Every year, thousands of people flock to the North American states of New England or the province of Quebec to take in the glory of the autumn leaves. Yet how many New Zealanders are aware that a similar experience can be had in this country? Eastwoodhill Arboretum, an exotic woodland 30 km west of Gisborne, puts on a stunning show of colour in the month of May, when many of its trees become a blaze of red and gold-fiery beacons among the dry Poverty Bay hills.
Leafy grandeur not with standing, it is the location of Eastwoodhill—within one of the most erosion-prone regions of the country—that is perhaps its most surprising feature. When, almost every year, torrential rainstorms rip deep scars in the surrounding farmland, the arboretum usually escapes unscathed. Its trees bind the soil in place as did the original forest cover.
The story of Eastwoodhill goes back to a day in 1910, when a young and inexperienced farmer, William Douglas Cook, climbed down from a bullock wagon to take stock of his newly acquired land. Before him lay 250 ha of unimpressive weed and manuka covered hill country his allotment, by ballot, of the Ngatapa farm block.
It can’t have been much to look at, but in his mind’s eye Cook saw park-like grounds and majestic trees—a wooded Eden he would create in the midst of East Coast sheep country. He chose the name Eastwoodhill in memory of his mother’s family property near Glasgow.
Although the public was later to focus on the more remarkable of Cook’s numerous eccentricities, such as his habit of gardening stark naked apart from boots and a sunhat, far more puzzling to the local farming community was his desire to plant good farmland with seemingly useless exotic trees and plants. For his own part, Cook couldn’t understand why his neighbours took so little interest in beautifying their surroundings.
Born in 1884, the second son of a New Plymouth bank officer and his wife, Cook was raised in a strict but affluent Victorian home. Though he rebelled against his father’s authoritarian rule, he never lost his taste “for the refinements associated with a country gentleman,” notes Cook’s biographer, John Berry, in his book A Man’s Tall Dream: The Story of Eastwoodhill.
During his childhood, Cook spent many happy hours wandering the gardens of New Plymouth’s famed Pukekura Park [see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 44], and these ramblings no doubt fuelled his growing interest in trees. At age 18, after a brief stint as a cattle hand, he borrowed 140 pounds from his father to buy a peach orchard just outside Hastings. Had this venture succeeded, Eastwoodhill might never have come into existence, but severe frosts wrecked two of the first four years’ harvests, forcing Cook to seek work as a farm labourer.
Cook didn’t last long in this line of employment. Independent by nature, he deeply resented working under someone else’s direction. After one terse exchange with the son of a run-holder, he took to the bush for two days, returning only to collect his belongings and leave.
His luck changed when he won a ballot for farmland at Ngatapa, which he paid for by selling his orchard at a profit. At last he felt he was captain of his destiny. “I was happy as a king and strong as a bullock,” he wrote. “Work of any kind was no trouble . . . [The land was] mine to think out the future of! Mine to plant as I wished!”
Cook’s early efforts on the new property were a compromise between the needs of the farm and his desire to create beautiful scenery. He planted a small fruit orchard and was one of the first people in the area to grow Pinus radiata and eucalypts for firewood and fencing. He called this work “utility planting,” and once it was done he turned his attention to decorative trees.
There seems to have been no particular pattern to Cook’s early planting, his only idea being to beautify the immediate view around his one-roomed shack. He ordered rose plants from a nursery in Ashburton and obtained cuttings and seeds from neighbours and friends throughout the North Island.
The First World War brought a temporary end to his still inchoate plans for Eastwoodhill. In August 1914 he spent a few busy days putting in a shipment of 100 rhododendrons and a further 100 mixed trees and shrubs before enlisting with the Wellington Mounted Rifles.
Cook left for the Middle East in December. In July 1915 he was wounded at Gallipoli, losing part of a finger to a bullet. Worse was to come. Transferred to an artillery battalion and promoted to the rank of bombardier, he was wounded again and left permanently blind in his right eye. While recuperating in England he visited various stately homes and made friends with the director of the famed Kew Gardens, who—ironically, considering their New Zealand origins—gave him two fine cultivars of the cabbage tree.
