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Te Papa explores Nancy Adams contributions:

As part of a summer research project, Lucia Adams from Botany and Annie Barnard from Art are working with Te Papa’s collection of Nancy Adams’ works. Annie and Lucia will be digitising botanical specimens that Adams collected, enriching catalogue records of her artworks and archival material, and doing research and writing about her work and influence. They are taking a series of field trips to sites that were important in Nancy’s life and work. Here is the first in a series of blogs documenting these trips.

Blog one: On The Sirens Rock

Nancy Adams (1926–2007) was one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most notable botanists and a talented artist. She painted an incredible number of botanical illustrations, using them to produce important books about Aotearoa New Zealand’s flora, including seaweeds, trees, and alpine plants.

These publications – over 40 in total – are valuable resources for flora-loving New Zealanders. Along with these, she has identified a staggering 6,875 specimens for the WELT herbarium of Te Papa and contributed 3,322 of her own collections of seed plants, algae and ferns from 687 different localities in New Zealand.

First seaweed field trip to Island Bay, January 1943, Wellington, maker unknown. Purchased 2007. Te Papa (CA000903/001/0003/0001), January 1943, Wellington, maker unknown. Purchased 2007. Te Papa (CA000903/001/0003/0001).
Lucia exploring The Sirens Rock; 8 Dec 2023. Photo by Annie Barnard. Te Papa.

Career and Life

Nancy Adams’ career in botany began during the Second World War. In 1943, when she was just 16 years old, she was appointed as a botanical illustrator at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). She was one of many young women in science replacing men who had joined the armed forces.

Adams started working at the Dominion Museum in 1959 when she became an artist for the historical botanical archives.

Nancy was immersed in the work of botanists like John Buchanan, and produced her first books, Plants of the New Zealand coast and Trees and shrubs of New Zealand in 1963. She also illustrated the Department of Conservation’s National Park handbooks. This work led to her receiving the Loder Cup in 1964 for services to flora conservation.

In 1969 she began to specialise in marine botany and became a very important figure in the field of phycology (the study of seaweeds). After retiring from the Dominion Museum in 1987, she continued to publish botanical works and received a number of awards, including being appointed CBE for services to botany. You can find a more detailed biography of Adams here.

Her botanical watercolours are striking and recognisable. The painting below, depicting geranium and nasturtium specimens, is currently one of four Adams works on display in the Level 5 Toi Art exhibition Arranging Nature.

Nancy collected her 3,322 specimens for the Dominion Museum between 1943-1996. 1,187 of these were collected locally in the Wellington region, many of these were seaweed specimens, while others were plants like daises, clovers, and dandelions.

One of her favourite collection locations was between Red Rocks and The Sirens Rock, an abundant rock pool area on Wellington’s south coast – outlined in red on the map below.

The Sirens Rock and Red Rocks. Map created using NZ Topo Map.

Our Field Trip to Wellington’s South Coast

Because this location was such a prolific collection place for Nancy, we decided this would be our first field trip. After visiting, it was easy to understand her fascination with this area of Wellington. The rich diversity and life of the rock pools and tide was breathtaking and hypnotic.

Throughout our research, we’ve been exploring many different aspects of Nancy’s career. We’ve started with her amazing watercolour paintings of seaweeds and flowers, but have also been exploring her slide photo collection – looking for clues about who she botanised with, trips she might’ve gone on, and parts of the landscapes she found particularly picturesque.

We discovered one lovely similarity between our field trip photography and Nancy’s slides of Island Bay, finding that we’d taken a similarly composed image on our own field trip. Little of this stunning view appears to have changed in the last 50 years!

Notable Plants

On our field trip, we decided to hunt around to see if any of the plant specimens that Nancy collected on the south coast are still present in the area today. We found that one plant in particular, shore bindweed Calystegia soldanella is still abundant, 51 years after her collection in 1973.

When we visited it was flowering with beautiful pink and white blooms. It grows prostrate along the ground with kidney shaped leaves and large trumpet shaped flowers. This type of Calystegia grows in sandy or stony soil and is often found by the beach.

Shore Bindweed; 8 Dec 2023. Photo by Lucia Adams. Te Papa.

While Calystegia soldanella is a native plant, there are other native and introduced species of Calystegia in New Zealand. You may have seen C. silvatica or Large Bindweed, a common weed that can smother trees. This species has bigger leaves, white flowers and is found inland, away from the beach.

We took pictures of the Calystegia soldanella and reported it on iNaturalist. Our observation is a small but useful datapoint. For instance, it tells us this habitat is still suitable for this species, as it was in 1973.

Nancy’s specimen, 50 years old, still upholds the sense of the Bindweed’s scale and shape. Her illustration, on the other hand, captures more ephemeral aspects like the colour and movement of the plant. All of these forms, the specimen, the watercolour, even our quickly snapped photo, reflect Nancy’s wonderful ability to notice the overlooked beauty under our noses.

The life and times of Nancy Adams has left a vast impression on our collections, particularly the interconnectedness of art and science – all orbiting around one unassuming flower that grows by the beach! This first article only scratches the surface of the Nancy Adams trail we are following. Keep an eye out for our next blog, reporting back from another field trip.

References and related blogs


See also: Following a Botany Legend: exploring the life of Nancy Adams