Yallambie Park

Council sign marking the Bakewell era stand of Black Bamboo in Yallambie Municipal Park
Council sign marking the Bakewell era stand of Black Bamboo in Yallambie Municipal Park

I saw a sight you do not often see on Tarcoola Drive this morning. A motorised street sweeper. None too many street trees from which to sweep up the non existant leaves I expect.

You see, trees aren’t much chop with our Council. Within our neighbourhood there are a number of historic colonial era trees. Included in this list there are maybe a half dozen English elms dating from the colonial period and now growing inside private gardens. In Yallambie Park there are none.

20 years ago elm leaf beetle was identified as a developing arboricultural problem within the City of Banyule. Early in 1995 under this cloud, my wife and I attended a Council sponsored, beetle strategy meeting in Albert Jones Reserve, Eaglemont. Suggested treatments that day ranged from canopy sprays, bark banding, soil treatments or, as a last resort, complete removal of affected trees. “What would happen to house prices in Eaglemont if all the elm trees in the suburb’s leafy streets were destroyed?” That was the worrying question on peoples’ lips. A parks and gardens officer from the Council spoke and I remember his words exactly. “Strategic management is the answer. I don’t know whether anybody here knows where the suburb of Yallambie is, but there is a particularly bad outbreak of beetles in parkland on the River there. The Council intends to deal with the problem there as a priority.”

When Council workers arrived in Yallambie in March that year to handle the beetle problem, they did so by cutting down and removing all of the English elms in Yallambie Park. Those trees had stood for over a hundred years. I know this because I counted the rings on the remaining tree stumps.

The Council officer supervising the destruction told me on site during this process that the complete removal of the elm trees in Yallambie park was deemed necessary by the Council so that resources could be better concentrated on saving the street trees of Eaglemont.

There was the problem in a nutshell. Short of my wife and I chaining ourselves to the trees marked for destruction, there was little that could be done to prevent the chain saws once they were started. We did get our faces plastered in the local newspaper in protest however. “Elm Tree Cull Shocks Couple” (The Heidelberger, April 19, 1995) was the somewhat embarrassing headline. The article quoted a council officer as saying that the Council intended to revegetate with indigenous plants after the removal of the exotics. “It is part of our wider objective to return the Plenty River environs to their indigenous state.” (Ibid)

The writer, during felling of elms in Yallambie Park, March 1995
The writer, during felling of elms in Yallambe Park, March 1995

Apparently Council had not read its own Landscape Survey written by Loder & Bayly, Marilyn McBriar in 1985-87. Although there have been other reports written since, all generally overlooked, in my view the McBriar report remains the most comprehensive and observant of these Council sponsored landscape surveys. It is worth quoting briefly and in part from its chapter about Yallambie, if only to draw attention to how this report has been almost totally ignored in the nearly 3 decades since.

Existing Landscape Character
A dramatic landscape in complete contrast to the precincts further north. A large horseshoe shaped open flat is contained all round with manna gums to the north east; river edge thickets to the east with a lone Roman cypress; river thickets to the south east with suckering false acacia (Robinia pseudo acacia); a thicket of elms (Ulmus procera) and a stand of mixed araucarias, mainly hoop pine (Araucaria bidwillii) to the south west; to the west the old homestead sited on the ridge is partially concealed by the large mixed conifers down the overgrown garden slopes to remnant orchard at the bottom; a line of pin oaks (Quercus palustris) and hawthorns flanking an old track to the north west; and a pair of magnificent English oaks (Quercus robur) to the west.
The scene resembles a derelict common dominated by the magnificence of the conifers and oaks, and the brooding western slope with the dull walls of the old house…

An area which requires protection and sensitive management. Conservation of important historic plants, eg. conifers, and partial reconstruction of farm elements, eg. orchard, is required.

Development should ensure the retention of the open landscape setting, with views to open water from Yallambie to indigenous woodland on the Eltham side. The Eltham side should be planted out with indigenous woodland species as a dusky woods setting to Yallambie. Preservation of the western escarpment now under private management is critical. The significance of the site should be recognised in its management and planning and the site should be permanently linked with the homestead. Western escarpment property owners should be encouraged to participate in sympathetic management of their properties. Any planting on the escarpment should be as unfussy thickets with the pines protected and dominant. The landscape should be developed to continue the impression of a mature and derelict farm/garden from a past age.

Misty morning with Hoop pine , August, 2014
Misty morning with Hoop pine , August, 2014

In spite of the neglect that Yallambie Park has witnessed over time and which in recent years has become almost systematic, there are several features still to be found if you take your time. Of note are several venerable oaks, some towering araucarias (including the “lone” Hoop pine of the river flat) and several historic Italian cypress. Of the latter, there were once many more. Richard Howitt mentions their existence during his visit to the Bakewell farm in 1842: “I noticed cypresses, R.(obert Bakewell) had raised from seed in abundance.” (Richard Howitt, Impressions of Australia Felix, 1845).

These cypresses were planted in the early days of the Yallambie Farm as a way of marking boundary points and sight lines for ploughing. At least one of these 150+ year old trees was ring barked within this writer’s memory, evidence of a misplaced environmental vandalism within the community.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station on hill with creek in foreground
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station on hill with creek in foreground.

