Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

COCKAYNE, Dr Leonard, C.M.G., F.R.S.


Botanist and plant geographer.

A new biography of Cockayne, Leonard appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Leonard Cockayne, the youngest son of William Cockayne, merchant, was born on 7 April 1855 at Thorpe House, Norton Lees, Derbyshire, and spent his boyhood in the country. From Wesley College, Sheffield, he went to Owen's College, Manchester, but abandoned a plan to study medicine. Leaving England in 1876 he taught first in Australia and, from 1880 to 1884, was master of the Greytown (Allanton) Public School, Taieri, Otago. At Styx, in Canterbury, he farmed for a few years before taking over 4½ acres of land near New Brighton, where for 12 years he kept a private experimental garden and, by means of seed exchanges, established connections with leading botanists and famous gardens abroad. In 1898, at the age of 42 years, he published his first scientific paper; in the same year the visit of the German botanist, Dr K. Ritter von Goebel, encouraged him to extend his researches for which, in 1903, the University of Munich conferred on him an honorary Ph.D. His interest centred on ecology “which deals with living plants and their relation to their surroundings and which gathers its data from actual observation in the field”. His horticultural studies were supplemented more and more by field work, especially after he moved to Christchurch in 1903. He described different vegetation types in Canterbury, spent six weeks on Chatham Island in 1901, visited the Auckland, Campbell, Antipodes, and Bounty Islands in the mid-winter of 1903, and the Auckland Islands again in November 1907. His reports on botanical surveys for the Department of Lands dealt with Kapiti Island (1907), Waipoua Kauri Forest (1908), Tongariro National Park (1908), Stewart Island (1909), and Sand Dunes (1909, 1911). He wrote lively newspaper articles, of which one series was revised and published by the Department of Education in 1910 as a book New Zealand Plants and Their Story which ran to three editions. His Observations Concerning Evolution, Derived from Ecological Studies in New Zealand (1912) recorded a wealth of details about the growth of native plants. He was elected F.R.S. in 1912 on the proposal of Sir J. D. Hooker and was awarded the Hector Memorial Medal in 1912 and the Hutton Memorial Medal in 1914.

At about this time he moved to Wellington where he was active in the New Zealand Institute, being president in 1918–19 and an original fellow. His flow of papers continued, some demonstrating the application of ecological principles and methods to agriculture (e.g., grasslands of Otago) and to forestry (e.g., beech forests), some dealing with floristic and taxonomic problems. For the Forest Service, to which he was honorary botanist from 1923, he prepared, with E. P. Turner, a small handbook with photographs of twigs of the common New Zealand trees, the first edition appearing in 1928, the fourth (seventh printing) in 1958. His magnum opus, The Vegetation of New Zealand, Part XIV of Engler and Drude's Die Vegetation der Erde, was published in Leipzig in 1921. Completed in March 1914, it brought together facts collected from 1904 when he was invited to contribute a volume to this series. The long delay in publication was due to the war, and in 1928 appeared a second edition “almost entirely rewritten, thoroughly revised and enlarged”. Honours received during this time included the Darwin Medal (1928), the Mueller Memorial Medal (1928), C.M.G. (1929), Honorary D.Sc. (N.Z.) (1932), the Veitch Memorial Medal (1932), and membership of many overseas scientific societies. He served on the Royal Commission of Forestry 1913, the Cawthron Commission 1919, and the Royal Pastoral Commission 1920.

In his last years, despite impending blindness, he founded the unique Otari Open-air Native Plant Museum in a reserve of 143 acres set aside for the purpose in 1927 by the Wellington City Council, to which he was honorary botanist. The objects were (a) to cultivate as many New Zealand species as possible; (b) to reproduce artificially various types of the primitive vegetation of New Zealand; (c) to bring the forest remnant in the Plant Museum back as far as possible to its original form; (d) to illustrate the use of indigenous plants for horticulture; and (e) to prevent the introduction of exotic plants into the museum. His home was in the nearby suburb of Ngaio, where he died on 8 July 1934. His grave is near the Banks entrance of Otari, and there, too, lies his wife Maria Maud née Blakeney, whom he married in Dunedin in 1879, who accompanied him on many botanical expeditions and who shared the friendship of many of his colleagues.

A. G. Tansley wrote that “Leonard Cockayne played the most conspicuous part in the development of modern field botany in the British Empire during the first third of the twentieth century.” Thirty years after his death Cockayne is still regarded as the most provocative influence in New Zealand botany, and new concepts about vegetation are still measured against his standards. No one has since produced so full an account of the whole vegetation of this country.

A keen grower, but with little formal training in biology, he recorded that G. M. Thomson's small book on ferns aroused his interest in native plants, at first from the standpoint of horticulture. He states “with pride” that he learnt much from the old shoemaker-bryologist Robert Brown, his companion on many travels in the wilds, whose splendid advice was: “Heed not what books or authorities teach, but in order to really learn, go to the plants themselves”. Ecology was a new science in 1900 and “unrecognised and unlabelled at first, Cockayne in New Zealand was already an ecologist waiting for the term to be adopted by botanists, and fully trained, with his keen insight, to lead the way not only in New Zealand, but in the world”. He divided the country into botanical districts, described different types of vegetation in as virgin a state as possible, and recorded how one kind follows another in orderly sequence after disturbance. His knowledge of the relations of plants to their habitats was applied to practical problems of “fixing” moving sand dunes and of revegetating depleted grasslands. By his careful study of plants in the field and the garden, and from seedling to adult, he defined many new species and varieties and became convinced of the importance of wild hybrids. “In the recognition of natural hybrids – which at the time was considered almost heretical in the botanical world – Cockayne opened up a new and very fruitful line of study and stimulated many investigations in other parts”. He was, in fact, a pioneer in the modern field of experimental taxonomy.

In manner, though not in person, Cockayne was a deliberately picturesque figure and his vigorous compaigning brought him the support of Governments, State Departments, local bodies, and innumerable individuals of whom he sought – almost demanded – help according to their various capabilities. Some of his tricks of showmanship were adopted by his son, A. H. Cockayne, and through him have been incorporated in the techniques of public relations work in the Department of Agriculture. He pleaded successfully for parks and reserves where natural vegetation could be preserved for the information and pleasure of the public, as well as for field stations for students, and he deplored the needless destruction of indigenous plant cover by animals introduced for profit or sport.

To younger botanists of two generations he was a source of inspiration. Many of his ideas are now so familiar that it is easy to forget that they originated in his fertile brain. “His overflowing enthusiasm sometimes led him into error, and his love of argument for argument's sake often deceived his listeners as to his real views, but he was always ready to withdraw an opinion on sound cause shown.” Certain it is that if he had had the varied data now at hand about the “dim past” he would not have been slow to formulate new hypotheses. Cockayne brought fame in the botanical world to his adopted country, a land of “peculiar importance” to all those interested in the wider aspects of botany.

by Lucy Beatrice Moore, M.SC., Botany Division, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Lincoln.

  • Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 1 (1935) (with short bibliography)
  • Proceedings of the Linnaean Society, London, Sess: 1934–35. Part V (Obit)
  • Trans. Proc. Royal Society of New Zealand Vol. 65 (1936) (Obit)
  • J. N.Z. Inst. Hort. 4, 1934, 11–15. Obituary by H.H.A., with photograph of Cockayne's garden
  • Kew Bull. Misc. Inf. 8, 1934, 313–17. Obituary by A.W.H.

The Story




This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.

Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand