How old is that tree?


A bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii) at the Geelong Botanic Gardens



“So tell me, how old is that tree?” must be one of the most commonly asked questions by visitors to the Geelong Botanic Gardens; right after “where are the toilets?” It is also one of the most difficult to answer since, for most trees, the real answer is “I don’t know” – but with a bit of work we could find out.



Method 1: Chop down the tree and count the tree rings

Any child could tell you this and I am told that it is a remarkably accurate method. You will almost certainly get an accurate idea of how old he tree was, and an even more accurate date for the day it wasn’t.

Sequoiadendron gigantium at the Natural History Museum in London

Sequoiadendron gigantium at the Natural History Museum in London

This is a 1500 year old dead tree showing a slice through a Sequoiadendron gigantium showing significant dates in human history from St Columba founding a mission on Iona to Charles Darwin all lined up to the tree rings.

However, most chopped down trees look more like this


Tree rings on Liquidamber

Counting tree rings on a bit of rough sawn wood is not quite as easy as it sounds. Never the less, in the interests of science, I thought I’d give it a go on a tree removed in January. Tree age = 70 years

Is that reasonable? How do we know?

My guess is that 70 might be a bit old – by perhaps by 5 years (based on the age of the property). But then again, I don’t know how old the sapling tree was when it was planted – and it could have been 5 years old by then too. A bit more information would help with verification.

Which brings us to the next method…

Method 2: Check the (formal) records

In a Botanic Garden, you might have thought that this would be a shoe in. It’s not. The Geelong Gardens, like many others, have very patchy planting records. We know what our first curator, Daniel Bunce had planted by January 1860, less than 3 years after the Gardens commenced, because he published a catalogue of Plants under Cultivation in the Botanical Gardens Geelong . After that, with the exception of our own Seq

George Jones planting the Wollemi Pine on December 7 2005

George Jones planting the Wollemi Pine on December 7 2005

uoiadendron gigantium, we really don’t have records until the last 20-30 years.

If you’re lucky, the tree you are interested in will have a sign noting the date and name of the august personage who planted the tree, after that, you are on your own.

But experienced gardeners and botanists must have some idea of how old the trees are – right?




Method 3: Ask an expert gardener

This sounds great – until you ask more than one expert.

The row of Bunya Bunya pines (Araucaria bidwillii) which line the south-western edge of the original nursery garden are a good example. These trees are listed on the National Trust significant tree register. The current listing no longer gives an age (smart people), but the original listing in 1989 suggests a planting date around 1885 for the stand of bunyas.

On the other hand, fanfare around the Association of Friends of Botanic Gardens conference (2001) (Bunce, Bunyas and Beyond) makes a clear link between the bunyas and the first curator Daniel Bunce (d 1872). The reasons for this link are beyond the scope of this post (but make an interesting story all on their own. One to keep up my sleeve). An article in the Geelong Advertiser Weekend Magazine (36/6/2001) makes it clear that the prevailing opinion at that time was that Bunce planted the bunyas, the ginkgo and the Chilean wine palm.

So who is right – if any of them?

Now if you’d asked me, I’d have said that there is no evidence that these trees were planted in the 19th Century – but how would I know?

Method 4: search for references to your chosen tree in the written record

Unfortunately, there are very few actual written records for the Geelong Botanic Gardens. (There was something about a flood in the council document storage facility?) Anyway, very little exist, except for the Bunce catalogue of 1860. No Bunyas are listed there.

But there are other secondary records such as old newspapers and magazines which might shed some light on the matter.

Searching newspapers has become easier with the advent of computers, the internet and more recently, the Australian National Library’s Trove project to digitise (and translate into text) Australia’s newspapers.

In the interest of research, I have spent many late nights “troving” in order to answer just that question: how old are these trees?

Fortunately for us, there are a number of excellent descriptions of the Geelong Botanic (or Botanical) Gardens from the very early days of the Gardens through to the 1910s. Many of these list the botanical highlights, though to be honest, these are frequently the massed plantings of brightly coloured garden ornamentals. From these records we know that by 1897, the ginkgo was 30 ft high and that the Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis) was fully 30 years old with the shed (Raddenberry fern house) built over it. The implication from these reports is that both of these trees were indeed planted by Bunce in the 1860s.

There is no mention at all of any bunya bunya pines up to 1926 (the end of the current phase of digitization for the Geelong Advertiser).

But not everything gets mentioned in an article about gardening, so perhaps the writers were less impressed by an Australian native tree than they were about such exotic trees as the ginkgo and the Jubaea.

What, you may ask (and I hope you did) makes me think there is some doubt about the age of the bunyas?
The answer is in…

Method 5: check the old photographs

(Those taking this route should take caution – most of the photos don’t have dates, although there are clues which help narrow them down. This too, is outside the scope of the current post)


The Raddenberry fernery c 1890

This is one of the earliest photographs of the Raddenberry fernery which occupied the middle of the original Nursery Garden from 1885.

It is this image which got me started in the first place, because if the bunyas were planted by Bunce, then they should be clearly evident as a line of trees in the foreground of this photo. But the only trees here are clearly young pine trees. (Young bunyas have dome shaped crowns, compared with the classic Christmas tree shape of pine trees).

So let’s look at another image, this time from the early 20th Century.

