On the eve of their 150th anniversaries, three botanic gardens in regional Victoria are showing their golds and greens, writes Lee Mylne
THE gardens of the goldfields are thirsty. As three of Victoria’s oldest botanic gardens prepare to celebrate their 150th anniversaries with new plantings, some of the stalwarts are not looking their best. ‘‘ These towns were built on gold, not water,’’ says Bendigo Tourism’s Kathryn Mackenzie as we walk through the city’s White Hills Botanic Garden. ‘‘ Bendigo was a noisy mining city and this was a peaceful place to come to. The shade and the breeze still bring people here in summer.’’
In the dusty, noisy streets of 1850s goldfields towns, there was little beauty. Stamp batteries thumped, horses’ hooves clattered, men toiled in a barren landscape stripped of trees and grass. In winter there was mud; in summer, heat and dust and flies. To temper the harsh landscape, public gardens were planned, with green lawns, shady trees and cooling streams and lakes. Ballarat, Malmsbury and Bendigo set aside land for botanic gardens in 1857. Castlemaine and Buninyong followed the example three years later, building on Victoria’s reputation as the garden state in which more than 20 provincial botanic gardens were developed between 1849 and 1886.
While some of the original trees still stand, they are struggling. As I tour the goldfields towns and wander their gardens, all under stage four water restrictions, it’s clear the drought has hit hard. In the Ballarat Botanical Gardens, flower beds are empty and the conservatory, built with a $2 million bequest from the Robert Clark Memorial Trust in 1995, is the only place bright with colour: cyclamens, cinerarias, primulas and schlumbergias. Tulips, daffodils and irises are about to take their turn in the changing seasonal displays. ‘‘ The conservatory is important at the moment because people can see flowers here,’’ says acting curator Peter Marquand as we survey the bare beds. ‘‘ Traditionally we would be planting 70,000 annuals each year, but this year we are not planting any because of the drought.’’
Instead, near the historic Druids Oak, planted by the Druids of Ballarat in 1870, hardy succulents are replacing annuals. Drought has also seen the annual Ballarat Begonia Festival, a tradition that draws the year’s biggest crowds, pruned from the usual 10 days to three for next year. But there is still plenty to catch the eye. At the southwestern end of the gardens is the striking Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial, and from its early days Ballarat’s gold-rich citizens have bestowed magnificent gifts on the gardens.
The first benefactor was Thomas Stoddart, who had made a fortune in the gold diggings; he returned from a trip to Italy in 1844 with a collection of 12 marble statues for the gardens. The statues’ pedestals now stand empty; after years of suffering from weather and vandalism, they were moved into the conservatory in 2002. Stoddart’s gift set a trend. It was soon followed by the Thomson bequest of the Statuary Pavilion, its contents — including the wonderful Flight from Pompeii — and a statue of William Wallace that stands near the gardens’ entrance. The Crouch Endowment of the 1940s funded the Prime Ministers’ Avenue of bronze busts.
One of the greatest attractions is an avenue of 70 giant redwoods, Sequoiadendron giganteum , thought to have been planted here about 130 years ago, not long after their discovery in the US. These glorious trees are not looking their best, plagued by a fungal cypress canker to which, Marquand says, they may have been more susceptible because they were suffering already from too little water.
Only one of the original 600 Tasmanian blue gums in Bendigo’s White Hills Botanic Garden in the 1870s still stands. A few large pine trees and a couple of big macrocarpas have also given up the ghost, according to Friends of Bendigo Botanic Gardens president Jane Cleary.
The White Hills Botanic Garden, once part of the old Bendigo gold diggings, was marooned as the city developed and is now in suburbia, about 6.5km from the city centre, where Rosalind Park is often mistaken, even by locals, for the botanic garden. Entry is through an Arch of Triumph commemorating World War I and down a formal walkway that opens on to tree-studded parkland. The lake at the centre is the last remaining natural section of the gold-rich Bendigo Creek. What sets White Hills apart from other gardens is the continued presence of animals, with enclosures for wallabies and kangaroos as well as a walk-through aviary housing guinea fowl, golden pheasant, parrots and peacocks. The 75-strong friends’ group has worked for the past three years on replanting the lagoon’s small island with indigenous plants; the garden is known for its nationally important collection of cannas and a South African collection is slowly being built up.
This is what botanic gardens are all about: building collections,’’ says Cleary.
Malmsbury Botanic Garden was designed to take advantage of the Coliban River valley and a billabong that was transformed into a group of ornamental lakes. Despite recent low water levels, a small platypus population survives. Malmsbury’s most famous landmark is the bluestone railway viaduct built by 4000 men in 1859. At 25m high, with five 18m spans, it is one of Australia’s longest stone bridges and is best viewed from the botanic garden; plans are in place for a Victorianstyle rotunda that will provide a new viewing point. The 5ha garden has a superb collection of mature trees; it’s a popular spot for barbecues and petanque and, at Apple Hole, kids like to leap into the river from a rope swing. Unlike Ballarat, which has a garden staff of 14 working seven days a week, smaller regional strongly on friends’ groups.
Friends of Castlemaine Botanical Gardens president Kevin Walsh, a horticulturalist, says Victoria’s gardens are underresourced. ‘‘ In the early days, having botanic gardens was a status symbol for a town, but today the ratepayer base is just too small,’’ he says. Walsh tells me the Castlemaine gardens are well-used by ‘‘ heart-walkers, dog-walkers, family reunions and weddings’’. With Barkers Creek running through, and a lake hand-dug by convicts, the English-style gardens feature plants from across the world, including several on the National Trust’s Significant Tree Register.
Despite the challenges, those who care for the goldfields gardens are optimistic. All have plans to use recycled and treated waste water and public interest is still keen. Victoria’s Governor David de Kretser will mark Ballarat Botanical Gardens’ 150th anniversary by planting an Araucaria columnaris , a conifer that can grow to 60m. At Bendigo’s White Hills, they’re thinking about a grove of three or four Wollemi pines to take the place of a tree just lost. The miners’ dreams of green oases in their goldfields towns live on.
rely An excellent reference book is The Traveller’s Guide to the Goldfields, History & Natural Heritage Trails through Central Victoria ($39.95), available from regional visitor information centres, bookshops or from BestShot! Publications: phone 1300 664 943. www.visitgoldfields.com.au www.festivalofgardens.org www.visitballarat.com.au www.ballarat.vic.gov.au www.maldoncastlemaine.com www.visitvictoria.com
En plein air: Clockwise from left, Castlemaine Botanic Gardens; the Statuary Pavilion in Ballarat Botanical Gardens; Malmsbury’s 1859 stone viaduct