Heritage Tree Tales


Nelson is blessed with some spectacular heritage trees – many with interesting stories to tell. All of these, and more, are listed in the New Zealand Tree Register.

College Gate gum
Heritage tree College gumThe College gum. Nelson City Council
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The Tasmanian blue gum, or Eucalyptus globulus, by the entrance gate to Nelson College for Girls on Trafalgar Street, is an impressive specimen with a history longer than the college itself.

The extensive root buttress, which exceeds 18 metres in circumference, and its age, are the outstanding characteristics of this massive landscape feature.

The tree was planted by Mrs Henry Adams, between 1854 and 1857 along with others, which were possibly planted along Bronte Street. They were on the property bought by her husband in January 1854. Stables and a fowl yard were close to the tree and the house was a little further down the hill.

Mr Henry Adams was one of the earliest lawyers in Nelson. The property was mortgaged to the Bank of New Zealand which foreclosed in 1880. The Nelson College Governors bought it in 1882 as a site for the secondary school for girls which they were planning.

The tree is woven through the memories of the girls and staff since the school began in 1883. Perhaps the first written record is from Miss Beatrice Gibson, who arrived in 1890 to be the second Principal. She was only 24 and was most apprehensive as she was driven under its branches and up to the school. The tree was often decorated with flags and bunting for special occasions, like the 60th Jubilee of Victoria's reign in 1897 and Armistice Day in 1918.

The tree's existence was threatened in 1923 when the City Engineer, Mr Littlejohn, said that the nearby tennis courts would be a good place for a swimming pool and the gum and some firs would have to come down due to litter and shade. But it survived the threat.

The tree has been the subject of many essays, poems, paintings and photographs through the years.  From 1933 to 1953 a lino cut of the tree featured on the cover of the school magazine and a tree design was used in the 1970's. The large root area has been a favourite place for meeting friends, waiting for buses, watching the traffic, eating lunch, having photos taken and reading books etc.. The tree has been an integral part of the life of the school from the start.

Songer Tree
Heritage tree SongerThe Songer tree. Nelson City Council
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The Giant sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, at the top of Britannia Heights and known as the ‘Songer Tree’, has a great tale to tell

This tree is located on a prominent ridge that was called Signal Hill. According to the New Zealand Tree Register, the Songer Tree was planted in memory of Captain Arthur Wakefield. William Songer was invited by the Nelson City Council to assist at the planting. Songer provided a link back to the first signal staff on the site, having been present when the Union Jack was hoisted on 13 December 1841.

The planting of the tree, donated by local nurseryman John Hale, was arranged for 25 July 1900. Due to a misunderstanding, the 84 year old was late for the ceremony and was disappointed to find the tree had already been planted. This caused vigorous debate at the next council meeting. Councillor Baigent insisted that it had to be replanted because the inscription said that it had been planted under the direction of William Songer. His argument won the day, despite a warning from John Hale that the tree might not survive such treatment. On 20 August 1900 it was dug up and William Songer replanted it in a most workmanlike manner. Fortunately the tree flourished and, by a strange quirk, came to be known by the name of the man who planted it, rather than that of the man in whose memory it was planted.

There is another fine giant redwood specimen planted in a north/south line with the ‘Songer Tree’, in the Sequoia Reserve off Mount Vernon Place.  Giant sequoias grow in their natural environment to an average height of 50–85 m and 6–8 m in diameter. Record trees have been measured to be 94.8 m in height and over 17 m in diameter. The oldest known giant sequoia based on ring count is 3,500 years old.

Dawn redwood Queens Gardens
heritage tree Dawn RedwoodDawn Redwood. Nelson City Council
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This tree may not be the oldest in the City, but it is renowned as one of the best of its kind and one of a select few, first generation trees, cultivated in New Zealand.

The beautiful Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) grows just inside the Hardy Street entrance to the Queens Gardens. The tree gets its name from when it was first discovered alive in China in 1944 -  it was said to have returned from the ‘dawn of time’. The species had only been known from fossil records at the time and, finding living relicts of the tree, was considered one of the greatest events in the botanical history of the 20th century.

It was cultivated and later planted by Senior Forest Ranger A.W. Wastney on NZ Arbor Day August 9, 1951. It was grown from one of the first batches of seed sent from China to the West and was received from E.D. Merrill of the Arnold Arboretum in 1949. Mr. Wastney germinated seven seeds with only three surviving. This one he gifted to the City of Nelson.

The redwood is considered to be one of the finest specimens in New Zealand and was, at one time, reported to be the largest combining height and girth.1  It is often referenced and has had an excellent recorded history of growth over the years. The tree is currently in very fine shape with perfect symmetry. The two other trees Mr Wastney cultivated were gifted, one to the Cawthron Institute and one to the late Prof. J. S. Tennant of Tosswill Road.

The guardian of Isel
heritage tree iselGuardian of Isel. Nelson City Council
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A Sequoiadendron giganteum, or giant sequoia, this tree is a true stalwart of Isel Park.  It was planted by Thomas Marsden, a prominent early landowner and politician. This is one of the earliest known plantings of this and many other good trees (some being planted earlier) still growing in Isel Park.

Isel Park has been run by Nelson City Council since 1960 and, during that time, staff and volunteers have worked to convert the area into one of the finest woodland gardens in the country. But it hasn’t been without its challenges.

In 1848 Thomas Marsden built his first house further up Marsden Valley, (although at the time it was called Poorman's Valley). An easterly storm flattened the dwelling before it was finished so he moved further down to where Isel House is now. This was a portent of many such devastating events to wreak havoc in the Park. Perhaps the worst was Cyclone Alison in 1975 when over 100 trees were lost.

Again in 2008, another storm hit and approximately one third of the Park's heritage trees were felled or damaged by strong easterly winds. Another localised tornado took out even more heritage trees in December 2012.

Through all this the 'Guardian', as this tree has become known, still stands - encouraging the other older trees whilst keeping watch over the progress of each subsequent replanting.

2014. Updated May 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Burstall & Sale (1984) Great Trees of New Zealand. Wellington: Reed

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Further sources - Heritage Tree Tales


  • Songer, William (1814-1904),  in Lash, M. D. (1992). Nelson Notables 1840 – 1940: A dictionary of regional biography. Nelson, New Zealand: Nelson Historical Society, p.131
  • Marsden, Thomas (1810-1876), in Lash,  p. 105


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