Topic: If Trees Could Talk: the Whakarewarewa Redwoods by Vivien Edwards

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The Redwoods in Whakarewarewa are the subject of Vivien Edwards entry in the 2011 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Archived version here.

If trees could talk they would tell a lot more stories than flies on the wall. Take the Redwoods in Whakarewarewa. Beneath these tall sentinels of the forest one experiences a feeling of peace and of being connected to something bigger. These trees hold stories of the region's past and will no doubt outlive our lifetime to hold the stories of future generations.

The Redwood Grove is part of Whakarewarewa Forest. Before 1886 there was only a small area of native bush above the Blue Lake and a few other small pockets of native trees. Whakarewarewa land was mostly covered in flax, ferns and tussock, dotted with manuka, tutu and coprosma. Te Whakarewarewa Tanga o te Taua a Wahiao was where the Te Arawa chief Wahiao's war party lived, but over the centuries many Maori villages probably existed among these hills.

In an effort to replace native forests that were cleared for land settlement and timber, the New Zealand Government purchased land from Maori landowners and in 1898 a government nursery was set up to determine suitable exotic species for commercial harvesting. The first of 170 species was planted in Whakarewarewa Forest in a trial area, using prison labour from camps set up in the Waipa Valley and by the Green Lake. These trial species included Australian Eucalypts, Tasmanian Blackwood, Japanese Cedar, Mexican Cypress, Patula Pine, Silver Wattle, Acacias and Radiata Pine.

Seed was imported from around the world; the Redwood from its natural habitat, a narrow strip on the west coast of the United States. Its common name alludes to the cherry-coloured heartwood, whereas its botanical name Sequoia sempervirens was given by a German botanist to honour the Cherokee chief Seqoyah. It was the trees' fine reputation in North America that led to the first plantings in 1901 in the Government plantation at Whakarewarewa. In 1915 some logs were harvested for firewood and later for props in the Waihi gold and Huntly coal mines.

To commemorate New Zealand State Forest Service staff members who died in World War One, the Redwoods were declared a memorial grove in 1925 then in 1947 the grove was informally dedicated to staff killed in World War Two.

Next to a path through the Redwoods is the plaque commemorating Mary Sutherland. She was the world's first woman forestry graduate who graduated from the University of North Wales in 1916 and she worked for the New Zealand State Forest Service from 1923 - 1933. I wondered what it was like for a woman forester in those early years and decided to find out.

Nearly three years and 80,000 words later, I have researched and documented Mary Sutherland's life. Her story was located in old files held by the National Forestry Library in Scion, Archives New Zealand, Te Amorangi Trust Museum, Te Papa Archives and Sutherland family records.

Mary came to New Zealand in 1923, having lost her British Forestry Commission position following the 1921 Geddes Committee report.  Her work for the State Forest Service is detailed in the records. She knew Halbert Goudie, under whose direction the Whakarewarewa Rewoods had been planted. He had worked in the Government nursery, was superintending nurseryman for the North Island from 1909 then was appointed conservator for the Rotorua region when the State Forest Service was established in 1921. In March 1924 the director, Leon McIntosh Ellis, wrote to Goudie that Miss Sutherland would be undertaking a co-ordination study and nursery plantation research in his region. 'I know she will secure the full and hearty co-operation of you and all your officers,' Ellis informed him.

Her study covered Whakarewarewa, Waiotapu and the Kaingaroa plains. Goudie wished to send her straight to Hanmer for her next co-ordination study as soon as she finished her report, but Ellis wanted her retained productively in Rotorua until after the Rangers' instruction course held in Whakarewarewa from 7 - 26 July 1924 in which she was to assist the chief inspector Arnold Hansson.

Mary returned to Rotorua in June 1925. She combined her Rotorua nursery findings with those from the Waipoua forest nursery in a report for Ellis. Redwood seed was scarce and there were competing buyers. Seed from a Redwood tree at Taheke gave the best germination results in tests at Rotorua.

A 1926 article in New Zealand Life (held in the National Library) pictures Goudie among the Whakarewarewa Redwoods. The trees were then 22 years old. European Larch planted as nursery trees at the same time, were outgrown and skinny in comparison. The article reported fine Redwood specimens in the North Auckland region and that timber men were enthusiastic about the species. Redwood was 'possibly as valuable as Kauri and suitable for all commercial purposes, excepting firewood or wooden matches.' A previous article had claimed Redwood fetched higher prices than both Kauri and Totara.

At the end of March 1926 Goudie resigned from the State Forest Service to join New Zealand Redwood Forests Ltd. which owned 6014 acres of freehold land near Putaruru with six miles of frontage to the Auckland -Rotorua railway. He was to take charge of the entire forestry operation. The company advertised Redwood as 'the most valuable timber tree in the world; issued a prospectus and interest-bearing debentures. By 1929, 1025 of its acres were planted in Redwoods. Later New Zealand Redwood Forests' owner J.W.S. McArthur was involved in a scandal relating to how he operated his various businesses. New Zealand Redwood Forests went into liquidation. But Goudie appears to have left before then and his forestry role makes it unlikely that he had any involvement in the company's financial management.