Thomas Wragge claimed to be one of the first orchardists in the district and it is said that the quality of his trees was greatly admired, (Avril Payne, 1971 Fine Arts Thesis, possibly quoting Wragge’s grand daughter, Nancy Bush). It is likely however that Thomas was taking credit for the work of the Bakewell brothers who preceded him. Certainly the Bakewells’ vineyard was a very early venture. Raymond Henderson in his book regarding the early viticulture of Port Phillip “From Jolimont to Yering” (Roundabout Publishing, 2006) suggested that the vineyard planted at the Bakewells’ Yallambie was practically one of the first in the Colony and Dr David Dunstan in his AGL Shaw Lecture of 2011 said that “…for the vignerons of 1840 contract work was available in the gardens of the well-to-do. Their first effort was a one acre vineyard just above the confluence of the Plenty River with the Yarra at Yallambie, the property of John and Robert Bakewell.”

Until recent times, on private land at the base of the escarpment above Yallambie Park, there existed a single, extremely old grape vine. It produced a small, red grape in the summer but eventually became very overgrown by garden escapees. In the opinion of John Hawker, horticulturalist with Heritage Victoria, this vine dated from the Bakewell era at Yallambie and if so was an important and rare example of a pre Phylloxera viticulture. Perhaps William Howitt saw this vine in 1852 when he capably described the Yallambie farm:

“…the vine-plots were well dressed and kept. They cut their vine-stocks there generally much shorter than in Germany, little more than a foot from the ground, and give separate sticks to each. Mr. Bakewell’s were an exception. I was surprised to see the flat of this garden planted with the vines, and the sloping sides of the hills only partly planted with them. But as they grow the grapes chiefly for market, no doubt they obtain much heavier bunches, but they would not produce so finely-flavoured a wine.” (William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, 1858).

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Plantation of Lombardy poplars (and vineyard).
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856.

In the 21st century, alongside a suburban block in Goulburn Grove in the new Cascades subdivision of Yallambie, a hobby vineyard has lately been planted on the sloping electrical easement located there. I wonder if that keen gardener and vigneron realizes the traditions to which he has been adding?

Other surviving elements of the Wragge/Bakewell orchard have gradually been lost through attrition and ongoing Parks mismanagement. An ancient apple tree was very nearly killed one year after Council workers sprayed it with herbicide while treating the rampant blackberry canes that had overgrown it. The old apple tree was completely defoliated in the middle of summer and gave every appearance of being dead until finally struggling back into leaf some 18 months later, by then very much the worse for wear. That apple, several pears and one single, ancient fig are all that remain now of the once extensive Yallambie orchards. The fig tree fell over some years ago and was destined for the Council chipper when I approached the workmen on site assigned the job and suggested that if raising the tree back to a standing position was impractical, what was left of the tree should be left where it had fallen.  Figs are surculose plants and sprout basal growth from their existing root base. Today that sorry tree survives in Yallambie Municipal Park and still produces fruit in summer. Against the odds it endures, a monument to neglect where it was planted probably more than 150 years ago by our early settlers. It is a true Lazarus of the fruiting world, testament that it’s sometimes better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing. This is an assertion that has become almost standard practice in Yallambie Park.

When Banyule City Council was created in 1994 from an amalgamation of the old City of Heidelberg and parts of the former Shires of Eltham and Diamond Valley, it was thought that by giving Banyule both banks of the lower reaches of the Plenty River a strategy would be developed to better manage the river environs. In Yallambie, the eastern end of the horseshoe bend has since been allowed to return to an indigenous state and much of the old cultivated river flats and the former prize winning pastures have been planted with Manna gums and native grasses. A sign identifies the site as being an important permanent camp for Indigenous peoples in precolonial times. Near this sign on the river bank just off the bicycle path, stands diversely a large Italian cypress.

When I came to live in Yallambie two decades ago, some of my new neighbours, many of them old time Yallambie residents, could recall a time when the river banks and the surrounding vicinity of Yallambie Park were “like a botanic gardens”, planted out with fuschias and flowering bulbs. Both the river and the flood plain became degraded as residential development proceeded. A story in the “The Heidelberger” newspaper of 1982 reported local complaints that nothing was being done to prevent the spread of noxious weeds in the Yallambie parklands, (The Heidelberger, May 26, 1982).

Those noxious weeds are today a little better managed than previously but it really comes down to what your definition of a weed is. To some it is the English oaks, Italian cypress, pines, poplars, robinias, olives and fruit trees, growing now alongside the more recent, reintroduced indigenous plantings, that are the weeds. That was the verdict passed on the late and lamented English elms in Yallambie Park when they developed an associated problem. In this new millenium, as the surviving Bakewell and Wragge era trees become more geriatric and general victims of neglect, will this verdict be the fate of all remaining colonial era elements of Yallambie Park?

Homestead, seen through the trees from Yallambie Municipal Park, September, 2014.jpg
Homestead, seen through the trees from Yallambie Municipal Park, September, 2014.jpg

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