Cockayne, Leonard

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(b. Norton Lees, near Sheffield, England, 7 April 1855;

d. Wellington, New Zealand, 8 July 1934), ecology, phytogeography, horticulture.

Cockayne, who from the late 1890s was well known within the rapidly emerging European school of ecologists, achieved world recognition in 1919 for The Vegetation of New Zealand, published at Leipzig in Germany as volume 14 of Die Vegetation der Erde, a project conceived and edited, from 1896 to 1928, by Adolf Engler, professor of botany and director of the botanical garden at Berlin, and Oscar Drude, professor of botany at the Dresden Polytechnic and director of the Dresden botanical gardens. This masterwork was the culmination of several decades of Cockayne’s intensive and largely independent study of the New Zealand flora and his early recognition of the uniqueness of New Zealand as a locus for understanding change induced by human activity in native floras generally. From this work he developed a theory of hybridization as the driving force in evolution.

Early Life, Education, and Migration . Brought up as a very-much-younger son in a middle-class mid-Victorian northern English mercantile family, Cockayne later attributed his lifelong, and largely autodidactic, interests and achievements in botany to an early childhood spent in solitary “self-given nature-studies in the remnant of ancient British woodland” that occupied the bottom of a gully near Thorpe House, his family home at Norton Lees. After a fragmented and mediocre schooling on classical lines, which he disliked intensely, Cockayne was admitted in 1873 to medical studies at the Manchester Royal Infirmary and the Manchester Royal School of Medicine and Surgery. When his health broke down in 1875, he turned to botany. He later recalled that he attended a course of lectures in the subject, “which at that time was almost entirely systematic [classification],” and passed a degree examination at the University of London. From this, he said, he acquired “a fair amount of botanical jargon and so could use a flora to some extent” (Thomson, 1983, 30–33).

At this point in his life Cockayne decided to migrate to Australia. His reasons for doing so are unclear. It has been suggested that he was prompted by poor health and a sense of academic failure. In addition, an overseas career may have seemed promising to one with his natural abilities and intellectual independence, in terms of opportunities not open to him in Britain. Whatever the case, Cockayne spent four years teaching school in Australia before migrating to New Zealand in 1881. He arrived there with no formal qualifications but with a considerable knowledge of, and a deep interest in, botany.

After teaching the subject in schools for two or three years, an independent income from his deceased father’s estate allowed him to concentrate on something quite new for New Zealand, experimental plant research. Cockayne, with his habits of independent thought, quickly recognized that a relatively recently colonized country like New Zealand presented an opportunity to study in some detail the evolution of a new flora, induced by European settlement, and the evolving relationships between that flora and those who induced it. Cockayne considered that such studies would be “of the greatest scientific and economic interest not only with regard to New Zealand botany, pure and applied, but also because they may shed much needed light upon the evolution of floras and vegetation in general.” Cockayne’s early realization that many of the plants introduced into New Zealand and into much of the New World from the Old were “some of them the most aggressive weeds in Europe,” served to heighten his interest (Cockayne, 1927, 145–146).

Severe economic depression and a highly conservative political and scientific and academic establishment, however, encumbered New Zealand science at that time. The meager university teaching of the day was based on English scholastic rather than European experimental models. Cockayne had already found the former to be highly uncongenial to his mode of independent inquiry. He became increasingly impatient with his botanical colleagues, whom he considered to be shackled to the outdated “name, classify, describe” Linnaean paradigm of systematic botany that he had left behind in England. He taught himself to read German so that he could tap into the mainstream of European botanical thought and used a portion of his patrimony in 1892 to purchase a property on which he established his Tarata Experimental Garden, near Christchurch in the South Island of New Zealand. There he assembled a variety of both indigenous and exotic plants, of botanical rather than aesthetic value, gathered from the temperate regions of the globe. But he decided, “New Zealand species were to play a larger part in the plant population than had hitherto been the case” (Thomson, 1983, 38). In itself, this was a novel approach among New Zealand gardeners, most of whom were of British extraction, and who had been largely intent upon replicating the flora of their homelands in their adopted country. At Tarata he began to focus on plants and their relation to their surroundings, gathering his data from actual observations in the field. This was something of a paradigm shift in New Zealand botanical thinking at that time. He also extended his knowledge of plant propagation, which he shared unstintingly through his associations with local and international horticultural societies. To the end of his life he saw himself, at heart, as a gardener.

European Connections . From his experimental work and from wider field observations, Cockayne gained insights into the distinctive nature of the New Zealand flora and the changes induced in it by European colonization. These could not be explained by the current, predominantly English, evolutionary paradigms, which advocated that innately “superior” European species would inevitably outcompete and in due course displace “inferior” indigenes, whether they be floral, faunal or human.

Cockayne looked instead to the emerging science of ecology to gauge the effects on the indigenous biota of invasions by European colonists and their alien plants, animals, and agricultural practices. The European invasion of New Zealand, a relatively small, isolated archipelago in the South Pacific, had been documented more or less continuously, although somewhat haphazardly, from the contact period following James Cook’s rediscovery of the country in the late eighteenth century. Working from this record, and his own systematic observations and experimentation, Cockayne used an ecological paradigm to interrogate earlier narrowly based Darwinian-Hooker-ian-Wallacean evolutionary theories about the assumed superiority of European flora, and to develop an alternative explanation of human-and animal-induced transformations in the New Zealand flora after colonization.

Cockayne was particularly influenced by Eugenius Warming, the Danish botanist whose Plantesamfund, published in 1895 and translated into German the following year as Lehrbuch der ökologischen Pflanzengeographie, Cockayne considered to be a founding document in the emerging science of ecology. The German botanist Karl Ritter von Goebel, director of the botanical gardens at Munich, who visited New Zealand in 1898, recognized the wider ecological significance of Cockayne’s work and strongly encouraged him to persevere in the face of a considerable degree of local indifference.

Meanwhile, Cockayne had been obliged to sell Tarata in 1903 when his health again failed and his finances became stretched. When he had recovered his health he embarked on a program which took him into the field for an average of one hundred days a year, a pace that he maintained until 1925 when he reached seventy years of age. Over the next thirty years his ideas would eventually dominate both the research and the debate on the mechanisms underlying induced changes in the indigenous flora of New Zealand and contribute significantly to an understanding of global floral transformations. This was largely due to the increasingly extensive nature of his botanical fieldwork and a growing appreciation, particularly in Germany, of its wider ecological implications.

His finances were another matter. Realizing that he could not maintain the scale of his researches from his personal purse he approached the New Zealand government, seeking appointment as its official botanist. In this von Goebel and the botanist and plant geographer Friedrich Diels, a protégé of Adolf Engler, who had met Cockayne during a visit to New Zealand in 1902, supported him. Cockayne’s radical views and rather abrasive ways of expressing them appear to have worked against him. Although his son Alfred was appointed assistant government biologist in 1904, Cockayne never received a similar position. But in 1907 “arrangements, very satisfactory from a scientific point of view [were] entered into between the Government and Dr. L. Cockayne, which would enable him to continue and extend the work he had so long conducted at his own expense.” That arrangement provided the support needed to produce a groundbreaking ecological study that would bring Cockayne world recognition.

Contribution to Die Vegetation der Erde . Following the publication of two major ecological studies, one in 1900 on South Island grasslands and another in 1902 on the Chatham Islands, an isolated group lying off New Zealand’s eastern coast, Cockayne received an invitation in 1904 from Professor Engler to contribute a New Zealand volume to the major and successful global botanical study then under way in Germany, Die Vegetation der Erde. Armed with Engler’s synopsis of the proposed work, Cockayne set about acquiring, over the next nine years, a firsthand botanical knowledge of New Zealand’s many unexplored and imperfectly known regions. Along the way he used data he had gathered on hybridization, particularly from New Zealand’s ancient Gondwanan forests, for his landmark Observations Concerning Evolution, Derived from Ecological Studies in New Zealand, published in 1912. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in the same year, on the proposal of Sir Joseph Hooker, and received the Hector Medal from his New Zealand colleagues in 1913 in recognition of his achievement. This and later fundamental research into the role of hybridization in the evolutionary process led in due course to the award of the Darwin Medal by the Royal Society.

He completed his field research for The Vegetation of New Zealand in June 1913 and sent his manuscript to Germany in March 1914. Publication was unfortunately forestalled by the war that engulfed Europe over the next four years. It is a measure of the strength of personal and scientific bonds that although the best of German and New Zealand manhood were pitted against each other in that pointless slaughter, Cockayne’s great work was eventually in print in Germany in January 1921. It set out, for the first time in ecological terms, the nature of the New Zealand flora, the changes that had occurred to it from ancient times to the present, and Cockayne’s understanding of the mechanisms, both natural and human-induced, underlying those changes. It was not only a radical departure from anything that had hitherto been published on the New Zealand flora, but because it drew on a unique scientific record from the time of the earliest European contact with a suite of primeval ecosystems, it also provided a comprehensive analysis of ecological processes and threw fresh light on global environmental changes stemming from human impacts.

