Story of Roland's Wood

Roland's Wood, by Gordon Collier

The Far North of New Zealand is not noted for its deciduous trees, evergreens yes, especially the remnants of its magnificent kauri forests and pohutukawas too. Anyone who has been to Butler's Point near Hihi will have been impressed by a pohutukawa growing there reputed to be second in size only to that at Te Araroa on the East Cape. So it was a surprise to discover Roland's Wood, a significant planting of deciduous trees on Inlet Road, not far from Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands.

Roland Sansom

Roland Sansom was a man with a dream to create something beautiful and lasting. He was born in Malaya five years before the outbreak of the Second World War. His mother, Doreen, was a New Zealander and his English father, Guy, a rubber planter. When the Japanese invaded Guy Sansom was imprisoned for the duration of the conflict rejoining his family in New Zealand in Titirangi, Auckland, at war's end.

As a young man Roland studied sheep farming at the then Massey Agricultural College before taking up land at Whangapiro on the Kaipara harbour. He battled gorse and adversity there for most of his working life.

Realising a dream

When he retired to Kerikeri he was able to acquire 30 acres of easy land which had previously been owned by his uncle, Sandy Edgar. It was on this land in about 1985 that he set about realizing his dream - a wood of 'English' trees under planted with daffodils and blue bells in the English manner; ironically he planted Spanish blue bells. Today these bulbs are a huge novelty to visitors creating a drift of blue when flowering in spring and covering quite extensive areas. In sunnier places there are daffodils and jonquils and in shade, clivias and native rengarengas provide attractive ground cover, lessening the need for maintenance.


Roland had no horticultural training of any kind and did not seem interested in creating a park in the accepted sense but rather a 'wood;' accordingly he spaced his trees with the thought of getting as many as he could into the area. Apart from one Magnolia grandiflora, a magnificent specimen, and a few rhododendrons, everything he planted was deciduous. English beech (Fagus sylvatica) predominate and in some areas these are the only species, perhaps a unique planting in this country. Quercus palustris, Ginkgo biloba, Liriodendron tulipifera, London planes and Nyssa syivatica provide some variety; nyssa with their interesting form, shiny leaves and autumn colour are the most admired by locals. There is a small grove of Fraxinus 'Raywoodii' and a handful of liquidambars. Along the frontage with Inlet Road there are magnolia, camellias, azaleas, rhododendrons, (Rh. vireya too,) Dombeya burgessiaea, (an African pink flowered shrub seen quite frequently in the north) and the flamboyant Brazillian, tibouchina, (lasiandra.)

Roland's Wood proves some of these species that are rarely planted this far north do grow well and it demonstrates this endeavour is perhaps unique north of Auckland.

Legacy to the people of Kerikeri 

Roland Sansom toiled away planting more trees every year but sadly his health deteriorated and he passed away in 2001 at a relatively young age, long before his beloved trees reached maturity. In his will he gifted 10 acres of his woodland to the people of Kerikeri under the care of The Far North District Council with the express wish that it be enjoyed by people walking their dogs.

Rescue and regeneration

The oldest trees were now around twenty five years old. Sadly the Wood was in a poor state by this time with Himalayan honeysuckle, convolvulus, tobacco weed and gorse with kikuyu grass encroaching on every front and even climbing up low growing trees. It was the best part of eight years before members of the local Kerikeri Rotary Club with help from the local community - known as Friends ofRoland, took matters into their own hands and set about restoring the woodland and aiming to realize its potential. A major clean has been in progress over the past two years.

Many visitors to Roland's Wood today will think the trees are crowded but this was the intention and while the canopy is rapidly growing over, there are still pleasant glades where the grass is mown at regular intervals. It is well worth visiting to see the rapid growth of deciduous trees in this comparatively benign climate and remember this is a wood, not a park.

Local visitors especially enjoy the change from sub tropical and spiky easy care plantings so often seen while the autumn colours are quickly destroying the old theory that deciduous trees this far from the cold winters south only produce muddy autumn colours, in fact here they can be quite spectacular.

This Kerikeri resident's incredible generosity and foresight will give future generations of strollers, dog walkers, bird watchers, gardeners and dendrologists much to be grateful for. Without realizing it Roland Sansom was a dedicated dendrologist; his Wood will be his lasting memorial.

Gordon Collier was awarded the Award of Associate of Honour of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture (AHRIH) in 2001.  The citation for this Award is available here from the Newsletter of the RNZIH, 2001, Number 4.   

Notes from John Horrell, friend (and former schoolmate) of Roland

In 1987 Roland purchased the Inlet Road land.  The land had previously belonged to his uncle and aunt, Sandy and Aileen Edgar.  Aileen was the sister of Doreen Sansom, Roland's mother.

