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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Friday, 15 February 2013

An Australian Treasure; the National Botanic Gardens

This is the second in an irregular series on botanic gardens which I regard as special.
Part of the entrance garden, opposite the Australian National University.
To the right can be seen large mature cycads and a Bottle Tree Brachychiton rupestris, transported whole from
Queensland. The complex and expensive process of acquisition and transport was funded by the
Friends of the Gardens.
The National Botanic Gardens in Canberra have been an important part of my life for over 30 years, from when they and I were young. I’ve been a regular visitor for that time, though it was easier when I lived just 20 minutes walk away. In my bad times (a long time ago now) it was a haven. I’ve celebrated friends there – by way of a wedding, birthdays, many picnics and two memorial services for friends who, in life, loved the place as much as I do.
Eucalypt Lawn, home to more than 100 eucalypt species from all over the country,
scene of a million picnics (approximately...) and summer-time evening concerts.
In the foreground the amphitheatre is a memorial to a great Canberran,
botanist and conservationist Nancy Burbidge.
It is, I’m sure, one of the few national botanic gardens in the world to focus exclusively on the native plants of the country; I’d be fascinated to hear of others. Sixty years ago the site, on the lower slopes of Black Mountain, comprised degraded dairy farms on what had originally been dry eucalypt forest; some remnant trees remained, and can still be seen in the gardens, along with extensive areas of regenerated forest. 
Old Brittle Gum Eucalyptus mannifera among the plantings.
Although older than the gardens, it seems that it was coppiced by the lessees, perhaps for firewood or fence posts.
In the 1950s the locally legendary Lindsay Pryor, forester and Canberra’s Superintendent of Parks and Gardens, oversaw the resumption of the land and the beginning of its development. It was not until 1967 that the gardens opened to the public, and 1970 before its official opening. At this stage it was still the Canberra Botanic Gardens; not until 1978 was its national role formalised.

Now there are over 70,000 cultivated plants in the 90 hectare site (less than half of which is yet developed), representing more than 5,000 species from the entire country, a remarkable tribute to horticultural skill and wizardry, given our location on a cold, dry plateau. There must be ten of kilometres of walking paths; you couldn’t see it all in a day. In addition to its important research function – as part of which it hosts the National Herbarium – it contains Canberra’s best natural history bookshop, an education centre and lecture theatre, public reference herbarium, and a cafĂ© which, on a good day, can be quite good. A vital and passionate Friends group performs many voluntary roles, the most visible of which involves free guided walking tours, twice a day (or on request) all year round.
Memorial to Sir Joseph Banks, patron of early Australian botany, who sailed here with Captain Cook in 1770.
Erected in 1988, the bicentenary year of European settlement of Australia.
He is framed - of course! - by Banksias.
The layout is largely based on taxonomic groupings – massed plantings representing the major Australian plant families – though sections representing ecological regions are important, and seemingly becoming more of a focus. The best known and loved of these is doubtless the remarkable rainforest gully, which 40 years ago was still dry and open.
Ephemeral gully above the rainforest gully; this is how the scenes below looked prior to development.
Careful sequential planting, soil preparation and aerial misting have produced an environment which supports plants from the cool temperate forests of Tasmania to the tropical tangles of north Queensland. It’s a wonderful – and sought-after – venue on a hot day.
Walking tracks follow both the rim and floor of the gully.

Ferns, palms and epiphytes outside in Canberra (where winter nights can be -10 degrees)?
A form of botanical alchemy.
Another is the rockery, an extensive area of raised beds which supports plants from habitats as diverse as the dry Western Australian heaths and alpine bogs. This is an extraordinary venture, including a stream which culminates in a rock wall, waterfall and plunge pool.
The waterfall is in the dark section of rock just to the right of centre of the photo.
The rockery itself (featured in the next photos) is behind the rock wall.

It was commenced in December 1979, a couple of weeks before I arrived here. I clearly remember the piles of huge boulders, some weighing over 20 tonnes. I remember too being told by one of the rangers at the time that a consultant spent days wandering round looking at the rocks – and at the end of the time knew exactly which went where.

