Sydney’s Royal Botanical Garden is smack dab in the center of this vibrant and energetic city. Farm Cove, the first farm in Australia, was located on the site, which means its European-influenced history dates back to 1788 when the first fleet of convicts arrived from England.
Traces of this convict past are still visible in the Macquarie Culvert, a drain or channel crossing built in 1816 by convicts from handmade sandstone bricks. Now the culvert forms the foundation of a small bridge over a stream that runs through the Gardens.
|Apparently this is the oldest bridge in Australia.|
The nine acres of corn planted on the site failed, but the land has been in constant cultivation ever since. In 1816, the colony’s governor founded the Botanic Gardens, making this Australia’s oldest scientific institution.
For a casual visitor, the scientific mandate is not very obvious. Yes, trees and plants are labelled, as they should be in a botanic garden. But despite a small ‘rainforest’ area and a token ‘aboriginal’ section, the gardens felt more like a park than a place for teaching and learning about horticultural matters.
History is much more visible. The Garden Palace, an enormous Victorian structure built for the first Australian International Exhibition in 1879, was destroyed by fire only three years later. The site now displays roses and a pioneer garden that I never managed to find. It also includes this large 19th century neo-classical fountain, crafted from Italian bronze and marble.
|The fountain cost £14,000 pounds; at the same time, the Director of the Garden’s
annual salary was a princely £550.
Topping the fountain is Captain Arthur Phillip, first Governor of New South Wales. Around the sides are various mythological figures representing navigation, mining and agriculture….
|Naturally, agriculture is a bare-breasted woman being
admired by a sheep.
as well as bas-reliefs of Aborigines.
|Knowing when the fountain was built, and by whom, it’s not surprising that
Agriculture overwhelmed the manly-chested boomerang thrower.
Near the fountain is the Palace Rose Garden. According to the sign, this section of the garden contains some 1700 roses with “striking,bold colours” planted in “an exciting and diverse range of bed shapes and sizes.”
You could have fooled me. What I saw was neither diverse nor exciting, rather a boring arrangement of rose standards, which I detest. I definitely did not experience “air…filled with a sense of romance, which only a combination of red, pink and white roses can provide.”
|The pavilion behind the roses was modestly interesting.
It offered excellent shelter from the rain.
Despite a growing cynicism, I loved some parts of the Botanical Gardens. The trees bowled me over. (Or should I say they rooted me in place?) This Moreton Bay fig (ficus macrophylla) was quite splendid.
|Under the spreading Moreton Bay fig, the village smithy did not stand.|
Here, the signage provided actual information. I learned that these trees start life as seedlings high on existing trees that are strangled slowly as the seedling’s roots reach the ground. On a more practical note, the sign pointed out that the tree roots spread widely and can damage pipes and paths. (You’d think this would be obvious, but the obvious sometimes needs to be stated.)
I loved this holm oak (quercus ilex) with its wonderfully knobbly trunk..
|The sign may spoil the photo but it provides information.
And isn’t that what a botanical garden should do?
and its screaming faces.
|Why is he shouting? Is he angry or in despair?
Or is his mate somewhere off in the bush?
Again, I saw trees with beautifully coloured bark, like this brush box (Lophostemon confertus) that hails from tropical Queensland, and that now is widely planted as a street tree.
|I like the colour variations and the way this bark peels,
revealing a surface that reminds me of the pale green underbelly
of some exotic sea creature.
I also saw, for the first time, a Wollemi Pine.
|This photo is the best of a bad lot.
The tree does not photograph well.
One of the world’ rarest plants, if not one of its most beautiful, the Wollemi Pine was thought to have been extinct until about 20 years ago, when a bushwalker discovered it in a national park not far from Sydney. Only three stands of adult Wollemi pines exist in the wild, but it is available now through various garden shops and selected nurseries.
The Tropical Centre was closed for repair so I couldn’t experience the lush vegetation that would have been inside. But I did see this interesting plant, a beehive ginger or Golden Shampoo ginger (Zingiber spectabile) that was new to me.
| I like that oozing green and the little brown seeds (if that’s what they are)
that peak out.
Learning about plants is a major part of what makes visiting botanical gardens interesting. Information that is standard knowledge for any Australian interested in plants (and perhaps for many non-Australians, too) is often new to me.
In the last month, I’ve visited three botanical gardens in Australia, in Hobart, Tasmania, in Perth, West Australia, and in Sydney, New South Wales. In the few previous months I’ve visited two other botanical gardens, in Madrid, Spain and in Montreal, Quebec. The less said about Madrid’s, the better. Perhaps it was the time of year, but I found it a sad and depressing place, with little to recommend it.
Perth’s small botanical garden is full of interest because so much of the vegetation is unfamiliar. Hobart’s garden was appealing because of the quality of light that gave everything a clarity and intensity I found stimulating. Sydney’s situation within the city made it worth visiting, despite the rain and my critical comments.
But without doubt, the best of the botanical gardens is in Montreal. It’s a true teaching institution that ranges widely throughout the horticultural and botanical world, with year round interest. I’m returning to Montreal later this week, in time for Christmas and snow and the long, hard winter. Despite leaving sunshine and blue skies, family and friends, I can’t wait!