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Tuatara: Volume 20, Issue 2, March 1973

Thomas Kirk, Botanist

Thomas Kirk, Botanist

New Zealand plants loomed large in the life of Thomas Kirk. His earliest collectings were made within a month of his arrival in Auckland in 1863, and when his field days were over, until the last week of his life, he requested from correspondents certain specimens that ‘would be highly prized.’ Amongst New Zealand botanists he will always occupy a key position.

J. D. Hooker ended his great days among antipodean plants with the publication of his Handbook in 1864-1867, though he never lost his interest in this part of the world. Colenso too had passed his peak botanically by the middle sixties, though he produced many lengthy papers in later years when he described his own novelties instead of submitting them to Kew as in earlier times. Petrie and Cheeseman were rising stars during the last part of the century, and the less sedate Cockayne era began only about 1900. From 1865 to 1895 it was Kirk who ranked highest, in a modestly efficient way, but widely acknowledged. Cheeseman (1906:xxx) wrote of the botanical work of this period ‘The first place must be accorded to Mr T. Kirk, both from the number of his discoveries and the importance of his publications.’ Cockayne (1921:9) said of Kirk: ‘For about 34 years all his time and energy had been devoted to New Zealand botany. Early on, he became leader of botanical thought in the Colony, and that position he held firmly till his death.’

The Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, its first volume published in 1869, was an instrument ready to Kirk's hand, and he made good use of it, contributing some 138 papers during nearly 30 years of membership. It is in these papers, and in the herbarium specimens supporting the records he made there, that his labours for New Zealand botany are well represented. His two books, the large Forest Flora and the incomplete Students' Flora, were the first of their kind written in this country for this country, and their wealth of local knowledge and references endeared them to users page 52 in a way that no accounts written by visiting botanists could ever achieve. Many good collectors knew their plants well and some published botanical papers but Kirk, Cheeseman and Petrie, and perhaps later Carse, stand out as those who had a sure and confident grip; they were the ones to whom others appealed for identifications, and each was prepared to give his independent opinion; they too were the great herbarium makers.

The broad pattern of Kirk's botanical interests is clear from the Transactions alone, though he did publish a few papers elsewhere. Following chronologically through, one sees his interest and experience develop along a number of parallel lines, all of them fairly well defined from the beginning, and the discussion of his work falls naturally under equivalent headings. No attempt is made here to assess his contributions to more strictly economic botany, for example on grasses, flax, sand-reclamation and forest products.


Kirk obviously had a tidy mind and it came naturally to him to classify. He liked to be able to name any plant that he met. If in a group that was generally satisfactory he found an obvious novelty he did not hesitate to describe it as new, but he also made a practice (as W. R. B. Oliver did later) of taking an unsatisfactory genus to make a survey of it, to define more clearly what was known and to describe, with proper contrasts, what was unknown. Thus in some larger genera he named many new taxa, as is illustrated by the following examples, where the number in brackets denotes how many of these are still accepted as species: Veronica 21 (7); Celmisia 17 (6); Gentiana 17 (7); Carmichaelia 17 (11); Olearia 16 (4); Pittosporum 15 (5); Lepidium 10 (4); Ligusticum 9 (5 in several genera); Panax and Pseudopanax 8 (5); Cotula 8 (3); Gunnera 7 (4); Colobanthus 6 (4). In all he described more than 380 new taxa, including two genera (Huttonella in Leguminosae and Simplicia in Gramineae), many species and varieties and some formae. More than 50 species and 70 subspecific entities were published in the Students' Flora, his unfinished last work. Some 200 of his names survive, many of them in familiar present use, for example: Astelia trinervia, Carmichaelia williamsii, Celmisia walkeri, Coprosma arborea, Dacrydium intermedium, Drimys traversii (Pseudowintera), Gahnia pauciflora, Gentiana corymbifera, Gunnera hamiltonii, Hymenophyllum rufescens, Isoetes alpinus, Pseudopanax ferox, Pilularia novae-zelandiae, Pittosporum ralphii, Podocarpus acutifolius, Podocarpus hallii, Ranunculus paucifolius, Veronica canescens (Parahebe), Vitex lucens.

