Network Plant Conservation Awards 2016

A number of people and organisations were recognised for their dedication and exceptional work in protecting our native plants at the 2016 AGM in October.

Young Plant Conservationist - Penelope Te Pania

Penelope is a pupil at Nawton School in Hamilton. To celebrate Matariki this year students at her School spent a term planning, building, planting and caring for their own rongoā  (medicinal) garden. The project was led by the School’s Enviro Group – Pride Heroes - of which Penelope is a member. The children have been on field trips, researched plants, applied for funding from Waikato Regional Council and designed, planted and cared for the garden. Their efforts will help attract native species to the school and help protect the native plants. Penelope’s teacher nominated her for the Young Plant Conservationist award because, although the rongoā  garden was a group achievement, the energy that Penelope put into this conservation effort at her school (leading the implementation and ongoing sustainability of the project), and her obvious ongoing interest in the plants and their uses stood out. Penelope used her own break times to research about native plants and their possible medicinal qualities, checked on all the plantings daily and continues to monitor their ongoing health. In Penelope’s words, she “felt really good about it because it would be helping the environment”. Penelope is eight years old. A great achievement for someone so young.  

Nursery Award - The Women's Native Tree Project Trust

The Women’s Native Tree Project Trust is a volunteer group working hard to restore the cloak of Papatuanuku.  The trees they grow from eco sourced seeds are gifted to community groups which would otherwise be unable to afford to buy plants.  This year the Trust donated over 2200 native trees to over 21 different community groups (including schools and marae), and for council reserves.  The Trust also offers advice to groups about suitable plants and sometimes assist at the planting.  They also maintain plantings on GDC reserves at Makorori, Titirangi, Wainui schools and the Esplanade through 2-monthly working bees.  They also encourage local schools to visit their nursery to start to learn about how to grow native trees from seed and cuttings.

School Award - St Mary's School (Gisborne)

In 2012, the St Mary’s school envirogroup began thinking about how they wanted their school to look. They realised they wanted more native plants. They made a proposal that they bravely presented to the Board of Trustees. They met with the local council to check the boundaries of the area they were planting. They then went to every class in the school and talked about the project.  They also put it in the school newsletter, talked at assembly and had the proposal up in the foyer so the local community could comment on it. In 2012 they had their first planting day. Plants were donated by The Women’s Native Tree Project Trust and bamboo stakes from DOC. The envirogroup were outside all day helping show all the classes what to do. Every class in the school now comes out twice a year to help the envirogroup weed around all the trees. They have also managed to get mulch donated so are learning about how that helps the plants. So far, they have planted over 650 trees along the Taruheru river. This project has inspired all the staff and students. They have seen a very weedy neglected area transformed into a lovely native planting. They are very proud of themselves and love taking care of the plants and the area that they have restored.  

Community Grouop Award - Rings Beach Wetland Group

In the year 2008 a group of local volunteers started work on a 4.7 km back country track on DOC land at Rings Beach.  On completion the focus turned to an unmodified wetland of 4.5 ha which was host to 3 pairs of the endangered fernbird and few other native species.  In an effort to provide further incentive for the return of the birds a planting programme was instituted which has seen over 4500 native trees  planted in the last 5 years.  The trees selected are predominantly seeding varieties to provide a food source.  This 276 ha property was farmed and regularly burned off until the 1950s so natural regrowth has been slow and to a large extent impeded by the spread of wilding Pinasta pines which reduce the light available to encourage regrowth of natives.  A cutting programme was commenced in 2011 and thousands of pines have been removed from mature trees to small seedlings.  A future plan has been adopted to progressively clear the entire 276 ha over the next 5 years.  All of this work has been achieved with over 7500 volunteer hours, the assistance of generous funding bodies, annual planting with the involvement of the local Te Rerenga Primary School senior pupils and the horticulture class from the Mecury Bay Area School.  The walking circuit is enjoyed by locals and visitors, a track counter recorded 7000 hits in a 6 week period this summer and the ongoing installation of botanic labels is improving the educational values of the area.

Local Authority Award - Waikato District Council

With a strong portfolio of environmental initiatives, collaboration and support, Waikato District Council continues to make a positive difference to the environment and native species.  They continue to work closely with local communities on a wide variety of projects, from restoring native dune systems to improving or recreating native habitat around lakes and wetlands, river margins and forests. The council has also worked with Ecosourced Waikato on a number of projects – including the production of planting guides, an environmental education programme with local schools including a riverbank planting programme and the development of the “Plant Me Instead’ booklets which aim to reduce weeds in the district. They also work closely with local nurseries to ensure quality eco sourced plants on all their revegetation projects.

Individual Award - Tony Silbery

Nomination letter:  Peter DeLange

"I have known Tony Silbery for 26 years dating from the time I started employment with the then Science & Research Directorate of the Department of Conservation Head Office, Wellington on 14 May 1990. At that time Tony was the Head Grounds man of Percy Reserve, Petone, a small botanical garden run by the Hutt City Council.

