Melrose House and Garden


The original garden

The elegant garden around historic Melrose House is a short distance from the central city, on the corner of Upper Trafalgar Street and Brougham Street, and is part of the original estate of Charles Fowell Willett Watts and his wife Elizabeth Nixon.  Watts arrived in Nelson on the Will Watch in 1841 as a survey cadet employed by the New Zealand Company. He was involved in surveying the Brook, Maitai and Takaka Valleys and in 1844 helped find a route to the Wairau Valley via Pelorus. 

Download MP3  Download the map
Having technical problems while trying to download an audio file to your device? Contact us.

Melrose HouseMelrose House. Nelson City Council
Click to enlarge

Melrose House was a home designed by John Scotland for Watts and his family and built around 1876. The name Melrose was probably chosen because one of Watts' daughters Flora was born at Melrose Place, Clifton England, but died in Nelson age eleven. Another of his daughters, Frances, went on to marry a Nelson lawyer Percy Bolland Adams from a well known Marlborough farming family. 

Percy and Frances took over Melrose House after Charles died in 1881. Percy loved trees and the outdoors.  Their dedicated gardener Joseph Busch, who worked for them from the time he was 15, created a beautiful garden and some trees planted under his care in the 1890’s still flourish.

Percy and Frances had one son, Noel Percy Adams. Melrose House ceased to be a family home, when it was gifted to the Women's Division of the Farmer's Union in 1944, possibly as Noel's wife Eileen was prominent in this organisation. As early as 1934 the WDFU had expressed a desire to establish a rest home in Nelson, but it wasn't until the June quarterly meeting of the Nelson Executive that the first official announcement was made of the proposed gift from Colonel and Mrs Noel Adams. Ten years later on March 24th 1944 Melrose was officially presented to the WDFU. The ceremony took place at a garden party in Nelson sunshine when Colonel Adams expressed his regret that his wife, through illness, was unable to be present to see the culmination of her months of effort to put Melrose in readiness for its new purpose.

Many branches of the Union fundraised to provide Melrose House with the necessities and needs associated with running a rest home. Women from rural New Zealand were able to take time out from busy farm and country life to enjoy the serenity and peacefulness of Melrose. It was also a haven for women from out of town to stay before and after the birth of their babies. In 1959 a portion of the ground was sectioned off to create Melrose Terrace. Eventually, due to high running costs and maintenance, the decision was made to relinquish Melrose in 1973. On doing so the original Trust deed provided that the House and Gardens be given to the citizens of Nelson. The Nelson City Council at first declined the gift feeling it would be a burden to rate payers, but after much debate it was finally accepted in 1975.

The Colonel Noel Percy Adams Trust (Melrose) Society was formed by volunteers, who took on the responsibility to raise funds to preserve and oversee the daily running of the house with the Council taking care of the Gardens. Today the Gardens are flourishing and the House is being preserved beautifully. Melrose has a resident Manager and is proving a very popular venue for weddings, meetings, functions, and family celebrations. 

The heritage woodland has been enhanced more recently by thoughtful complementary plantings by the City Council who manage the gardens and strive to maintain the tranquil atmosphere of the original estate. All the heritage trees have signs attached to them, and a downloadable map [pdf] of the garden locates all of the following trees and plantings.

Trees planted in the 1890’s

An impressive Moreton Bay Fig or Ficus macrophylla, is on the Brougham street side of the property. This Australian native tree is widely used as a feature tree in public parks and gardens in warmer climates.

Moreton Bay Fig is known as a strangler fig; and seed germination in the wild takes place in the canopy of a host tree and the seedling lives as an epiphyte until its roots establish contact with the ground. It then enlarges and strangles its host, eventually becoming a freestanding tree by itself. The Moreton Bay Fig is best known for its beautiful buttress roots, which are also known for damaging municipal footpaths.  It has male and female flowers and can produce a fruit which although edible is unpalatable and dry.

The Lawson's Cypress or Chamaecyparis lawsoniana is a native of the lush rainforests of southwest Oregon and northwest California, where it can grow to a height of 54 meters.  It was first discovered (by Euro-Americans) near Port Orford in Oregon and was named Lawson's Cypress by collectors working for the Lawson & Son nursery in Edinburgh, Scotland who introduced it into cultivation in 1854.  These trees have been widely planted throughout New Zealand since early times, and this is a particularly attractive specimen being multi stemmed.  It towers to around 30 metres high.