Following highly favorable reviews in a succession of scientific journals, the first edition sold out within a year. Engler and his Leipzig publisher Wilhelm Englemann promptly invited Cockayne to prepare a second edition. He used data he had gathered since 1913 to produce an extensively rewritten and revised edition that was published in 1928 and remained into the twenty-first century a standard academic work on the ecology of the New Zealand flora. Cockayne also wrote, at the behest of the New Zealand Department of Education, a popular version of his masterwork as New Zealand Plants and Their Story. First published in 1910, it underwent four editions and was still in print in 1967. In it Cockayne the conservationist advocated careful stewardship of New Zealand’s indigenous flora, “one of the most interesting in the world,” against what he saw as poorly considered introductions of exotic floral and faunal species.

Cockayne had never, since his medical school days, enjoyed robust health. Shortly after publication of the 1928 edition of his masterwork, his eyesight began to fail. With his colleagues G. Simpson and J. Scott Thomson, he produced one final major paper in 1932, “Some New Zealand indigenous-induced weeds and indigenous-induced modified and mixed plant-communities.” This comprehensive and unsurpassed study demonstrated that human interventions could cause some species normally found in cooperative rather than competitive indigenous plant communities to become aggressively weedy.

The University of Munich awarded Cockayne an honorary PhD in 1903 for his pioneering work in phytoecology. He was elected Fellow of the Linnaean Society of London in 1910 and Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1912. The New Zealand Institute, in his adopted country, awarded him its Hector Memorial Medal in 1913 and the Hutton Memorial Medal in 1914. He was eventually elected Fellow of the Institute in 1919, following publication of the first edition of his magnum opus. After the publication of a second and extensively revised edition in 1928, he received the Mueller Memorial Medal from the Australasian Society for the Advancement of Science and in 1929 was made a Companion of the [British] Order of St. Michael and St. George (CMG). In 1928, the Royal Society awarded him its Darwin medal for his work on plant hybridization as an explanatory mechanism in the dynamics of ecosystems. In 1931, his lifelong work in horticulture was recognized with the award of the Veitch Memorial Medal by the Royal Horticultural Society. It was only towards the end of his life, in 1931, that his extensive achievements in ecology and phytogeography were finally acknowledged by the University of New Zealand with the award of an honorary DSc, almost three decades after the value of his initial contributions to global ecological science were first recognized in Germany.

Following his death in July 1934, Cockayne was buried in the grounds of the Otari Native Plant Museum, near Wellington, which provides a fitting memorial to his vast knowledge of the ecology of New Zealand’s indigenous flora.



The Vegetation of New Zealand. Die Vegetation der Erde 14. Leipzig: Wilhelm Englemann, 1921. 2nd ed. 1928. The two editions are worth consulting as they illustrate the progression of the author’s ideas in the light of his advancing research.

New Zealand Plants and Their Story. Wellington: Government Printer, 1910. 2nd ed. 1919. 3rd ed. 1927. Posthumous 4th ed. 1967. Regarded as a popular classic, the first three editions again illustrate progressions in the author’s ecological thinking.

Cockayne, Leonard, Simpson, G. and Scott Thomson, J, “Some New Zealand indigenous-induced weeds and indigenous-induced modified and mixed plant-communities.” Journal of the Linnean Society – Botany49 (June, 1932): 13–45. Regarded as a landmark in ecological literature.


Allan, H. H. “Leonard Cockayne (1855–1934).” Proceedings of the Linnaean Society of London 147 (1935): 167–171.

Hill, A. W. “Leonard Cockayne 1855–1934.” Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society 1 (1935): 457–467. Contains a short bibliography.

Moore, L. B. “The Cockayne Memorial Lecture, 1965: Leonard Cockayne, Botanist.” Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand, General series, 2 (1965): 1–18.

Thomson, A. D. “A Bibliography of the Work of Leonard Cockayne.” New Zealand Journal of Botany 20:3 (1982): 205–219. Comprehensive but not exhaustive.

——. The Life and Correspondence of Leonard Cockayne. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1983. Written by a botanist. Fragmentary, but useful background material. Illustrated, with facsimiles of some original correspondence.

——. “Cockayne, Leonard 1855–1934.” In Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 16 December 2003. Available from

Neil Clayton