I was introduced to Tony Silbery by the late Tom Moss a well-known Wellington amateur botanist who figured that as both Tony and I had red hair then we had better ‘work together’. At the time Tony lived at Percy Reserve in a council house adjacent the main Hutt Motorway and situated close to a small propagation house run by the council.

For a time between May 1990 and September 1993 after which I was moved up to Auckland, I worked closely with Tony who I soon learned was a definite ‘get up and do’ kind of person. Tony is also one of the rare personalities who has never been that interested in the limelight; never seen a need to blow his own trumpet either; rather he just cares about nature, the environment, plants and when at Percy Reserve his ‘charges’. He also greatly admired the work of the late Tony Druce, with whom he became fast friends and whose ideals I believe he has subconsciously modelled. While at Percy Reserve between the 1980s right up to the mid-1990s Tony developed an exceptional native plant collection. This collection was soon augmented by many unusual additions gifted by Tony and Helen Druce. Fascinated by plant conservation Tony also started to propagate a range of Regionally and Nationally Threatened plants. This was not his brief, and so he was often in conflict with his then manager who wanted Percy Reserve to be the ideal of a formal English ‘flower garden’ (the very kind of ‘ideal’ Tony despised). Undaunted Tony pushed on in the process befriending the late David Given who fully supporting Tony’s ‘mission’ and being influential with Tony’s manager temporarily kept the ‘formal garden’ notion at bay. Tony was by then also assisting the Department of Conservation by growing many nationally threatened plants, and unnamed entities collected by Tony Druce and others – at the time the plant compound was a pure treasure trove of unusual or highly threatened indigenous plants. I well recollect that the ‘bedding plants’ Tony was ‘required’ to grow for ‘park and street colour’ were usually relegated to sites where with luck they might die so offering even more space to grow native plants!

When it became evident that Muehlenbeckia astonii was in serious plight Tony took leave and used his weekends to come along and help my searches for plants. He then helped collect cuttings of this species, propagate these and from them he raised critical ex-situ stocks of Wellington and Marlborough provenances to help secure this seriously threatened species. He also helped prepare a first draft of a recovery plan for the species. By then the plant compound had become full of Muehlenbeckia astonii, which was worrying as at the time we had no secure place to put the plants he’d raised onto Public Conservation Land. Being so stuck for space and with managers fretting about those ‘bedding annuals’ and ‘potted colour’ we desperately needed a place to allow our plants to reach adulthood so we could procure seed and (hopefully) future seedlings. Pondering the problem, I recollect that Tony one evening (over a glass of excellent red wine) came up with the solution. This happened when he was sitting in the lounge area of his former Percy Reserve house (now demolished) which, as I have said abutted the Hutt Motorway; a very busy road which that evening was in full cry as the traffic had reached its congested peak. As he was musing there was a spectacular crescendo of speeding cars followed by sirens. It was then that he hit on the idea of using Lower Hutt Traffic Islands as ‘Muehlenbeckia Islands’ reasoning that these artificial structures, being surrounding as they were by ‘lunatics in their speeding vehicles’, acted just as effectively as any predator free islands did for our threatened birds. He was right of course, and again, at the risk of further conflict with his managers Tony started to plant out around the Hutt traffic islands Muehlenbeckia astonii rather than the ‘seasonal colour and bedding plants’ he was supposed to provide. In time many Lower Hutt Traffic Islands came to represent a particular southern North Island provenance and functional ‘breeding unit’. The plantings also had the added benefit in that they helped reduce some road fatalities as Muehlenbeckia astonii proved to be a more effective at slowing a drunken fool in a speeding car than a steel or concrete barrier, and with less serious consequences to the plant, and also the crapulous inebriate behind the car wheel. The novelty of the idea soon caught on, and has since been copied by other councils and agencies but not before Annie Whittle and her crew with the TV3 garden show ‘The Living Earth” did an item on the idea (1993).

Between 1991 and 1993 Tony frequently accompanied me on field work. 1991 was the highlight year for Tony. In April 1991 he assisted with surveys of Veronica (Hebe) adamsii, during which we jointly discovered a new population of Metrosideros bartlettii at Unuwhao Forest. Later in October of that year Tony also participated in a Department of Conservation expedition to the Three Kings Islands, proving an able sailor quite comfortable with helping me tie up a loose stabilizer at 10.30 pm whilst enroute on the ‘Harold Hardy’. This happened whilst the rest of our intrepid expedition members lay prostrated in their own vomit with sea sickness. Notably Tony paid for his part of the expedition costs himself, and also took annual leave to come along. One of my fondest memories of that expedition was his helping tie up Tecomanthe speciosa growths onto cables that he and I set up between the forest floor and canopy – in the hope we could increase the vines coverage and facilitate its flowering (it worked). This process also lead to Tony offering a joint Silbery / de Lange talk to the Wellington Botanical Society entitled ‘Twine on the Vine’ (also a huge success)

Outside his Departmental jaunts it is well known around Wellington that Tony can always be counted on to help. For example, he assisted Te Papa with their ‘Bush City” plantings, provided living examples of threatened plants for the first ever New Zealand Threatened Plant Committee meeting, and ‘non-hallucinogenic ‘potted’ native plant interest’ for the stage of the Dire Straits December 1991 ‘On Every Street Tour’ held at Athletic Park, Berhampore (Tony and I in return got to see the show for free). When Tony moved to the Wairarapa he continued to assist the Greater Wellington Region in many botanical matters. Being an able and accomplished speaker Tony has always given freely of his time with evening talks to a range of organisations, as well as serving a period on the Wellington Botanical Society Committee and also as their President.

In 1995 when Tony left Percy Reserve, he left behind a spectacular (at the time almost certainly unequalled) collection of not just native plants, but also ‘breeding’ viable threatened plant units arranged by provenance, and a raft of ongoing living taxonomic experiments which people such as myself used in our research. At that time Tony shifted to Pukaha / Mt Bruce, where he started afresh with revitalizing the Mt Bruce Wildlife Centre gardens, visitor center car park and grounds, with ecologically compatible, locally provenanced plantings of mostly Wairarapa and Wellington threatened plants (the plantings are still there and they are still exceptional). Tony also reasoned that the bird aviaries should be planted not only with a flora indicative of the landscapes from where the birds on display came, but also ideally those threatened plants from the same regions. As with Percy Reserve he planted functional units, some of which helped save local gene-pools of such severely threatened species as Wairarapa Olearia gardneri (which at that time was still known as O. hectorii and so had been written off by ecologists who failed to note the taxonomic differences that ultimately resulted in that species segregation from O. gardneri). Had Tony not ignored their sage advice then we would have lost some key Wairarapa genotypes of this Nationally Critical tree! Tony’s interests also turned back to one of his first loves birds, when he hit on the ideas of liberating caged kaka to encourage a natural flock of those parrots to inhabit Pukaha, a process which ultimately lead to the successful translocations of other birds like kokako and kiwi to that area.

Over his time at Pukaha, and ultimately the Wairarapa Area Office, Department of Conservation where he has been for over ten years Tony has worked on myriad projects, and, more critically pursued goals outside his day to day brief, working with local iwi on the restoration of the mauri of Pukaha and Wairarapa Moana (the latter believed impossible by many, yet being achieved in large part by his dogged, stubborn persistence, and faith in the people). He has also worked with a range of researchers interested in liverworts, lichens, mosses and obscure threatened plants, and a few years ago listened to my survey suggestions for Simplicia sites in the Wairarapa, such that when we finally went down to do the survey he had narrowed down the survey possibilities and sorted out access to the most likely sites. The fact that we rediscovered that grass in about an hour at the first ‘certain’ site is I am sure largely due to Tony’s careful, patient consideration of likely places, and exceptional knowledge of landowners – many of whom hold Tony in very high regard. Other than plants and birds Tony has also developed a deep empathy for the Tangata Whenua of the Wairarapa (Ngati Kahungunu ki Wairarapa and Rangitane o Wairarapa), with whom he has helped produce a unique recording epitomizing the essence of Puakaha through Maori chant, karakia verse, and bird song – a message in no small way motivated by his rage at the extinction of the huia – a bird that once graced those forests. The reconnection of school children with nature remains a driving passion, and in what little ‘private time’ Tony allows himself, and away from his love of music, rugby and cricket, Tony can often be found quietly cycling and/or walking the Wairarapa landscape, alone or with amateur and professional botanists in the pursuit of often obscure plants (and animals). Tony has never responded well to being told ‘it can’t be done’ – indeed his most recent project stems from his conviction that the ongoing decline of Buller’s Gull (Larus bulleri) from the Wairarapa can be halted. When I saw him in early July 2016 in the midst of a personal loss that rocked his world he still found time to cheerfully tell me he was now embarking on a wholesale project that involves building artificial islands in the Ruamahanga River on which he hopes these birds will breed.

Notably, as I said at the beginning of this nomination proposal all of Tony’s work has been without fanfare. Those who know Tony know he is at his very best with a glass of red wine listening (often very loudly) to ‘Genesis’, Steve Windwood, ‘Traffic’, ‘Pink Floyd’ or ‘The Who’. Tony is not comfortable with writing papers (though he has written some exceptional ones), or chasing politicians. Tony’s way to conservation has been about working patiently with people and it is for this that I and those who have written the accompanying letters of support wish to recognise him this year. We also know that Tony would not like to be so recognised, we know that if he knew about this nomination he would try his very best to find a way to recommend someone else. Irrespective we feel its high time his dedication is formally acknowledged, and this is the best way we can think of doing so. Tony is a National Treasure."

The nomination was accompanied by 9 letters of support including representation from the following organisations: Wellington Botanical Society, Wellington City Council, Greater Wellington Regional Council, QEII National Trust and Department of Conservation. 

This page last updated on 14 Nov 2016