When Europeans settlers first arrived in Christchurch in 1851 only two patches of natural forest remained, 30 hectares of Papanui Bush and 22 hectares of Riccarton Bush / Putaringamotu.
While approximately seven hectares of the original Riccarton Bush still remains today, Papanui Bush was completely felled within the first five years of European settlement.
Other patches of bush at Hoon Hay, Halswell, Tai Tapu, Woodend, Rangiora, Ohoka and Tuahiwi had almost disappeared by 1870.
Early colonists regarded Papanui Bush (also Referred to as Papanui Wood) as a pleasant resort on holidays, and was celebrated for its many dells and shady vales. It boasted an abundance of forest birds that were regularly snared for ‘kai’ (food). As such, the word ‘papanui’ translates to the Maori word for ‘a platform in a tree from which birds are snared’.
At certain time of the year the bush abounded with wood pigeon/keruru and kaka, and settlers would pass the time by shooting teal, paradise ducks and grey ducks from their verandahs. This was at a time when the area was covered by a large stand of forest, dominated by tōtara, mātai, kahikatea and kānuka trees.
There are also accounts of red pine (rimu) being present at Papanui Bush, however while rimu occurs naturally both north and south of Christchurch, its original presence in Christchurch needs further investigation.
Papanui Bush generated a thriving timber industry in the early years of European settlement. So thriving in fact, that in 1857, sawmilling at Papanui had attracted a population 692 compared with 953 in Christchurch itself.
Due to the pressing need for building materials in Christchurch, Papanui Road was one of the first roads built outside the city boundaries. The ‘Papanui Bridge’ was also built over the Avon River in March 1852 to allow the timber to be brought by bullock-drawn wagons directly into the Market Square near the city centre.
The milling of this area in the 1850s rapidly demolished the entire 30 hectares of bush that was standing.
The original site of Papanui Bush is the present-day Papanui Domain, located off Sawyers Arms Road. A small native garden and a mural painted on the nearby community hall today commemorate the great forest trees that once dominated the area. (Christchurch City Council 1998).
Much more is known about Riccarton Bush compared to Papanui Bush.
When William and John Deans first settled in Riccarton in 1843, the bush covered approximately 22 hectares. However this was considered a mere fragment of the once expansive forest that predated both the pre-human natural fires and those that occurred during Maori times.
Riccarton Bush is probably the oldest protected natural area in the country. It is a reminder of what the Canterbury Plains would have looked like before human settlement.
The trees are mostly kahikatea (between 400 and 600 years old), totara, matai, kowhai, hinau and other species. Native climbing plants and a wide range of ferns and mosses are also found there.
As with Papanui Bush, in early winter Riccarton Bush/Putaringamotu was an important feeding site for wood pigeon and the now locally extinct kaka.
Christchurch City was planned in the Victorian era by the Canterbury Association. This planning occurred thousands of kilometres away in England, with the overriding aim of transplanting a veritable cross section of English life in Canterbury.
Not only did the predominantly English settlers bring their own social structures to this new city, but they brought their nostalgic reminders of home. These included their architectural styles, livestock, wild birds and animals, and their gardening styles and English trees, shrubs and groundcovers.