Category Archives: Botanica

All in the golden afternoon

Finding a quick and easy solution to this epidemic thingo isn’t going to be easy. Like finding fairies at the bottom of the garden I reckon, but who says that can’t be done? The human race has survived diseases before and the end of the world has been predicted often and always since those first 7 Days of Creation. I guess the whole point of easing the lock down right now is that we may just have to learn to live and to die with this for a while. It won’t be easy but none of this is going away in a hurry, just like those yon garden fairies.

Walkers passing the lone Hoop pine in Yallambie park, May, 2020.

A curious concomitant of the need to leave the proletariat at home during this crisis has been that many people are only now discovering the park lands and gardens beyond their local streets, some for the first time. Suddenly there’s an alternative to their coffee shops and gymnasiums as people leave their cars at home in favour of Shank’s Pony and breathe in the deep fresh air of the great outdoors. It’s hardly surprising then, given what’s been happening. I’ve heard tell that during a similar time of plague in the 16th Century, Henry VIII took to his country estates, moving from house to house regularly in the belief that fresh air was more-healthy than city. “One is safer on the battlefield than in the city,” wrote his Chancellor Thomas More highlighting the dangers of close living conditions in the towns (while, given his fate, maybe not appreciating that an axe can be sharpened equally in both), but Thomas did have a point. The rural escape, the so called tree change of society has always had its appeal.

Old Farm at the end of Martins Lane, May, 2020.

It’s an idea reflected in a growing trend that’s been dubbed “Cottagecore”, a movement promoting a romanticised interpretation of the life we imagine can be found in the countryside. Felicity Kendal and Richard Briers tried this on in the 70s in a much loved television show, but the movement has boomed during lockdown with real estate agents reporting an increase in enquiries for rural property and the hashtag cottagecore running at close to a quarter of a million posts on Instagram. Cottagecore as an idea promotes a belief that mental wellbeing can benefit from a removal from the fast paced environment of city living. “Rebalance your energy and remember relaxing is far from a waste of time,” says one young cottagecore influencer. I like the sound of that.

Getting out on Shank’s Pony, May, 2020.

As a concept I’d say it’s not entirely without its parallel in Yallambie these days. “I’ve lived in this area for 20 years and never gone into the Park,” I’ve heard people say as they get out for the first time on these crisp autumn mornings or sunny afternoons. On a good day it can be a quite magical place if you’re seeing it with fresh eyes, a point apparently not lost on some park users. Under one of the magnificent Yallambie Oak trees, a relic from the distant farming era, somebody in a flight of fancy recently created a little grotto inside a hollow of one of the trees and sign posted it, “The Secret Garden.”

The “Secret Garden” at Yallambie, May, 2020. Keep this one to yourself.
A hidden world inside, May, 2020.

The Secret Garden is of course remembered as a work of children’s fiction, a tale of redemption through the beauty of landscape. The latest 2020 film adaption was in the can and became one of the first casualties of the Covid crisis but this thing was the work of children doing what children do best. Or maybe it was the work of an adult to whom a child like outlook on life remains no stranger. Whatever the inspiration, it was first and foremost a work of “art in the found object” and a nod to a “Borrowers” world usually kept just beyond our sight. While I was there a small girl balancing on training wheels wobbled into the park ahead of her mother and made excitedly straight for this tree. I watched to see if she was about to disappear like Alice down a rabbit hole but no, she was just a visitor and lingered only long enough to do some rearranging.

So who believes in faeries? Raise your hand Conan Doyle if you’re there but to paraphrase another writer, J M Barrie, it’s said that every time a child says they don’t believe in faeries, a fairy somewhere pops out of existence. The Findhorn community on the north east coast of Scotland is one place where this sort of belief is firmly rooted. That community was founded in a belief in the healing benefits of the spirits of the forest although these days I think they call it an experiment in everyday life, guided by the voice of an inner spirit. Whether you want to believe in that or not, the Quantum World is proof that there could be more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

"Faerie tale glen of toad stools", (Fly Agaric) growing under Baron von Mueller’s pinetum, May, 2020.

Big Ears house growing under Baron von Mueller’s pinetum, May, 2020.

So, as if to reinforce this point, further along from the oaks, I found this day the place where those fairies have obviously been hanging out locally all these years. There it was, a fairy tale glen of toad stools growing under the scattered remains of Baron von Mueller’s pinetum, the red caps of which I’m sure would have had Big Ears reaching into his pocket for his latch key.

Field mushrooms, April, 2020.
A harvest of Farmer Maggot’s best found out the back of the “Cactus House”, April, 2020. Look like mushrooms. Smell like mushrooms. What else could they be?

To digress just a little, it’s been a good autumn for fungi don’t you know with all this extra rainfall and cool mornings resulting in a burst of toad stools and mushrooms which have been popping up seemingly everywhere. Out the back of the still vacant site of the Cactus House we found a lovely crop of mushrooms  growing but generally people take about much notice of the Fungi Kingdom as they do the Faery Kingdom. Fungi is however a completely separate world to both the plant and animal kingdoms and has an estimated 2 to 3 million species world wide of which only 120,000 have been described. It includes microorganisms such as yeast and moulds, as well as the more familiar mushrooms of the dinner table. Those red cap, fairy tale toadstools though are officially classified as poisonous. So too are the yellow stainer and death cap, both of which apparently can be mistaken as mushrooms by the near sighted, but both of which are exceedingly toxic. In fact the death cap is very appropriately named. One bite of it will kill you stone dead. Every year various poisonings, usually of a minor type, are recorded in Australia during the mushroom season but this year the newspapers have been filled with more stories than usual, probably due to the extra fungi around and people getting out into the parks who haven’t been out there much before.

