Growing literacy in Australia’s flora

November 2012

  • Stephen Forbes

The most important factor for the germination of Australia’s flora after water is smoke – this discovery has profound implications for the function of Australia’s ecosystems yet has only been identified within the last 20 years. 

This observation simply underscores that our journey to understand and apply our knowledge of Australia’s flora to gardens and landscapes is still in an early phase. Nevertheless, our knowledge of Australian plant botany and horticulture is evolving and is allowing a more sophisticated approach to design. At the end of last month I was fortunate to attend the opening of the second (and final) stage of the $49.5 million Australian Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Cranbourne. The realisation of this project illustrates the continuing evolution of Australia’s botanic gardens and the fulfilment of an idea first proposed over half a century ago through the Maud Gibson Trust for an Australian flora annexe for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne. Indeed, this Australian Garden perhaps represents the first real 21st century botanic garden in Australia where our knowledge of the Australian flora and our relationship with our country intersect.

The role of botanic gardens is significant – botanic gardens bring together a unique assemblage of living plants and other botanical collections, a tradition of focussed botanical and horticultural enquiry and scholarship and the custodianship of beautiful, rich landscapes that provide a significant part of a city’s heritage. As cultural institutions, botanic gardens have a powerful position in leading new directions in botany, horticulture and landscape. The Australian Garden certainly continues this tradition.

The establishment of botanic gardens in the capital cities of Australia, other than Perth, was complete by the end of the 19th century. In the absence of agriculture and forestry departments, botanic gardens commonly represented colonial government’s first endeavours in agricultural extension. Of course botanic gardens were also viewed as playing an important role in providing healthful recreation and purposeful education at a time when the significance of plants to people and culture was perhaps better understood than today. While these botanic gardens collections encompassed ‘harmless, useful, interesting and ornamental’ plants from around the world, the exploration of Australia’s native flora in these botanic gardens formed a significant pre-occupation for 19th century directors.

The flowering of these 19th century capital city botanic gardens saw their progeny established on new sites in the second half of the 20th century to expand the geographical diversity of their cultivated flora and, increasingly, their focus on Australian plants. The latter trend is apparent in Sydney’s Australian Garden at Mount Annan, Melbourne’s Australian Garden at Cranbourne and Brisbane’s Australian plant communities at Mount Coot-tha. For Adelaide the new Gardens demonstrated a broader palette of Mediterranean climate flora at Wittunga and cool climate flora at Mount Lofty. 

Unencumbered by 19th century history, Canberra and Perth pioneered a focus on Australian native plants.. 

Canberra’s National Botanic Garden has rather erratic beginnings prior to and after the Second World War. The aim to include a comprehensive representation of Australian flora was apparent in the development of a frost-free annexe at Jervis Bay in 1951 (now Booderee Botanic Garden, the only Aboriginal-owned and managed botanic garden in Australia) and an alpine annexe at Mount Gingera in the Brindabella Ranges. By the 1960s the National Botanic Garden was conducting extensive plant collecting expeditions to ensure the Garden was truly national and in 1967 John Wrigley was appointed curator.

While John Beard established the botanic garden at Kings Park in Perth in 1965 to include Mediterranean flora, the focus on Western Australian flora at this time was unambiguous.  The Alice Springs Desert Park is also notable as the first ‘botanic garden’ focussed on a biogeographic region, representing a range of desert ecosystems and of course, to including native fauna. The Desert Park opened in 1997.

While all of these botanic gardens are important, The Australian Garden (within the Royal Botanic Gardens, Cranbourne) does represent a significant contribution to Australia’s botanic gardens. The Australian Institute of Landscape Architects awarded the first stage a National Award of Excellence in 2008. 

The Australian Garden’s designers appointed were Adelaide-based landscape architects TCL (Kevin Taylor, Kate Cullity and Melbourne-based Perry Lethlean) together with Australian planting designer Paul Thompson. A team that brought together both the design sensibility and the plant knowledge that allowed the project to be delivered.  

‘A primary theme through the … design (of the Australian Garden at Cranbourne) is the exploration and expression of the evolving relationship between Australians and their landscape and flora. The garden expresses this tension between Australians’ reverence and sense of awe for the natural landscape, and their innate impulse to change it, to make it into a humanly contrived form, beautiful yet their own work.’

While such lofty sentiments are important the Australian Garden is accessible at every level. Kevin’s death last year meant he never saw the finished project but he certainly had a sightline to its completion and it’s something of Kevin that we can share. It was great to see Kate, Perry and Paul at the opening together with so may others who contributed to this vision.

There’s so much of the Garden to be inspired by – the dozen or so display gardens, in so many botanic gardens established with reluctance and looking dismal, are quite wonderful and will energise the application of Australian plants in our gardens. In the context of the whole 15 hectares these are important in making the connection between a large public garden and domestic gardens.  

Stephen Forbes is the Executive Director of the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide
rbg.vic.gov.au/australian-garden

 

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