Prior to the creation of the fernery as we know it today, there had been other outdoor ferneries established. The first of these was established in 1908 on Manhattan Island at the southern end of the Main Lake by W.W Smith, soon after commencing duties as Park curator.

A proposal for a new fernery was put forward at the beginning of 1918, because plant theft at, Manhattan Island, especially ferns, had been an issue. Board member C. E. Bellringer set about strongly urging the Board to adopt a policy for establishing a fernery that would be second to none in the country. He also suggested that the curator’s time, given his botanical talents and knowledge was being wasted on mundane duties and that his skills should be put to better use. Bellringer suggested the area in the gully below the people’s stand at the racecourse (Stainton Dell) as he felt this was the most picturesque and ideal spot. Walter Smith reported in October 1918 that preparations for the new fernery were complete, and planting would take place as soon as the ferns were received.

In 1919, C. E. Bellringer, now chairman of the Park Board continued pushing for the establishment of a fernery, this time promoting the building of a bush hut to house the ferns. The raw materials were available to make a hut, but the manpower was lacking. It was noted at the A.G.M. that a local gentleman had a large collection of ferns that he was ready to donate.

Walter Smith resigned in 1920, which probably stalled the fernery project until June 1922, when it was reported that preliminary work for shaping and grading land for a fernery had begun. The location was on the banks of Stainton Dell below the Racecourse Walk, where an area was fenced off and planted. The work was carried out by John Gibson, a prominent horticulturist, of Frankley Road.

In November 1923 a fernery committee consisting of C. E. Bellringer, James McLeod and W. H. Besley were appointed to make arrangements for the establishment of a first-class fernery. At the Board meeting of May 1924, the Pukekura Park Board instructed the fernery committee to submit plans for a fernery costing approximately £500, to be considered by the Board at its next meeting. The project became financially possible after the very successful Queen Carnival netted the Board over £1400. At the following meeting in June William Besley outlined a plan to excavate three chambers, one in front and two behind. The walls separating these chambers would be 8 feet thick, in order to support the roofs, which would be glass. The dimensions of the chambers, taken from the roof level, would be 30 feet by 50 feet for the front one and 60 feet by 30 feet for the two rear ones. Terracing of many of the walls was proposed, meaning the area at the bottom of the chambers would be considerably less than that at the top, and the terraces would be planted with the many varieties of ferns available. By adopting this scheme, it was hoped to cover the whole face of the walls with a screen of growth, and walks would be constructed in a way that would enable the public to gain the best views of the place. At the same meeting of the Board the chairman Mr. Dempsey thanked Mr. Besley for his trouble and stated that a great deal of work had been done by Mrs. Lovell, of Hawera, to whom the board were deeply indebted. Work on clearing the site of trees etc. started immediately.

At a meeting of the Board in April 1925 plans to build the fernery were officially put on hold due to financial constraints.

After many years in the planning work finally started on the fernery construction in June 1926, a huge undertaking, involving the creation of three 60ft x 40ft grottos linked by tunnels, and covered with glass roofs. The front chamber lay east-west, with the other two chambers behind, side by side laying north-south, and raised 10ft higher in the hillside than the front one. To start, approximately 12ft of earth was excavated from the side of the hill forming a plateau above where the fernery chambers were to be, roughly 180ft x 90ft. The topsoil from this excavation was put to one side and later used on what is now the Fred Parker Lawn. The fernery was designed by Mrs. Lovell of Hawera, who had a similar fernery in her own garden.

Approximately 4000 cubic yards of subsoil was excavated during the construction, all dug manually with spades. The cost of disposal of this material off-site would have been prohibitive, fortunately, there was a swamp nearby which could be filled in, and the level was raised by as much as 12ft, to form a lawn (subsequently named Fred Parker Lawn). Subsoil was used for the bulk of the land reclamation, which was then top dressed with the black topsoil that had been put aside. They also decided to form a second lakelet using some of the excavated subsoil to create a dam, the excavated material being transferred to a truck on rails which then took it approximately 100ft to the dam site. The person in charge of constructing the fernery was Mr. W. Holmes, of Putaruru, and six labourers were employed, four dedicated to excavation of the soil, one  the levelling of  the swamp and one in charge of the truck. Thomas Horton was the overall supervisor of the project, which took about 5 months to complete, sometimes under very trying conditions.

Fred Parker Lawn Area. Taranaki Herald, December 31, 1927

Early pictures of the Fred parker lawn soon after the swamp was reclaimed. The round bed in the middle of the lawn was planted with canna lilies which were a feature for a number of years.

By October the superintendent reported that the excavation of the fernery chambers had been completed as far as it was advisable before the carpentry work and glazing were done, and that the concrete foundations had also been finished. Unfortunately, a delay in the delivery of the glass for the roofs meant that they were not completed until mid-1927.
While construction was ongoing many people went out collecting ferns, with the Fernery Committee visiting Taranaki Forest properties especially in the Koru district (Oakura). Messrs Maxwell and Davies collected ferns on a trip to King Country, Rotorua, Bay of Plenty and Auckland. Many friends of the Park from around the country also sent ferns.

