FLOWER POWER

On the eve of their 150th an­niver­saries, three botanic gar­dens in re­gional Vic­to­ria are show­ing their golds and greens, writes Lee Mylne

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

Check­list

gar­dens

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

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