The reality is however that going for a walk these days is probably about the safest and most sensible form of recreation you can do. With nearly 5 million people calling Melbourne home, a figure that comes complete with all the benefits and disproportionate difficulties associated with such a number, Henry VIII himself would have been happy enough to get outside. We’ve always needed our parks and gardens but right now we need them like never before. Meanwhile the world keeps turning and the sun keeps shining. The faeries are out there for those who want them to be, dancing between the mushrooms on moonlit nights wherever the healing benefits of the spirits of the forest are needed.

The Christmas thorn

Every Christmas time in a tradition dating back to the reign of King James I, a sprig of winter hawthorn blossom is presented to the reigning British monarch. By custom the blossom is used to decorate the Royal festive table but in doing so it poses a Yuletide conundrum. Christmas in the northern hemisphere, unlike Christmas here in the south, occurs in winter. So what is hawthorn doing flowering in the winter tide of an English December?

The unlikely answer is steeped in legend and early Christian folklore. Following the crucifixion, Saint Joseph of Arimathea is said to have travelled from the Holy Land to English shores where, weary after his long voyage, he thrust his staff into the ground on Wearyall Hill in Glastonbury. The day was Christmas Eve and the staff, which Joseph had earlier cut from the same tree Roman soldiers had used to make Christ’s Crown of Thorns, miraculously took root in the ground, developing overnight into a hawthorn with the unique ability to flower twice a year. Once in spring and again in the winter.

This then is the story of the tree they called the “Glastonbury Thorn”.

Written records of the Thorn do not appear until 1502 when it was recorded that the tree “do burge and bere greene leaves at Christmas” and “growth in Werall”, but undoubtedly the source of the legend is much older. Sir William Brereton visited the tree in 1635 and took cuttings from its branches, carving initials on its trunk and noting as he did so that many had done the same before him, writing afterwards “so famous and so much visited and frequented on the day of Christ’s nativity.”

Brereton was to become a formidable general in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army during those rather uncivil, English Civil Wars. He was Parliament’s Commander in Chief in Cheshire when James son, Charles I had his Crown forcibly removed which, being firmly attached to his head at the time, created something of a headache for the monarchy.

The King was replaced by the autocratic Cromwell, a Puritan zealot who, amongst other things, hated Christmas and kings but not necessarily in that order, dismissing the traditions of one as superstitious nonsense and the Divine Right of the other as an anachronous blight on society. The Thorn he regarded as just another ancient superstition so one of his blockheaded, Round Headed soldiers, taking inspiration from what they had done previously to the King, chopped at it with an axe. The Puritan commentator James Howell recorded that when he did so, the tree poked the solider in the eye with a thorn, blinding him.

 “…going to cut down an ancient white hawthorn-tree, which because she budded before others, might be an occasion of superstition, had some of the prickles flew into his eye, and made him monocular.”

Chalk up one for the Mayblooms then.

Food for the bees, October, 2019.

After the death of that Christmas Grinche Cromwell, the restored Merry Monarch Charles II overturned the Yuletide ban and the Glastonbury Thorn was born anew from cuttings that had been preserved in church yards. The tree survives to this day as grafts in various places throughout Britain although in recent times Cromwellian style vandal attacks have been perpetrated on the plant growing in the original location at Wearyall Hill. Yet always the Thorn, like some sort of botanical Lazarus, rises again.

The Glastonbury Thorn is a variety of hawthorn, specifically Crataegus monogyna var. biflora, the biflora bit in the title referring to the plant’s unique ability to flower bi-annually. The appeal of this multi flowering tree is perhaps understandable as it is an addition to a story of a tree that has long been steeped in arcane folklore. In some places in the British Isles in years past, hawthorns were sometimes referred to as ‘faerie trees’ and it was said carrying a sprig in your pocket would protect you from evil and the depredations of the faeries that we all know lurk at the bottom of every garden.

Hawthorn blossoms, October, 2019.

Hawthorns in the form of the single flowering Crataegus monogyna were brought to Australia by the early settlers and the tree gives its name to a Melbourne suburb and an AFL footy team, the name apparently developing after a remark made in the early days by Superintendent Charles La Trobe when he compared the native shrubs to the east of the town to flowering hawthorn bushes.

Remnant of old hawthorn hedge line at Yallambie, October, 2019.

Hawthorns in time were to become an invaluable hedging plant in the colonies and were used as windbreaks and as living boundary markers. Settlers found that thorns were particularly useful in retaining wandering stock as they could be planted in rows in a process known as hedge laying. In this process, trees were planted closely together with a pleach cut into the back of each trunk and a pliable hinge of wood at the front. The trunk of the tree would then be laid down at a 45° angle to the next trunk with stakes driven into the plants to keep them in position creating a unique-looking, stock proof hedge.

Post and rail fence at Yallambie. (Source: Bill Bush Collection).
Family group outside hedging at Yallambie, c1890. (Source: Bill Bush collection).
Hedging marking field boundaries, (screen still from the film “Yallambie”, by Peter Bassett-Smith).
Hedging marking driveway, (screen still from the film “Yallambie”, by Peter Bassett-Smith).
Haw berries, December, 2019.