Botanic Gardens Geelong

Botanic Gardens Geelong c 1905 looking west

This photograph looks back across the Gardens from near the Sequoiadendron. The Raddenberry fernery is on the left and the entrance to the Nursery Garden on the right. By the estimation of “experts”, the bunyas should be between 25 and 40 years old – plenty big enough to dominate the western sky line – but they aren’t there. Once again, just pine trees which are probably the grown-up versions of the ones in the previous photograph.

Detail of Nursery

The Nursery Gardens. The arrows indicate the expected position of the bunyas. Image taken from a portion of an Airspy (Pratt bros) photograph c 1930

By 1930, there are the first aerial views of the gardens. This image looks across the gardens to the west with the now rather dilapidated fernery in the centre. The arrows show where the line of bunyas would be (on the western boundary) – but still they aren’t there!

Areial Vew Eastern park 1947

Portion of 1947 areial view Eastern Park.

It is not until this aerial photo from 1947, that a line of trees (indicated by arrows) which could actually be the bunyas is visible on the western boundary.

So how old is that tree?

For the stand of bunyas (Araucaria bidwillii) on the western boundary of the old nursery garden – not as old as you might think. Probably around 85 years in 2016.

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A case of mistaken identity

This image was recently (14/10/15) published on the Lost Geelong Facebook page ( where it was identified as “A man by his car inside the main gates at Eastern Park, 1917”.

A man by his car inside the main gates at Eastern Park, 1917

A man by his car inside the main gates at Eastern Park, 1917

The same image (confusingly dated c.1925) is displayed in the Geelong Botanic Gardens meeting room alongside other historic images of the entrance to the Gardens.

The first of these is labelled “Prince’s Gate and Lodge at the Malop street entrance 1883”.

Princes's gate and lodge at the Malop street entrance to the Geelong Botanic Gardens ,1883

Prince’s gate and lodge at the Malop street entrance to the Geelong Botanic Gardens ,1883

While the other is the new gates (now called the Hansen gates) to the 1960s extension to the Gardens.

Geelong Botanic Garden entrance c 1980

Geelong Botanic Garden entrance c 1980

Both sets of gates bare a superficial resemblance to the first image, however anyone who takes time to make a closer inspection will realise that these pictures are of three distinctly different gates.

The Hansen gates still welcome visitors to the Geelong Botanic Gardens, although after the extension of the Gardens in 2002 to incorporate the 21st century Gardens, they are no longer the main entrance to the Gardens.

So which of the first 2 images are the real Prince’s Gates at the Malop Street entrance to the Gardens?

The information displayed with the 1883 image of the gates with the associated lodge gives a bit more detail.

The gates were named the “Prince’s Gate” following the visit of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh to Geelong in 1867.

The Garden Street lodge was built sometime before 1864, but demolished in 1920 when the road was realigned. The gates however were given to Kardinia Park in 1904 when it was no longer considered necessary to completely fence off Eastern Park.

This image from around 1910 the old Princes’ Gates in place on the northwest corner of Kardinia Park near the war memorial.

Old Prince's gates in Kardina Park c 1910

Old Prince’s gates in Kardina Park c 1910

Despite the addition of lights on the tops of the pillars, these are clearly the same gates as in the 1883 photograph.

The image which has recently been promoted as the Malop Street (Prince’s) gates appears to have been mis-attributed as these gates do not actually resemble either of the other images of these gates, and the given dates of the image (either 1917 or 1925) are both after the gates had been removed from their original site in Malop street.

So, why the confusion?

The Geelong Heritage Centre has a wide collection of historical images of Geelong which come from a wide range of sources. The image in question is amongst these.

The details supplied with the image are:

A man by his car inside the main entrance gates at Eastern Park, 1917
Date of creation: 1917
GRS Number: 2009/00125
Creator/Artist: Unidentified
Image Type: Photogrpah
Format: Black and white photograph, 114mmx 158

It appears that it is simply a case of mistaken identity. I like to think that the photographer, like me, took a while to sorting out his photographs from his tour of Geelong and simply mis-remembered where this particular image was taken.

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The Geelong Botanic Gardens Bronze Cranes

One of the most commonly asked questions about non-plant things in the Geelong Botanic Gardens is: “What’s the significance/story of the bronze cranes?”

There are 2 stories here:

  1. The history of the bronze cranes and how they came to be in the Geelong Botanic Gardens
  2. The meaning of cranes which stand on the back of turtle-dragons

Starting with the second one first:

For a long time all I could find out about the cranes is that they were symbolic of “long life and happiness”. Then, by chance I was watching Antiques Roadshow when one of the items brought in was an okimono, a Japanese craved ornament, which depicted a turtle dragging it’s long beard behind it. The experts call it a “minogamé” and said that it was a bringer of old age and a symbol of longevity.

Finally, with a word for the curious dragon-like turtle, I was on the track for a bit more information (not quite trusting Antiques Roadshow for all my cultural knowledge).

According to that trusted source, Wikipedia ,a minogamé is a turtle so old that it grows a train of seaweed on its back and is a symbol of longevity and felicity. Turtles more generally in Japanese culture are a haven for immortals and the world mountain (whatever that might be), and symbolise longevity, good luck and support. Unsurprisingly, with this good rap, the tortoise is a favourite motif for both netsuke and okimono.

