Whenever I am in a different city, I feel magnetically drawn to the local botanic gardens. For me, they give such a powerful sense of the place that I am visiting. Recently I was in Hobart, my first time back there for 40 years, and on the very day of our arrival, we found ourselves in the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens.
This is the second oldest botanic garden in Australia, and this year it is celebrating its bicentenary. I found it to be an utter delight. It is situated on a gentle slope leading down to the Derwent River, of which there are many glimpses throughout the garden. The overall impression at first glance is of paths meandering between lush, rolling lawns and enormous majestic trees creating a serene landscape. Cleverly nestled within this broad landscape, however, are the many highlights of the garden, encapsulating aspects of the history of Tasmania, its botany and the sociocultural dimensions of gardening in this part of Australia. The mature cool-climate trees are simply awe-inspiring, enough to make a Sydneysider want to weep. They provide such a sense of age and history, as well as giving structure and a sense of protection to the garden. Some date from the very early days of the establishment of the gardens. Some of those I stopped to admire were a 150-year-old Sequoiadendron giganteum, a cork oak (Quercus suber), and some stunning golden ashes and golden elms.
There is a great display of endemic Tasmanian plants, including the famed Huon pine tree (Lagarostrobus franklinii), one of the world's longest-living organisms, with a potential life span of more than 3,000 years; local tree ferns (Dicksonia Antarctica) feature in an enchanting fernery. The plants illustrate the diversity and beauty of the local native flora from regions varying from the alpine to the coast, and so different to our own.
Of particular interest to me was a special subantarctic plant house, containing some of the plants found on Macquarie Island, a Tasmanian territory 1500 km south of Hobart. This chilly, windswept island has some unique flora - not only the mosses, lichens, liverworts and low tussocky grasses one would expect from its climate but also some interesting 'mega-herbs', such as the Macquarie Island cabbage (Stilbocarpa polaris, ht 1 m, pictured at left), which was used as a source of vitamin C by sealers who lived on the island in the 19th century; nowadays it provides habitat for nesting seabirds. There are several major vegetation communities on Macquarie Island, each of which is represented in the display. The plant house is kept at 7 degrees, blowing moist, cold air to keep the plants happy - though I have it on good authority that it is neither as cold nor as windy as the actual island! Audio recordings of the local wildlife (such as penguins, skuas, albatrosses and elephant seals) and the ever-present wind add to the ambience!
Features of other eras of the garden's history, such as the floral clock and conservatory housing 'tender' plants such as begonias and bromeliads, are always fun to visit. The plants in the conservatory are grown to a high standard, as are all the other plants in the garden. All the garden areas are pristine and every plant - every single one - is labelled. What a joy in a botanic garden, making one's visit educational as well as enjoyable, as one finds the name of a hitherto mystery plant (or in my case, many of them!).
At the lower end of the garden near the river, a lovely mixed border is planted alongside one of the historic brick walls that run through the site, including shrubs, roses, perennials, annuals, bulbs and foliage plants - and a sign explains the principles of creating such a border in the home garden! Colour, shape and texture were all cleverly balanced to produce a pleasing display. Many plants in the border are cool-climate beauties that do not thrive in the Sydney climate, poignantly reminding me of my early attempts at garden-making when I thought I could grow anything I liked regardless of my climate: all doomed to end in tears.
However, I found I was simply able to enjoy the border and admire the gorgeous plants for their own sakes, rather than gnashing my teeth in bitter envy. The principles of border-making are the same - we just have to use the plants that suit our own climate. Roses in particular flourish in Tasmania, and here they scramble over arches, on trellises and tripods, sporting scarlet hips at this time of year. Mediterranean plants such as lavender and Phlomis, and pretty Californian specimens such as Lavatera assurgentiflora (pictured) thrive; in Sydney, they generally die. I was interested, though, to see plants that cross the climate spectrum, such as many salvias, Japanese windflowers, Daphne, Hydrangea and Camellia varieties, which all do well in Sydney gardens.
The Tasmanian Community Food Garden is another highlight of the botanic garden, having long been the site of 'Pete's Patch' on ABC TV's Gardening Australia. It is a large area divided into neat sections (and includes the six-bed crop rotation system from the TV show which still films their vegetable stories at the site) and features espaliered fruit trees, herbs and many flourishing vegetables. Plots are available to interested community organisations to tend, and the garden area provides an educational resource for school groups and horticulture students. The garden is run along sustainable, organic lines. Around 4 tonnes of food is produced annually and this is distributed through a charity to the community.
A Japanese Garden celebrates the relationship with Hobart's sister city Yaizu in Japan, and the French Explorers Garden showcases the role of French explorers and botanists in the early exploration of Tasmania, with a display of plants collected by them, including Jacques Labillardiere. The lily pond (pictured at the start of the blog) is a tranquil oasis, featuring many beautiful water plants, and there are platforms allowing visitors to observe these at close quarters. There are other areas that I did not explore, due to time constraints!
I recommend a trip to these gardens for anyone visiting Hobart!
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Many scented flowers are in bloom now.