It is mostly Kirk's varieties that have been dropped, some because they are now considered to be hybrids, a possibility that he does not seem to have contemplated. For him the criteria for distinguishing page 53 between species seem to have been morphological differences, if these were consistent and well correlated, and for these he had a very good eye. His wide acquaintance with plants in the field led him to base his conclusions on populations in the modern sense rather than on individual aberrent specimens and to appreciate the extent to which a single plant can vary. Where type specimens were not available to him he deferred perforce to the opinions of others but in some cases against his own better judgment, as in Astelia (see Skottsberg, 1934). His keys are real keys, setting out parallels of firmly contrasting characters, and they are much easier to use than Cheeseman's abbreviated diagnoses arranged in key form.

The herbarium was a result but not the principal objective of his botanical investigations. His main collection, now at the Dominion Museum, Wellington, was referred to by Cheeseman (1906:v) in these words: ‘I am indebted to the Education Department for the loan of that portion of the herbarium of the late Mr Kirk which after his death was purchased by the New Zealand Government. Although comprising only a small part of the collections formed by this active and enterprising botanist, it nevertheless includes excellent and well-selected specimens of most of the species of the flora, including the types of the new species described by him.’ Other portions are to be found in many parts of the world; in the genus Pittosporum, for instance, Cooper (1956) lists 76 Kirk specimens in nine different herbaria outside New Zealand. Specimens that he gave away are in fact often better than those in Wellington where unfortunately there was some confusion of labels and some damage amongst unmounted specimens (Hamlin 1965:93).1 Kirk had the commendable habit of keeping in small packets dissections that he had made of flowers and it is very satisfying to examine, at the Dominion Museum, the precise small objects on which he based his decisions and descriptions. Similarly it is often possible to check, twig by twig, specimens used for the illustrations of the Forest Flora.

Regional Surveys

Kirk had no doubt about the importance of plant geography. He felt under an obligation to explore as many parts of his adopted country as possible and to record his observations on the general appearance of the vegetation, to list the species noted, and often to indicate the type of habitat favoured by each. Lists were made under such headings as ericital, sylvestral, uliginal, littoral. Districts for which he provided surveys more or less of this kind included the northern part of the Province of Auckland, Great Barrier Island, page 54 Great Omaha, Kawau Island, islands of the Hauraki Gulf, Auckland Isthmus and Takapuna District, the Lake District about Rotorua, the East Cape District, Port Nicholson, Nelson Province, Okarito, Bluff Hill, Stewart Island, Antipodes, Snares and Campbell Islands. Most of these surveys recorded his own observations but his ‘Notes on the Botany of the East Cape District’ were based not on the few botanical results of his own two visits, but largely on information supplied by Bishop W. L. Williams, and especially on ‘a catalogue of three hundred flowering plants and ferns collected by him during his frequent itinerations;’ the plants collected in the area by Banks and Solander are listed and a lively description of the country between Opotiki and Gisborne is contributed by his son H. B. Kirk who was at that time inspector of Maori schools.

Kirk tried to define the northern or southern limits of species of restricted range and drew attention to extensions of range that came to his notice, but he placed less emphasis on altitude. In general he did not offer hypotheses to explain the limits of distribution but he did correlate the presence of maritime littoral plants far up the Waikato Valley with the presumed earlier intrusion of the sea.

These surveys cover naturalised as well as indigenous plants as a matter of course, and a fair share of attention was given to the frequently overlooked water-plants.

Early expeditions were in the Auckland Province and Kirk's appreciation of the whole plant life of the country became balanced only as his explorations took him further south. In 1872, for instance, in a comparison between the indigenous floras of New Zealand and the British Islands, tussock grassland is not even mentioned among the major vegetation types of New Zealand. Though later he climbed many mountains he nowhere gives any detailed account of alpine plants in their natural habitats. Wherever he went he found plenty that was new and noteworthy, and certainly he did not ignore mountain species of the genera that he monographed.

