Collecting from an exotic wonderland – plant specimens from the Bell garden added to Te Papa’s herbarium

Collecting from an exotic wonderland – plant specimens from the Bell garden added to Te Papa’s herbarium

Last spring, Te Papa’s Leon Perrie, Lara Shepherd and Bridget Hatton travelled to Whanganui to collect plant specimens from the garden of the late Ian and Jocelyn Bell. Many of the plants in the garden are rarely cultivated in New Zealand and were not represented in our botany collection. Research Scientist Lara Shepherd takes us behind the specimen-collecting scenes.

The Bell Garden

The Bell garden on Bastia Hill in Whanganui is well-known for its collection of exotic species, particularly from Australia and South Africa. It belongs to the estate of Ian and Jocelyn Bell, who were renowned horticulturalists. Ian developed the popular Safari Sunset cultivar of Leucadendron, which was bestowed the prestigious Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

Jocelyn’s parents, Wally and Jean Stevens had also lived at the same site when the garden business was known as Stevens Bros. Wally was an expert nurseryman and collector of rare plants. Jean was known internationally for her iris breeding and registered nearly 400 iris hybrids over her lifetime. The Queen Mother, who had an interest in irises, visited the garden when she toured New Zealand in 1966.

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The Collecting

Over the years, specimens of some of the plants from the Bell garden have been sent to herbaria in Rotorua and Lincoln but few had made it to Te Papa. Recently local Whanganui botanist Colin Ogle and the Bells’ niece Karen Wrigglesworth had been documenting the plants in the garden prior to the property being offered for sale.

Colin contacted Te Papa to see if we would be interested in obtaining specimens from the more uncommon species at the site.

Over two days, Leon, Lara, and Bridget, with Colin and Karen’s help, collected specimens from 136 plants in the garden.

Our collecting involved locating plants to collect, photographing them, pressing them and recording their collection information in a spreadsheet.

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Some of the plants were rather challenging to pick and/or press, particularly those with very large or spiky leaves.

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During our trip, we also met the Whanganui Botanical Group and demonstrated how we collect specimens for the herbarium.

A man in a blue top and hat kneels on the ground putting specimens in sheets of newspaper, with four other people standing and watching.
Leon demonstrates pressing a plant specimen to the Whanganui Botanical Group. Photo by Lara Shepherd
Five people standing and one person sitting listening to someone talking out of shot
Colin (far right) and Karen (centre, black jumper) giving a history of the Bell garden to the Whanganui Botanical Group. Photo by Lara Shepherd

Colin also later collected additional specimens of species that did not flower until after our visit. It is useful to include flowers because they are often important for identification.


Once the dried plants were brought back to Te Papa there was still much work to be done. They needed to be mounted on card (done by our marvellous herbarium volunteers), imaged, and then added to our database.

These are now available on Collections Online.

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With exotic plant species now far outnumbering native species in New Zealand, these herbarium specimens further the documentation of our cultivated botanical heritage. It is always useful to keep an eye on what is in gardens, as this is now where new weeds mostly originate.


  1. It is great to see years of hard work and dedication being preserved. Jean was also invited to be a guest speaker at an Iris Society Convention in the United States around 1954/5. I am Ian’s younger sister.

  2. Thanks to Colin Ogle and the Te Papa team for doing this for the Bell garden.

  3. How interesting.

    Thanks very much for all your work Lara, Leon and vols.

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