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Botanical Gardens and other Napier gardens

botanical gardens 2006 125botanical gardens 2006 39
In 1854, Commissioner of Crown Lands Alfred Domett arrived at Ahuriri with instructions from the Colonial Secretary in Wellington to survey and prepare a plan for the yet un-named town of Napier.

In a letter accompanying his draft survey, Domett said he had set out various reserves to provide areas for a cemetery, police station, hospital, school and botanical garden.

In 1855, he recommended that 18 acres be set aside for a botanical garden and 4.5 acres for a cemetery. By 1874, when Napier was declared a borough, the Provincial Government had already established the Botanical Gardens.

Early caretakers, Burness and Burton began the task of landscaping and planting an unpromising site. The terrain was difficult, the budget was small and only prison labour was available to help develop the gardens. To combat droughts during those early years, use was made of the wells that were sunk in the lower gardens for the 65th Regiment.

Until Napier South was reclaimed, the gardens were the town's only public park. Little money and effort were invested in them through the two world wars and during the Depression. By 1960, they were in a sorry state, serving mainly as a shortcut up the hill to Napier Hospital.

In 1961, a duck pond and an aviary for 'free-flying' budgerigars were built as part of a programme aimed at improving the Botanical Gardens and boosting its popularity. The Napier City Council undertook a big clean-up and name-tagged specimen trees, many of which were, by then, approaching 100 years of age.

In 1970, the terracotta fountain in the upper area of garden was restored although more recently lost its upper tier to vandalism.

The gardens' historical features include the Military Track, which ran alongside the cemetery, the building site of the old sexton's cottage, the disused military well and pre-European Maori middens

In 1858, British troops of the 65th Regiment were stationed at the barracks on the hilltop above the gardens. To supply them with water, a well was dug in the lower part of the Botanical Gardens reserve.

Wastewater from washing clothes was tipped down the slope, giving the area the nickname "Soapsuds Gully".

The site of the first well, in the lower southeast section of the gardens, is marked with an ornamental stone parapet built in 1964.

In 1875, the first trained gardener, Mr Burton, was appointed to develop and maintain the gardens. His initial undertaking was to plant Pinus radiata on the slopes between Enfield Road and Napier Terrace. With very little money available, Mr Burton used prison labour to lay out paths and terraces and to plant trees.

Plants for the gardens were sourced from other New Zealand centres and from captains of ships calling into the Napier port. William Colenso, an early missionary in Hawke's Bay, and other Napier settlers donated trees and maintained an interest in the gardens. Later, patterned flowerbeds were established.

During the occupation of the hilltop barracks, supplies for the detachment from the 65th Regiment were carried up from the junction of Chaucer Road South and Spencer Road via the track, which runs between the Botanical Gardens and the Old Napier Cemetery. This "Military Track" was not as steep as either of the road routes. Good views of the gardens can be had from the track.

Napier's original cemetery is located at the top of the spur beside the Military Track. The inscriptions on headstones offer a glimpse into the town's early history.

There are accesses off Spencer Road and Napier Terrace, Napier Hill.

Ample roadside parking is available at the top entrance to the Botanical Gardens on Napier Terrace. There is also a small car park, with disabled parking, at the lower Spencer Road entrance.

Centennial Gardens can be accessed at the foot of Bluff Hill where Coote Road meets Marine Parade. The car park is on the seaward site of the gardens, off Coote Road. Wheelchair access is by way of the path at the Hill end of the car park.

These well-landscaped gardens were once a quarry manned by prison labour. The gardens were developed in 1974 to commemorate the centenary of the establishment of Napier as a borough and a city.

centennial gardens 2005 13Initially prisoners and later Council gardeners transformed the bare former quarry into the present verdant gardens. All the soil had to be moved onto the site.

Now, paths of crushed limestone wind through rock gardens and ground-hugging planting.

Water is another significant landscaping feature. From the lower pool, water is pumped to the main pool and then to the top of the cliff where it cascades in down the 40-metre rock face.

Spray from the waterfall has encouraged the growth of plants on the limestone cliff face. At night, when lit with green illumination, the scene is one of almost primeval beauty.

Opposite the gardens on a hillside across Coote Road, the historic former prison has been preserved and now has a new life as a tourist site, offering both guided and self-guided tours, as well as escape rooms.

Many of Napier Hill's roadside retaining walls were built by working parties of prisoners. Dressed limestone from the quarry was known locally as "shell rock". In the 1920s and 1930s, it was very popular with local architects and builders who specified it for ornamental walls and pillars.

When the quarry was closed, this local supply of "shell rock" dried up.