Post and rail fencing was a feature of Yallambie but it is probable that hawthorn hedging was also incorporated in places during the farming era as a few remnants of these plants remain marking old boundary lines along with a few stand-alone specimens. Regrettably Crataegus monogyna is classed as an environmental weed in Victoria resulting in a modern minimization of the plant alongside river side environments yet for all this, the reality is it is a beautiful small flowering tree, very hardy and much loved by native birds. Hawthorns were in bloom in Yallambie for a week or so in October with the peculiar, sickly sweet smell of their flowers filling the air and mixing with the drone of bees as a herald of the onset of warmer weather. Hawthorn flowers give way to pome fruit in an Australian December and as a cut foliage, this fruit or rather haw berries make a striking arrangement in a vase on the festive table without the disadvantage of the cats’ wee like fragrance of the earlier flowers.

Christmas lilies and cut hawthorn, December, 2019.

Christmas is a time with some long established if controvertible traditions and the Christmas wanderings of Joseph of Arimathea could be said to be one of these. While the Gospels generally agree on the role he played in the burial of Jesus, they remain silent regarding other details. Prior to the fourth century, the previously stated legend developed that Joseph had come to Britain after the Crucifixion and Medieval writers in Britain were later able to furnish Joseph with a background story, binding him up to the Arthurian legend and declaring him responsible for bringing the cup of Christ’s Last Supper with him to English shores – the celebrated Holy Grail of legend.

Dan Brown borrowed a page from this well used book, making himself a wealthy man along the way and confirming the reality that every story has the potential to become legend. Like the idea behind the Nativity itself, the story of the Grail represents a search for meaning, a search that we are all on at one time or another and not just at Christmas. As for the common hawthorn, while it is true that it is an indigenous plant of the British Isles, some writers on this subject have also suggested that the bi-flowering variety Sir William Brereton found at Glastonbury might once have been a native of the Middle East.

Who’d have thunk? Stranger things than that are possible at Christmas. Ask any five-year old. In every fiction then it seems we might be closer to the truth than the lies that surround us and in every search can be found meaning.

A Spring interlude

“An effect of an old home and garden is to give a sense of being part of the continuity of life, of having roots in the past and prospects in the future.”
Ethel Temby, from her personal history of Yallambie Homestead, 1984

Ethel wrote this in the early ’80s while reflecting on more than two decades of life at Yallambie. In the 30 odd years since, the seasons have come and gone and the years have brought change. Plants and garden beds have been removed and reinstated. Drought has wrecked the garden more than once, only for it to recover and be born anew. Geriatric trees have succumbed to the passage of the time and collapsed to be replanted. Some things don’t change though and one of these is the arrival of the Spring time and the possibilities the season has to offer. I like to think the continuity described by Ethel might be something that had its beginning with R Bakewell and E L Bateman, found recognition in the writings of the Howitts and Louisa Anne Meredith and is a tradition that survives to this present day. As Ethel once said, quoting from Brown in her history:

A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!
Rose plot,
Fringed pool,
Ferned grot.

Fresh buds bloom, showers soften the earth and there is a warmth in the air outside already. It’s been a lovely Spring, don’t you think? Sorry for not writing about it more right now but I’ve got to get outside. Something’s waiting for me.

An explanation of the NEL for those who can’t see the wood for the impending tree stumps

“Formulating policy means making choices. Once you do that you please the people that you favour, but infuriate everybody else. One vote gained, ten lost. If you give the job to the road services, the rail board and unions will scream. Give it to the railways, the road lobby will massacre you.”
Sir Humphrey Appleby spelling out the fractious world of transport policy, Episode 5, Series 3, Yes Minister, “The Bed of Nails”, 1982.

The release of a little light reading in the form of a voluminous, Environmental Effects Statement by the North East Link Authority last month has been received with interested concern by some, derided by others, while yet proving the truth of that old adage, “When you try to please everybody, you end up pleasing no one.”

The $16 billion Link, which in effect will extirpate the western end of the Yallambie estate with a sunken surface road parallel to the Greensborough Hwy, is due to open in 2027 and is projected to funnel an extra 100,000 cars a day onto an expanded Eastern Freeway by 2036, up to a total of 135,000 with traffic experts rightly summing it up as:

“…a short-sighted solution to population growth and would only increase the city’s dependence on cars.” (Clay Lucas, The Age, April 25, 2019).

Looking south along Greensborough Rd towards Blamey Rd from a point near to the Yallambie Rd intersection. The current view presented alongside a NELA artist’s impression of the proposed changes. The EES gives this change of view a low to medium rating “due to the low sensitivity of road users”. In other words, the view is already plug ugly. (Source: NELA, EES)

While reaching any agreement on Melbourne roads is about as easy it seems as reaching nuclear agreement on the Korean Peninsula, there seems to be a consensus in some quarters that the north east of Melbourne is already an unsustainably car dependent side of town and a suspicion that the creation of a Link will simply encourage thousands more commuters to leave the existing train networks in favour of roads.

Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge outside Yallambie Homestead, c1910, Thomas was one of the first owners of a motor car in the Heidelberg district. (Source: Bill Bush Collection).

