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