to the establishment and development of gardens, parks and reserves across the country, including Kapiti Island Nature Reserve, Kennedy Bush and my personal favourite, the Otari Native Plant Museum.

Despite Cockayne’s limited university training, he also made a substantial contribution to scientific scholarship. He published more than 280 articles on New Zealand botany and plant ecology at home and abroad. Much of the work published on New Zealand flora before Cockayne’s time focused on plant classification, but Cockayne significantly advanced botanical knowledge in the twentieth century and became an authoritative voice within the scientific community. This work received recognition with numerous awards and distinctions, the most significant being an honorary PhD from the University of Munich in 1903, and his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1912. The same Society also honoured him with the Darwin Medal in 1928. Such honours helped Cockayne to gain the funding he needed to continue his botanical work, to which he remained committed until the end of his life.

Leonard Cockayne, a most enthusiastic gardener, dominated an exciting and pioneering period in New Zealand science. A key figure of New Zealand’s ‘second generation’ of botanists, Cockayne spent decades studying the relationship between plants and their environment at his home and in the field. What he discovered along the way provided a springboard for his scholarly achievements. But it was Cockayne’s sense of the intrinsic value of our indigenous flora – developed through close association over his lifetime – that inflamed his passion for convincing others of the need to protect it.


[1] Andrew Gregg is an historian working for Auckland War Memorial Museum and the current Treasurer of PHANZA. Originally from Wellington, Andrew has a Bachelor of Science and a Masters in History from Victoria University. Before moving to Auckland at the beginning of 2013, Andrew was employed as a senior historian at the Waitangi Tribunal.

[2] L. Cockayne, The Cultivation of New Zealand Plants, Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, Wellington, 1923.

[3]Biota refers to all of the organisms, including animals, plants, fungi and micro-organisms, found in a given area.

[4] R. Glenn, The Botanical Explorers of New Zealand, A.H. and A.W. Reed, Wellington, 1950, p 154.

[5] Letter from L. Cockayne to W.B. Hemsley, 5 February 1913.

[6] L. Cockayne, ‘On a botanical survey of the Tongariro National Park’, Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1908, C-II, p 2.

[7] Letter from L. Cockayne to J. Hooker, 26 June 1911.