More information on minogamé (but without the accent on the final e) came from a blog post on “Minogame in Japanese Culture “. In this retelling, the word minogame means “straw raincoat turtle” as the tail of the turtle resembles a farmers straw raincoat. The minogame is a giant turtle and at least a thousand years old – the tail, despite the name, is made of seaweed.

So, is the tail beard, seaweed or straw raincoat?

GBGs own minogame

GBGs own minogame

Looking at our own Geelong Botanic Gardens minogamé, we have a very short beard and a rather feathery tail. And no turtle I’ve ever seen looked quite so fierce. However, the websites I visited have no information on turtle teeth.

But what of the cranes standing on the turtles back?

Manchurian or red-crowned cranes are also well represented in Japanese folk-lore and art. They are known as tanchōzuru and thy live for a thousand years, and mate for life. So (what a surprise) more long life and happiness then.

But how did Japanese bronze cranes find their way to the Geelong Botanic Gardens and where did they come from?

The first part of the story comes from George Jones (Growing Together, 1984) quoting from an interview with ex-Alderman F.G.H. Richie in 1931.

St Albans Park

St Albans Park

The cranes originally graced the driveway of W. R Wilson’s St Albans’ Park homestead at a cost of £400. Mr Wilson was a race horse breeder and trainer with a taste for the oriental. Each of the larger 2 cranes had an electric light bulb in its mouth which were said to be able to illuminate the whole driveway.

The cranes remained at St Albans’ Park when the establishment became the property of a Mr A. W. Jones (no relation to George), but when he sold the stud, he kept the cranes and transferred them to his town residence in Garden Street, Geelong.

This would have been sometime between the First and Second World Wars. At the time, Geelong Council’s improvement projects included the Eastern Beach Improvement Scheme which eventually generated the swimming enclosure, fountains and play ground which we enjoy today.

It seems that Alderman Ritchie had his eye on the birds, as he soon approached Mr Jones for a donation of the birds to add to the Improvements. Unsurprisingly, as Jones had taken the trouble to bring the cranes with him, Ritchie was refused. However, he was later persuaded to accept a nominal price of £25 for them, and they were installed in the fountain on the steps leading down to the beach.

The old pondUnfortunately, the statues were vulnerable to damage by vandals, and their position in the middle of a fountain made them hard to repair, so at some stage (certainly before the 1980s) they were copied in some more durable materials and the originals moved to the ponds in the Botanic Gardens.

The ponds themselves were removed in the early 21st Century when the Gardens had quite a facelift. Around 2005, the cranes became the focus, along with the magnificent Ginkgo, of the remodeled Temperate Garden.

By this time, the number of cranes had increased to 5 with an additional small crane. Bronze cranes do not to my knowledge reproduce, even if the birds they are modeled on do mate for life. It seems that some ten or more years earlier, one of the small cranes had been stolen and a replacement had been made to cover the loss. Shortly before the Temperate Garden was opened, it “reappeared”, some say having been found dumped in a rear lane way in Geelong. (The details seem to be sketchy). The 5th crane was then incorporated into the remodeled garden.

So really, it seems totally appropriate that the Temperate Garden, with the spreading Ginkgo and tanchōzuru standing on minogame are now a favourite sport for gardens weddings.
May you all experience long life and happiness.

The Temperate Garden

The Temperate Garden

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Whose idea was it to plant the Eastern Park as a Pinetum?

Eastern Park(Some new information from Troving The Geelong Advertiser)

Pinetum noun, plural pineta [pahy-nee-tuh] An arboretum of pines and coniferous trees. (

The widely accepted story of Geelong’s Eastern Park is that Daniel Bunce (Curator 1857-1872) laid out the Botanic Gardens in what we now call Eastern Park, with “labyrinthine paths” and beds as seen in the 1864 photograph and map on display in the Gardens’ meeting room.

Eastern Kark 1864

Eastern Kark 1864

He was also well known to have planted “blue gums” (probably Eucalyptus gobulus), as a fast growing shelter bed. By the time of Bunce’s death in 1872, when John Raddenberry took over the management of the Gardens, the blue gums were starting to look tatty and were removed, the complex beds of the wider Park simplified and eventually abandoned and the focus of the Gardens narrowed down to the Nursery garden, which remained the “Botanical Gardens” until the expansions in the early 1960s.

Most of the trees in Eastern Park today do not date back to the very early days of the Gardens. We are currently in a period of replanting, and this is the second and perhaps, for some areas of the Park, third or even fourth time this has happened in the history of the Botanic Gardens (but that is another story).

But who first planted the grounds as a pinetum (an arboretum focusing on conifers)?

This honour is generally given to John Raddenberry as part of the remodeling of the large and unmanageable Botanical Garden into a Park with associated Nursery (botanical) garden.

Recent evidence has come to light to suggest that it was in fact Daniel Bunce who was responsible for the pinetum style of planting, and that it has continued under successive curators with more or less vigor to the present day.

On May 28, 1863, the Geelong Advertiser reported:

… The Curator of the Botanical Gardens has just received a case containing Conifera and other trees indigenous to Queensland, from Mr Walter Hill, the Manager of the botanical Gardens at Brisbane. The donation is most opportune, and will materially assist in the large Pinetum now being formed in the grounds. It is the third present of the same kind which Mr Bunce has received from the Brisbane Gardens during the last three years. Mr McNaughton kindly took charge of the case from Brisbane to Geelong.