Short sections of the Eastern Freeway are expected to expand to up to 20 lanes to accommodate the project but as has been proved time again all around the world, as a general rule of thumb the building of major road projects increases traffic volumes without a commensurate decrease in congestion. After those 20 lanes narrow back to six or eight further along the way, what will happen to the extra traffic? Jago Dodson, a professor of urban policy at RMIT University, summed this up by saying that when it comes to NEL, Melbourne is fast heading “towards the failed situation of Sydney where they try to reconcile the incoherence of planning by building large mega projects.” With Melbourne already predicted to outstrip Sydney in size by 2026, it’s not rocket science.

Detail of a display board at NELA Community Hub information office.

As an environmental report, the North East Link Authority’s 10,000 page Environmental Effects Statement I must say is a daunting prospect. I don’t suppose there are many who will manage to read it in its entirety. I certainly haven’t done so, but then maybe that’s just the point. As Sir Humphrey would tell you, if you want to make sure some awkward truths stay ignored, try hiding them away in plain sight inside the detail.

NELA Community Hub office in Watsonia Rd, Watsonia.

You can look at the report locally at an information office that the NELA has opened at 17 Watsonia Rd, Watsonia but for what it’s worth, here is the hard reality of just a little bit of that detail, spelled out here before the first bulldozer rolls past your door next year.

It will be no use saying afterwards we weren’t warned.

The North East Link project will require the permanent acquisition of a combined total of 182,300 square metres of open territory and recreational areas. This is the equivalent of nine MCGs spread across the municipalities of Whitehorse, Yarra, Boroondara, Manningham and Banyule. Dual 3 lane road tunnels will be built under Heidelberg and Bulleen with 12-storey ventilation stacks being needed at either end, including one inside the Simpson Barracks at Yallambie south of  Blamey Rd. Three temporary construction compounds will be developed at the Barracks, one at the north west corner of Yallambie and Greensborough roads, a second on the south side of Blamey Road extending south and a third extending further south along the western flank of Greensborough Rd.

The Banyule creek at Borlase Reserve, May, 2019.

About three kilometres of water flowing through two separate creeks will need to be diverted and turned into drains, including the Banyule Creek which has its source within the south western boundary of Yallambie and which in turn feeds the magnificent wetlands environment of the Banyule Flats Reserve over in Viewbank.

Up to 26,000 trees will be removed by the project with open space at Koonung Reserve, Koonung Creek Reserve, Watsonia Station Carpark Reserve and Watsonia Rd Reserve all being lost.

Borlase Reserve woodland, May, 2019.
The northern end of the Borlase Reserve, May, 2019. Already heavily scarred from its use as a construction zone during the recent redevelopment of Rosanna Station, it is the only part of the Reserve that will be returned to the community after NEL opens.

Borlase Reserve in the south western corner of Yallambie near the Lower Plenty and Greensborough Rd intersection will be particularly hard hit. Borlase Reserve will be entirely consumed by a construction compound during the build with less than half of it expected to be returned to the Yallambie community after construction of the Lower Plenty Rd interchange, potentially making the area no longer viable as an area of passive open space. A four metre high noise wall will be a visually dominant feature around the Lower Plenty Rd interchange which will result in a significant and permanent change to the landscape in the nearby surrounding residential streets.

Willow trees and the source of the Banyule Creek at Borlase Reserve, Yallambie, May, 2019.

The above-ground sections of the road link are expected to have the biggest and most obvious environmental impact with eight hectares of woodland in Yallambie’s Simpson Barracks alone expected to be destroyed, impacting kangaroos and other wild life along the way by removing their habitat. Hundreds of large, mature trees will either be cleared away during this process or lose water supply to their roots and die, but a trade-off promise to replace lost trees with 30,000 new plantings will take decades to have any significant effect. Of special mention is a 300 year old River Red Gum near a service station in Bulleen which is on the National Trust Significant Tree Register. A local landmark, it is just one of those ear marked for the big chop while another 150 other patches of native vegetation spread over 52 hectares will be removed, including 22 hectares where native and threatened wildlife are found.

Giant mouse soon to be made homeless at Borlase Reserve, Yallambie, May, 2019.

So that in a nut shell is what the North East Link Authority is all about. I find it a source of wonder that there hasn’t been more objection heard about this project up to date with the plan still wading around in its early stages. The failed East West Link project copped far more flak, and that misguided idea never moved further than a few lines pushed around a map with some properties peremptorily and unnecessarily acquired before an election. Part of the reason for this apparent lack of interest could be that all those car users living in Melbourne’s heavily car dependent north east may actually be in favour of the road when push comes to shove. It’s an attitude that might hold water with those people who drive on Rosanna Rd regularly, comfortable in the belief that the new road won’t necessarily roll out anywhere near their own back yard, but there is also the Government’s successful policy of divide and conquer to take into consideration, a policy which was implemented to such good effect in the second half of 2017. That battle became a bit of a running theme in this blog for a while, but by suggesting four potential routes for NEL right from the start, Corridors A, B, C and D, the net effect has been largely to dilute the argument right across the board.

Last week Banyule Council, while acknowledging the Government’s mandate to complete the road, released their own, well-considered proposal to modify the existing plan of Corridor A. The Council’s alternative involves a road tunnel that would be 2 kilometres longer than the current 6 km design, increasing the cost by an estimated $350 million and take an extra 1 ½ years longer to complete. It’s a design however the Council says would spare us many of the negative social and environmental consequences of the project. Critics have quickly lined up to dismiss the changes and list what they see as a range of possible negative effects, including a temporary occupation as a work site of a part of Watsonia Primary School and the AK Lines Reserve, and a longer than anticipated shut down of the Hurstbridge rail line around Watsonia Station, but Banyule Council’s Cr Tom Melican speaking in support of the Council proposal said:

“We’re spending an enormous amount of money, dividing the community and wrecking parkland; we’d better make sure we get it right.”

