The enchanted forests
Canberra’s new National Arboretum celebrates trees small and tall
BENEATH a bright Canberra sky, knotted and ancientlooking miniature trees branch from saucer-like pots as if in a wizards’ playground. Aged between nine and 60 years, they form the National Bonsai and Penjing Collection, which was established in 2008 and is now housed permanently at Canberra’s marvellous and recently opened National Arboretum.
These trees will eventually become a microcosm of the arboretum as a whole.
In the full-size arboretum, 100 distinct forests sweep across 250ha of high ground at the western end of Lake Burley Griffin, 6km from the centre of Canberra. Each forest contains at least 200 and up to 3000 trees of a single species. Canberra’s original designers, Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin, imagined a city of trees. The arboretum taps into that dream and, with its grids and allees between plantings, weaves in aspects of their civic vision.
The 100 forests include Australian natives and rare and endangered species from across the globe, from Persian walnut, English oak, Moroccan cypress and California’s giant sequoia to weeping snow gum, red ironbark and limestone blue wattle.
Horticultural manager Adam Burgess says each forest has its unique environment: a gathering of slender polelike trunks in one and perhaps heavier ones, encrusted with thick bark, in another; all with different insects and smells, as well as distinctive leaves, or maybe cones, littering the forest floor.
Cork oaks, radiata pines and Himalayan cedars have long stood here. But after the fires of 2001 and 2003, which burned out the original pine forest (‘‘a tinderbox’’, Burgess says), the ACT government set out to preserve what remained and establish new trees for conservation, research and education, as well as enjoyment. After a design competition, work on the master plan began in 2005.
Burgess says the size of the project was overwhelming at first, even for him. ‘‘The fires killed the soil as well as the trees,’’ he says. (Lucerne and clover ground cover has been planted, returning nitrogen to the soil.) ‘ ‘ Everyone thought it was crazy, planting rare trees in a drought, but the vision was long-term.’’
He points to the Chinese tulip trees on the nearest hill. They were stripped of their leaves in the January heat, but they are coming back, shiny and healthy. Canberra white gum, the first trees planted, are now 7m tall. ‘‘You can hear the wind in the leaves — the sound of the forest.’’
Others will not be fully grown for 50 years, but the original cedar forest, planted in 1928, can be enjoyed now. Wallabies, kangaroos and wallaroos have returned, and ornithological groups have recorded 45 bird species. Volunteers collect data, guide visitors, hold working bees and maintain an area of grasses and flowering plants.
There are walking, cycling and horse-riding trails, free guided tours, self-guided walks (with audio pens for hire to provide commentary) and car access on some trails, for scenic drives or to picnic areas. Every curve offers a view, with a spectacular sweep across the arboretum and city from the lookout on Dairy Farmers Hill.
At The Conservatory restaurant in the Village Centre, chef Janet Jeffs (Ginger Catering, Old Parliament House) has created seductive menus for breakfast and lunch. The latter includes ceviche, mussels with saffron soup, spanner crab, duck, Angus beef, salads and pastas.
Judith Elen was a guest of Australian Capital Tourism.
The National Arboretum on Lake Burley Griffin