Naturalised Plants

Kirk obviously arrived in New Zealand with a good knowledge of European plants and immediately he began to record those he found playing an important part in New Zealand vegetation. One of his first papers was on naturalised plants, especially those in the environs of Auckland, and later accounts deal with the naturalised plants of Chatham Islands and of Port Nicholson. In 1896 he enumerated 104 species of plants collected on a heap of earth ballast deposited by a ship from South America on the Wellington waterfront, where he followed their progress through two or three years. His Presidential Address to the Wellington Philosophical Society in July, 1895 was on ‘The Displacement of Species in New Zealand,’ a page 55 topic which he treated on very broad lines, discussing animals as well as plants, both indigenous and introduced, and their interactions. His version of the displacement of native plants by exotics takes into account, though perhaps not sufficiently explicitly, the accompanying influence of grazing and trampling animals. Incidentally, he gives examples of several common types of succession involving indigenous species, ‘a kind of natural replacement that may be observed to a greater or less extent in nearly all forest districts.’

The Students' Flora of New Zealand and the Outlying Islands is still unique amongst New Zealand Floras in that it sets out to describe native and alien plants in one sequence. Had Kirk succeeded in completing this project the pattern would undoubtedly have been accepted for later volumes to the great advantage of the study of plants in this country. Such a flora not only teaches about a great many more of the plants to be met with but also introduces additional families and gives a broader view of the structure and content of the families to which New Zealand indigenous species belong. But, as Kirk found, the preparation makes great demands.

The Written Record

The botanical writings of Thomas Kirk are on the whole very impersonal, revealing little of the man except his intense interest in all plants. He refers warmly to certain friends — Bishop Williams, Mr Justice Gillies, Mr Enys — but rarely mentions Cheeseman or Petrie, except for a minor tiff with the latter over Gunnera ‘obovata.’ He had an obvious affection for Buchanan whose botanical errors and omissions he corrected gently though always firmly. His correspondence with botanists abroad would undoubtedly provide much of interest, but that lies beyond the scope of the present note. One learns something of his methods of handling plants from his article on the preparation of botanical specimens (1895) and very occasionally he allows himself to recall some circumstances of collecting. For example, writing of Gleichenia dichotoma at Rotomahana: ‘In several instances steam jets had burst through spots occupied by this fern, and destroyed patches of it two or three feet in diameter. The temperature endured by the roots must have been over 100°F. In one spot the ground gave way under my feet, when a steam jet immediately broke through and destroyed the fern all round. My natives did not approve of fern-collecting in such situations.’

Of Mount Anglem, Stewart Island, he records: ‘Before reaching the crest we encountered a dense snowstorm, which later on was varied by fierce blasts of sleet and hail, so that hands and faces were stung almost past endurance, and the use of note-book and pencil became impossible for the rest of the day… The rapid approach page 56 of evening prevented any detailed examination of the vegetation of the highest and western peaks as it was desirable to commence the return to camp during daylight, but we lingered sufficiently long to frustrate our wish, and had the doubtful pleasure of camping in the open. It is obvious that under the unfavourable atmospheric conditions which prevailed during two-thirds of the ascent, and which continued until night-fall, the above must necessarily be an incomplete account… Many inconspicuous plants were hidden by the snow and hail, and others doubtless were overlooked, owing to the weakened condition of the observing faculties caused by our benumbed and saturated condition.’ Even these experiences would probably not have been related had they not helped to illustrate the conditions under which the plants were living.

In 1897, in an essay on the history of botany in Otago, Kirk wrote ‘It is well that the memory of the pioneers in any branch of research should be treasured by those who reap the benefit of their labours.’ Thomas Kirk will not be forgotten.

1 Miss N. M. Adams has recently discovered at the Dominion Museum a substantial set of Kirk specimens that apparently have not been worked on or even consulted since his death. Details will be published elsewhere.