A Great Servant of NZ Native Plants Has Died
“I don’t go that fast these days, especially on hills, I just drop into low gear and plod along” said Helen, who promptly shouldered her pack and set off at a steady pace that had (much) younger folk regretting a large lunch. It wasn’t a light pack either, nor a fancy modern one and a full Mountain Mule is a brute to haul. She then kept up the same pace for the next five hours, navigated back to camp, got the fire going, made the most amazing meal and mused on the antics of other members of the party who had decided to take a three or four hour detour for a look at some small buttercups and wouldn’t be back until well after dark. “They’re mad” was her conclusion, reinforced when hours later they arrived, not having even got close to the swamp where the buttercups grew.
We were in the upper Moawhango valley in the middle of January with 30 plus degree days and camp was a few tents in a little patch of beech forest miles from anywhere. Helen and Tony were well into their 60’s and could manage a day that made the most of a rare visit into one of New Zealand’s botanical treasures, while the rest of us straggled in their wake, trying to take in the grandeur of the setting, the intimate details of the plants and the sweep of history that saw a small group of South Island species make their home in the centre of the North Island. Somehow, it seemed to me, Helen just understood and felt this landscape and these plants in a way that was beyond mere science, it was alive, joyous and wonderful as well as being a botanical gem and her delight at being there was palpable and infectious.
This was just one of many trips that Tony and Helen undertook in a shared life that led them into some of the most amazing parts of our country and endowed them with a deep love for New Zealand plants that they were only too happy to share. Their Easter and Christmas trips with the Wellington Botanical Society became legendary, the ground often prepared by a few “recce” visits as they made sure that no potential source of interest would be left out.
Though she would hardly admit to it, Helen was a formidable botanist in her own right, with a great eye in the field, spotting many species long before others had even thought to look, and a memory for detail that would allow her to describe critical differences in an easily understood manner. Her “copper pipe stems” guide to recognising Coprosma rigida has served well on more than one occasion.
In the garden at Pinehaven she would describe in great detail the trip which gave rise to this or that plant, who was there, what debate was had about its identity, but most of all what a wonderful part of the country it was, how amazing the plants were and how great the company was. Whether Central Otago or the Far North, Helen could tell you a tale that made you remember vividly if you were there and if you weren’t, then you wished fervently that you had been, so good were her descriptions.
One of the great servants of New Zealand’s flora has left, at the age of 88, but she managed to share her love of plants with many people, spanning many generations, and with the generosity that typified both Helen and Tony, they gifted many of their most special plants to Percy Reserve, where they continue to grow, testament to both the wonderful flora that we are privileged to live alongside and the equally wonderful couple who have done so much to explore and explain it.
By Tony Silbery
Department of Conservation.
Photo: Helen Druce at Corner Creek with Pseudopanax ferox by Jeremy Rolfe.
Posted: 14 April 2010