Herb Garden Heroine
Donal Duthie presents
  the tale of the amazing Lorna Rowland
and her mission to
establish a Herb Garden at the Botanic Garden
(First published in the Friends Newsletter 2002)

Lorna Rowland was a well-known lady with great mana and a fertile imagination. She was articulate, well-educated and loved a challenge. She knew many people as friends and for most, that friendship was an enriching experience. Sooner or later, however, most friends had a falling out with Lorna and this was often a time of bitter adjustment. Nearly always the falling out was subsequently healed over and the friendship renewed on a greater level.

General view of the Herb Garden
(Lion Head fountain at far end.)

Lorna grew up in Edwardian England. She was the daughter of a vicar in rural middle-class Norfolk. Her father often took her on visits to churches and cathedrals in an effort to stimulate an interest in ecclesiastical architecture. This was not Lorna’s idea of a good time. From an early age she was interested in plants, especially plants useful to man. She took note of all the plants growing in the woods and road sides and talked to local people about what traditions were associated with certain plants and how they could be used. Lorna vividly remembered visiting a small community of people who produced dye from woad. The dye was a wonderful indigo blue colour much valued in the fabric trade. However, the fermentation of woad, in large pits, produced an incredibly foul, persistent smell (Perhaps not surprising; woad is a member of the cabbage family. –Ed). The smell was so bad that those associated with the dye production were treated as pariahs by the rest of the locals.

As a young woman Lorna set off to travel the world. She lived in outback Queensland for a while, gaining an insight into tropical herbs and spices. She arrived in New Zealand just before the outbreak of World War 2 and, because of the difficulties of travel, her stay became an extended one. As time passed, New Zealand became “home” and she never left. She had a variety of jobs, most associated with journalism. For many years she worked for the old Free Lance, in particular accompanying the 1953-54 Royal Tour for the paper. She had a column in The Dominion for a long time and also one in Truth. Lorna was publicity agent for The New Zealand Players and also worked for CORSO. For many years Lorna lectured at the WEA on the subject of ‘Herbs and the Use Of’. These classes were very popular and Lorna saw a rising interest in the subject. In the 60s and 70s most people were aware of mint, rosemary and thyme but not much else. It was very difficult to get plants of what are now very common herbs.

Lorna, who was well into retirement, then launched a campaign to establish a Herb Society and a Herb Garden for Wellington. Her campaign had a missionary zeal about it that at times verged on a crusade. All within her sphere were summoned to the cause. Few resisted! The founding of the Wellington Herb Society seemed quite ordinary, but under the surface, Lorna had pulled every string she could. All her contacts at the WEA were involved; supportive staff from the Botanic Garden and anybody else with an interest in herbs was there. Most importantly, one of the principle aims of the Society was to establish a herb garden at the Wellington Botanic Garden. With Lorna at the helm as first President this was bound to happen.

Lion Head Fountain on far wall
in Herb Garden

The Wellington Herb Society took off with pizzazz and gusto. It was an instant success. Lorna’s friends, and all their friends, flocked to meetings. Word went round that this was the Society to belong to. Early meetings of the Wellington Herb Society were held in rooms in upper Willis Street and attendance was so high, people were standing on the stairs, waiting in vain to get in. The Society then found new premises at The Loaves and Fishes next to the Anglican Cathedral. Such were the multitudes that contemplation was given to even larger accommodation. Numerous Wellington personalities and characters joined and the Herb Society became the most interesting and stimulating horticultural organisation around.

To advance with the idea of a herb garden, Lorna knew that it was important to have some money. Money was best obtained through the sale of plants and this could be done at fairs and shows. The early shows of the Wellington Herb Society are a story unto themselves. The very first was a table at the Rose Society Show in the Town Hall. Crowds swamped the table and all was sold in a very short time.The next two shows were held at the Wellington Settlement and a stupendous effort went into preparation. Older members still talk about the 5am starts to transport plants and produce to the venue. The crowds continued to roll in and the bank account went from healthy to very healthy.

Not one to rest on her laurels, Lorna was soon putting pressure on any person who might be able to assist in establishing a herb garden in the Botanic Garden. City Councillors, the Director of Parks, the Curator, the Head Gardener, the Nursery Foreman, other staff and anyone else interested were subjected to persistent lobbying from Lorna and her entourage. She wanted a herb garden and made no bones about it!

It didn’t take Ian Galloway, Director of Parks, long to concede to Lorna and the Herb Society’s request, especially when the request was backed with money. But a decision in principle to build a herb garden could still be a long way from the reality. First there was a site to choose, then there was money to be got from Council. Ian Galloway made it clear that Council money would have to come through the dreaded estimates. Everyone knew that estimates could take years and that it was often a good way to choke off a project altogether. Without too much hassle a site was chosen on the ridge above the Rose Garden.

Group on Herb Garden Guided Walk
(Teasel plants in foreground)

The Parks Department Landscape Designer, Mary Buckland, was given the design project. In a short time Mary returned with a plan for a series of planter boxes arranged in a semi-formal pattern along the ridge. Ian Galloway wouldn’t have a bar of it and the Buckland plan was sent back to the drawing board. Ian Galloway asked for something that showed the traditional nature of herb gardens and shortly after Mary Buckland produced the current design. It won instant approval from Ian Galloway. The plan was passed on to Lorna and her committee who in turn gave it their blessing.The Buckland plan called for bricks in great quantity and they had to be old bricks. At the time old bricks were starting to become scarce and going up in price. While discussing the subject of when the herb garden might commence, Ian Galloway stated, perhaps rashly, that, “If the bricks can be obtained, then a brickie will be supplied”.

It just so happened that over the road in Glenmore Street preparations were underway to demolish 14 tiny cottages to make way for the new Chinese Anglican Church. Permission was obtained to remove the substantial brick chimneys from each cottage. Brick retrieval started immediately and went through a Thursday and Friday, culminating in a tremendous effort on the Saturday, when all staff turned up as volunteers, assisted by a large group from the Herb Society. Members not only cleaned and stacked bricks but also supplied a splendid lunch of sandwiches, herbal scones and herbal tea. It was a great day; one that is still talked about by all those concerned. On the Monday morning Ian Galloway was presented with 40,000 bricks!!

Ian Galloway  OBE
Director of Parks and Reserves 1965-1986

Building of the garden commenced soon after. At the official opening in 1970 Lorna was aware that a milestone had been reached – the garden was a reality. From this point on Lorna was a bit more relaxed and allowed the Herb Society to run its own way. She wrote a book on herbs, with Walter Cook doing the illustrations, and quietly slipped into retirement. By the mid-90s the impetus had gone from the Herb Society. Lorna Rowland had since died and the missionary zeal had faded with her. Besides, it was by then easy to buy all sorts of herbs from any garden centre. After a protracted struggle for existence the Society was wound up. Its last act was to consign all remaining funds for signs in the Herb Garden.

There is no memorial to say that Lorna Rowland was the founder but there is no doubt she was the guiding force behind the Herb Society and the Herb Garden