Fern Mania in Downtown Auckland

You’ll find a pair of glasshouses in Auckland Domain’s Wintergarden: one is temperate, filled with an ever-changing display of colourful, cottage flowers; the other is hot and humid, harbouring a permanent display of alien exotica. Between them is an open-air courtyard with a sunken pool, a place to sit, face raised to the sun, and listen to the meditative mutterings of gentle fountains. Inside/outside, lush/spare, temperate/tropical, the array of contrasts ignites the senses like degustation. It is clear that the ploy of juxtaposition has been used by the designers – and to very good effect. But so far they’ve just been teasing.

At the rear of the courtyard, in the centre of an apsidal-curved wall, underplayed and coy, is the entrance to the fourth garden in the complex, the fernery, and it is here at this touching point that two very different worlds collide, where solid, constant light meets dappled, moving light, warmth meets cool, and rigour meets looseness.

Being in the fernery is a multi-sensory experience, as the best gardens always are. The clean, earthy odour of leaf mould subtly pervades the space and sylvan whispers fill the air as arching fronds dance in the breeze, choreographing shadows.

The granular light accentuates the texture and scale of a crowd of characters: rough, hairy giants mingling with delicate micro plants. Closer inspection reveals a kaleidoscope of greens varying impossibly from red to blue. The hothouses and courtyard, remarkable as they are, seem penultimate. A native wood pigeon beats a noisy flight path overhead reminding me that I am not in James Cameron’s Pandora.

A solid pergola spans nearly the entire space, providing support for vines, creepers and epiphytes. It is partly covered in netting in which wind-whisked leaves from surrounding parkland trees collect in suspended clusters. A white crushed-seashell path illuminates the way around two terraces and meets with spiralling bluestone steps descending to a small pond set amongst towering tree ferns. Looking up from down there, the frond-razored sky is so altitudinous it seems irrelevant, as if you are at the bottom of a deep gully in a great, ferny forest. This is another superb design achievement, for you are actually only 5m below the courtyard level in an enclosed space, roughly 30m by 36m, surrounded by mown parkland and urban residential streets.

The fernery, which cannot be reached without passing through the courtyard, is inextricable from its greater context, and it is a context that succeeds in shuffling our awareness of time. Naturally, there is that precious feeling of escapism, of being lost in thoughts, ignoring the minutes. In a different sense of time, that of age, the Wintergarden Complex is decidedly anachronistic, but the cues to its vintage are not easy to decipher.

Fern collections and glasshouses, especially as civic amenities, hark back to Victorian ideas of knowledge gathering and public education, as well as that era’s prowess in engineering and design, and its new-found command of iron and glass as construction materials. But by comparison to the ornate style of Victorian glasshouses, such as Crystal Palace and Kew Gardens, Auckland Domain’s brick-buttressed, barrel-vaulted Wintergarden buildings are relatively simple in layout, functional in design and restrained in ornamentation (though not devoid of it). They were designed in 1916 by New Zealand architect William Henry Gummer, who had worked in Britain for Sir Edwin Lutyens and in the US for Daniel Burnham, one of the founders of the Chicago School of Architecture. Gummer was influenced by Arts and Crafts, Neoclassical and other architectural styles, and his particular forte was his ability to combine such influences seamlessly, resulting in designs that were both incremental and fresh.

Inviting scenes with light and shadow hard at work!
The courtyard of Auckland Domain's Wintergarden, where the entrance to the fernery is tucked away behind an obelisk.
A juvenile Mokimoki, or fragrant fern (Microsorum scandent) ascending a silver fern.
A towering silver fern (Cyathea dealbata).
Wheki ponga (Dicksonia fibrosa), king fern (Ptisana salicina) and kiokio or crown fern (Blechnum discolor).
Rasp fern (Blechnum parrisiae) and common maidenhair fern (Adiantum aethiopicum).
This lush expanse is the lowest point in the fernery.
The undersides of king fern (Ptisana salicina).

