Sydney Botanic Garden visit

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Quercus ilex at the Sydney Royal Botanic Garden

After my visit in March to the wonderful Hobart Botanic Garden, I realised it had been quite a while since I visited the Sydney Royal Botanic Garden. These gardens have been an important part of my life - and my parents' life before that. My mother grew up in the city and those gardens were her place to escape from apartment living. She often took us there when we were kids, and we delighted in the wonderful old trees and vast areas of lawn, and I have many memories of running up and down the pathways, shrieking with delight and playing hide and seek with my sisters.

The Tropical Garden helped to inspire my current garden

It was in the Botanic Garden in the late 1990s that I finally had the epiphany that completely changed my direction in gardening: when I took notice of what was growing brilliantly there - mainly warm-climate plants from South Africa, South and Central America, India and Asia - and realised these were what I should be using, not the cool-climate English-style perennials and shrubs I had been struggling to grow in my doomed cottage garden. I started putting in some of these plants and have never looked back.

So, last week, I found myself in the Sydney Botanic Garden again. Since I last was there, there have been a number of changes of direction for the garden. Development plans of the Art Gallery of NSW threatened a loss of significant area of the green space of the gardens (deemed 'empty space' by the developers!), and a concerted effort by supporters of the gardens has resulted in a number of changes to this proposal. As this city of ours grows ever bigger, our botanic garden is more and more precious to its inhabitants as an escape.

The Begonia Garden as it once was

Other changes have appeared in the appearance of the gardens themselves. New 'thematic plans' are being rolled out, with alterations to some of the existing gardens. Presumably this will be a good thing, but I was utterly dismayed to see that one of my most favourite areas of the gardens, the Begonia Garden, has been gutted. For more than 20 years, this area was tended weekly by a small band of knowledgeable and dedicated volunteers, headed by Begonia guru Peter Sharp. The garden was a sheer delight for visitors, both locals and from interstate and overseas, to see a wide variety of well-labelled Begonia species and cultivars showcased in a beautifully landscaped garden setting, with a diversity of shade-loving companions that complemented them. It was cultivated to an extremely high standard and was considered one of the most comprehensive outdoor collection of Begonia in the world.

A view of the Begonia Garden today

The hardworking volunteers were even acknowledged with a photograph of the group on a sign in the garden. That sign is now gone, as are the volunteers, whose services have been terminated. Many of the plants have been removed and not replaced - except by tracts of wood chips. The remaining Begonia plants have not been pruned or seemingly cared for; fallen fronds from the overhead tree ferns lie amongst the plants; and weeds abound. The garden has lost its soul. If there had been some new 'vision' for this part of the garden, it has certainly not been realised, in my view.

Sparse plantings in the Middle Gardens

Other nearby beds in the Middle Gardens also appear to have been stripped yet not replanted properly, and there are depressingly large areas of wood chip mulch spread throughout, with a few straggly, desultory-looking specimens shoved there in rows. I had a particular fondness for these parts of the garden, as it had been planted up with many members of the Acanthaceae family, not long after their discovery in the wild by intrepid plant hunters. More than 55 species from 25 genera were growing there by 1895, with more added in the early 20th century by director JH Maiden. The early popularity of Acanthaceae plants in Sydney (which have recently undergone a bit of a renaissance, as gardeners such as myself have realised how resilient and attractive these easy-to-grow plants are!) is an important part of our gardening history, and I do hope that these plants will be retained. The lack of care for plants seen in the Begonia Garden can be observed here, with weeds flourishing and deadheads languishing on the shrubs.

The future of plant labels?

Having seen the excellent labelling of plants in place in the Hobart Botanic Garden, I was disappointed to see that the new regime has not improved the rather patchy identification of plants in the Sydney gardens. It is very frustrating to see an interesting plant and be unable to identify it, detracting from the educational function of any botanic garden. I gather that in the future we are meant to use an app on our smart phones to find out 'virtual' information about the plants. Give me an 'actual' wooden or metal label any day!

The Calyx exhibition centre

Whilst there seemed to me to be quite a lot of bare spots, in other places, workers have been busy planting brightly hued massed annuals. There seemed to be literally thousands of Portulaca during my recent visit, and an abundance of dwarf, short-lived Pentas varieties. Yes, these mass plantings may elicit a momentary gasp of delight from a casual-passerby, but please don't let them become the main attraction! Horticulture is surely about more than flat slabs of unrelenting colour; and the cost of these annuals gives pause for thought. The new Calyx exhibition space was opened last year to great fanfare, and currently houses an exhibition of carnivorous plants. Thousands of potted plants adorn the green wall behind the display and are removed at the end of each exhibition - the wall is certainly impressive but one does shudder at the cost of buying and maintaining these temporary plants.

