OBITUARY: Bill Sykes’ interest in botany and ecology was fuelled by a primary school competition to collect and record wild plants and flowers.
Sykes’ early curiosity about plant species led him to a life of travel and adventure from his home base in Christchurch, New Zealand.
He died on January 5 at the age of 90 and will be remembered for his knowledge and love of plants and flora, his thoughtful and principled outlook on life, and his compassionate, non-judgmental approach to people.
Sykes was born in Suffolk, England. His horticultural training started at the internationally recognised seed nursery of Thompson and Morgan in Ipswich. A two year break followed when he was required to complete compulsory military service as a medical technician in the Royal Navy, which he described as the most boring time of his life.
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He resumed training at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Wisley Gardens in 1949 and completed a diploma course in 1953.
The first of many international expeditions happened in 1952 when Sykes went to the Himalayas in western Nepal, representing the British Museum.
He collected herbarium specimens, insects and even a few birds and snakes for the museum. A serious illness at the end of the first trip failed to blunt his enthusiasm and he returned in 1954.
Sykes met his first wife, Betty Brown, at Wisley where she worked in the seed exchange.
Immediately after marrying in 1957, the pair moved to London where Sykes attended the Chelsea College of Science at London University. He completed a degree in biology in 1960 but soon realised he was not cut out to be a practical horticulturalist.
With no vacancies at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens Herbarium – which was a world centre for the study of Himalayan plants – Sykes headed to New Zealand to work at Botany Division studying introduced plants.
In 1964 he travelled to the Kermadec Islands as the botanist on a Royal Ornithological Society of NZ expedition.
The visit came to an abrupt end when the volcano forming the main part of the island erupted just two days in to the expedition. A navy ship was sent to rescue the group and the trip postponed.
Sykes was able to return in 1966 and spent 10 weeks there, including the adjacent Herald Islets.
The following year he headed to Niue where he collected and documented flora after a request from the island’s agricultural authority to identify poisonous plants that might impede the development of a cattle industry.
He returned to the Kermadecs in 1966, the same year his son, Julian, was born.
Daughter Claire was born in 1970 and he and Betty separated nearly two years later.
Throughout the 1970s, Sykes continued his study of the region’s plants with trips to the Cook Islands, Rarotonga, Fiji, Tonga and Niue.
On one trip to northern Tonga he managed to reach Late, an uninhabited volcanic island west of Vava’u, with the help of an American Peace Corp worker he had met on another assignment.
For a decade from the late 1970s, Sykes worked with two other authors on a series on the naturalised conifers and dicots in New Zealand, which culminated in the publication of Vol. IV of the Flora of NZ in 1988.
The same year, he travelled to China to study the conifers of Guangxi Province before further studies of conifers in Russia and the British Isles.
At the age of 65, in 1992, Sykes travelled to French Polynesia for the first time and collected extensively with a colleague from the French Research Institute for Development.
He was made redundant from Landcare Research later that year, but was almost immediately employed by Nelson’s Footprint Tours to be a guide on trips to the Himalayas. Six tours in Nepal followed, including two where he also visited Tibet.
Practice nurse Peggy Kelly met Sykes in 1989 when he visited her Christchurch house collecting for CORSO, a non-profit Pacific aid organisation.
She had just returned from a Friends of Christchurch Botanic Gardens plant sale and Sykes commented on the plants lining her hallway. He returned with some more plants for her the following weekend.
The pair set up the Packe Street Park community garden in 1996 as part of the Christchurch City Council’s “adopt a park” initiative.
With a team of about 10 volunteers, they kept the park in tip-top shape, producing a bounty of fruit for the community.
Sykes’ contribution to botany was recognised in numerous awards, including being made an officer of the Order of New Zealand in 2005.
He received further recognition for his contributions and achievements in the year before he died, including being awarded life membership of the Friends of the Christchurch Botanical Gardens and being elected as one of 50 foreign members of the Linnean Society of London, the oldest active biological society in the world.
The publication of Sykes’ book, Flora of the Pacific, in May 2016 was the culmination of three decades of research. He was unable to attend a launch of the book in the Cook Islands last year but his son went in his place.
Kelly said Sykes took huge pleasure from travel and opportunities to see new species of plants in their natural environment.
“He loved them. Bill was always the last person back on to the bus or the ship, it was like seeing a child in a toy shop.”
Sykes was happy wherever he lived and loved New Zealand, but Kelly said part of him was still “an Englishman” because it was where his love of plants started.
Julian Sykes said his father shared his love for adventure and the environment with him and his sister, Claire.
“Dad was very much into adventure and we had a lot of fun together, he was keen for us to get out there and explore and experience different things.”
He taught his children about the value of considering and respecting the views of others, Julian Sykes said.
“He was very mindful of other people’s feelings and points of view, he was a great moderator.
It was very good for us in terms of building relationships.”
Family friend Cushla Foley said Sykes showed respect and genuine interest in the lives of his family, friends and colleagues.
“He was truly a non-judgmental man and one who lived his life with deeply held principals and ethics. He was a man who cared. He also had a spontaneous playfulness that delighted those around him and those who were dear to him.”