The en­chanted forests

Can­berra’s new Na­tional Ar­bore­tum cel­e­brates trees small and tall

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - JU­DITH ELEN

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.

IAN GOLLINGS

The Na­tional Ar­bore­tum on Lake Bur­ley Grif­fin

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