So it seems that establishing a pinetum was in fact part of Bunce’s early plans for the Gardens.

Even before this, Bunce had already started planting in pines:

Around the hill on which Mr. Bunce’s house stands some three hundred pines, numbering nearly a hundred varieties, have been planted, which, when grown up, will add a charming feature to the grounds. It is also intended to plant a large number of the conifer family along the principal carriage drives within the gardens…

… In the forcing-house and conservatory there is a number of young plants of the various pine tribes indigenous to the colonies-some from Mount Zero, others from the Victoria River,   Lake Torrens, Lake Hindmarsh, Cooper’s Creek, &c., and they are seen to be growing vigorously. (Geelong Advertiser 3/7/1862)

Cook Islands pine, Araucaria columnaris near the old curator's cottage, Eastern Park

Cook Islands pine, Araucaria columnaris near the old curator’s cottage, Eastern Park

Not just any pines either but a range of “interesting specimens”. The area around the curators cottage still has some more unusual conifers.

By November 7, 1862, The Advertiser reported that some of these new trees were in the ground and growing well:

The pines planted in the early portion of the season are thriving remarkably well, and promise to be a great ornamentation to the grounds.

Raddenberry continued with the theme of planting conifers in the Park.

In 1880, The Australasian reported:

Amongst the grass at pretty regular intervals young pines – chiefly P. insignia – have been planted, as if the object were to convert the area into forest.

Unfortunately, none of the trees in the Eastern Park pinetum can be attributed to either Bunce nor Raddenberry. The oldest trees planted for which a date can be attributed were the “Royal oaks” and a Sequoiadendron gigantium, all planted near the Garden street entrance, and all long gone.

It is generally known that many pines from the park were harvested for timber between the wars, and new pines were planted. Many of the pines planted at that time are now being replaced by new plantings to continue the tradition of the Parkland of Eastern Park being maintained as a “pinetum”

Eastern Park pinetum

Eastern Park pinetum

A version of this article was circulated to the Friends of Geelong Botanic Gardens Guides on 12/2/2015

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The story of the Common Brown Butterfly

Male common brown Butterfly

Male common brown Butterfly

The most common butterfly in the Geelong Botanic Gardens during the early part of summer – apart from the ubiquitous cabbage white butterfly – is the Common Brown Butterfly (Heteronumpha merope).

I first noticed this butterfly in large numbers a couple of years ago when the grass-trees (Xanthorrhoea) in the 21st Century Gardens were in flower. Dozens of male butterflies were feeding together on the floral spikes, making it look as if they were covered in dead leaves. Despite looking at every grass-tree flower spike ever since, I’ve never seen this phenomena again.

A spike of butterflies

A spike of butterflies

Xanthorrhoea flowers produce a lot of nectar, so I imagine that that was what attracted the butterflies. With their modified, tubular mouth parts, butterflies can only sip at nectar to feed. Given that common brown butterflies can live for up to eight months, they must be feeding on something!

The common brown butterfly was first collected by Joseph Banks in 1770 from Botany Bay. I wonder if he picked that the male and female are rather different – or did he think they were 2 separate species like I did when I first encountered the females?

  • Common brown male Male common brown butterflies are a mottled orange-brown with a fairly indistinct eyespot on each wing. When they rest in the grass they almost disappear as they fold their wings vertically and look for all the world like a dead leaf.
  • Common brown femaleFemale common brown butterflies are significantly larger (the forewing is 38 mm across compared with 34mm for males), they are also much more colourful with a completely different wing patination and a much more floppy flight.

Added to these differences, the male butterflies seem to appear much earlier in the season and in larger numbers – at least in the Geelong Botanic Gardens. It is only later that the females start to appear, and now in early January that pairs of butterflies can be seen in their nuptial flight which confirms that, despite their apparent differences, they are in fact the same species.

Not only was the common brown butterfly one of the first Australian butterflies to be collected, but it of was also one of the first to be the subject of modern ecological study (by E.D. Edwards from the CSIRO back in 1973). Female butterflies mate as soon as they emerge, so all those mating dances I have been seeing confirm my feeling that the girls don’t show up in the Gardens until after the boys.

The caterpillars of common browns feed on “rough grass” including species of Poa and Themeda. In southern Australia, these grasses tend to dry out or die back over the hot, dry summer and only provide lush leaves after the first autumn rains. There is not much for a caterpillar to eat over the hottest part of summer in our (normally) hot, dry later summers. Coupled with that, butterflies don’t enjoy the hottest weather of summer – numbers drop off in the Gardens after the first heatwaves of January. So what happens between the peak butterfly season in early summer and peak caterpillar season in the cooler, damper part of the year?

I suspect that the male butterflies actually die once the mating season is over. The females, which can live up to 8 months, aestivate over the hottest part of summer. (Aestivation is the hot weather equivalent of hibernation). The butterflies hide away, lower their metabolic rate and wait out the season until conditions improve and they can lay their eggs on the leaves of their host grasses when the caterpillars have most chance of success.

