Landcare Research - Manaaki Whenua

Landcare-Research -Manaaki Whenua

First complete flora “milestone” for Cook Islands

Published: 4 July 2016 - by Ilse Breitwieser

Flora of the Cook Islands author Bill Sykes holds the book for the first time, with his wife Peggy.

Flora of the Cook Islands author Bill Sykes holds the book for the first time, with his wife Peggy.

A book outlining, for the first time ever, the complete flora of the Cook Islands has come to fruition.

The publication, Flora of the Cook Islands, was written by Christchurch botanist Bill Sykes, a research associate at Landcare Research.

The book - which covers the whole range of vascular plants found in the Cook Islands, including common cultivated species, as well as their uses - was launched earlier this month at Landcare Research’s Lincoln site.

Sykes, 88, said it was a “relief” when he got to finally hold the book in his hands. At the launch, Sykes said he could “now rest in peace”.

Sykes said he was inspired to write the book by his good friend Anthony (Tony) Utanga, a former secretary of the Cook Islands Ministry of Internal Affairs.

“He persuaded me that we really needed a complete flora of the Cook Islands because there wasn’t one in existence, so I thought I’ll go for it,” Sykes said. 

“I am very sad that Tony died before holding the Flora of the Cook Islands in his hands,” Sykes wrote in the book’s dedication.

His son, Alan Utanga, attended the launch to accept the book on behalf of his father.

Utanga said the publication was another “milestone” for the Cook Islands. He compared it to the country achieving self-governance, and the translation of the holy bible and dictionary into Cook Islands Māori.

“To say thank you Bill, I think, would not be enough to recognise your commitment,” he said.

Cook Islands High Commission CEO Teremoana Yala echoed Utanga’s sentiments about the importance of the book.

“For a small island developing state such as the Cook Islands knowing what plants exist in our country is the first step in the effective management of our precious and unique floral biodiversity. This publication, I hope, will strengthen our resolve in the Cook Islands, to enhance our working knowledge of the Flora that make up our lush island landscapes and upon which we are so dependent. May your legacy Bill, as encapsulated in this publication, live long for the benefit of all of us today and generations to follow.”

Cook Island royalty - Marie Pa Ariki, a queen of the Cook Islands – also attended the launch to mark the achievement.

Landcare Research’s Characterising Land Biota portfolio leader Dr Ilse Breitwieser said writing a Flora wasn’t like writing just another book.

“The information in the Flora is based on thousands, or actually millions of data. The data in a Flora is gained from mostly herbarium material. For his work on the Flora, Bill has actually collected in the Cook Islands more than 4500 plant specimens. He brought these specimens to the Allan Herbarium. In the Allan Herbarium we have altogether 40 000 specimens that were collected in the Cook Islands and Bill studied the characters of many of these carefully. He then summarised the character analyses, in the form of descriptions, which were published in the Flora. So, writing a Flora means actually hours and hours and hours of research in the herbarium.”

As a result, it was common for them to take decades to write, she said.

Sykes made eight trips to the islands - the first in 1974 - to collect plant samples and information to compile the book. However, he wrote the book entirely in his retirement over the last 25 years. Breitwieser, and fellow Landcare Research colleagues, joke that he never actually retired.

The publication was edited by Landcare Research scientist Dr David Glenny, who is also an experienced Flora author, Breitwieser said.

“Without David we would not have the Flora,” she said.

Breitwieser said the information in the Flora would be useful to a range of people from biosecurity managers, biochemists and horticulturalists, “basically to everybody who uses plant names, reads about plants or even thinks about plants”.

Sykes’ dedication to Cook Islands’ plants has not gone unnoticed. He has had three plants named after him in the country, the most recent, just last year, a nettle.

Sykes said some of his favourite things about producing the book were the opportunities it provided including seeing new places and discovering new plants.  

The Flora is Sykes’ third. He also published Floras of Niue and the Kermadec Islands, as well as co-authoring and contributing to several other New Zealand Floras.

Sykes wife Peggy said the Flora of the Cook Islands would be a “lovely legacy”.


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