Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush

The Cactus House is cactus.

Shortly before Christmas last year the bulldozers moved in and did their thing. In no time at all the “Cactus House”, the Yallambie House of Mystery in Tarcoola Drive had done the big vanishing act, leaving behind nothing but an open block of land and a few soon to be forgotten memories.

Aerial survey photograph made of a still some what undeveloped Yallambie area prior to 1971.
The newly formed Tarcoola Drive, Yallambie, c1968. This picture looks across the road towards the site where the “Cactus House” would soon be built. The Allima Ave intersection is on the left and Slagmolen’s “Casa Maria” is visible behind the pencil pines on the ridge. (Source: Composite made from the Bill Jones Collection)
E L Bateman’s pencil study for View XII in his Plenty Station series showing William Greig’s, c1839 cottage standing above the river behind the site of the later Yallambie “Cactus House”. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria Collection).

The Cactus House in Tarcoola Drive had been a bit of an enigma for nigh on 5 years, ever since the old lady who last lived there departed this mortal world for the great beyond. The cream brick veneer she called home must have been one of the first houses built during the subdivision of the Yallambie estate as it is visible in an aerial photograph made prior to 1971, but not in a photograph of the newly formed Tarcoola Drive c1968. It was built within a literal stone’s throw of where William Greig had earlier built his cottage. Since her death it has stood vacant, or at least it has remained vacant to all appearances. There was a feeling whenever you walked past that you could never be entirely sure about this, or indeed who or what might be watching from those brooding but seemingly empty windows with their unstated memory.

We called it the Cactus House because of a vast forest of exotic cacti that had been allowed to grow across the frontage on Tarcoola Drive. Local memory suggests that the cacti were planted prior to 1970 by the second owner of the house in an attempt to keep neighbourhood dogs from roaming into the property from the street. This was before the advent of front fencing which, as a concept, had initially been opposed by A V Jennings on the Yallambie estate.

Cactus collection of Charles Darrah later housed at Alexandra Park, Manchester. (Source: Manchester Archive & Local Studies)
Queen of the Night, night flowering cactus at Yallambie.
Flowering Zygocactus at Yallambie.

Be that as it may, collecting cacti had been something of a Victorian craze for a while and gardens filled with rare botanical specimens even became a bit of a status symbol in the 19th century. Today there are a few extant plantings scattered through the homestead garden and even along the river bank if you know where to look, so maybe the Cactus House plantings had been sourced from these.

Prickly Pear at Yallambie Homestead, March, 1984. (Source: J T Collins Collection, La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria)

At any rate, one type of cacti, the infamous prickly pear introduced from South America in the 19th century, is known to have become an invasive species all over Australia before the introduction of a moth in the 1920s was used to control its spread. The story goes that the moth, whose caterpillars ate the cactus, was such a successful biological control that scientists were subsequently encouraged to try something similar with the cane beetles that were a problem in North East Queensland. Unfortunately the toads they imported to eat the beetles hadn’t read the menu board and instead ate everything, not excepting the cane beetles, but then I digress. That’s a whole other story.

Prickly pear infestation in an Australian bush land environment prior to biological control.

Moths aside, the Cactus House was an impressive sight in Yallambie and some of its plants must have been nearly a half century old by the time the whole kit and kaboodle disappeared from the face of the earth.

The A V Jennings Yallambie estate, c1968. Ekari Crt is in the middle of the picture. The Allima Ave, Tarcoola Drive intersection is on the right. Adina and Koolya Courts at left. (Source: Bill Jones Collection)
Looking in the same direction along Tarcoola Drive, January, 2018.

For all that, with its wide frontage and a rear boundary facing Yallambie Park, it was always going to be a latter day target of the developers, especially as the house became systematically more dilapidated in recent years. As the mail piled up in the letter box uncollected, then the letter box itself disappeared altogether, I thought it would be only a matter of time before the inevitable occurred.

Site of the “Cactus House” as seen from the Yallambie Park side, January, 2018.

With the removal of the house, as expected the block where it stood has now been cleared from corner to corner and the cacti that were a distinctive, almost Mediterranean style feature at the front are all gone, utterly and without a trace. So too the lemon tree at the back of the garden. Nothing was saved of the garden from the wreckers’ waltz. Nothing but a single, solitary gum tree near the front footpath where pedestrians pass by which, I assume as a native planting, the Council in their wisdom refused a planning permit to remove.

It might seem an odd thing to be making a fuss about here. After all, they were only a few old prickly plants and this sort of house and garden destruction is going on all over Melbourne, right? Blink and a garden is gone and usually the house along with it. Before you know it in no time at all the block is usually filled again by a house as if by magic, usually from boundary to boundary or, what is more often true, a collection of multiple houses built as close together as the confines of the property will possibly allow. So stay tuned and keep your eyes to the ground.

Meanwhile, about the time that Yallambie’s Cactus House met its end, another house of memories in Banyule Rd, Rosanna similarly met its Waterloo. That’s no surprise but I make note here because the house was once the home of a family friend, elderly Mrs Rowe, and the 517 bus from Yallambie always passed right by it. I often looked at it when going by as Mrs Rowe had been a friend of my parents at the church. While we had known her for many years, she was only ever known to us as Mrs Rowe, and never by her first name. That’s just not the way it was done then. She lived to a right, venerable, old age but I guess she must have been gone a good decade or more by the time her house came down.

Planting the Mulberry, June, 1994.
The Mulberry tree, December, 2017.

Mrs Rowe bless her heart gave my sister a handkerchief painstakingly hand embroidered to carry on her wedding day and later, she gave my wife and I a young Mulberry to plant at Yallambie to mark our own. Mrs Rowe is gone. Her house is gone. Her garden is gone. But that tree she gave us to mark that day produces a new crop of fruit over an extended period each year. Maybe it will still be doing so at Yallambie after we’re gone.

Mulberries are a species of deciduous flowering trees that produce a crop of edible berries over an extended period up to and after Christmas in Melbourne. There is a grove of them growing in the Darebin Parklands which were planted by Chinese market gardeners along the Cobb and Co wagon track around 1860. The Park Management Committee at Darebin have in more recent times replanted sections of the “Mulberry Avenue” in a nod to local history which is commendable and shows what can be done when there is a will and a way. Elsewhere Mulberries don’t seem to be planted very often in the suburbs any more, which is another mystery to me every bit as big as the Cactus House as they are a great little tree in very many respects.

Mulberry fruit at Yallambie, December, 2017.

Blackberry and ivy growing out of control on the Yallambie escarpment below the water tower in 1995.

There are many species of Mulberry but the tree we planted here all those years ago is a Black Mulberry (Morus Nigra) which is thought to have originated in Persia but which was planted extensively in English garden estates from the 17th century onward in an attempt to establish a silk worm industry. Apparently as a resource for silk worms they weren’t much use but the fruit of the Black Mulberry is delicious. A bit like a blackberry but without those annoying prickles and the invasive growth habit to contend with.

The only problem worth remarking upon when picking Mulberries is the deep red stain of the fruit that seems to get over everything. As a problem however, this one can be a put down as a truly remarkably delectable dilemma.

The fruiting season of Mulberries in Melbourne is nearly over for the summer but in case anybody reading this has a tree growing in a garden or indeed is thinking of planting one instead of a housing estate at the bottom of their garden, here’s a thought. As a fruit, I’m of a mind that the Mulberry is an improvement on the thorny and sometimes downright dangerous prickly pear and, furthermore, in the off season you can take a dance around a Mulberry “Bush” on a cold and frosty morning.

Try doing that over a cactus.

Cactus Agave, “century plant” flower and lorikeet at Yallambie
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