The larvae of common browns are very variable in colour and pattern and I don’t think I’ve ever really noticed them – but I’m sure the local magpies would know them well as they feed largely on grubs and beetles in the grass. Perhaps to avoid being dinner, the caterpillars feed at night. The pupa forms amongst the leaf litter at the base of the plant which strikes me as lucky as that is also out of the way of our lawn mowers. It’s good to know that the Council mowing practices in Eastern Park are unlikely to be reducing the numbers of this particular butterfly.

butterfly wingsSo what eats a butterfly? Clearly something as my little collection of butterfly wings attests. This collection includes an entire male common brown which does not seem to have been eaten, and 2 pairs of female forewings which were both found lying close together. Pairs of wings seem to indicate that something is eating them and leaving the non-tasty bit behind. This was probably a bird, but butterflies are also dinner for dragonflies and lizards.common brown in spiders web IMG

Of course, spiders also feed on butterflies when they get the chance.

Precious feeds in the Gardens

Reference: The Butterflies of Australia by Albert Orr and Rodger Kitching (2010)

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Music in the Gardens – 1869 style

Music in the Gardens has been a popular summer event in the Geelong Botanic Gardens over the last decade or more. Sadly, the Friends of Geelong Botanic Gardens have decided that it is beyond their capacity to continue to run this event. However, music and our Gardens have always been a popular combination.

The Band Played the Corio March

The Band Played the Corio March

In the 1860’s and 1870’s the Geelong “Botanical” Gardens hosted a very different style of “Music in the Gardens”. These popular concerts were “promenade” concerts, held in the cultivated area of Eastern Park, possibly in the vicinity of the parterre gardens in front of the curator’s cottage, more or less where the PlaySpace is today. The band of the Geelong Volunteer Rifle Brigade provided a range of popular music including selections from opera, dance music and original compositions, always finishing with “God Save the Queen”.

The ladies and gentlemen of Geelong came to listen from their horse and carriage, while others enjoyed the music while promenading along curator Bunce’s walks and and through the parterres. Sometimes a little dancing occurred on the grass – not so very different from the more recent Music in the Gardens concerts.

Providing the money to pay the band to perform at the concerts was a continual challenge. Initially, subscriptions (what we’d call donations today) were collected from the public at each concert, but this did not provide a sufficiently secure income. Concerts in the Gardens ceased for a while due to lack of funds, but restarted when subscriptions were sort in advance of the season, payable at local banks or directly to curator Bunce.

By the summer of 1868/9, the Geelong Volunteer Artillery band, under the leadership of bandmaster Walker was playing weekly concerts in the Botanical Gardens on Saturday afternoons.

The Geelong Advertiser (25/1/1869) reported:

The music played by the band in the Botanical Gardens on Saturday afternoon is increasing in popularity, and the spot chosen is now the great place of resort every week. On Saturday there was a large attendance, carriages filled with pleasure-seekers, equestrians and pedestrians being present in large numbers. The programme which was as well selected as any that has been played this season, included, by special request, the grand march “Corio,” composed by the Rev. H. B. Power, and played for the first time on Saturday week.

The timing of this concert unfortunately clashed with the regular cricket matches played on Corio Oval (now the site of the Eastern Park conference centre). The Advertiser went on to say:

There was a good attendance of players on the Corio cricket ground on Saturday, but was not so good as the beautiful weather would have led us to anticipate. Visitors, there were few or none, the attractions offered by the performance of the band in the gardens adjoining being irresistible; several of the players themselves —gay butterflies of fashion—leaving the reserve directly they heard the band commence to bask in the eyes of beauty; this to a great extent tended to spoil what would otherwise have been an interesting game.

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Jubaea’s story

I’m getting old now. I’m not as upright as I used to be; my crown is inclining to the

Jubaea chilensis

Jubaea chilensis (2011)

southeast and my fronds as not as luxuriant as in the past. All the gardeners take special care of me, my old fronds are pruned and the arborists meticulously inspect and photograph my crown. Still, I know my time must be limited: they planted my replacement a few metres away last winter. All living things have their allotted time on this earth, and I know that mine is nearly up.

I don’t remember how I got here, but who of us can truthfully say that they remember much of their earliest years? My kind starts life as a pretty sizable seed, though small for a coconut. The seeds would be easy to transport around the globe to take root in a new country. No need for a cumbersome Wardian case (the humidi-crib of the plant world) to bring me and my sisters, already green and growing to a new land.

Sisters? Yes, I am not entirely alone, though we are well scattered. There are fine specimens of similar age and stature in Botanic Gardens around the country. We are not a fast growing kind but are all now tall enough to look down on the garden beds that surround us.

Where was I? Ah yes, I believe that I first came to this country as a seed and was allowed to germinate and grow, perhaps with my scattered sisters, until I was big enough and strong enough to be planted into the ground, here in the Geelong Botanic Gardens. I don’t precisely remember who directed my planting or who chose this place for me, perhaps it was Mr Daniel Bunce, the renowned plant collector and explorer who finished his days here collecting plants from around the world to trial here in Geelong; maybe it was Mr John Raddenberry who came after, the darling of the horticultural community and a collector of ferns.

My first clear memory is from 1885 with Mr Raddenberry building his impressive fernery. I had firsthand experience of this as I was in the box seat to witness the whole construction. Although the fernery took up a substantial part of the middle of the Nursery Gardens as they were called, I was already well established in my plot of ground. I might be slow growing, but I was already an impressive and valuable plant. Rather than move me, the fernery was built around me. The frame and slatted roof and walls were constructed over my section of the nursery first and the ponds and rockeries with the impressive Jupiter Pluvius fountain, the remains of which survive to this day, built next to me under a dome which stood 60 foot high.