With the environmental impact still a matter of debate, there seems to me to be plenty of opportunity here to get it wrong.

Misty morning at Yallambie with Hoop Pine, photographed in August, 2014.

The writings of the early settlers in this country are filled with observations of the harsh climate they encountered and the difficulties they had reconciling local conditions with what they left behind in Europe. It is known that cool and moist air inside a forest can contribute to rainfall in a process called stomata, but the lesson those settlers eventually learned is, you cut down trees at the peril of the environment in this dry country. After more than 180 years of settlement, Victoria is now reportedly the most deforested state in Australia and more than 60 per cent of the forest that existed at the time of John Batman’s arrival is now gone.

Yallambie Park oak avenue photographed in 1995.

Scientists have gathered much evidence to support a claim that trees and the natural environment can improve our mood and general state of health, although in practice the jury is out as to exactly how or why this occurs. One theory is that beneficial bacteria, plant derived essential oils and negatively charged ions all combine to increase our well being. Another way of looking at this would be to simply say that being connected to nature provides us with relief from the stress and anxieties of modern living. A North East Link road might solve a transport problem in an ever expanding capital city, but how much is the solution also contributing to some of those stresses? Does the end justify the means?

The planned walking trail would pass through forest on the Errinundra Plateau. (Source: The Age, Goongerah Environment Centre)

Before the last State election, the Government announced a plan to build a 120km hiking trail that would extend from the Cape Conran Coastal Park to the summit of Mt Ellery and the alpine forests of the Errinundra Plateau. It was a pitch to the conservation vote during an election campaign which aimed to create a “Sea-to-Summit” walking track through some of the State’s last remaining areas of unspoiled wilderness. It sounded like a good idea at the time but after the Government was re-elected it transpired that the chosen route passed through many areas already ear marked by VicForests for logging and some clear felling had already begun.

Challenged by the media exposure of this story, Alex Messina, VicForests’ General Manager of Corporate Affairs dismissed the walking trail idea saying that part of the proposed track fell along an access route created for logging trucks.

“The route in remotest east Victoria utilises roads designed for timber haulage, not to optimise scenic tourism experience.”
(Alex Messina, quoted in The Age, February 13, 2019)

Birthing tree of the Djab Wurrung people. (Source: The Age, Gillian Trebilcock)

The cultural value of our trees is a sometimes under appreciated resource. Out in western Victoria, VicRoads is currently planning to duplicate a 12 ½ kilolmetre section of the Western Hwy from Buangor to Ararat to reduce travel time on the route by an estimated two minutes. The VicRoads plan will require the destruction of over 260 trees sacred to the Djap Wurrung peoples, including an Aboriginal birthing tree, with one elder, Sandra Onus,  quoted in The Age saying, “We’re just trying to keep as much of our cultural heritage intact as we can. They won’t listen to us blackfellas.”

Banyule’s Yallambie Bakewell ward councillor, Cr Mark Di Pasquale in email correspondence to us relating to North East Link, voiced a similar concern:

“It needs to be an honest discussion and the community need to voice their wants. Up until now the NE Link Authority has been ‘steamrolling’ through with their work… We are looking to the Army, the traders the residents and finally the State Members to push this barrow.”
Droving in the Light, Hans Heysen, 1914-21. (Source: Wikipedia, the Art Gallery of South Australia)
Tree felling of ancient river red gum at Seymour Rd, Lower Plenty in the early 1920s. The property on the opposite ridge is Bryn Teg, later the Heidelberg Golf Club.

The idea that trees might have an aesthetic value beyond their monetary or utilitarian worth might strike some as a surprise, although it is by no means a new concept. Artwork by that famed painter of Australian landscapes, Hans Heysen, is currently on display alongside work by his daughter Nora at a special exhibition at the NGV in Federation Square. Hans, who turned the ubiquitous Aussie gum tree into a work of art in the early years of the 20th century, was famous in his own life time but is sometimes also remembered for his attitude towards conservation in an era when most people never gave it a thought. The story goes that when Hans heard that a road side stand of gum trees he loved was to be removed by his local Council, he approached the authorities and offered to give them the money the Council would otherwise have received for selling the trees as fire wood. It is unrecorded whether those early Council authorities laughed in his face at the suggestion or instead laughed all the way to the bank.

It seems then that the North East Link might not be the only road likely to trample over the environment and the enjoyment of peoples’ lives. It’s just the latest and the largest and by far and away the most expensive.

In Yes Minister, in an episode about the conservation of a wildlife habitat, Sir Humphrey Appleby assured the minister that there are some things that are just best kept out of the public debate. In that episode, “The Right to Know” he burdens the minister’s correspondence with useless detail in an attempt to keep his political master in the dark while explaining to him a fine line of distinction between classing something as a “loss” or “not a significant loss” to the environment.

“Almost anything can be attacked as a “loss of amenity”, and be defended as “not a significant loss of amenity”.
Sir Humphrey Appleby, Episode 6, Series 1, Yes Minister, “The Right to Know”, 1980.

The NEL will obviously cause a huge loss of amenity in the north eastern suburbs of Melbourne and in particular, within the City of Banyule. Taking a page out of Sir Humphrey’s book, the North East Link Authority have cleverly passed this off as not a significant loss of amenity by releasing so much detail about their plans that it seems most people have given up listening.