Fernery at the Sydney Royal Botanic Garden

I was relieved to see that most of the other Living Collections in the garden are still extant, to inspire gardeners with what can grow well in Sydney. The Tropical Garden is still as lush and attractive as ever, and still planted out like a garden rather than with serried rows or blocks of plants. The Oriental Garden is still looking good, and so many of the plants from China and other parts of Asia are so suitable for growing here. The Fernery remains a total delight: a cool oasis showing the diversity of ferns that will grow in our climate and how to combine them with other shade-loving plants, reminding us how precious shade is in our hot summers. The Succulent Garden, whilst not to everyone's taste, certainly has an atmosphere all of its own and contains an excellent collection of dramatic-looking plants that can survive hot, dry summers. The long Salvia border is intact, and shows how well these plants do in Sydney. The majestic trees throughout the Botanic Garden are still wonderful, creating structure and canopy for the gardens, and a feeling of permanence.

Plant sales at the Sydney Royal Botanic Garden

I was delighted that the nursery at the Gardens is still as interesting as ever. Run by volunteers, the nursery sells many of the plants seen in the garden, and has a great collection of salvias for sale and probably the widest array of Acanthaceae plants available in Sydney.

Like every garden, the Royal Botanic Gardens must and will change and evolve over time, as it has since its inception more than 200 years ago. I just hope that we don't lose some of the important links with our gardening past in the process! And please don't let any more of it be grabbed by developers!

Reader Comments

  • By Bren 2540 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 November 2018

    Yes, I always enjoy visiting the Sydney botanic gardens, but I agree that the removal of the begonia bed was tragic. I Inquired about this while it was happening and was informed that a lot of the begonias therein were not properly identified and hence had to be removed! I also find the Calyx disappointing (and to think they initially tried to charge an $18 entrance fee!). What was wrong with the previous plant collections in the pyramid and the current glass house? Thanks for your thoughts and that info on "why" the begonias were removed! It is pretty laughable really, considering many plants in the garden are not "properly identified"! I was underwhelmed by the current Calyx exhibition on carnivorous plants. I cannot imagine why they thought they could charge people to go in! Deirdre

  • By Kerrie 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 November 2018

    Dierdre I"d love to see you send a copy of your blog to the Sydney Botanical Gardens & perhaps the comments if readers will allow. I"m a member of friends of the gardens.Although i get the necessity to create commercial mainstream areas (& the events) to attract the general public, as a gardener i don"t think it"s nearly as attractive or inspiring as other botanic gardens. A botanic garden should be about collections of plants not just photo opportunity beds of flowers. Thank you, Kerrie. I do think that there is too much emphasis on money-making in the Garden these days. Deirdre

  • By Maureen 2118 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 November 2018

    Thanks Deirdre for this very descriptive overview of your visit to the Gardens. I was in the Gardens a few months ago not having been for some years and was somewhat disappointed. Very apt to say "it has lost its soul". It is sad to imagine the "new regime" denying the joy of the gardens to those not connected to the internet!! No doubt the Government Budget cuts to the Gardens funding and loss of some 16 permanent staff a couple of years ago has had a considerable effect. Yes it is such a shame that the government does not adequately fund what is a major tourist attraction in Sydney. DEloitte recently estimated that the Botanic Garden contributed $140 million in tourism to the NSW economy in the 2016-2017 financial year!! It also made a social and cultural contribution valued at $180 million to the residents and city workers by providing enjoyment, green space and somewhere to exercise. Deirdre

  • By Sue 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 November 2018

    I too am very upset at the loss of the Begonia beds, they were a favourite of mine also. The reason given of not being able to identify some is ridiculous - I thought that was part of their function as a garden. Neither do I like the app i.d. Being a friends member for many years its disappointing to see these changes. Thanks for your pic of what was a lovely begonia bed. I think many of us loved that Begonia Garden; it was so inspiring to see the diversity of these plants that we can grow outside in Sydney. Deirdre

  • By GLENNIS 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 November 2018

    I agree with the previous comments and feel that the Gardens have lost their focus and deteriorated over the last few years. It is a great shame to see plant collections that do well in Sydney disappear. I agree. It seems to defeat the original purpose of the Garden. Deirdre