Other habitat- and regional-themed areas include mallee (from both western and eastern Australia), Sydney sandstone, grasslands and Tasmania. 
Edge of the Sydney sandstone gully;
new plantings featuring Flannel Flowers Actinotus helianthi in the foreground.
The latest, and an exciting, development is a central Australian section, featuring the red sandstone of the Centre.
Central Australian section under construction, February 2013; due for opening in spring 2013.
For scale, see the full-sized rare Central Australian Cabbage Palm Livistone mariae, on the far left.
There is, as one would expect, an emphasis on threatened plant species too.
Eucryphia wilkei belongs to an ancient Gondwanan genus found only in southern Australian and Patagonian cool rainforests - except for this species, which is limited to the high cloud forests of Mount Bartle Frere, thousands of kilometres from its relations in tropical north Queensland. The Botanic Gardens helps preserve it.
And all this is to say nothing of the prolific wildlife of the gardens; I’ll dedicate a posting to that next week.

Meantime, I’ll be back on Sunday to celebrate some birthdays from Australia’s biological history.


Flabmeister said...

Agree wholeheartedly with your comments. I was really unhappy when the Gardens went through a bad patch a few years back but they are now back firing on all eight!

I also feel they do a very good job in exposing the community to native plants through the Friends Concert series in Canberra. This has (possibly) got even better in my (impossibly) humble opinion with the announcement of a Small Brewers Beer Festival in March!


Susan said...

I agree -- the gardens are special, and I always make sure to visit them at least once when I am in Canberra. My blog post for tomorrow is about a little incident I had in the garden late last year, as it happens.

I also love Kew Gardens -- they are one of the most special places on earth, for me, and the conservation work they do worldwide is outstanding.

Eucryphia's bring very mixed feelings for me. Although I love them, they are forever associated with the events of 11 Sept 2001 for me. I was discussing the Eucryphias in Nymans Garden with a curatorial colleague when my husband rang to say a plane had crashed into the World Trade Centre. Horrible.

The wedding you refer to is a source of some regret over my non-attendence -- the inevitable guilt of the expat.

Martin -- I assume by your enthusiasm there is a chance of decent beer being available in March? I keep being told that Australian beer has improved, but don't see much evidence of it getting really interesting. The best I have encountered was Little Creatures Pale Ale, which was good, but not so outstanding I'd make the trip to have it again.

Ian Fraser said...

Martin - very excited by the prospect of the small beer festival! Didn't know of it.
I'm an old mate of Judy West, so biased, but I agree the NBG has come through its bad patch of being under-resourced and -regarded.

Susan. I look forward to your next posting. Isn't it strange how seemingly unlikely things become associated with something which should be utterly unconnected, by sheerest chance? I'm sorry that Eucryphias are tainted for you; I hope you're not put off leatherwood honey!
On that note, I empathise re the expat/wedding comment. I got to your sister's wedding, but a decade or so earlier missed both of my sisters', for similar reasons. (Had lunch with Kathy and John on Sunday actually.) And I reckon that there is some excellent small brewery Aust beer around now; though if you're not that impressed by Little Creature PA, I'd love to try the brew that comes between you and it! (French? or Belgian?)

Susan said...

French beer is mostly dire, although there are more and more promising young microbrewers doing very drinkable stuff, including a couple near us. I'm afraid Little Creatures is at about the level of a serviceable British beer -- a bog standard Shepherds Neame or John Smith, that sort of thing, or the big commercial Belgians like Leffe. Of the big names in the UK I'm a big fan of Adnams and the Black Sheep range. Belgian beer is the best in the world though, with British a close second. Of the big name Belgians I like Westmalle the best.

sandra h said...

I began wandering the Gardens when I lived on compus at the ANU in the early 70s - lots of plants were being brought in and on more than one occasion the gardeners handed me some odd insect they'd found on a new shipment - I especially remember a huge green weevil from Qld, which was one of the stars of the insect collection I put together during my Entomology unit. (entomology students were pretty obvious, wandering around the ANBG with our little butterfly nets and notebooks!)
sandra h

Ian Fraser said...

Yes, Biosecurity must make it a lot harder for collectors these days! And I think that a butterfly net might get you into trouble there now... You've seen even more exciting developments there - 10 years worth - than I have!