Around 1984 with her fellow palm survivors form the Raddenberry fernery

Around 1984 with her fellow palm survivors from the Raddenberry fernery

Mr Raddenberry planted the whole interior with a mixture of ferns and palms and encouraged creepers to ramble through the wooden slats to further block out the sun. Although designed as a fernery, it was we palms that dominated the planting. I was joined by Kenita palms as well as fan, Cocos and cabbage palms, a few of which have also managed to survive the changing fortunes of the Gardens and keep watch with me from the rocky beds to my east.

The people of Geelong never quite appreciated Mr Raddenberry’s fernery as they should have. Don’t misunderstand me – the cultured people were quite attentive, making regular visits, usually when passing through the fernery on their way to the see the colourful displays in the conservatory at the eastern end of the nursery or to admire the ribbon work planting in the southern beds. Such gaudy displays are over in a season, and yet attract a certain class of people to gush their admiration in the local press.

The highlight of my time enclosed in the fernery was the grand inauguration garden party held by Mayor Anderson in 1912. He was quite a fan of my Garden and of curator, James Day who worked tirelessly to give satisfaction to the council’s Gardens Committee on an increasingly reduced budget. It was quite an afternoon. Over 1500 people were invited and food and drink for the guests was provided in abundance. The Mayor and Lady Mayoress greeted their guests near the gates and the fine ladies and gentlemen wandered amongst the plants, seeing and being seen. Unfortunately, the weather was not what the organisers had hoped, but I’ve never complained about at little rain.

Those days of my youth are now long gone. A tree may live for a hundred years or more (and I come into the “or more” class), but a wooden slat fernery, covered in creepers and sprayed by fountains does well to last for 50 years. The dome of the fernery was the first to go, collapsing in the 1920s. They tried to patch things up, but by the middle of the 20th Century, the wooden structure had become unsafe and my section of the fernery was pulled down (the grottos at the back lasted a little longer finally being demolished in the late 1950s).

Jubaea at the Geelong Botanic Gardens in the mid-20th Century

Jubaea at the Geelong Botanic Gardens in the mid-20th Century

At last I was back in the sun. One mustn’t complain too much, but over 50 years of deep shade was not the life I was intended to lead. As you can see in this photograph, I emerged looking pretty good. My trunk is slim at the base and you can just make out my gently curving trunk. My luxuriant fronts were my growing glory. Clearly the photographer thought so too as he clearly composed this picture to show me off to advantage. The lady looks a little dumpy in comparison.

I have enjoyed my middle and later years, presiding over the many and various changes in the nursery garden. With more sunlight, I grew tall and strong, producing an annual crop of little ones – some at least of which have made it to the nursery pots, and one of which now keeps me company.

The gardens around me have changed over the years; sometimes being planted with roses and at other times being choked with bamboo which blocked my view. All the while, I’ve been accompanied by my near contemporaries, the ginkgo with its butter yellow winter foliage, the copper beech with its showy spring leaves and the redwood inexorably growing to dominate the hillside under the curator’s cottage. Other trees haven’t fared so well as my old friend the bunya sadly died after being struck by lightning. The avocado and the alder too have now gone and that young Johnny-come-lately, the kauri by the old nursery gate cannot continue for much longer. Soon it will be my turn too.

It’s not that I don’t feel appreciated. During my time in the fernery, I supported many of the climbers which helped to shut out the light– you can still make out the scars on my trunk where nails were driven in to help support them. The birds have also appreciated my bounty – especially the galahs and corellas who have recently found their way to the gardens. These birds enjoy the fleshy coating to my seeds and can even crack open the nuts to get at the flesh. Unfortunately, this means far fewer little ones, but enough survive. The canny galahs have also discovered that my sap is sweet and have been pecking at my trunk to get at the sugary exudations. I do feel this is a little undignified and my trunk has become quite pock-marked as a result.

Original Friends Logo

Original Friends Logo

My greatest honour of recent years was when the Friends of Geelong Botanic Gardens chose me to be a symbol of their association. Robert Ingpen even drew my portrait. Looking back on it now, I do see that I have aged since then, but it is wonderful to see me standing tall and showing off my wonderfully curvaceous trunk. These days my new growth is thin, and I am beginning to show rather too much “chicken neck” to be dignified.

Now I preside over the ever changing central (flag) bed. The current display is for Tea Total – the plants that make non-alcoholic beverages. I tell you, they are missing out. In my native Chile, my sap (if you cut me down) is fermented to make a very tasty alcoholic beverage. I’m not called a Chilean wine palm for nothing. Now wouldn’t that be a way to go?

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Near Limeburners Point

Not all the stories of the Geelong Botanic Gardens and Eastern Park are about Gardens, trees and the way the Botanic Gardens were managed. Some, like this one that I came across during my research are about the people who visited the Park or Gardens and what they did next.


This looks interesting; I wonder what the “mystery” is? My mind runs through unexplained holes appearing in the hillside, crop circles, strange lights… time to read on…

Some days ago a motor party

1912 – early enough in the development of the motor car to be worth noting their mode of transport. These people must have been well-to-do too.

– going the round of the Eastern Park saw a coat hanging to a tree near the gateway to Limeburners Point. There was no sign of the owner.

