The white man was not the first to introduce exotic plants to New Zealand; the Maori brought food plants and probably others when he came from tropical Polynesia. Quite likely he brought coconuts.


Exotic palms were well established here long before they came into fashion in the 1990’s. Most were originally brought as seed by sailors and ship captains from ports they called at between England and New Zealand, probably because they were noticeable and attractive plants, maybe they were just souvenirs. From Santiago in Chile came about a dozen Chilean Wine Palm, a huge palm with a pillar-like trunk. From Rio de Janeiro or Bahia in Brazil came the Pindo Palm, a stout blue-foliaged palm and the Queen Palm, a tall, feathery-leaved palm. From Gibraltar came the European Fan Palm, a multi-trunked palm with tufts of short fronds and probably the true Date. From the Canary Islands came the C. I. Date Palm, the commonly seen large-scale palm with a very big crown and also the dragon tree. From Capetown came the Senegal date, an elegant slender multi-trunked palm. From the island of Guadelupe off Mexico, where goats had been established to provide fresh meat for ships, came the Guadelupe Palm, a handsome species with large fan fronds. Doubtless many other more tropical species were also tried, but proved too delicate for our long wet winters.


The Chusan Palm, one of the most cold-hardy species, was discovered in China in 1846, and distributed to botanical gardens in Europe. It came to New Zealand not long afterwards and now its distinctive fibrous trunk and short fan fronds can be found in places like Te Kuiti and Dunedin, some old examples still healthy at Larnoch’s Castle on Otago Peninsula.


More local palms also arrived fairly quickly, in particular those from mainland Australia, the Cabbage palm, the weeping Cabbage palm, the Bangalo and king palm, and from Lord Howe Island the two Kentias and the Umbrella Palm. Kermadec nikau from Raoul Island were also brought to Auckland at this time, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Seed was also available from seed merchants in Europe.


The seed would have made its way to well-known botanists like Thomas Cheeseman and Clement Wragge, and gentlemen with botanical interests like Sir George Grey and the merchants living in Princes St. The various church retreats also favoured palms in their grounds such as at St Johns in Benson Rd, Remuera (Senegal date and Queen Palm), Monte Cecilia in Three Kings (Kentia and Chilean wine palm) and the Catholic convent near Ihumatao (Kentia). In all of these gardens can be found 100+ year old specimens of most of these palms today. There were also nurseries who grew palms, the Hay Bros in Shore Road and another at the top of Brighton Road, both in Parnell.


Some seed went to the South Island – an old homestead on the estuary of the Avon River at Brighton Beach has at least one uncommon palm, a Brahea edulis, surely the southern-most example in the world. In the Nelson Botanic Garden is a huge old fan palm, either Washingtonia filifera or a Sabal.


Since then palms have been propagated by nurserymen, often from seed of these old plants. Bayley’s in Gisborne grew many Butia capitata which do well in that dry climate. In Napier a large palm and cycad planting was done in the early 1920’s in Clive Square preparatory to a visit by the Prince of Wales. All these are still thriving today. A Northland grower has Jubeas collected as seed from an old pair of these impressive palms at Mangatawhiri.


Many seed of Cycas revoluta were brought back by servicemen after the Japanese Occupation at the end of WW2. Other private individuals I know of smuggled in seed of palms found during holiday trips abroad in the forties and fifties. There are significant garden collections in Kaitaia and Glendowie. Palm enthusiasts in NZ have since been responsible for bringing in native palms from the cooler regions of New Caledonia and Hawaii, and many other places where particularly garden-worthy species could be found.


Palms have been regarded by the white man and other races as being commensurate with royalty. Their upright growth habit and graceful appearance make them favourites for urban plantings worldwide. Up in the mountains of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, where the locals still live largely off the forest, I once came into a village whose headman had, unusually, planted a palm collection of the half-dozen local species around his hut. These were unknown in most of the world at that time except to extreme palm specialists. The appeal of palms transcends racial divisions.


However most palm plantings in temperate climates consist of only four or five varieties which are common in Spain, France, California, Australia, and the Middle East. We wanted to use the Nikau, its relatives from the Tasman Sea Area, and the less well-known species from further afield in Auckland plantings. We feel it would be a feature to have a Palm Walk in downtown Auckland so tourists, both local and exotic can see New Zealand’s endemic palm and a variety of others that quite likely they would not have encountered anywhere else, but which are part of Auckland’s heritage.


Concerning the nikau, mature specimens are being transplanted into urban situations. The lower North Island forms have been used for preference, as the Northland and Auckland nikau really only look good in the forest. They need other trees around, probably to keep a good healthy soil micro-flora going as much as for the shade and shelter provided. Further south the nikau becomes more coastal and is tolerant of exposure to the elements and of the isolated conditions of beachfront sand and pasture. These conditions prevail in central Auckland planting sites and the southern forms do much better there provided they are properly looked after, as at Vector Arena and western Karangahape Road.