Path leading to the fountain in Clive Square.Clive Square was included in the original town plan mapped out in 1854. Abutting downtown Napier, it provides a verdant vista for shoppers and cafe-goers looking west down Emerson Street. Parking is available around all sides of the two squares.

The park was conceived as the equivalent of the English village green, and Napier's first cricket and football matches were played here. A track that cut across the middle of the square later became the street that divides the area into two - Clive Square and Memorial Square.

In 1886, the square was enclosed with white picket fencing and gates at the corner entrances. Most of the enclosed area was in lawn, with trees and shrubs planted around the perimeter. The Clive Square side boasted a large centred circle, and seating around the outside of this faced inwards to a central band rotunda.

Chinese Cemetery

In 1918, the surrounding picket fence was replaced with the low limestone wall that is still there today. New plantings were added and extra flowerbeds formed to break up areas of lawn. This innovation provoked a conservative outcry that "the square now looks like a Chinese cemetery".

Memorial Square

The "Memorial Square" name was bestowed in 1921 when the Cenotaph was erected to commemorate the fallen soldiers of World War I. The square was laid out and palm trees planted in 1920, at the time of the visit of the Prince of Wales. More simply landscaped than the older garden beds in Clive Square, it includes the Community Rooms, originally called Mothers' Rest, designed by Napier architect Louis Hay in 1925.

Tin Town

The 1931 earthquake devastated Napier's commercial heart and in its aftermath temporary buildings were constructed in the two squares to provide premises for shops and banks. Phoenix palms were temporarily removed to make way for the timber and corrugated iron structures, which were affectionately referred to as "Tin Town". For two years, these improvised buildings played an important role in sustaining retail and banking activity while the central business district was rebuilt.

After Tin Town was dismantled, the gardens were restored and upgraded. The band rotunda in the centre of Clive Square had been badly damaged in the earthquake and was replaced in 1934 with a goldfish pond. Three years after they were moved to another part of town, the Phoenix Palms were returned.

Features and fountains

The ornate Edwardian period fountain on the south side was donated in 1904 in memory of W R Blythe, who had been a strong promoter of the development of Clive Square. The central lily pool was built in 1934 after 'Tin Town' was removed. The water jets and light were added in 1999.

The harp shaped Centennial Carillon, located next to the main path in the north-west section of the garden, was a gift from Rothmans Ltd to commemorate the 1974 Centenary of the Borough of Napier. The Carillon plays a selection of tunes every half hour, from 11.30am until 2pm.

Trees and plants

Over the years, the historic gardens have acquired some interesting and unusual trees and plants.

  • Prickly Cycads (Encephalartos altensteinii). Look for the short, palm-like plants at points around the lawns. This species thrived during the time of the dinosaurs and has survived unchanged for many millions of years. Native to southern Africa, the plants are very slow growing. Some are older than the 20-metre high palms at the corners of the square.
  • Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus macrophylla). This is probably the largest tree in Napier. Certainly its branch span of 25-metres outstrips all others. It would have been wider were it not for the need in past years to keep it cut back over the roadway. A 3.5-metre clearance height is enforced on this particular section of road to protect the tree from vehicle damage.
  • Petticoat Palms (Washingtonia filifera). These palms, native to California and the USA's southwest, were planted some time around 1918-20, at the time of the Chinese Cemetery outcry. With their slender trunks and distinctive tops, they are highly visible components of the garden, promoting Clive Square as an oasis.
  • Phoenix Palms or Canary Island Date Palms (Phoenix canariensis). Small at the time of the earthquake, these majestic palms were taken to McLean Park to make way for Tin Town. They were transplanted back to the square in 1934-35.
  • Bottle Palm or Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea recurvata). A curious member of the lily family from Mexico. When it flowers, the curving panicles carry myriads of quite tiny white or pink-tinged blooms.

Prior to the 1931 earthquake, this site was on a stretch of higher ground forming part of the Ahuriri Lagoon. Here was the home of Charles Dugal Kennedy, a qualified civil engineer who planned part of the Old Coach Road to Taupo opened in 1874. Kennedy later became a barrister and solicitor, and he was a partner in the syndicate that undertook the reclamation of Napier South.Rose beds in the Kennedy Park Rose Garden.

The rose gardens opened in 1951. Many more roses have been planted over the years, and the collection now encompasses 5000 individual roses - 500 named varieties covering bush, standards, weeping, climbing and prostrate rose forms.

A 90-metre long display of climbing roses is a prominent feature of the gardens.

