Museums are magical places where time travel happens almost on a daily basis and getting to know what our ancestors and their acquaintances were up to in the 1800s is not so far a reach. Botany Curator Carlos Lehnebach describes how the discovery of a box full of seed packets stored at Te Papa brought a botanist, a nurseryman and his great-great-granddaughter together more than a century later.
Natural history collections are a tangible record of the biological diversity on earth. They are used by scientists to validate the occurrence of a species in a given area, understand how variable a species is, or detect whether introduced species have expanded or reduced their distribution over the years. Besides these, and other scientific uses, natural history collections can also tell us about the people who collected them, their travels, their interests and the people they interacted with.
Earlier this year I spent a few days going through our botanical collections searching for clues to help New Zealand Geographic writer Veronika Meduna to pin down when one of our iconic native shrubs, the ngutukākā – kākābeak (Clianthus puniceus), left Aotearoa New Zealand to become a popular garden plant overseas.
This search led me to a box labelled “Colenso unmounted plants and seeds”. To my surprise, the box contained hundreds of unregistered seed packets of different sizes and made from different types of paper.
These seeds were duplicates of those sent by botanist and missionary William Colenso (1811–1899) to the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker between 1883 and 1888. The collection includes a mix of mostly native plant species, some at the time were new to science, and a few species of foreign origin but that were already growing in gardens here in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Among these seed packets, there were two which looked like no other. Although both had Colenso’s writing on them, they were commercial seed packets from a nursery in Napier run by F.W.C. Sturm.
These two packets contained seeds of a new species of cabbage tree that Colenso formerly described in 1882 and named after F.W.C. Sturm (i.e. Cordyline sturmii, now Cordyline australis).
In the description, Colenso noted that Sturm found this species while exploring the mountain ranges in the North Island. Sturm gathered seeds of this cabbage tree and grew them at his nursery, and then provided Colenso with samples to be used in the scientific description.
This cabbage tree, however, was not the only species Colenso named after Sturm. In 1894 Colenso named the New Zealand Calceolaria after Sturm (Calceolaria sturmii, now Jovellana sinclairii). This plant was first collected by Sturm while exploring montane areas of the North Island. Again, Colenso used Sturm’s samples to formally describe this new species.
From reading some of Colenso’s work and other historical documents it was evident that Sturm and Colenso were in regular contact. Both men were founding members of the Hawke’s Bay Philosophical Institute, a group interested in advancing science, literature, art, and the development of resources for the colony. Colenso and Sturm had a great interest in natural history and botany in particular, and Sturm was regularly sharing his botanical discoveries with Colenso.
It was clear from Colenso’s words that he thought very highly of Sturm. Colenso described Sturm as “a well-known botanist and very early energetic settler here on the East Coast and at Hawkes Bay”. The more I read about the connection between these two men the more curious I got about Sturm’s life. So the detective work started.
Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Sturm (1811–1896) was a German immigrant who settled in Napier in 1865 and established the Hawke’s Bay Nurseries, one of the first and largest nurseries in the area. A search on Papers Past shows Sturm’s nursery featured regularly in local newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and the Hawke’s Bay Herald. Notices in these papers promoted fruit trees, vegetables, the arrival of imported seeds and other products available from his nursery.
Sturm’s biography on Te Ara provides a brief outline of the ups and downs of his life such as his arrival in New Zealand in 1839, a journey to Wellington from Mahia Peninsula on foot, the deaths of his first and second wife, and the family moving to Napier. It also points out that only fragments of his life are known as a fire destroyed his collections, letters, papers, and memoirs.
Finding that much of Sturm’s past was permanently erased made me realise how valuable these two seed packets were and how, besides the plant samples he collected, the seed packets are likely the only tangible connections we have today to Sturm’s nursery and his passion for natural history.
Such was my excitement about these two seed packets that I immediately tracked down someone I knew would be interested to hear about them; Lyn Sturm, Friedrich’s great-great-granddaughter and author of the book Forgotten footprints F.W.C. Sturm. Naturalist, Botanist & Nurseryman. Her name and book came out while I was investigating Sturm’s life.
After doing some more detective work I got her phone number and gave her a call. I told her who I was and the events that led me to this unexpected finding. I also sent her a few photographs of these little treasures and organise a meeting. A few months later, Lyn travelled from Napier and visited me at Te Papa.
While we looked at the plants and seeds collected by her great-great-grandfather more than 140 years ago Lyn shared more details of F.W.C. Sturm’s life. She talked about the great interest he had in the natural world, his nursery and seed warehouse, and a whalebone comb at the British Museum presented to him by East Coast rangatira Te Kani a Takirau.
She also mentioned how his two attempts at writing his memoirs were frustrated by a sequence of unfortunate events that also destroyed most of his possessions. First a flood in 1877 then a fire in 1884. She explained her book was a response to her great-great grandfather’s attempts to leave a record of his life and experiences to future generations.
Little did he know that by sharing a handful of seeds and plant samples with botanist William Colenso he had guaranteed some of his discoveries will endure the pass of time and his contribution to New Zealand’s botany would never be erased from history.
- Meduna, V. 2020. Too tasty for its own good. New Zealand Geographic.
- Sturm, Friedrich Wilhelm Christian – Dictionary of New Zealand Biography – Te Ara
- Colenso, W. 1882. Descriptions of a few new indigenous plants. Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute. 15: 320-338.
- Colenso, W. 1894. Phænogams: A Description of a few more Newly-discovered Indigenous Plants; being a Further Contribution towards the making known the Botany of New Zealand. Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand. 27: 383-399.
- Sturm, L. 2018. Forgotten footprints F.W.C. Sturm. Naturalist, Botanist & Nurseryman. Graphic Press Limited.