Cook’s English experience appears to have been a seminal one, giving his collecting a decidedly Northern- hemisphere bias as well as imparting an appreciation and understanding of the way trees can be planted for different aesthetic effects. “[I] got the idea that I too could have lovely surroundings, even if I could never have a fine home and live as [the wealthy] did,” he wrote.
The sweeping, tree-lined entrances to the English estates particularly impressed him, and in 1918, not long after he was invalided home, he planted an avenue of Lombardy poplars along the main entrance to Eastwoodhill. In 1949, he described how these trees had reached a height of some 80 feet, creating a “cathedral effect.” Unfortunately, rust decimated the poplars in the 1970s, although their effect is still striking.
In the early days of Eastwoodhill, Cook was forced to wage a continuous battle with the soil and the elements. Although there is a deep base of sedimentary sandstone and mudstone at Ngatapa, substantial over-layers of pumiceous ash, resulting from the long history of volcanic activity in the central North Island, make the soil naturally dry and porous. Cook used basic mulching techniques to give the newly planted trees and shrubs a head start, but until he established ponds in the 1950s he had to water the seedlings and saplings with buckets, leaving them to fend for themselves once they were two years old.
Frosts and droughts took their inevitable toll, claiming as many as one out of every two trees, but the relentless planting programme sometimes several thousand specimens in a single year—more than compensated for these losses. Like any true gardener, Cook didn’t accept the deaths without a fight. “If a tree, shrub or plant is frost tender in one area we move it higher up the hill till it finds a spot in which it will thrive. . . It is a lot of fun succeeding eventually with a thing that has beaten you for years.”
Cook was especially fond of rhododendrons, and over the years he established a substantial collection: 100-plus species and 300 hybrids. However, time after time the unsuitable soil and unforgiving Poverty Bay weather combined to wipe out even seemingly well-established specimens.
Frustration with Eastwoodhill as a site for growing “rhodos” led to Cook’s buying a 60 ha block on the moist slopes of Mt Egmont/ Taranaki in 1950, setting up the Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust and donating the land to it. Of the purchase, Cook wrote, “I saw [the land] at 3.00 in the afternoon . . . and paid a third down before 8 p.m. that evening. Never a regret.”
Cook was no great fan of officialdom. When setting up the Pukeiti trust he insisted it be a private arrangement “and that no donations be accepted from government, county council, or any such public body. We want no dictation in our affairs. We are our own bosses and we alone say what is to be done.”
Importing plant material brought Cook into frequent conflict with bureaucrats and their “tuppenny halfpenny little boys’ rules.” He described one man, who had placed obstacles in his way when he had been trying to uplift magnolias with incomplete documentation, as “one of those government officials whose mother had no milk, so she fed him on red tape since birth.”
In the early days, plants were delivered from the wharf or railway station at Gisborne by packhorse or bullock. The deliverymen, along with passing drovers, often camped in a roadside paddock at Eastwoodhill.Their carousing long into the night prompted Cook to dub the area “the circus,” a name it retains to this day.
In 1927, an important—though diminutive—figure came onto the Eastwoodhill scene. Bill Crooks, one of the first graduates of Flock House, a training establishment for young farmers, joined Cook as a farm cadet. Unlike other farm workers, who until that time had come and gone with almost monotonous regularity,
Crooks seems to have understood his somewhat unpredictable employer, and for the next 47 years this cheerful, slightly built man served Cook as caretaker, chauffeur, labourer and farmer.
His arrival was a turning point in the evolution of Eastwoodhill, because with him to run the farm and assist with the planting, Cook could focus on the systematic development of the property.
Another significant event occurred two years later. Cook, now nearing the age of 45, met Claire Bourne, an assistant librarian at Auckland University, while visiting his sister in Pukekohe. Claire had been a teacher before becoming a librarian, and, in common with Cook, had a love of books. After a four-month engagement, they married, and Claire found her life suddenly transformed from that of urban academic to that of wife of an eccentric country arborist and farmer.
Although Claire never complained about life at Eastwoodhill, there were certainly tensions. For example, Cook regarded his wife’s interest in growing vegetables as rather frivolous, and described her efforts disparagingly as “scratching like a hen.”
Cook was not an easy man to live with—or to work for. Although he was prepared to sacrifice almost anything to have extra money to spend on his arboretum and his personal art and antique collection, he made only scant provision for his new worker. Bill Crooks, his wife, Jo, and, later, five children lived for many years in a tiny cottage with only rudimentary plumbing and sanitation. When the water supply ran out, as it often did, they had to surreptitiously siphon water from one of the garden tanks.
Cook forbade Jo to drive her car on the main driveway, the only all-weather access to the property, and refused to allow the Crooks children to own a horse, on the grounds that it would eat his grass.
At the same time, Cook could also be generous. He planted apple trees along the roadside of his property to provide fruit for drovers, and in later years instituted Daffodil Sunday, when the public could freely pick as many of Eastwoodhill’s abundant daffodils as they could hold in one hand.
For his part, Crooks was capable of standing up to his employer. On one occasion he refused to lend Cook his trousers when some visitors arrived at Eastwoodhill, unexpectedly catching Cook in his usual state of undress.
The relationship between Cook and Crooks was to last much longer than the Cooks’ marriage. Claire and their adopted son, Sholto, left Eastwoodhill in 1937, and she and her husband never saw each other again. However, there was no acrimony in the parting, and in the 1970s, after Cook’s death, Claire contributed to a fund for the upkeep of Eastwoodhill.
During the 1930s, Cook continued to spend large sums on purchasing plants—far more than the farm would have earned. In 1936, the cost of plants ordered from one New Plymouth nursery amounted to 85 pounds—“equivalent to a working man’s wages for half a year,” notes John Berry.
Looking back on his life, Cook estimated that during 55 years spent at Eastwoodhill he spent on average well over 1000 pounds a year on plant purchases.
In 1952, when he was 71, Cook sold three-quarters of his, by then, 500 ha property for 20,000 pounds, much of which he proceeded to spend on the development of the arboretum. Five years later, he bought a plot of frost-free coastal land at Wainui Bay, north of Gisborne, for propagating frost-tender plants and hardening off some of his more fragile imports before exposing them to the rigours of Eastwoodhill. The park was everything to him.
With the advent of the Cold War Cook began to think of his arboretum as a way of preserving Northern hemisphere plants that might otherwise be lost in a nuclear holocaust. Eastwoodhill could become a plant lifeboat—a thought which intensified his planting fever. Although nuclear devastation hasn’t eventuated, acid rain and urban sprawl in the Northern hemisphere have come to threaten a number of tree species cultivated by Cook. And in a curious twist of fate, Cook began receiving requests for plant material from the curators of Northern hemisphere collections—some from the very nurseries that had supplied him with plants in the first place.
At the same time, within New Zealand there was a growing demand for Cook’s plants and seeds. Tens of thousands of acorns from Eastwoodhill’s scarlet oaks have been distributed to nurseries around the country.
As Eastwoodhill came to be appreciated by others, Cook received a number of awards and tributes from fellow horticulturalists, and in 1948 was made a fellow of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulturalists. In 1966, somewhat belatedly, the institute granted him its highest award, making him an Associate of Honour. A year later he died of a heart attack, aged 83.
Cook’s final years were not happy ones. Dogged by failing health, he became increasingly discouraged, fearing his life had been a failure. “I never thought I’d be lonely at Eastwoodhill, but I am. I can’t work and I try not to brood over being incapable,” he wrote to a friend.
