WORDS Kim Newth PHOTOS Sarah Rowlands
It feels good to step from an overcast Christchurch morning into a vibrant tropical environment bursting with banana trees, palms and vigorous jungle vines.
Originally known as the Winter Garden, Cuningham House is the largest, oldest and arguably the grandest of the plant display houses at the Botanic Gardens and is well-stocked with a luxuriant array of tropical plants. Conservatory collection curator Diane Boyd, who has agreed to show me around, says this is where she usually starts her working day.
“Before we open to the public, we dampen down the floors to ensure it has the right humidity and, of course, plant watering is a big part of the job,” she says.
As Diane leads me to the upper gallery, we pass a clump of beautiful bird of paradise flowers (Strelitzia reginae) with a common vine growing nearby. She explains that each has very different watering requirements. Automated irrigation is simply not an option where there is such a breadth of diversity. Everything must be precision watered by hand.
“There is a real art or skill in knowing how much water and light each plant needs … it’s fascinating doing the research on these plants and their various cultures and conditions. I’m in awe of how plants grow and adapt in different climates.”
We stroll past curtains of delicate Spanish moss and peer up the trunk of a tree that hails from Guyana, Ficus albert-smithii. It looks a bit like a magnolia tree on steroids.
“I love the size and colour of those leaves,” Diane exclaims, noting how quickly these trees grow.
Diane has long had a passion and curiosity for plants of all kinds but it wasn’t until 2008,
when she was in her 50s, that she finally took the plunge and applied for a three-year horticultural traineeship at the Botanic Gardens. Her training took place in the nursery and outside in the gardens, as well as in the multiple conservatories. Along with tropical plants, the conservatories house cacti and succulents, ferns, flowers, alpine plants and orchids/carnivorous plants.
“During my traineeship I worked with [the late] Frances Austin, who was the conservatory collection curator back then, and developed a fascination for the conservatories and the plants that grow in them from other countries that you simply couldn’t grow outside.”
Her instinctive love of plants goes back to her childhood in Waltham where home gardening was an enthusiasm shared by various family members.
“My mother and my nana, in particular, always grew vegetables, fruit and flowers. I remember we had our school gardens as well. In my teens, my mum remarried and she and her husband used to grow Christmas lilies and strawberries to sell and I used to help with that too.”
For Diane, it is the fulfilment of a later-in-life dream to now be part of the Botanic Gardens conservatories’ team, where she has held her current role for the past three years. It gives her great pleasure to be able to present the plants at their best for the appreciation of the many visitors.
“We’ve had weddings in here, photography groups come through, plus school and educational groups. Artists come to sketch and new parents bring their children. It’s lovely to see how people are uplifted by the experience.”