Pukekura Park Fernery 1928

Taranaki Herald - Xmas Supplement, December 15, 1928 Possibly the earliest photo of the completed fernery. In the foreground can be seen a punga rose pergola.

The fernery was officially opened at 1.30 p.m. on January 28, 1928, with the Mayor Mr. H. V. S. Griffiths doing the honours. The opening was arranged to coincide with the last day of a Shopping Week organised to promote the businesses of New Plymouth. Later that afternoon a floral fete was held in the park and in the evening a Pierrot entertainment under the direction of Mr. Wauchop, both of which were fundraising events.

The scheme had cost approximately £1150. The excavation had cost about £917, while some £50 to £60 was spent in beautifying the surroundings and the swamp. The nucleus of the fund was a sum of £500 which was earmarked by the board from the proceeds of the Queen carnival in 1924, and every penny of the sum spent was provided by public subscription.

Pukekura Park Fernery - 1929

New propagating house built in front of the fernery. TH Oct 18, 1929

Around the middle of 1929 a new propagating house was built near the entrance of the fernery, paid for by donations. Also, a rockery was developed and planted at the approach to the fernery.

In 1938 a begonia house was constructed using materials salvaged from one of the old glass houses that were part of the Brooklands estate. By the end of the year the begonia house was constructed, and a new tunnel dug out connecting it to the fernery houses. The following year another glasshouse was moved from Brooklands to the fernery site and used as a propagating house. Along with the glass houses came some of the first orchid’s to come into the park collection, slipper orchids, Paphiopedilum insigne. Other plants such as tuberous begonias and other flowering and foliage greenhouse plants that had been part of the greenhouse plant collections of Newton King also made their way to the fernery.

Pukekura Park - Fernery

Begonia House, constructed from material salvaged from one of the old Brooklands glass houses. (Puke Ariki ARC2011-029)

At the beginning of 1939, Miss Evelyn Lawson was employed as the first female staff member at the park. She started on a casual basis to help in the fernery, then when Ivan Waddle (Fernery manager) went off to war Miss Lawson’s position became a permanent one. She was joined a few years later by her sister Noline in 1942.

The Lawson Sisters

Private Collection (Warwick Horton)

December 1953 saw the interiors of the glass houses lit up for the first time as part of the summer lighting festival, and this has continued on and off for a number of years. The lighting in the fernery as part of the larger Festival of the Lights has always proven to be popular.

In 1956 a glass walled shade house with a lath roof was built for growing on ferns and the following year another shade house was built for growing palms which also had a lath roof and side walls, but the west side was open.

The mid 1960s was a busy time of redevelopment at the fernery. The Nova roof shade house which is adjacent to fern house number one, was built in 1965 by Fred Parker using plans drawn up by Mr Sandford. This shade house which replaced a set of cold frames, was built to house a cymbidium orchid collection gifted by Fred Parker to the Park in memory of his wife Agnes Mary Parker.  House No 2 was modified with the addition of a pyramidal stand, on which the orchids were displayed when in flower.  In 1967 the old begonia house erected in 1938 was pulled down and replaced by a new structure given to the city by Mr and Mrs George Kibby. The project also included a new boiler and boiler house. This new house was considerably larger and warmer than the house it replaced. Over subsequent years Fred Parker gifted the remainder of his very extensive orchid collection to the Park.

Also in 1967 it became necessary for a purpose built glasshouse to be constructed at the Parks Department Nursery at Brooklands to house the rapidly growing collection of orchids, when they weren’t in flower and on display. The collection grew from the many donations of growers around the country, and at its height the orchid collection was one of the largest municipal collections in the country. This house was eventually demolished in 2005 and the collection was moved entirely to the fernery. Considerable rationalisation of numbers were required to fit them in.

In 1998 there was a major rebuild of the roof structures over houses 2 and 3 and the cold frame area between them, they were amalgamated into one structure (2, 2A, 3), and an extension of the complete structure to the north created the annex. This new structure replaced the original houses built in the 1920s and the new roof line was considerably higher meaning many taller plants could be more easily accommodated.

In 2001 the the Kibby house was rebuilt and extended to the west, as the steel framing in the old structure had started to fail. The top propagation house was rebuilt at the same time and incorporated as a side wing of the new Kibby House (House 4) with the floor area doubled. Previously the top propagation had been a standalone structure.

In 2013 the final stage of the fernery redevelopment was completed, including a new roof structure over House 1, a new Propagation house, a new Park office and Staff facilities underneath the new propagation house, a new potting shed and chemical store. New boilers were installed and the glasshouse venting systems automated.