Melrose HouseMelrose House. Nelson City Council
Click to enlarge

A large Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) dominates the garden. The name Sequoia is the name  given to the species by a German botanist to honour the half-caste Cherokee Chief, Seqoyah who was famous for developing an alphabet to enable his tribe’s dialect to be written. In its natural habitat of California these Redwoods grow as tall as 110 metres and the average lifespan is 600 years old - they can live for over 2000 years. The bark can grow to 30 centimetres thick, giving excellent insulation and protection against insects and fire, both of which are common in their natural habitat. In North America the timber is widely used for general building purposes because of its high durability and lack of odour. It is imported into New Zealand for joinery and exterior finishing.  Timber grown here is not as good a quality as the trees tend to grow more rapidly.  This specimen has managed to survive some serious gales, but its small twin fork is watched carefully.

The large Common Lime tree (9) is a hybrid, Tilia cross europea,  and stands about 12-14m high.  The Common lime is so called as it is one of the most common trees in Europe, and it was very fashionable to plant in Victorian times as a reminder of the old country.

Useful plants used by settlers

Some plants were planted for very practical purposes. The Camphor tree Cinnamomum camphora (6) is a native of east Asia, mainly China and Japan. The evergreen tree was traditionally used extensively in many East Asian cultures for its fragrant incense and wood. The tree has small and fragrant flowers which are yellow in color, and oval red berries in season. An oil can be distilled from the leathery leaves. Traditionally camphor was used as a cure for cold and related illnesses. The affected person wore a little bag or sachet around the neck, that contained camphor crystal and inhaled the fumes for respiratory ailments.  The analgesic qualities of the camphor made it a useful liniment for direct application to treat all sorts of problems like sprains and bruises, gout, rheumatism and arthritis. Treatment was carried out traditionally by rubbing the oil of camphor into the affected areas of the body. Ingesting the oil of camphor was more dangerous as it can be toxic. It was tried for problems such as hysteria with unproven results.  In the old days, fragrant camphor wood was used in the manufacture of sailor’s chests, as the wood of the Camphor is both durable, strong and resistant to the corrosive ravages of salt air and water.  The fragrant wood act as a repellent to clothes moths, and the wood itself is immune to the majority of wood boring insects. Camphor “Glory” boxes were used by generations of women to be store bed linen, bridal trousseau, baby clothes and woollens.

Rose collection at Melrose

An attractive selection of David Austin old English roses are found around the base of Melrose House in three rose beds (5). David Austin has been breeding roses in England for over fifty years. In the 1940s, a copy of George Bunyard's book on old roses gave him the idea of crossing old roses with modern roses. The old roses had all but died out at that time. His objective was to create new roses in the style of old roses, thus combining the unique charm and fragrance of old roses with the wide colour range and repeat-flowering qualities of modern roses. He was also particularly interested in producing well formed shrubs that would make good garden plants.

Two beds feature a selection of red varieties. The Dark Lady is a dark crimson rose with fragrant and rather loosely formed flowers which open wide. They have a special character of their own, looking rather like the flowers of tree peonies, as sometimes seen on fabrics and wallpapers. The name is taken from the so-called "Dark Lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets. William Shakespeare has rosette-formed flowers with a rich, damask scent; and the velvety, crimson blooms develop a hint of purple as they age. Other red roses in the beds are The Squire, Fallstaff, LD Braithwaite, The Prince and the exuberant climber Tess of the Dubervilles clambers up over the verandah.

The remaining bed has mixed varieties such as the strongly fragrant creamy white Fair Bianca; and the salmon pink English Elegance

New Zealand native trees at Melrose
Melrose House. Nelson City Council
Click to enlarge

Karaka native bush (11) are very noticeable in autumn when their berries ripen from green through to yellow and red.  The pulp of the fruit is edible, although bitter, but the fresh kernels contain the lethal alkaloid poison karakin. Accounts from the 19th century record that extensive processing was used by Māori to convert the kernels to an edible form, and mention that if the processing was not done with the greatest care, poisoning would result with symptoms including violent convulsions and severe muscle spasms which could leave the limbs permanently fixed in contorted positions. Death resulted in a few cases. The Karaka tree, whose berries are a source of food, is thought to have been brought to New Zealand on the Kurahaupō canoe

Karaka is widespread in mainly coastal situations. Most botanists accept it as native only in the northern half of the North Island, although the original distribution is unclear because of widespread planting by Māori. When found in concentrated numbers like this, as it is in this part of the garden, it often denotes previous Māori occupation of an area. Māori would have lived in pā on Pikimai where the cathedral now stands.

