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Introducing the new Eastwoodhill

More than a century after the first plantings, Eastwoodhill Arboretum now houses a collection of over 15,000 trees including some rare and threatened species. Curator Martin Weaver talks to Avneesh Vincent about relaunching and rebranding the historical site, the need to spread its connections to the global community and a call for much-needed funding.

“The relaunch is all about creating an awareness of our collections and their need to be involved in our fundraising campaign,” Mr Weaver says.

The launch was to be in three stages starting with local interaction, national and then international reach. But the pandemic led to a decision to hold it online.

“Going live opens us to a whole new opportunity to go global because that’s really what our aim is,” he says.

The relaunch will be streamed live simultaneously on Youtube, Facebook and LinkedIn.

This new opportunity will help reach a universal audience and enable recognition of the arboretum in the international arena.

Pre-recorded interviews of people from the national and international community will feature, explaining the importance of tree ecosystem services.

A major aim of the relaunch is to help people understand the importance of the arboretum in terms of funding and also get to know more about “what we do”.

Mr Weaver said to get the recognition and funding would be an “absolute key” to rebrand Eastwoodhill, as it had a unique aspect that sets it apart from most arboretums.

He said most national arboretums focused on their native trees.

For instance, the United States’ national arboretum in Washington concentrated on trees native to America and the capital’s climate.

“We have this huge range of trees from all over the world,” he said.

“We are very different in that respect because we can grow trees from all around the world and that’s what makes us unique.”

‘We have the opportunity to be a shining light’

In the arboretum are collections of trees that represent six different continents and over 2300 species from 81 countries.

So from northwest America all the way through to southeast China, to Africa, South America and Europe, the arboretum has trees representing each of them.

“There is no forced environment here, no biomes, no glass houses. If they survive they thrive. I think that’s really important and that is what gives Eastwood hill the edge, not only in Aotearoa but internationally,” he said.

Mr Weaver said such diversity was due to the initiative taken by the arboretum’s founder and World War 1 veteran, William Douglas Cook.

“Back in the 1960s his aim was to collect as many species from around the world as possible,” Mr Weaver said.

Cook’s botanical ambitions began after he was injured in France in 1916. He was sent to England to recuperate and while there visited public gardens, including the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

“It was there he fell in love with the landscape,” Mr Weaver said.

“He wanted something beautiful to come out of war, here on his farm, when he got back. That is where the initiative came from.

“He thought if there was to be an apocalyptic event, we will have secured them (the plants) here and be able to repatriate them back to the world, if needed,” Mr Weaver said.

The problem was Cook never managed his collection

The problem was Cook never managed his collection, in that he did not put them into any order.

Mr Weaver said most arboretums in the world were laid out by genus — having all cherry trees together, for instance — or were laid out geographically. For example, having all trees of North America together.

“It creates a really diverse space and interesting place to wander around but unless you are a tree nerd, you are not going get much out of it,” he said.

But if the place was curated — say, divided into eco-zones that represent a collection of trees from each continent — “we can then start to tell stories. We can tell the history of it, what’s the problem with these trees, will they be affected by forest fires and so on”, he said.

This is why the implementation of the 100- year master plan becomes crucial, he says.

The arboretum’s master plan was created 10 years ago.

It looks to put more balance into Cook’s disorderly collection, “so we can focus today on the problems those species have”.

“They are all going to be curated into geographical realms — essentially the six continents of the world,” he said.

As part of the arboretum’s awareness and fundraising plan, a campaign called Trees for Our Future had been created. The aim of this was to tell people more about the arboretum’s unique collection and asking them to get involved whether for “research potential” or for other purposes like fundraising.

Widespread awareness and recognition would open up the arboretum to different opportunities to utilise their collection.

Mr Weaver said the arboretum’s isolation prevented more interaction with a global community.

“We don’t get too many people through the door.” Increasing the number of paying customers was a key fundraising element.

The master plan was functional, but more needed to be done in terms of funding.

“Historically, we had very generous funders, especially from Bill Williams, who purchased the arboretum from Cook. It was always his ambition to gift it to New Zealand.”

Eastwoodhill was formally adopted in 1975 as the national arboretum and the Eastwood Board Trust was established.

“Since then we have often operated at a deficit and it is Williams’ very generous support which allows us to balance the books every year and that’s still the case today,” he said.

The organisation is dealing with a deficit of more than $100,000 per year

The organisation is dealing with a deficit of more than $100,000 per year in operating costs such as labour and machinery. In the master plan, an annual target of $1.5m is envisaged to run the arboretum.

The funding would especially help in creating employment opportunities for at least an extra eight new staff such as climbing arborists and propagation specialists.

More money would also help in research projects such as learning the problems different species of trees face. Such projects could have international ties.

Looking into a future of overexploitation of resources and threats to species, Mr Weaver said the arboretum could come to the rescue with its collections, “and create a brand for itself”.

For example the arboretum was once instructed by Botanical Garden Conservation International — a plant conservation charity — to save and grow more Mulanje cedar trees as the species was almost near depletion in the Malawi region of Africa.

“We are saving these trees and making sure when they need them, we can supply them with new species. That’s the key aim here.

“So the more people know about us, the more can support us,” he said.

Mr Weaver said for the relaunch they have shortened the name to National Arboretum of NZ Eastwoodhill, to make it “stand out”. They have also created a new logo to push the rebrand.

The logo is made up of four key elements of the Arboretum.

“So we have got the deciduous tree that has lost its leaves in the winter, then you have got the deciduous leaf, which is the silhouette of the tree, and whose veins also outline the bare tree.”

The third part was the flower to represent the flowering trees and gardens and the fourth was a tree “cathedral”.

“It’s really important to us having all the elements reflecting who we are,” he said.

All these brand changes will be updated on the organisation’s new website that will be launched next Thursday, September 30, as a part of the live relaunch starting at 9am.

We were soon seated on his cream-coloured golf cart for a short tour of the 131-hectare arboretum.

We stopped in North America — as per the master plan — and what Mr Weaver described as Cook’s first planting area.

He showed where a couple of oak trees had fallen due to natural circumstances.

He said a lot of the species were foreign to New Zealand soil.

“We just don’t know how they react,” he said.

With more funding the arboretum could employ more climbing arborists, who would be able to recognise species and start implementing proactive pruning regimes.

“We have the ability here to be a real shining light because of our area our natural ability to grow the diversity of trees we have, we could be far more important to the world than anybody in Gisborne or Aotearoa could realise.

“Do I expect to get $1.5 million every year to make this happen? I’m probably dreaming. But dreams are free and that’s where we want us to be.”

FUNDING NEEDED: An estimated $1.5 million per year is needed for Eastwoodhill Arboretum to run optimally. Picture by Ben Cowper
MAIN MESSAGE: Eastwoodhill curator Martin Weaver says key to the arboretum's relaunch is "how we connect, collaborate internationally, and how that leads us to funding opportunities". On his T-shirt is the new logo associated with the relaunch. Picture by Liam Clayton