Once the traffic starts rolling on the new Freeway in a few years’ time, do you think this will make any difference?

By then, will we still be able to see the wood for the tree stumps?

Woodland sign posting north of Borlase Reserve, Yallambie, May, 2019.

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

The Baron who pined

From the hanging gardens in Babylon and the capabilities of the very capable Brown of Great Britain, garden fashions have come and gone like the seasons, to be remembered now like the weeds in a Bangay box hedge. 19th century Australia was no exception to this rule and in 1865, the English nurseryman John Gould Veitch wrote while visiting Victoria that there had grown up in the colony “a very decided spirit for the introduction of any novelty which may be likely to prove of use or ornament to the gardens of the colony.”

"We’ve all seen the presence or former presence of colonial homes marked in country Victoria." The colonial home "Buda" in Castlemaine marked by its historic garden, January, 2017.
“We’ve all seen the presence or former presence of colonial homes marked in country Victoria.” The colonial home “Buda” in Castlemaine marked by its historic garden, January, 2017.

There were many novelties to distract Victorian gardeners but of all of them, it was the craze for collections of pine trees, or pinetums as they were sometimes known, that has left the greatest mark on our millennial landscape. We’ve all seen the presence or former presence of colonial homes marked in country Victoria by stands of tall conifers, sometimes long after the settlers and sometimes the homes themselves have vanished. Collecting conifers was for a while a fashion in 19th century Victoria and no garden of any consequence in the colony could be said to be ever truly complete without its own resident selection of trees.

“Floraville”, the Bakewells’ garden at Yallambee Park was already well established before this coniferous craze properly kicked off but Thomas Wragge, who adopted Yallambee in the 1860s and who purchased the property in 1872, appears to have been well placed to take over at least in spirit where the Bakewells maybe left off.

Homestead photographed through the pines from the stand point of the former site of "Old Harry's" Yallambie Cottage in 1995.
Homestead photographed through the pines from the stand point of the former site of “Old Harry’s” Yallambie Cottage in 1995.

The background to this story has been shrouded by the passage of time but as mentioned in the previous post, the Yallambie identity “Old Harry” Ferne who lived on the river bank at Yallambie in the 1970s believed anecdotally that the pine trees that then surrounded his home were sourced from Victoria’s first Government Botanist and director of the Royal Botanic, Baron Ferdinand von Mueller. Winty Calder, writing in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” repeats this legend but also speculates about the origins of the story, observing that:

“…von Mueller frequently gave seeds and plants to people. However, it is more likely that the Bakewells were the recipients of von Mueller’s plant material, during the period 1857-1873, than was Thomas. During those years von Mueller distributed many plants to public institutions and to private individuals, but he claimed in 1865 that ‘the distribution of plants to private gardens has been very limited and in reciprocation only’. Unfortunately the National Herbarium in Melbourne apparently now holds little of von Mueller’s correspondence with private individuals, such as Thomas Wragge or the Bakewells, or notes relating to associated exchange of plant material. But Thomas Wragge did gain possession of Yallambie two years before von Mueller ceased to be Director of the Botanic Gardens, even though he continued as Government Botanist. Before 1873, Thomas could have continued a plant exchange begun with the Bakewells, and it is not impossible that such an exchange might have continued for a few years after 1873…”

Even without a triplane, the “Green” Baron of Colonial Victoria certainly seems to have got around a bit. Public gardens were laid out at many goldfields centres with places like Ballarat, Bendigo, Castlemaine and Kyneton all receiving large numbers of trees and seeds for their Botanic Gardens from von Mueller. Indeed, a visit to a public garden in any reasonably sized town in country Victoria today will usually turn up at least a few trees with a claim to some sort of von Mueller provenance, with many of these trees being pines, araucarias or otherwise coniferous in nature.

Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, KCMG, chalk lithograph c1880. (Source: State Library of Victoria).
Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, KCMG, chalk lithograph c1880. (Source: State Library of Victoria).

Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, KCMG came to Australia in 1847, arriving in Victoria in 1851. In 1853, Lieutenant Governor Charles La Trobe appointed him to the newly created role of Victorian Government Botanist and from 1857 he was also the Director of Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens. Mueller travelled widely throughout Victoria on prolonged field trips and on just one jaunt into the hitherto unexplored Buffalo Mountains and Southern Gippsland, he covered 1500 miles and added 936 new species to the Victorian plant list.

From the very beginning of his directorship, (or should that read dictatorship), of the Gardens, von Mueller saw the Gardens as an important collecting and distribution centre for plants and seeds throughout the new colony. During the period 1857-8 alone, the record states that no fewer than 39 public institutions and 206 private applicants received plants from von Mueller’s department, with 7120 plants and 22,438 packets of seeds being distributed and 57 gardeners receiving live cuttings.

With these numbers in mind it seems to me very possible that von Mueller might well have supplied plant material to the Bakewells in the 1850s, possibly in a reciprocal exchange. The Bakewells had established their garden in the early 1840s and by the mid-1850s it was well established and in a good position to take part in such an exchange. Furthermore, from the first days of settlement, Robert Bakewell conducted the garden at Yallambee as an early and successful experiment in Victorian Acclimatisation, the colonial principles of which the Baron was a well-known and early active supporter.