My first thought was that someone had left it behind after a picnic and that the next walker through the area had picked it up and put it in a more prominent position. But wait there’s more…

To the back was attached what appeared to be a piece of paper, and from the proximity of the spot to the bay the probability of a suicide was suggested. Really – not just a lost coat?

Eastern Park has been the site of occasional sudden and unexpected deaths as well as a couple of rather nasty accidents. Is this article going to be another item for my (imagined) chapter on the darker side of the Park and Gardens?
Mind you – given that the water depth in this area is pretty shallow, suicide by drowning could be a bit tricky. Time to read on

The city police were apprised, but could not find the garment.

The mystery deepens…perhaps the next passer by helped themselves to the coat?

It has since been ascertained by the East Geelong police that the coat belonged to an invalid who is under-going open-air treatment in that locality.

So not a suicide. I bet the people in the car were quite disappointed.

What was mistaken for a piece of paper was a pocket handkerchief hanging from the pocket.

So just an invalid who got a bit warm in his coat – this was February after all – and who left his handkerchief behind while he went for a stroll.
I bet the local constabulary hope that next time the sticky-beakers in that motor vehicle either stick their noses in a bit deeper (and thus discover that what appears to be a suicide note is nothing of the kind), or pull their noses out all together.

From the pages of the Geelong Advertiser (1912) where even a “no news” story was worth the telling.

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In the beginning …

In the beginning was a bare hillside to the east of the town…

The story of the origins of the Geelong Botanical Gardens (as it was then known) was first told by George Jones in his book “Growing Together, a gardening history of Geelong – extending to Colac and Camperdown.” (1984), and continued in 2 supplements in 1988 and 1996.The original book and at least one of the supplements are available from the Friends of Geelong Botanic Gardens (

George was a careful chronicler of history, and the story of the Gardens is woven throughout the book(s).

It is this story cobbled together from George’s writing and his subsequent investigations which the volunteer guides tell to visitors to the Geelong Gardens.

The Geelong Botanic Gardens and what we now call Eastern Park had their beginnings in a series of meetings in 1848/9 by “gentlemen desirous of procuring the establishment of a botanical garden”. By December of 1849, they had successfully obtained agreement from the colonial Administrator, Charles LaTrobe, for government money to be provided to fence and layout an appropriate site.

There was a fair bit of discussion amongst the gentlemen of the town as to the best site for their gardens. The Western gully, incorporating what is now Johnstone Park and extending towards the waterfront, was one such site, however, by the time the reserve was proclaimed in 1851, the town corporation had fixed on Eastern Park. This site was also not without controversy as it was seen on the one hand as blocking the eastwards expansion of town and on the other as being a barren wasteland.

It seems that not a lot happened during the first six years of the Gardens. The site was fenced and a curator’s cottage was built (1854) and occupied by the keeper of the nearby powder magazine, and the carriage drives (Eastern Park Circuit) were laid out.

It was not until 1857 that Daniel Bunce was appointed the Gardens’ first curator that anything remotely “botanical” happen on the site. The traditional story is that he arrived to find a barren hillside with no accessible freshwater. To make a start, he established a nursery garden in a sheltered part of the site which is today’s 19th Century Garden. Daniel Bunce laid out the paths which still make up the general plan of this part of the Gardens today.

Daniel Bunce also laid out much of Eastern Park with labyrinthine paths and borders which can be seen in this photograph and in an 1864 map.

Panorama of Geelong Botanic Gardens c 1864

Panorama of Geelong Botanic Gardens c 1864

Plan of Geelong Botanic Gardens 1864

Eastern Park 1864

Daniel Bunce died in 1982 and was succeeded by John Raddenberry who consolidated the horticultural part of the Gardens in the nursery area, simplified the paths in Eastern Park and removed the unpopular and messy blue-gums planted by Bunce.

In 1884, Raddenberry commenced building a huge fernery in the centre of the nursery

Raddenberry's stone pillar

Raddenberry’s stone pillar

gardens. The fernery dominated the Gardens for the next 50 years and the last relict – the stone fountain – can still be seen in the Gardens today . He also commenced replanting Eastern Park with conifers, leading to the pinetumn (an arboretum for conifers) which distinguishes the botanical collection in Eastern Park today.

Subsequent curators, James Day, Alexander Brown and William Walley presided over the gradual decline in the Gardens, planting colourful bedding plants while Raddenberry’s fernery gradually decayed until it was finally removed completely by Curator George Vafiopulous in the late 1950s.

Since the arrival of Mr Vafiopulous, the Gardens have seen a considerable renaissance, being expanded to include the 20th Century gardens, including the teahouse lawn, rose gardens and Walter conservatory in the 1960s; adding the new fernery and southern annex under Ian Rogers in the 1980s and extending forward towards the Bay with John Arnott for the 21st Century.

It’s a nice story. But is it true? What of the people who worked there and how old are the trees? Were the early 21th century curators really so lacking in influence?

Through this blog I hope to uncover and retell some of the stories of the gardens – like that of Edward Jones who drowned in a nightsoil pit in Eastern Park (Follow Your Nose Sept 2014), or the “lady” depicted in the Bollards that great visitors as they enter the 20th Century Gardens.

