1906 saw the forest gazetted as a ‘scenic reserve’ and in 1926,
                                             the Otari Open Air Native Plant Museum was established by
                                             eminent botanist Dr Leonard Cockayne and J G McKenzie.
                                            Cockayne aimed to show as much of our native flora – both
                                           (common and rare) as possible, the gardens now boast 1200
                                          species collected from as far afield as the Subantarctic Islands
                                      in the south to Cape Reinga at the northern tip of New Zealand.

Their vision was to conserve the native forest, cultivate plants from all over New Zealand, teach people about native plants and advocate their use. This is still the blueprint for Otari-Wilton’s Bush today.



Otari – meaning ‘place of snares’ – was originally covered with dense podocarp broadleaf forest and was a rich hunting ground for Māori. With the arrival of Europeans, trees were felled and burnt to make way for farms, but among the early settlers were those with a vision to preserve this beautiful piece of bush, such as early landowner Job Wilton who preserved seven hectares of the original forest. This became known as Wilton’s Bush.

Nature Guide to the NZ Forest

by John Dawson and Rob Lucas

(Godwit, 2000)


Otari-Wilton's Bush Trust member
Dr John Dawson has written several excellent books during his distinguished career as a botanist, including this – perhaps the most informative for visitors to New Zealand's forests. Following is an excerpt from the introduction:


“There’s no doubt that New Zealand’s forests are unique. There are plenty of convincing statistics to support this: although our forests are located in temperate latitudes, they have an almost tropical feel; of our 2,500 native species of conifers, flowering plants and ferns, over 80% occur nowhere else in the world; our forests have evolved in complete isolation for many millions of years; they contain animals unique to New Zealand alone....


Statistics are all very well, but most people who spend time in the bush are attracted by less tangible things such as the unique spirit of the place. To them, our forests look, feel and smell special. They constitute a unique experience we cannot replicate elsewhere, no matter where we travel on the globe."

Otari founder Leonard Cockayne
Nature Guide to the NZ Forest by John Dawson and Rob Lucas



Cockayne was ably assisted by trained gardener and WW1 veteran Andy McKay – 40 years his junior and with a personality and temperament diametrically opposed to his own. The reserved McKay became Cockayne’s hands and, from 1931 on, his eyes as well in all that grew in Otari.


He planted out the hebe collection and later The Gresley Lukin Alpine Garden at Otari’s main entrance. He undertook painstaking labeling of plants, developed firewalls, paths and the Troup Picnic Ground. He supervised teams of unemployed men during the Depression and was said to be a firm, steady boss. For 20 years, Andy McKay was caretaker, curator and officer-in-charge at Otari. He died of lung cancer in 1946, aged 51, and is buried in the Soldier’s Cemetery, Karori.
Abridged from text by John Riseborough.




More than half of all remaining original native forest in Wellington lies within Otari's  boundaries, including towering mataī and rimu, as well as tawa, rewarewa and kohekohe. The taller trees are often the home for epiphytes or perching plants such as Collospermum hastatum. Many high-rise native climbers also abound.


Some areas of Otari have been naturally regenerating for over 100 years; others are only just shading out the gorse, which has served as an ideal nursery for them over the last few decades, and are now dominated by māhoe. High up on Otari's western slopes, there are areas of grass that have yet to be taken over by scrub species, which will eventually be taken over by native trees. The whole native forest cycle, including forest restoration by volunteers, can be witnessed at Otari.


Volunteers tend to the native plants at Otari-Wilton's Bush
Kereru the native NZ wood pigeon at Otari



On a fine calm day, especially early in the morning, visitors to Otari-Wilton's Bush will commonly be treated with sightings of kererū (wood pigeon), kākā (kaka), tūī (tui) and rare flashes of kōtare (kingfisher). Other birds that may be seen or heard during the day include pīwakwaka (fantail), kākāriki (red-crowned parakeet), paradise duck, kārearea (falcon), riroriro (grey warbler) and tauhou (silvereye).


On most windless nights, the soulful sound of the ruru (morepork) can be heard as the birds call to each other, but these silent flying, reticent birds can be very difficult to spot.



New Zealand's native fish are even more elusive. With the help of a spotlight, brief sightings of long finned eel or banded kokopu may be had from one of the bridges across Kaiwharawhara Stream. Native fish numbers have been greatly depleted by competition from introduced trout, and road and rail culverts impede their travel up from breeding grounds at sea. The Otari-Wilton's Bush Trust has begun restoring the streamside to encourage more native fish to Otari.

Native NZ fish the kokopu at Otari
Native NZ weta at Otari
NZ's native puriri moth at Otari

Kaiwharawhara Stream is home to the banded kokopu, a native fish of NZ
Photo: Jonathan Kennett.




Smaller creatures such as forest geckos, stick insects, dragonflies and weta, are harder to spot, but they are present in large numbers and never fail to fascinate, or shock us, whenever they are seen. The weta is one of NZ's larger and more mesmerising insects.
Photo: Jonathan Kennett.

The puriri moth is NZ's largest forest moth, attaining a wingspan of up to 15 cm. As its name suggests, the puriri moth caterpillar is commonly hosted in puriri trees, but it also favours beech trees, putaputaweta and wineberry. Once the caterpillar makes the transformation to adulthood, the life cycle of the puriri moth accelerates, and those that are able to dodge the canny eye of a morepork will generally live for about two days.

Photo: Robyn Smith.

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