Recently the Botany team at Te Papa dedicated a week to curating several boxes of plant specimens – we called it the Botany Blitz! Our aim was to crack open boxes that have been patiently waiting – months, years, or in some cases decades – to be processed and databased. During our Blitz, we catalogued many specimens, learned new things about our collections, and discovered many fascinating stories along the way. Botany Curator Heidi Meudt processed one of the boxes from the botanist Thomas Kirk.
The botanist: Thomas Kirk (1828-1898)
One of the boxes I tackled had two folders of plant specimens collected in Newtown Park, Wellington, by Thomas Kirk (1828–1898). Kirk was a well-known New Zealand botanist who published about 150 papers on the flora of Aotearoa New Zealand and named hundreds of new species.
Kirk emigrated to Auckland from England in 1862 but moved to Wellington in 1874. He travelled and collected widely throughout the country, and we hold about 8000 of his botanical specimens. These photos were taken of him around the time he made his collections in Newtown Park.
The specimens: Kirk’s Newtown Park Veronica specimens
The 21 specimens in these folders are all of a species of Veronica (hebe) collected by him in the 1890s. These particular plants seem to have caught his expert eye as being something different and potentially new. So he did what any good botanist would do: he made multiple collections over several years and in various habitats so he could better understand these interesting plants and compare them to other specimens already in other herbaria.
Based on Kirk’s labels on the specimens, he originally identified some of these rather robust hebes as V. salicifolia (now known to be restricted to the South Island only) or V. myrtifolia (perhaps referring to what is now called V. macrocarpa from the northern North Island). But, comparison with specimens at Kew and his own collections convinced him that he had a new species.
So in 1896, Kirk described Veronica rotundata. His original description mentions the broad leaves with a pointed tip, the large, broadly-rounded capsules, and the flowers which are “of a deep-violet colour when first expanded, but often change to a pale lilac.“ It is very likely that these Te Papa specimens are the type material, i.e. the original specimens he used to describe the species. This is an exciting find for our herbarium!
The location: Newtown Park at the turn of the century
I just love the idea of Kirk tramping around my own neighbourhood of Newtown collecting these plants! I wonder if he wore a suit and hat as in the photos above (complete with boutonnière), or indeed if he was on horseback? And what was Wellington – and specifically Newtown Park – like in the 1890s? The population of Wellington around that time was less than 35,000 people, growing to about 50,000 by 1901.
Newtown Park was established in 1881 and the zoo by 1906. The park was used for sport and recreation, and had a pond, promenade and band rotunda. It also became a military camp in 1900 for the soldiers who were about to depart for South Africa.
What happened to Veronica rotundata?
Not all of Kirk’s new species have stood the test of time, and alas, Veronica rotundata from Newtown Park is one of them. Today, the only two hebes native to the Wellington Peninsula are V. stricta and V. parviflora. We can be pretty certain that these specimens of V. rotundata are neither of those species because of their long, narrow, pointed leaf bud sinus, whereas V. stricta and V. parviflora do not have a sinus at all.
Since then, the name has not been widely used, and it’s still unclear if it has a hybrid origin. Although Kirk collected it in several different habitats in Newtown Park – “in shade”, “in open”, “on bank”, “near pond”, also noting it was a “common form on open hill sides” – it hasn’t been seen or collected much since then.
Perhaps it was an escaped cultivated plant that flourished in Newtown Park for a time – long enough for Thomas Kirk to take notice of it – before dying out. Sadly, Thomas Kirk himself died in 1898, having collected these specimens and described V. rotundata in the final years of his life.