John Bakewell, 1807-1888 (Source: Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina, Alexander Henderson, 1936)

Another point worth considering is that when it came to approach, plants were not the only thing von Mueller was known to cultivate. He cultivated working relationships with people of consequence and was often rewarded handsomely for it. Von Mueller collected titles throughout his life like they were going out of fashion with the “Sir”, “Baron” and the “von” parts of his name being all titles that were added to his name during his lifetime. Not only were the Bakewells well-connected by religious and familial ties to the Howitts and through them to the wider cultural elite of Melbourne, but “Yallambee Park” had been acknowledged within intellectual circles with several internationally publicized descriptions.

Edward La Trobe Bateman, NLNZ
Edward La Trobe Bateman, (Source: National Library of New Zealand).

Edward Latrobe Bateman, whose association with the Station Plenty (Yallambee) has been recounted in considerable detail previously in these pages, is another contender for a Mueller connection at Yallambee. He had been described as a “splendid artist” by von Mueller and at the Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866 which Mueller helped arrange, Bateman decorated a Great Hall and a Rotunda. Significantly, Bateman also found considerable later success as a garden designer of both public and private gardens. Obviously these people were all moving within the same circles.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station with cattle in foreground.
The Bakewell brothers Yallambee, view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria).
Thomas Wragge’s Yallambie, c1900. (Source: Bill Bush Collection)
Moola Close near the entrance to Yallambie Park, 1978. In the words of "Old Harry" Ferne quoted in a newspaper in 1982: “When I arrived in the area there was a forest of trees. Now there’s a forest of houses.”
Moola Close near the entrance to Yallambie Park, 1978. In the words of “Old Harry” Ferne, quoted in a newspaper in 1982: “When I arrived in the area there was a forest of trees. Now there’s a forest of houses.”

Thomas Wragge by contrast was a farmer and although he would in time achieve pastoral success and considerable economic wealth, it has not been suggested that he moved within the same creative or intellectual associations as Bateman, or of the Bakewells and Howitts.

At any rate, whatever the origins of the Yallambie tree scape and whether Wragge inherited the genesis of the collection from the Bakewells, it seems clear now that Thomas and his family enjoyed the trees as they reached maturity at the end of the 19th century and that they probably continued to add to it up to and into the 20th.

Remains of Ferguson's pinetum at Mt Eagle, 1929, photographed by C R Hartmann. (Source: National Library of Australia).
Remains of Ferguson’s pinetum at Mt Eagle, 1929, photographed by C R Hartmann. (Source: National Library of Australia).
Remnant pines at Mt Eagle, 1929, photographed by C R Hartmann. (Source: National Library of Australia).
Remnant pines at Mt Eagle, 1929, photographed by C R Hartmann. (Source: National Library of Australia).

In the 19th century plant collectors achieved fame as they combed the continents in search of new pines and no gardener was considered worth his salt without an ability to provide his patron with a collection of at least some description.

At nearby Eaglemont, where elm trees were once saved at the expense of those in Yallambie, the forester William Ferguson planted a great pinetum, the largest in the colony, on the summit of “Mount Eagle” for J H Brooke as a prelude to a grand estate envisaged for that place. The first curator of the Geelong Botanic Gardens, Daniel Bunce visited in 1861 and recorded that “under the skilful management of his gardener Mr Ferguson”, Brooke had accumulated “the largest number of conifers of any establishment in the colony”. The house was never built and Ferguson left the project in 1863 with Brooke himself leaving for Japan four years later. However, in the 21st century at least some of Brooke’s trees remain, hidden away inside the private gardens of wealthy Eaglemont homes, proof of the enduring nature of the grown landscape and especially the legacy of 19th century pinetums.

At Yallambie the Bakewell/Wragge conifer collection survived well into the 20th century and its condition was intact enough to draw comment from Old Harry in the 1970s and 80s. Over the years many landscape reports and surveys were written identifying its importance, first by Heidelberg City Council and then, after 1994, by Banyule City Council. One of the first but certainly not the last of these reports “Plenty River & Banyule Creek” by Gerner Sanderson Faggetter Cheesman was published in October 1983 and noted that:

“The introduced species planted adjacent to the homestead, Yallambie, also require thoughtful management, not because of any problem they create, but rather because of their cultural importance. The planting here reflects past fashions of the Victorian era. Tall, dark foliage plants such as Pinus spp., Araucaria spp., planted quite randomly are all in fair condition…”

Old Harry had recently moved into a new home in Tarcoola Drive when that report was published but a few years later another report (previously quoted here) was delivered by Loder & Bayly, Marily McBriar, the recommendations of which in part read:

Lawn south of the house in 1984. The massive pinus on the left of picture upended down the slope one night a decade ago, its fall heard throughout the neighbourhood and sounding like "a steam train rushing by in the night."
Lawn south of the house in 1984. The massive pinus on the left of picture upended down the slope one night a decade ago, its fall heard throughout the neighbourhood and sounding like “a steam train rushing by in the night.”
A dead pinus standing between two Araucarias south of the house, 1998.
Another dead pinus standing between two Araucarias south of the house, 1998.

“An area which requires protection and sensitive management. Conservation of important historic plants, eg. conifers, and partial reconstruction of farm elements…”

More than 30 years later the value of these reports and others like them would seem to be only in the ongoing evidence they provide of what Council hasn’t managed to deliver over time. One by one and sometimes more than one the trees of the pinetum have gone to pot, collapsing sometimes in spectacular fashion. In the last 20 years alone I have by my own count seen more than a dozen of these trees vanish and, with the exception of the trees in a few private gardens, they have not been replaced.

