Lies, damn lies and (tall) stories

(with apologies to Mark Twain )

Being inculcated with the traditional stories of the Geelong Botanic Gardens was part of my “training” as a volunteer guide at the Gardens. I learnt to tell how they came to be and when and why particular buildings came to the Gardens. As I came to know the place better, I started to develop my own stories to illustrate aspects of the Gardens’ history.

One such story is that of the Dragons’ Blood Tree (Dracaena draco). This tree wears a distinctive “collar” as it was moved from Eastern Park to its current site in the 21st Century Gardens in 2002. There are many stories surrounding the Dragon’s Blood Tree including one written specifically for the school’s program, however that particular story did not sit well with me so I developed my own story to help answer children’s much asked question: how did the tree get here?

The Dragon's Blood Trees in the 21st Century Garden

The Dragon’s Blood Tree in the 21st Century Garden

Our Dragon’s Blood Tree is native to the Canary Islands in the North Atlantic Ocean. These islands were on the route for sailing ships travelling between England and Geelong. Ships would stop in the get water and fresh fruit and vegetables, before continuing south to Cape Town. Many ships’ captains would supplement their income by carrying a portion of their lading as their own private cargo. The seeds of the Dragon’s Blood tree, though large, would not take up much space amongst the cargo.The captain, if he were a regular visitor to Geelong, would be aware that Mr Bunce, the first curator at the Geelong Botanic Gardens would welcome seeds of this unusual plant.

Imagine the early days of Geelong, before any dredging in the Bay. The ships that came had to stand off Point Henry to unload. Passengers and cargo were rowed ashore in lighters which could cope with the shallow water near the township. I like to imagine a ship’s captain, who had finished unloading his ship, walking up the hill to the Botanic Gardens and dropping in on Mr Bunce for a quiet drink and a chance to trade some seeds. One of these seeds grew and was planted out in the beds that formed the original Botanic Gardens in what is now Eastern Park.

When the 21st Century Gardens were planned, the Gardens staff decided that this tree would be perfect as a focal point for the new garden. When we move plants, they have to be supported, and because this tree is old, the gardeners made a permanent support for it in the form of a collar.

It’s a nice story, but that is all it is. I do not know when the Dragons’ Blood Tree was planted, although the collected wisdom of the volunteer guides asserts that it was planted by Daniel Bunce. I do not know if it came as seed or seedling, though I suspect the latter as the seeds are fleshy and probably do not store or travel well. And I do not know who brought the original plant material to the Gardens. But I do know that Daniel Bunce traded in plant material before he became curator of the Gardens and that many people gave plant material to both Mr Bunce and his successor, John Raddenberry, and that they planted them out into both the Gardens and Eastern Park.

Some years after developing this story, I was surprised to hear other volunteer guides telling the same story but passing it on as fact. My story had developed a life of its own.

Maybe some of the other stories that form the basis of the collected wisdom about the history of the Gardens are also more fiction than fact. How can we tell?

For a long time, I have been doubtful about the age put on many of the Gardens significant trees – especially the stand of bunyas (Araucaria bidwilli) on the southern side of the Gardens. Their story is a topic for another blog, but it is enough to note that their reported age on the significant tree register is inconsistent with the early photographic evidence.

My reservations about some of the “facts” coincided with the beginnings of the National Library of Australia’s project to make available digitised versions of Australia’s early newspapers through their Trove project. At last, it was possible to look for some documentary evidence for what was happening in the Gardens (many of the original Council documents being unfortunately been lost) and to combine this with the patchy, uncertainly dated photographic record. Along the way, I have uncovered many stories of the Gardens – sometimes about the plants, but often about the people who lived and worked at the Gardens. These stories combine to build up a picture of what it was like in Geelong’s Botanic Gardens and Eastern Park during their first hundred years. It is these stories that I aim to tell through this blog.

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