Just a ten minute drive from the central city in your Wellington Airport Rental Car, the Otari-Wilton’s Bush garden is the only large botanic garden in New Zealand dedicated purely to native plants and sits in a verdant, bush-covered valley sheltered from much of Wellington’s notorious wind. The range of native trees and shrubs is exciting.
First recognised in 1906 as a Forest Reserve, the gardens were officially established as a botanic gardens in 1926, and are now the largest remaining area of native forest in Wellington city. The main entry is from the car park on Wiltons Road, through an ornate gateway, or waharoa, carved by Bryce Manu of the Te Atiawa tribal group.
First impressions are green – everywhere you look a thousand different shades of green flicker in the dappled sunlight. This green-ness is a feature of the New Zealand native forest, where the majority of its unusual range of trees and shrubs are small-leafed, evergreen and … green. Few have spectacular flowers but most have beautiful textural shapes and form and these are what give the forest its unique appeal. Otari-Wilton’s Bush is a remnant of the mature podocarp northern rata forest cover once typical of the lower North Island.
Ponga tree ferns stand by the pathway; in spring and summer their new fronds, or koru, unfurl from the middle of the tree, reaching for the sky. The fronds are covered in a soft, bronze-coloured down, and are prized in Maori culture, representing the bringing of new life and purity to the world.
There are 14 kilometres of trails and pathways cut through the reserve, ranging from a short, wheel-chair accessible trail, through to much longer walks up into the steeper, more rugged areas. The Circular Walk takes just 30 minutes and covers hillside, valley and planted gardens. A short detour leads to a pretty waterfall. The Yellow Trail leads off this path, into an area of original forest cover. It is a relatively easy walk with some steps. One of the highlights is an 800 year-old rimu tree, which is on one of the extended trails.
The final part of the Circular Walk crosses a high, 75 metre long Canopy Walkway. Twenty metres below, the strong forms of the ponga tree ferns are picture perfect. The view ranges across the valley to the far side of the reserve where larger forest trees light up the hillside. The Information Centre at the far end of the boardwalk has further information on New Zealand’s native wildlife and flora. From here it’s a short walk back to the main entrance.