The stately Totara or Podocarpus totara, was prized by Māori because of the remarkable qualities of its timber. The heartwood is very durable and Māori found the wood could be readily split and shaped with primitive stone tools for canoes, building, and carving. The same properties made it a valuable timber to the first European settlers for house and wharf piles, and for those parts of buildings requiring durable members.

The tree is a conifer with a wide distribution across NZ. It can reach a height of around 36.5 metres and has a diameter of up to two metres through. Along with other conifers, in particular Rimu, it usually forms the scattered, emergent storey stretching above the dense canopy of broadleaf trees. It is thought Totara were very abundant in NZ pre human habitation, at some time when the climate was milder and wetter.  Although few existing forests remained by the time the first Europeans arrived, when early settlers cleared the land many large logs were uncovered in the ground around Nelson.  These needed removal before ploughing could begin.

The garden also features  recent plantings of native trees - Titoki and the golden flowered Kowhai, which is much loved by tui which visit in large numbers when they flower in spring.

A well established Puriri (Vitex lucens) has pretty salmon pink flowers. Puriri is an invaluable food source for native wildlife, as it provides both fruit and nectar in seasons when few other species produce these. It is often used in restoration planting and it is highly valued as an aid in increasing kereru (native pigeon) populations. Māori used infusions from boiled Puriri leaves to bathe sprains and backache, as a remedy for ulcers and sore throats. The infusion was also used to wash the body of the deceased to help preserve it. Puriri trees or groves were often tapu through their use as burial sites and Puriri leaves were fashioned in to coronets or carried in the hand during a tangi (funeral). Puriri provides the strongest timber in New Zealand and was often used for implements and structures requiring strength and durability, for example bridges, paddles and garden tools. Legend has it that buckshot used to ricochet off Puriri palisades. It was also used to make hinaki (eel traps) because it was one of the few timbers that would sink. For carving, Māori preferred other timbers, because of its cross-grain. 

Puriri was first collected at Tolaga Bay by botanists Banks and Solander during Captain Cook's first visit in 1769. Solander, besides describing the tree excellently made a beautiful drawing of it.  The tree was also called by the English 'New Zealand mahogany' and 'New Zealand teak' in the past, especially in reference to the timber.

2010. Updated Jan 2021

Sources used in this story

Want to find out more about the Melrose House and Garden ? View Further Sources here.

Do you have a story about this subject? Find out how to add one here.

Comment on this story

Post your comment


  • The article below about Angela Kernohan, founder of the Melrose House Cafe, might be of interest.
    "Nelson's Melrose House cafe owner Angela Kernohan selling".
    (2016, 27 January) "Nelson Mail"

    Posted by Anne McFadgen, 31/01/2016 3:30pm (8 years ago)

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments

Further sources - Melrose House and Garden



  • City Accepts Melrose Gift (1975, March 4). Nelson Mail
  • Costley, N. (2010) That Melrose Place. Heritage New Zealand, Spring, p. 38-41
  • Melrose Fate in Govt Hands (1974, August 16). Nelson Mail 
  • Melrose House (1991) New Zealand Historic Places, 35
  • Melrose Seeking Funds, Members (1975, December 13) Nelson Mail
  • Melrose Wanted Free of Terms (1974, August 26). Nelson Mail 
  • New Life for an Old Home (December 12, 1975) Christchurch Star
  • Still Awaiting a Jury's Verdict (1974, July 16). Nelson Mail 
  • Warning Given on Melrose Use (1975, May 20) Nelson Mail


  • Nelson City Council, Nelson Town Board Rating Rolls: 1874-78, Held Nelson Provincial Museum
  • Wises New Zealand Postal Directories, 1867-1890. Held Nelson Provincial Museum

Web Resources