Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 56, 1926

Donald Petrie, 1846 – 1925.

The death of Donald Petrie on the 1st September, 1925, has removed from the body of New Zealand men of science an outstanding figure, and from the New Zealand Institute almost the oldest member. With his passing has also gone, so far as those publishing taxonomic matters are concerned, the last adherent in this country to the old school of taxonomic botany, a school to which science is greatly indebted, but which no longer serves the present-day needs of New Zealand botany.

Petrie was born in Morayshire, Scotland, on the 7th September, 1846. He was educated first at the Aberdeen Grammar School, and later at the University of that city, where he graduated M.A. at the age of twenty-one. Commg shortly afterwards to Victoria, he was appointed to a mastership in Scotch College, Melbourne, where he remained for six years. In 1874 he received the appointment of Inspector of Schools to the Provincial Government of Otago, and two years, later, the provinces being abolished, his services were transferred to the Education Board of that provincial district, where he remained till 1894, when he became Chief Inspector for the Auckland Board of Education.

On the 17th February, 1874, hè joined the Otago Institute, those of that society at that time interested in botany or zoology being Messrs. A. Bathgate, G. M. Thomson, P. Thomson, W. Martin, J. S. Webb, Dr. T. M. Hocken, Captain F. W. Hutton, Professor M. Coughtrey, and the Right Rev. Bishop Nevill. It was doubtless the influence of Mr. G. M. Thomson, who at that time was eagerly studying the plants of Otago, which turned Petrie in the direction of field botany. Hooker's Handbook of the New Zealand Flora, then ten years old, had been well tested by T. Kirk and others, and found to be—admirable as it was for the period it appeared, though based on dried material—a by no means reliable guide. It was clear, in fact, that much remained to be done (but how much no one then could dream) both in the matter of discovering and defining undescribed species, in gaining knowledge concerning those already described, and in finding out greatly needed details regarding their distribution. Work of the kind just indicated evidently appealed strongly to Petrie, so that he very soon commenced to prosecute it with enthusiasm, notwithstanding he had received no previous scientific training, a rather common occurrence with those whose names count high in research.

In those days, and for many years afterwards, School Inspectors either rode or drove through their districts; they would also frequently be away from home at the week-end. Petrie took every advantage of this state of affairs. In his buggy was always his collecting-press—two small, thin mahogany boards, about 12 in. by 9 in., with a considerable thickness of botanical drying-paper between them; his keen eyes scanned the vegetation on the roadside as he drove leisurely along, and but little would escape his vision. Week-ends and holidays he made special excursions, and many high mountains were ascended, most of them botanically unexplored or, at best, superfically examined previously. Mounts Ida, Pisa, and Cardrona, the Old Man Range, the Rock and Pillar, the Dunstan and Hector Mountains are names which always bring Petrie to my mind's eye.


[Footnote] * He always used presses of this kind and size. Of course, they greatly limit the dimensions of specimens, but, on the other hand, they are light, easy to use, even in a high wind, and the small papers can be readily dried.

– viii –

This search for plants was no mere hobby, to be taken up for a time and then dropped, but it developed into the serious business of life, ceasing only for about a year before his lamented death. In short, for some fifty years Petrie carried on this essential preliminary work, so that there is not one of the botanical districts of the main Islands of New Zealand where his footsteps cannot be traced; indeed, he was fairly familiar with the distribution of the flora from the north of Auckland to the south of Stewart Island; and the results of his many excursions—long or short—are stored, well preserved and accurately labelled, in his splendid herbarium—the supreme work of his life.

Besides being a skilled collector, an accurate observer, and the patient maker of an herbarium, Petrie contributed some sixty papers to the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute and other journals. The greater part are descriptions of unknown plants—in all about 180 species or varieties. Two papers stand out as of special value—the one a list of all the species of spermophytes of Otago, and the other dealing with the flora of Stewart Island, which was almost unknown until he and G. M. Thomson made a special excursion thereto in a cutter they hired for the purpose.

In the former of the above two papers a list is given of all the species, together with details regarding their distribution, in Otago. Within the last few years it has been my good fortune to follow in Petrie's footsteps, so to speak, in Central Otago, ascending many of those mountains whose florulas he made his own, yet not one plant have I found which he had not previously seen or recorded. This speaks volumes for his thoroughness. And those who, like myself, have been with him in the field in his prime must have been amazed at his eye for plants, an eye which missed none. During one long summer's day on Kelly's Hill, Westland, I well remember he looked neither to right nor left, but steadily gazed at the carpet of plants hour by hour, pausing only to collect those which were new to him or which he wished to examine; and this was my daily experience during a rather extensive excursion he and I made about thirty-one years ago.

