A visitor to Warkworth in 1919 was so captivated by the beauty of the flowering kowhai trees, on the land between Matakana Road and the State Highway, that he wrote to the Warkworth Town Board and suggested that the land be purchased for a public reserve. When approached, the landowner Mr D. Hall, offered to sell 14 acres for £120, with a suggestion that a quarter be paid by the Rodney County Council, a quarter by the Town Board, and half by the Government. Limestone had been quarried from the area some time earlier, with the lime kilns still in evidence, and at this time the mineral rights were held by Wilsons, of Wilson Cement Works fame. The government refused to support the purchase unless these rights were forgone, but Wilsons wouldn’t oblige. After much public pressure, they were persuaded to do so if the land was to become a public reserve.
The reserve was finally bought for £250 for just over 10 acres, with a different funding model including public subscriptions. The first Domain Board was formed in 1932 with plans for the Governor General Lord Bledisloe to open the park. A name had not yet been chosen, and an exasperated Mr Hall suggested it be named Bledisloe Park, as the process of finalising the purchase had been “Bleddyslow”. However, Kowhai Park was the popular choice.
A large crowd attended the opening ceremony on 5 April, 1934, including returned servicemen and children from nearby schools, with Lord Bledisloe planting a rimu tree to mark the occasion. A young Bert Stubbs was given the honour of carrying the tree to where it was to be placed, and it still thrives today. With many farmers in the audience, in his opening speech Lord Bledisloe emphasised the importance of applying lime to farmland. He pointed out that although there was plentiful limestone in the district, rain washes the lime downwards, and therefore it is not available for use by shallow-rooted grasses. Thirteen-year-old Gordon Mason (later Sir Gordon, Mayor of Rodney District) and his friend, Frank Hudson, rode their bikes from Kaipara Flats into Warkworth for the ceremony, and afterwards rode southward for some miles, as it was the first chance they had of riding on tar-seal on the newly sealed main road.
Modern-day nature lovers have reason to thank those who persevered all those years ago, as Kowhai Park is a botanical gem. Unlike the kauri/podocarp/broadleaf forest common in the district, Kowhai Park is largely kowhai/tawa/titoki dominant, with several large matai trees. It is probable that the closeness of the limestone to the surface improves soil pH and encourages good root development, causing these species to thrive as they don’t elsewhere. An unfortunate feature of the park is the thick ground cover of weeds. These discourage regeneration of replacement trees, but volunteers and Auckland Council staff are controlling growth to the extent that seedlings and low-growing native plants can now thrive. Volunteers have recently upgraded the loop track through the reserve to a high standard.
There are probably many people living in the district who have never visited Kowhai Park, and if you are one of those, I urge you to do so. As well as enjoying the historical features, take time to gaze upwards to the soaring canopy of tawa and titoki trees, and note the dense epiphytic load of orchids and astelias perching on the tree branches – a sure sign of a healthy microclimate.
Maureen Young, Warkworth & District Museum