His central worry was the fate of the arboretum. He had tried without success to persuade the Institute of Horticulturalists to buy and manage the place, and feared some neighbouring farmer would acquire it and turn it back into pasture. However, Bill Williams, a local philanthropist and scion of the well-known Williams missionary family, stepped in and purchased the property a couple of years before Cook died, and set about establishing a trust to run it in perpetuity. An act setting up the trust eventually passed through Parliament in 1975, and Williams gifted the property to the trust and became its first chairman.
At the time of Cook’s death the arboretum was not in great shape. Bill Crooks had been unable both to farm the property and to maintain all the plantings, which had grown to cover some 65 ha. Undergrowth and weeds were choking pathways and plants. A decade of cleaning up was initiated, first by Crooks, then by a succession of curators, assisted by volunteers and periodic-detention workers.
One of the most important voluntary contributions was made by a Tiniroto farmer—Bob Berry, an authority on Mexican oaks. (Mexico has 150 species of oak, a good percentage of the world total.) Berry, who now has his own substantial arboretum, called Hackfalls, discovered Eastwoodhill in 1953, and over the years became increasingly enthusiastic about its possibilities.
He became a good friend of Cook’s, assisting him with the planting programme, offering advice with siting and planting distances and helping with identification and labelling. But he was concerned about the lack of a proper catalogue, particularly after Cook’s death.
In 1971, Berry began the mammoth task of locating and identifying every plant, plotting them on a grid laid over an aerial map. One day a week for over a year, he drove to the farm and attempted to catalogue the plants in a single square. He was greatly helped by Bill Crooks, who could still remember where and when many specimens had been planted.
In the course of his work, Berry found that some trees had been mislabelled and that others had lost their labels. In one unfortunate incident, a group of high-spirited Boy Scouts, who had been allowed to camp on the property, had swapped a number of tree labels as a prank. Cook had banned any further visits by Scouts.
The result of Berry’s labours was a 39-page document providing the details of some 3000 plant species and varieties on the property, describing the location, condition and size of each and giving the date or estimated date of planting. The catalogue provided written proof that Eastwoodhill was a serious arboretum, well worth preserving. Without it, getting the trust act through Parliament would have been much more difficult.
Today, the trust that runs the arboretum continues to enhance the property. Supported by the Friends of Eastwoodhill, a group of volunteers who do work about the property and raise money, the trust built the Douglas Cook Library in 1993, then added an accommodation wing and has recently opened a visitor centre. Yet life for the arboretum is not without its difficulties. The present curator, Paul Wynen, says that while the trust seeks to remain true to Douglas Cook’s vision of assembling a first-rate collection of Northern- hemisphere plants, new biosecurity laws pose a major obstacle.
“We can no longer afford to import new species to add to the collection,” he says. “Getting all necessary approvals and following proper phytosanitary procedures is prohibitively expensive. Nurserymen who are going to propagate and sell hundreds of plants can afford to do it, but we can’t.”
The only way the arboretum can enlarge its holdings is by sourcing species it doesn’t possess from elsewhere in New Zealand. And very few are to be had in this way. As a result, the collection is slowly losing species. In some instances, Eastwoodhill has only a single specimen—one which may not produce viable seed. Cuttings are an option, but not in every case: some plants cannot be propagated in this way, especially if a cutting must be taken from an older specimen.
Although some trees may live for hundreds of years and some even longer—most are shorter lived, and eventually all die. With few species being added, and some that are dying impossible to replace, the collection can only shrink—unless importation restrictions are relaxed.
Despite the arboretum’s difficulties, it is still widely held to have the best Southern-hemisphere collection of Northern-hemisphere trees. It boasts many rarities, particularly among the conifers, and has several specimens that are unique in New Zealand. High on my list of favourites are the orange-bark myrtles and Mt Atlas cedars.
As Douglas Cook hoped, the arboretum is increasingly appreciated, both by botanists as a resource and by visitors seeking to savour the beauty and restfulness of exotic trees. Cook’s dream—to create “a garden for all New Zealanders”—has been handsomely realised.