The complex was built in two phases spanning the 1920s. It was a formative decade as New Zealand was recovering from the toll of WW1, and was gaining a new, post-colonial sense of itself. The Wintergardens were a civic gesture, conceived as an expression of New Zealand’s emergent nationhood, and Gummer’s design had a modernity that suited the country’s new mood. The fernery was constructed in 1929. The Depression had begun and the city council couldn’t afford the bill, so it was part-crowdfunded by twenty local businessmen and was built as an unemployment relief project by one hundred men in five weeks.

Given this genesis, it is surprising that the Wintergardens play so much with the concept of place, hiding behind walls, turning their backs to the parkland, and to their magnificent neighbour, the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Foreign places, too, are conjured through architecture that is essentially English, through controlled environments enabling the maintenance of exotic plants, and through a Lutyens-inspired Italianate courtyard that is decorated with classical Roman statuary representing the four seasons and an Egyptian-style obelisk topped with a statue of a domestic cat pawing at the sky.

The fernery, the deepest, darkest garden, farthest from the outside, is the most physically introspective of them all; yet, it is the only part of the complex that is truly vernacular, filled with native ferns and nestled into a quintessential and historic Auckland site – it sits in a quarry burrowed into the side of a volcanic cone, Pukekaroro, where the first Maori King, Potatau Te Wherowhero, kept a cottage in the 1840s during the earliest years of the city’s development.

Ferns are intrinsic to New Zealand – there are about 200 native species and about 40% are endemic – and the fernery was dedicated to natives from the start.

It was stocked initially with seventy-four ferns donated from a prize-winning collection of native plants. Other plants came over time from those enamoured with the project, including Auckland’s most learned botanists and a local Maori Association keen to improve Pakeha understanding of Maori traditions and lore. (Maori peoples used ferns for construction and for food.) After only two years of collecting, the fernery had more than eighty native species from tiny maidenhairs to giant tree ferns, representing many regions of New Zealand, from its southerly sea cliffs to its sub-tropical gullies. Native orchids and climbers, such as rata and clematis, also flourished in the dell.

The porosity of the volcanic rock in the fernery’s quarry base meant that dry-season irrigation and annual replacement of a number of ferns was necessary, but due to labour shortages and a lack of funds during WW2 this was impossible to keep up and many rare specimens died from dehydration. As the fernery succumbed to war-time neglect, ferns were lost to theft, plant labels were mixed up by errant schoolboys from the sports fields next-door, vandals wrecked fences, and night-time drinkers lounged among the plants not realising how ferns really hate to be disturbed. Meanwhile, common local ferns thrived and exotic weeds sprung up from seeds dropped by birds. A survey in 1955 listed fifty-five native ferns, one in 1987 listed twenty-five, and another in 1992 listed just fourteen.

It would be 1994 before the fernery was properly restored. A sensitive restoration of the glasshouses followed in 2005 bringing the whole complex back to resplendent glory. Today the fernery is well stocked, its white shell paths are swept clean of fallen leaves, the pergola is in good repair, and there is no sign of weeds. Among the ferns are other native species including nikau palm, cabbage tree, kawakawa, nettle (hosting the endemic Red Admiral butterfly), rengarenga, lancewood, bamboo orchid, tank asteliad, and turepo, the pretty orange-flowering gloxinia. There is also a collection of bronze sculptures of native birds by New Zealand artist Greer Twiss, commissioned to mark the millennium.

The Wintergarden is an extraordinary piece of New Zealand’s heritage – an architecturally-significant, botanically-enriched civic space, symbolic of the emergence of New Zealand’s post-colonial identity; and yet, no part of it speaks more eloquently of national identity than its humble fernery, carved into the landscape and filled with native plants. The fernery manages simultaneously to be vernacular, other-worldly, underworldly and of another era. It is magical. As a garden should be.

For more, check out the New Zealand Gardens Trust website here.

King ferns crowding the length of pathways through the fernery.
The Wintergreen courtyard and temperate glasshouse, which neighbours the fernery.