  • By DAVID 2068 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 November 2018

    Me too - the gutting of the begonia bed was really tragic. Used to be regarded as one of the best in the world. It happened some time ago, maybe more than a year ago(?) when I first saw the result. Otherwise I still love RGBSyd - I just hope the current management stop decimating its best features. Yes I think the Begonia Garden was gutted about a year ago. Hope no more collections meet the same fate. Deirdre

  • By Valerie 2121 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 November 2018

    Deirdre, thanks for your description of the current state of the Sydney RBG. I agree with all the comments too, especially about the now defunct begonia bed. That used to be one of the highlights of a visit to the gardens. Also when I was last there I noticed that plant labels were becoming more sparse. I don"t think an app can really be a substitute for everyone. And yes, there were greater tracts of mulched areas. Wait until the brush turkeys get that far south. They"ll love it. I love that vision of the brush turkeys raking up all that mulch into a mound! Thanks for your comments. Deirdre

  • By noeline 2081 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 November 2018

    I am so disappointed to hear what has happened to the Sydney Royal Botanic Garden I have just returned from the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens in Hobart and it was glorious with Tulips galore and beautiful displays of Begonias and orchids and I was looking forward to coming home to see the begonias I remembered from a few years ago what a stupid decision to uproot years of work.Maybe Newstart work seekers would be interested and have it counted as work while they learn about gardening. The Hobart Botanic Garden is everything a botanic garden should be. The Sydney one could learn much from it. Deirdre

  • By Sue T. 2566 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 November 2018

    Nooooo...not an app to discover the name of an interesting plant. It"s always seemed to me that the interesting plants were the ones without labels.Can"t see that not having "correct" names for the begonias is any reason to pull them out. The Azalea Walk we visited each Spring in my childhood is long gone but at least there was a reason for its removal after it succombed to petal blight. Yes I agree that many of the interesting plants in the Botanic Garden are those with no label -- does that mean they do not know their names??? Maybe they should be pulled out!!! Deirdre

  • By Georgina 2076 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 November 2018

    I was disappointed as well on my last visit to The Gardens. The Spring walk was a waste of time. It was very sad to see the well tended Begonia walk gone. Georgina I too think the Spring Walk has gone off -- it does not seem as good as it once was. I think some of the plants were pruned at the wrong time and so they were not in bloom when they should have been! Deirdre

  • By Shaun 2075 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 20 November 2018

    Magic place, I have a picture of my Nana, Mum and five us sitting on the curved sandstone wall in 1949, background of grey Navy ships, No Opry House, not much at Kirribilli!! Nana and Mum are sitting at each end with previous cargo of 5 steps and stairs between them, both ladies of course with their HatsOn!! RBG, a special place in my memory and I visit at least 6 times a year. Loved the Pollination exhibit! and I didn"t know we had a Waratah Tree, did you? Hi Shaun; I have a photo of my mother with her little sister and brother taken in the Garden in the early 1940s. Your pic sounds fab. Deirdre

  • By virginia 2125 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Saturday, 24 November 2018

    I too was very disappointed when I last visited the gardens to discover the dismantling of the begonia walk. This had been the inspiration for part of my garden. Members can get all kinds of begonias by joining The Begonia Society. Thanks, Virginia. I too was so inspired by the Begonia Garden. Good to know that the Begonia Society is available for gaining information and plants. Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 26 November 2018

    The themed plans for the RBG have resulted in the begonia gardens, lauded by local, inter, intrastate and overseas visitors, being decimated of plants in one bed, and in the other, the plants have been totally neglected. The result of much hard, but rewarding work, over many years, by volunteers, of whom I was one, has been completely eroded. Dismay, regret and anger are felt, as these once important and famed gardens have fallen into neglect, dishonouring the work of Peter Sharp. Thank you, Margaret, for giving us your perspective as one of the volunteers who tended the Begonia Garden so wonderfully for all those years. It is just wrong on so many levels for this garden to be ruined the way it has been. And replaced with nothing!!! (Except weeds and pine bark!) Deirdre

  • By Carl 2010 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 03 December 2018

    I agree about the begonias - and its interesting to cut something that was attracting volunteer labour at a time of short cash. The labeling has been an issue for ages in my opinion - maybe an app could be good if lots of extra information is provided as well as just the identity? Its the dollar-a-plant colour everywhere in the Gardens that kills me. On the other hand the gardens have been thinned out and there are lots of beautiful new vistas. Like your blog Deirdre.

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