Greatest NZ Stories: Journey to where the wild things are wilder

David Fisher and photographer Mark Mitchell travelled the country looking for the greatest Kiwi yarns. Follow their journey in this series.

Reporter David Fisher and photographer Mark Mitchell meet the man who cares for Christchurch Botanic Gardens' earthquake-hit glasshouses.

Day 22: Christchurch

Jeremy Hawker gives a lovely description of the wonder of plants as he closes the doors to a botanical wonderland.

"I love it," he says, making sure he properly shuts the door to Cuningham House, opened in 1925 and the oldest conservatory at the Christchurch Botanic Gardens.

"It's exotic. It's tropical. It is a little bit of fantasy."

The fantasy comes in travelling without ever leaving home. "I'd never travelled," he says, now 53, but still as fascinated with plants as he was when young.

But neither did French painter Henri Rousseau, says Jeremy. Rousseau, who died in 1910, never left France but his best known works are of jungles and fantastical plants.

It was art that spoke of distant places, inspired in large part by his visits to Parisian conservatories at the Jardin des Plantes.

Once, Rousseau told a journalist: "When I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream."

And that, says Jeremy, is what happens inside Christchurch's wonderful conservatories, closed to the public since the earthquakes.

"If you don't travel outside Christchurch, you would never see these plants," he says. Coming here, to the conservatories and the gardens, takes you places you would never otherwise go. "It opens doors," he says. "It shows you other lands."

The doors to those other lands have been closed for more than two years. The possibility of a strong quake shattering the glass panels, raining shards on people below, was too awful to contemplate.

Engineers have since been through and the damage has been revealed as slight. Jeremy is hoping the doors will open again by Christmas.

It is also hoped, for the first few weeks at least, visitors will be able to see how wild it has become. For two years, the plants inside have grown without restraint.

The morning of the September 4, 2010, earthquake, Jeremy and family leapt out of bed as startled as the rest of Christchurch. They checked themselves and then ran to check on the neighbours.

"Then I said I'd better go and check work. I suspected that the roof might be down. If the roof is gone then the heat is going out."

With family in tow, he drove to the gardens and headed for the conservatories. "I did an outside loop. My first thought was if the glass was gone the plants would be cold."

It looked fine, as he stood there in the dark, so he went inside.

"Inside a big glasshouse with aftershocks happening? That wasn't the smartest thing to do," he says.

"I had to go and get the torches out of the office. Then I said to my wife I'd better go and check on my parents. Looking back now, I can see where my priorities lay."

Jeremy's parents are accustomed to their son's love of plants. "I used to be a crazy collector," he says. His parents' backyard was called the "mouse cemetery", so named because of the white markers next to freshly planted bulbs. Arrayed across the lawn, they took on the look of tiny tombstones.

Jeremy Hawker says many hybrids have sprung up in the Cunningham House Conservatory during its two years of closure. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Jeremy Hawker says many hybrids have sprung up in the Cunningham House Conservatory during its two years of closure. Photo / Mark Mitchell


"Since then, I'm probably more people-orientated. I'm more interested in how people enjoy plants. A lot of plant people aren't interested. I like seeing people enjoy themselves. Listening and hearing people's reactions is where I get pleasure."

Jeremy started as an apprentice at the Dunedin Botanic Garden and stayed with "amenity horticulture", with just a short spell working for a Government agency.

Now he runs the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, right in the heart of the city with its beautiful trees, river and conservatories.

"The reality of the botanic gardens is it is open to the public," he says. It needs to interact with the public and meet needs that go beyond the plants and trees. For some that is enough - Jeremy has spoken to people since the quake who describe it as the only place they can find peace.

For others, though, holiday programmes for children or theatre make good the promise offered by the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. "It's more than just a park."

For Christchurch, the pleasure derived from the botanic gardens ended on February 22, 2011, when so many people lost their lives and homes in that quake.

"In February, this one came through fine again," he says, standing outside Cunningham House. "The band rotunda on the other side has major damage. In the gardens, several large trees came down with the water coming up."

All the irrigation mains broke. When Jeremy came in, the lake next to the conservatories was bubbling. Across Christchurch, the water table had shifted towards the ground. "After that, they [the conservatories] were shut down completely."

Like everywhere in Christchurch, the gardens never quite went back to normal. Like elsewhere in the quake-struck city, it adopted a new normal. "People didn't want to come into the CBD," he says. "We didn't see people in here."

For almost two years, the conservatories became a restricted area. "There's an expectation as time goes on that some things should be repaired," he says. "It's the slowness of getting things moving ... waiting on others all the time to make calls."

Only two staff were allowed inside, and then with safety helmets and fluoro jackets. "For other staff, it's a restricted area. I've got no worries with the building. There's no damage and the glass hasn't broken."

And so Jeremy took us to the conservatory where the wild things are.

Stepping inside the closed conservatory, the first impression is an unconstrained wildness. The growth inside sprawls through the heavy, humid air. The light filtering through the glass is only slightly strained by the thin algae growth which has built up.

The benches that lined the walkways were cleared and the plants sent to other conservatories. Each had a marker on which the name of the plant was written. As the plants were removed, the markers were lined up. "All the plants will come back," he says. Jeremy, years on, has a new "mouse cemetery".

Regardless, the plants are taking over the conservatory. On the benches, new plants have sprouted. Dormant seeds have come to life. "A whole lot of seedlings have grown up," he says. And there are hybrids, not seen before, as plants cross breeding lines in their struggle for survival. "Anything that looks different is being potted up."

Jeremy's delight is clear. "We were going to pick plants to see who won the battle. They'll be striving for survival. There won't be much food here."

But it is in the centre where the true wildness is unleashed. The plants there have been in Cunningham House for decades - "some of the plants will be from the 1925 original planting" - and reach from the ground beyond the walkways at the next level, stretching to the roof.

"It's creating its own little display," says Jeremy, pointing to a climber. "Tetrastigma," he identifies it, adding, "I love these plants, don't know why. I had these as an apprentice. It took over Mum and Dad's sitting room.

"You've got a jungle forming in there, which is interesting. Who's going to be the most dominant plant? Who will win?"

Doors are expected to open again before Christmas, showcasing the oddity of the garden unrestrained. Inside awaits a journey to other lands, even wilder than before.

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