The Stewart Island investigation was confined to the areas—mostly low-lying—in the neighbourhood of Paterson Inlet and Port Pegasus, but from the head of the former beautiful lake-like arm of the sea the explorers managed to negotiate the swampy ground leading to Mason Bay. No less than 201 species were collected or noted, a remarkable record for a comparatively small area, the country difficult to traverse, and the time at their disposal severely limited. Various important facts were made known, especially the discovery of the Australian genera Liparophyllum and Actinotus, the occurrence of certain alpine plants at sea-level, and the virtual absence of grassland, this being represented by Cyperaceae and Restionaceae. Certainly, in this expedition G. M. Thomson played a notable part, and Petrie suitably emphasized this in Microlaena Thomson—a small grass of unusual form, now known to extend to north-west Nelson.

Had Petrie been asked what was the main result or chief object of his botanical work, he would have unhesitatating replied that it was the putting-together of an herbarium which would represent all that was known taxonomically regarding the species of New Zealand vascular plants (for with their ecology or other matters he had no concern) and their distribution. To this end, his explorations, his correspondence, and, in fact, all his botanical energies, were devoted. And so far as his conception of an herbarium went—and unfortunately it is the usual conception—he succeeded to the full. Not only is his own painstaking work of some fifty years represented, but he enlisted the assistance of pretty well every one who

– ix –

has collected, or collects, New Zealand plants, from his colleagues of the early “seventies”—T. Kirk, T. F. Cheeseman, J. Buchanan, G. M. Thomson—to the youngest men of to-day. This herbarium, second only in size to that of Cheeseman, if it be not the equal, he presented a year or two ago to the Dominion Museum, Wellington, the only condition attached to the splendid gift being that it must be housed in a fireproof building. Up almost to the very last he was engaged in seeing that it was correctly labelled and put into perfect order.

To have such a great and important collection in a situation so central as Wellington is a matter of inestimable value for New Zealand botany. It contains the “types” of all the species, &c., described by Petrie, as also nearly all those of T. Kirk and T. F. Cheeseman. Further, the herbarium has been labelled in exact agreement with the new edition of Cheeseman's Manual, in nearly all cases from determinations made by Cheeseman himself. All that is lacking in the way of “types” are those which are present only at Kew and in other European herbaria, and a few of species described by New Zealand authors other than those mentioned above. Once the herbarium is available, all we interested in New Zealand botanical taxonomy will wonder how we got along for so many years without such a collection for reference.

As a taxonomic botanist—and taxonomy was almost his sole interest—Petrie, though theoretically a “lumper,” was in practice a most confirmed “splitter,” to use expressive terms now fast passing into oblivion. Thus many of his species are separated from their next-of-kin by very small distinctions. But the constancy of such differences was never established by breeding experiments, and rarely by those exact field observations which may supply strong evidence. As with the school to which he belonged—and this school contains the greatest names in taxonomic botany—Petrie considered that a species told its own tale: that a comparison between forms of close resemblance was sufficient, and that experiment was unnecessary. Thus he described, at times, species of polymorphic genera from very little material, or even from material taken from one cultivated plant. One who knows intimately Hebe or Celmisia, for instance, must feel great doubt regarding species of those genera based on such material. But this is a small matter; most of Petrie's species have proved to be beyond reproach.

This love of working with groups distinguished by small differences appealed to Petrie from the very first, when he chose for study certain critical genera of Cyperaceae, especially Uncinia and Carer, and Gramineae as a whole, and he was so successful both in discovering species—some very small—and in pointing out neglected distinctions, that he shed a flood of light on these difficult plants, and eventually became the leading authority on the grasses of this botanical region.

Petrie's researches did not extend into those branches of the science of interest to botanists in general. He was essentially a local specialist. But his work was fully recognized as of great value in the Dominion, and various New Zealand honours not easy to attain fell to his lot. Thus, he was elected President of the New Zealand Institute in 1915; in 1919 he was made one of the twenty original Fellows of the Institute; and last year he was awarded the Hector Memorial Medal and Prize. He therefore received nearly all the scientific honours which his adopted and beloved country could bestow. To this country he, on his part, gave of his very best. His loss will be felt for many years to come, and his name will always be revered as that of one of the great pioneers at a time when such were urgently needed in the domain of New Zealand field botany.

L. Cockayne.