The rose display usually peaks around mid-November, although blooms can be enjoyed from October through to April.


Kennedy Park

Camping holidays became increasingly popular in the 1930s, a result of the growth of private motoring. In 1937, three acres (a little more than a hectare) were purchased in Marewa for a "Municipal Camping Ground". The park was extended to its present size in 1942.

In the early years, travellers could stay in obsolete tramcars from the Napier Tramway System, which had been abandoned after the 1931 earthquake. The tramcar bodies were finally destroyed in the mid-1950s.

View Kennedy Park Website


Large eucalypts are all that remain of the original trees surrounding the Kennedy homestead.


Parking is available along the Russell Road frontage.

The story of these gardens began with the need to keep the sea from over-topping the beach and running down into the town.Colourful flowers down the side of the Marine Parade Gardens.

A permanent sea wall was built in 1887-88 to replace an unsatisfactory wooden structure. The 'new' wall is still there - the low round-topped wall dividing the gardens from the Marine Parade footpath and roadway. Before the 1931 earthquake, the shingle beach came right up to this wall.

The tectonic plate movement which caused the earthquake raised the beachfront by two metres, resulting in a greatly enlarged area of shingle above high tide level.

Buried City

Appointed Government Commissioner to oversee Napier's restoration following the destructive earthquake, J S Barton asked Charles Corner, the superintendent of the city's parks and reserves, if rubble from downtown's shattered buildings could be used in beach reclamation. When Corner replied that it could, the commissioner said: "Get on with the job. If I am not satisfied, I will let you know." He must have be satisfied, because the stretch of beach from the Ocean Spa swimming complex to the Marine Parade children's playground south of Marineland was levelled using horse-drawn scoops and the rubble unloaded there covered with clay and soil.

Development 1932-39

Promoters of Napier as a seaside resort had a long-held vision for a European-style line of 'promenade gardens'. The way was now open to realise of these dreams. Although it was the time of the Great Depression and money was scarce, Government subsidised work relief provided labour for the venture.

Retaining walls along the beach enabled the gardens and lawns to occupy a long raised terrace that ran south to the Soundshell.

In 1936, a substantial concrete sea wall with a walkway on the top was built from the Soundshell south to Raffles Street. The beach build-up can be best seen by standing alongside the 'Tui' anchor, mounted on the Rotary Pathway near the Sunken Garden. In 1938, a flight of eleven concrete steps linked the walkway to the beach.

Originally the gardens were a long expanse of unbroken lawn, stretching from a children's playground beside a swimming pool at the foot of Bluff Hill south to the skating rink site. The Kirk Sundial was the first feature to grace the gardens. It was donated by the mayor Gisborne and designed by Louis Hay.

Thirty Thousand Club

The Thirty Thousand Club was formed in 1913 to promote the population of Napier up to 30,000. Over 62 years, this group of volunteers ran promotional events, raised funds and financially supported improvements to the township. They played an important role in the development of the Soundshell, Skating Ring and Colonnade (later known as the Veronica Sun Bay). A Thirty Thousand Club member, Tom Parker donated the Tom Parker Fountain, celebrated for its synchronised play of water jets and changing display of coloured lights. Also a member, A B Hurst and his wife donated the Floral Clock.

In 1954, the club donated the Pania of the Reef sculpture. Sited just south of the Tom Parker Fountain, it too has become a Napier icon. The statue made national headlines when, in 2005, it was stolen from its limestone rock base. It was recovered a fortnight later and re-set, in a much more secure fashion, onto the original base.

Gatsby Picnic

One of the biggest events to be staged in the gardens is the annual Great Gatsby Picnic. Held as part of Napier's Art Deco Weekend celebrations, the picnic attracts enthusiastic locals and visitors who dress in 1930s style to picnic, play, posture and parade on the long stretch of lawn.


Two-hour parking is available along the garden frontage. Long-stay car parks are located at the north of Marine Parade and south of the Sunken Garden.

The Sunken Gardens colourful flowers and the staircase entrance.Formed in the 1960s, the Sunken Garden on Marine Parade has been described as the parade's 'hidden treasure' because, sited below road level, it offers a sense of serenity and separation from its urban surrounds.

The garden has developed a higher profile since mid-2001 when it was upgraded as part of a Napier City Council revitalisation project aimed at providing better links for Marine Parade attractions.

The revamp made the strip reserve more visible and accessible while preserving its informal and intimate character.

Flights of steps were formed between pohutakawa trees flanking the streetside footpath to lead down into the garden. The pond was made more visible to pedestrians, and that has enhanced its value as a focal point in this passive reserve.


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