Fernery slowly gives up its secrets

Heritage New Zealand Otago-Southland senior archaeologist Dr Matt Schmidt (right) and a team from...
Heritage New Zealand Otago-Southland senior archaeologist Dr Matt Schmidt (right) and a team from the Otago Anthropological Society make light work of restoring a fernery on the grounds of Larnach Castle. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
Some people are amazed at what they find when they clear away some of the detritus in their gardens.

But few are as surprised as Heritage New Zealand Otago-Southland senior archaeologist Matt Schmidt, who is restoring the remains of a fernery on the grounds of Larnach Castle.

Dr Schmidt said the fernery was built by  former owners  the Purdie family, some time between 1927 and 1940.

It was similar to a glasshouse, only it was used to grow ferns.

"They had an interest in ferns and it was an area where they grew different types of ferns.

"We don’t know what types of ferns — they may have been a variety from overseas or around New Zealand."

He said the original building had stone walls and a glass roof, but when the Purdies left the property, it fell into disrepair.

All that remains now is the stone walls and a lot of soil.

Before they began the restoration in April, few knew it even existed.

It was difficult to see unless you knew it was there, he said.

Over the past few months, staff from Heritage New Zealand and the Otago Anthropological Society have been slowly emptying the soil from the space, and have found it has an Australian sandstone floor and metal pipes for irrigation.

"The hardest part is working out whether the stones are part of the garden feature or the wall — that’s the tricky bit."

It was hoped ferns could be replanted in the ruins of the building, and information boards put up to explain the history of it and what it looked like.

It was hoped the restoration would be completed by the end of the year, he said.

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