Goudie and Mary Sutherland were among the 17 inaugural members of the New Zealand Institute of Foresters, set up in 1927. Mary's 1930 design of a fruiting Rimu spray and mountains was chosen as NZIF's official seal and is still used today for that organisation's logo.

Following the 1932 National Expenditure Commission recommendations Mary lost her position with the State Forest Service. She then worked for the Dominion Museum in Wellington and became their botanist. During the war she supervised the War Workers' hostel in Woburn and in 1946 she was appointed the Department of Agriculture's first farm forestry officer. She died in 1955.

As for the Redwoods, by 1938 a NZ Journal of Forestry article indicates 8,700 acres had been planted in New Zealand, but the tree grew too quickly and did not make strong timber. Author A.N. Perham concluded that the extensive planting doubtless had its origin in the few magnificent specimens in the Whakarewarewa plantation.

The Forest Amendment Act, passed in 1965, legitimised the recreational use of forests and Whakarewarewa was the first exotic forest given park status. By the 1970s the Redwoods Memorial Grove along with the old prison campsite by the Green Lake was opened to the public.

In 1987, when the Government decided to sell Crown forestry assets, the State Forest Service was replaced by the Forestry Corporation of New Zealand. Six hectares of Redwoods were left from the original 12 hectares planted. As both the Redwoods and the trial species were recognised as valuable to the local community and to tourists Whakarewarewa Forest was given special status. To prevent future owners felling the trees the Forestry Corporation approached Rotorua District Council, which took over management allowing the public access to this special place.



Advertisement for Redwoods. New Zealand Life. 16 Dec 1925. p8.

Auckland Correspondent. 'A Valuable Immigrant. Redwoods in New Zealand.' New Zealand Life. 1 July 1926

Forest Investigations files, NZ State Forest Service Records, Archives NZ.

Foster, F. W. Convenor. 'Minutes Inaugural Meeting. 28 April 1927.’ NZ Institute of Forestry historical records.

History: The Redwoods - Whakarewarewa Forest, Rotorua, New Zealand.

'New Zealand Redwood Forests Ltd.' 1 July 1925 - July 1962). (From Professor Michael Roche).

‘Now We Must Plant. N.Z. Redwood Forests Ltd.’ New Zealand Life. Vol V. No 4. 1 Apr 1926. p17 

Perham, A.N. 'Californian Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)': Journal of Forestry 4 (3). 1938. p160

'Personal Notes.' Papers Past. Bay of Plenty Times. Rorahi XXXVII Putanga 5367. 9 Pipiri 1909. p2

'Redwoods in New Zealand.'  New Zealand Life. 16 Dec. 1925. p10

Sample Plot Records. National Forestry Library Archives, Scion and Archives NZ.

Sutherland family records. (Collected by the late Mrs. Frances Glendenning and now held by J. Gray).

Sutherland, M. ‘Co-ordination Report on Rotorua and Waipoua Nursery Work.’ 1925. (Forest Investigations files, NZ State Forest Service Records, Archives NZ).

'The Evidence.' The Sydney Morning Herald. 25 Sep 1934.

‘The New Zealand National Expenditure Commission.’ Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives. 1932.

Trotman, I.G. & A.P. Thomson. '65 Years of State Forest Recreation.' NZ Forestry. Feb.1988. p9-12

Vivien Edwards.

Author of:-

'Winkelmann: Images of New Zealand.' (Benton Ross 1987); a 1988 New Zealand Book of the Year Award winner.

'Battling the Big B: Hepatitis B in New Zealand.' (Dunmore Publishing 2007). Made possible through an Award in History from the Department of Internal Affairs and assistance from the Hepatitis Foundation.

'History in Motion: Evolution of the NZL Group 1949-1999. (New Zealand Lumber 50 year history booklet).

Freelance writer for over 20 years.

A regular contributor to NZ Forest Industries Magazine and NZGP. Other publications that published my articles include Management, NZ Business, The Transportant, Pharmacy Today, Safeguard, Her Business, NZ Pine International, Sea Spray, Bits and Bytes, Uno (Waikato and Bay of Plenty), and the Shed.

Research/writing projects

Mary Sutherland.

Aspects of Tauranga's maritime history.

The research process of collecting and managing large amounts of information.


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If Trees Could Talk: the Whakarewarewa Redwoods by Vivien Edwards

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License
If Trees Could Talk: the Whakarewarewa Redwoods by Vivien Edwards by New Zealand Society of Authors in the Bay of Plenty. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License