Mr Bunce and a very naughty girl

Mr Bunce and a very naughty girl

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Follow your nose – to the Geelong Botanical Gardens

What’s that smell?

Today it is definitely Spring (although that may not be the case tomorrow). The sun is shining, the birds are active and plants are starting to put on a bit of spring growth, even if it is not their flowering season.

On a walk through the Geelong Botanic Gardens, my senses are stimulated by a wonderful array of smells. However, to call these perfumes might be overstepping the mark. My favourite is the wonderful aroma of the freshly spread “euchy mulch” in the restored fern glade. There is also the perfume of the Michelia flowers along the camellia walk, and soon there will be the scent of cut grass and the heady aroma of roses from the heritage rose bed.

The prevailing aromas in the Gardens and wider park were not always quite so enticing. Geelong, like other urban areas in the 19th Century had a problem with … let’s call it poo. Horses contributed largely to the “street sweepings” which were much prized for giving a boost to the municipal garden beds, but the odour of horse dung pales into insignificance compared to the “nuisance” of nightsoil (aka poo). The problem was, what to do with it?

By 1850, Corio Bay was considerably less pristine than prior to European settlement, as the bulk of the domestic waste from the northern part of town simply flowed, via the open drains, into the Bay (south of the ridge waste flowed into the Barwon River). The resulting smell was considered a “nuisance”. This pre-dated any scientific awareness of just how dangerous human waste was in the spread of disease – hence referring to the disagreeable odours as a “nuisance” rather than as a dangerous health hazard!

As the town of Geelong grew, so a system of collecting and disposing of the euphemistically named “nightsoil” developed with carters coming by night to change the tins in the dunny and cart the waste away for disposal.

The eastern edge of the town of Geelong, on the Bay side, then as now, was the Eastern Park or Botanical Gardens. The shortest route out of town was along the Portarlington road, past the Gardens towards Moolap. The general practice was to take the nightsoil away from town and to deposit it below the high tide mark, outside the town limits, and for the sea to do the rest. In 1856 a directive was given that rubbish, including nightsoil was to be deposited in the Bay to the east of Limeburner’s Point. It seems that the favoured site to tip your buckets was in Stingaree Bay behind the rifle butts – once situated on the site where CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratories are now. Unfortunately, not all the nightmen wanted to travel that far and there were complains of nightsoil being deposited along the road-side with its consequent “nuisance” in terms of smell and health.

In 1876, the Council decided that they needed to have a proper “Manure Depot” to deal with the nightsoil problem, just like Melbourne, and the Mayor of Melbourne was brought down to advise on the best possible site. This turned out the be the Botanical Gardens (now Eastern Park) “bounded by the south carriage drive on the north, and the park fence on the west, south, and east sides” – in other words, hard up against the Friendly Society Oval (now the soccer pitch on Howard Glover Reserve) and adjacent to the Corio Oval – home to both the local football and cricket teams. As you can imagine, local opinion was not favourable!

“Citizen” (Geelong Advertiser 1/3/1876) wrote,—Why make a manure depot of the Botanical Gardens, when the Market-square is so much a better place. How handy for market gardeners; after depositing their produce, they could at once load up with manure. It is a wonder that this simple idea did not strike the heads (?) of some of the enlightened members we have in our Town Council.

But, “where there’s muck there’s money” – and well treated nightsoil was a potentially valuable commodity. The councillors settled on a scheme whereby trenches would be dug and the nightsoil deposited and covered over to prevent too much nuisance from the smell, which would be further abated (!) by the planting of a belt of trees. The Garden’s curator, John Raddenberry was strongly in favour of the scheme, claiming that the ground would be made valuable and productive by the addition of the manure and that there was sufficient land for 30-40 years of treatment in this way.

Despite the protests, a Manure Depot was developed within the Eastern Park – but only as a temporary solution, although temporary turned out to well over 10 years and the depot was reopened again around 1900 – much to the annoyance of visitors to the Corio Oval who complained bitterly of the smell. It was not until 1916 that Geelong got a sewerage system and the nightmen became a thing of the past.

In the meantime, the Council charged 2 shillings per load of nightsoil deposited and sold “deodorised” nightsoil to farmers for use as manure at the princely sum of 2/6 per yard. From time to time, private contractors found these rates attractive and ran their own manure depots, but these frequently failed the “nuisance” test.

The dangers of untreated human waste were not confined to the “nuisance” of the smell or the potential spread of disease. The manure trenches must have been a thoroughly unpleasant place to work, being both damp and smelly. To add to this, most of the work was done at night as the nightmen were prevented from collecting when the rest of the townspeople were going about their business (hence the name). In April 1880, Mr Edward Jones, an employee of the Corporation (a forerunner of Geelong City Council), met his death by suffocation through falling into a nearly full trench while working alone on a damp night at the Manure Depot in the Botanical Gardens. The coroner’s inquest suggested that his untimely demise might have been averted if he had not been alone at the time.

When I next have cause to visit one of the more “agricultural” toilet facilities in the Gardens, I will spare a thought for Mr Jones and his untimely death and be thankful that at least most of Geelong, though sadly not most of the Botanic Gardens’ toilets, are connected to the Black Rock sewerage treatment works and that open nightsoil pits are a thing of the past.

Also – the smell in the Gardens today is distinctly more fragrant.

Thank God for Thomas Crapper

Thank God for Thomas Crapper

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