1987 - 1990  First plantings - English beech, liriodendron, pin oak, plane, tupelo, gingko, claret ash

1991  Along road side, a curious mix : magnolia, camellia, azalea, subtropicals, dombeya, lassiandra, bottlebrush, pohutakawa, acmena

1992  Daffodils, bluebells, jonquils, belladonna lilies

1997   In Garden Safari.  Ground rough and unmown, holes and rocks...

1999  Roland's health was failing.  He formed a Trust deed. 

2001  Roland died and bequeathed 10 acres to the FNDC for the people - and dogs - of Kerikeri.

Inaccuracies about the legal description of the boundaries of the land to be gifted lead to long delays.  The property was almost totally neglected from 1999 to late 2009.  The grass was so long few people ventured there.  A member of Vision Kerikeri called a meeting of neighbours and friends to dicsuss the restoration and maintenance of the Wood on behalf of the Council.

2009  Kerikeri Rotary agreed to engage with the wider Kerikeri community to tidy the Woods up.

The good
  • It is now a well-used and loved asset for the people of Kerikeri, ideal for a wood. 
  • Mostly good soils, a range of trees, aged between 16 and 23 years, creating wonderful vistas and supberb microclimate.
  • Rocks and water abound.
  • Jonquils, daffodils and bluebells already make a great spectacle.
  • Roland left us a Trust fund.

The not-so-good
  • We inherited a real mess. Weeds of every description, grass falling over. 
  • Roland had clearly given no thought to design, the subsequent subdivision boundaries were most unfortunate making planning decisions difficult.  
  • We inherited a piece of land with access possible only on a sharp and dangerous corner, a car park for 3 to 4 cars maximum.
  • The Wood contains a large catchment area steep in places, run-off confined to two valleys thus making it susceptible to erosion during high intesity rainfalls.
  • The property contained two farm tracks running parallel with a wide swamp between them, the tracks going directly into the boundary fence, providing no access to each other.  Thetwo tracks were rather too steep, especially for the elderly and less fit, and slippery when wet.
  • Trees begging for instant silvicultural attention by way of pruning and thinning. Many trees really struggling on the poor sidelings, many trees at high risk because the varieties planted are right out of their normal environment. Gordon Collier and other qualified arborists agree that these trees will constitue an intriguing and quite unique scientific experiment but do not expect the same health, longevity or size normally expected especially if drought occur regularly.
 What we have achieved :
 There was no plan from Council so we did exactly what we thought best!
  • Tidied it up, picked up the rocks so we could mow, cleared the weeds - every weed in the book PD workers helped with thick gorse.
  • We sprayed out the swamp - kikuyu waist high, got a digger in to clear it and got bogged down getting it out and as a result we found we had created a pond!  This led to further drainage and more ponds and construction of access track linking the two valleys.
  • Without the kikuyu, water oozed out of the rocky slopes, ideal for bog plants.In went lilies, ligularia, and iris (tractor seat variety) day lilies, dietes, taro, flax.  Except for the ligularia all the plants were donated and all have done exceptionally well.

Dry slopes
  • rock walls and waterfall created
  • more renga renga lilies and clivia planted to prevent soil erosion
  • ongoing weed spray every three weeks
  • tree pruning
  • daffodil and jonquil planting
Swamp / wet area
  • planted acers, poplars, golden willow, liquid amber, silver birch,
  • more walking tracks and seats installed
  • Scouts and Mormon Church members helped with mulching - not enough and far too late.
More planting :
  • renga renga lilies, clivias
  • camellias, rhodos, magnolias
  • michaelea, gleditisia, robinia and more maples
  • forest pansy, silver pear
Planting continues :
  • Astibilies, more natives, ferns, nikaus, flaxes
  • Clivia, renga renga, maples, pink cherry, prunus awanui and white sakara, wedding cake, cornus contraverda, cornus variegated, magnolias, camellias.\

Future planning : 2013 forward
  1. Look after our present trees better, thinning where necessary.
  2. Manage extreme weather events more effectively by creating a network of walking tracks to divert water away from the two valleys and creating dense plantings of clivias, renga renga lilies at strategic places.
  3. Mulch - heaps of it !
  4. Phase out some steeper, poor, grassed areas over time.  Rather than mowing the grass, have more densely planted areas of smaller shrubs and heavily mulched, creating a woodland rather than a park.
  5. Create another pond area below present pond by the boundary.  This will create better walking access around the ponds and greater opportunities for bird life.

Bev McConnell, well known for creating Ayrlies in Clevedon said "You have to have a dream. Without one it would be too difficult to know where to begin."

This is my dream - I want Roland's Wood to be a Northland version of an English woodland, to remain a restful and harmonious space, informal and not too fussy, which is not too much work to maintain and is maintained by the community rather than by the Council or contracted out.
  • The selected plants must look good all year - not just the bluebells in spring!
  • There must be a variety of colour, shape and form.
  • There should be a diverse variety of plants and plant combinations that will be used by gardeners for inspiration.
These woods can be showcase for the amazing range of plants we can grow in this area, and bring visitors and tourists to see, as well as our local community.