All the same, the list of old plantings that remain today in Yallambie Park and within private gardens nearby still manages to read like some sort of pine growers’ plant catalogue. The list includes Araucaria bidwilli (Bunya Bunya Pine), Araucaria cunninghamii (Hoop Pine), Callitris glaucophyla (Murray River Cypress Pine), Cedrus deodara (Himalayan Cedar), Chamaecyparis funebris (Funeral Cypress), Cupressus lusitanica and Cupressus lusitanica glauca (Mexican Cypress), Cupressus macrocapa (Monterey Cypress), Cupressus sempervirens (Italian Cypress), Cupressus torulosa (Bhutan Cypress), Pinus canariensis (Canary Islands Pine), Pinus nigra var maritima (Black Pine), Pinus pinaster (Maritime Pine), Pinus pinea (Stone Pine) and Pinus radiata (Monterey Pine). As an exercise in botanical history, this list which was sourced from several of the more recent Banyule Council studies, is a tribute to the surprising longevity of some of these species at Yallambie and a memorial to the garden in which they once stood.

A novel approach to a declining tree at the former Botanic Gardens, Smythesdale, in country Victoria, January, 2017.
A novel approach taken to the problem of declining tree health in the pinetum at the former Botanic Gardens, Smythesdale, in country Victoria, January, 2017.

Garden fashions have come and gone and the popularity of pines within an Australian river environment long ago lost their allure. At Yallambie, in spite of the recommendations contained within numerous commissioned reports, exotic plantings have given way to a native landscape.

Council contractor fighting a losing battle with a whipper snipper on the bicycle path in Yallambie Park in front of the ruinous pinetum, February, 2017.
Council contractor fighting a losing battle with a whipper snipper on the bicycle path in Yallambie Park in front of the ruinous pinetum, February, 2017.

Following classification of the Yallambie landscape by the National Trust in 1998, Banyule Council has consistently argued that the classification holds no legal status and that the Council is under no obligation to conserve any of the historical elements within or adjacent to Yallambie Park.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view XI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. View of garden with cypress and fence.
Cypress planted by Robert Bakewell on the river bank, view XI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria).

As if to follow this cue, vandals imposing their own agenda once attacked one of Robert Bakewell’s Cypresses on the river bank, leaving the tree in a shockingly ringbarked state. The tree took months to die in a process that was heartbreaking to watch. A similar end was suffered by the 400 year old “Separation Tree”, a River Red Gum in the Royal Botanic Gardens that suffered two ringbarking attacks before its final demise a couple of years ago, leaving garden lovers and history buffs equally appalled.

The "Separation Tree" in the Royal Botanic Gardens, c1907. From an Edwardian postcard, (Source: State Library of Victoria). An impromptu crowd gathered under the tree on 15 November, 1850 to hear the proclamation that officially separated the Colony of Victoria from New South Wales.
The “Separation Tree” in the Royal Botanic Gardens, c1907. From an Edwardian postcard, (Source: State Library of Victoria). An impromptu crowd had gathered under the tree on 15 November, 1850 to hear the proclamation that officially separated the Colony of Victoria from New South Wales.

The late, lamented Separation Tree was already well over 200 years old when von Mueller began his directorship in 1857. In 1873 however, a year after Thomas Wragge completed his purchase of Yallambie, the Baron was summarily sacked from his position at the Gardens. It was felt within some quarters that von Mueller was more concerned with the science of plants than the business of creating a pleasure gardens for the leisured elite of Melbourne.

During his tenure Mueller had urged the establishment of a plantation of conifers at the Gardens, its purpose supposedly being to demonstrate the usefulness of the forestry industry to Victoria. Numerous trees remain from Mueller’s pinetum and can be found on the Garden’s Hopetoun and Hutingfield Lawns today but the humiliation of his situation was almost too much for a Baron to bear. After his dismissal legend has it that Mueller never again set foot inside the Gardens, pining like Adam outside the Gates of Eden.

William Guilfoyle, 1888. (Source: Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne).
William Guilfoyle, 1888. (Source: Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne).

The work of his replacement, Mueller’s protégé the young William Guilfoyle, is now mostly the landscape we see at the Royal Botanic Gardens today. After 1883 Guilfoyle remodelled Mueller’s pinetum, changing it from regimented avenues of trees to strategically placed specimens which survive in the Gardens today as signature trees. Von Mueller’s approach had gone out of fashion, his legacy dead seemingly like the Dodo.

Contemporary reports suggest that Von Mueller’s demise was the result of the lack of fountains and statues installed at the Gardens under his watch, the absence of which was keenly felt by the Melbourne masses who had a seemingly insatiable thirst for such things.

Statue of Baron von Mueller at Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens. (Source: State Botanical Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne.)
Statue of Baron von Mueller at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. (Source: State Botanical Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne.)

Ironically, if you step off the tan and into the gardens today, one of the first things you may see hidden behind the neighbouring shrubbery outside the National Herbarium of Victoria, is a small statue of the good Baron himself. It was installed there in 1984 to mark 150 years of settlement, its presence in the Gardens seemingly illustrating a point. When it comes to gardening, if you wait long enough, inevitably you reap what you sow.

A taste of honey

We have a sticky situation.

The bees have made themselves at home behind the shingled walls of our verandah. On warm days the honey they make has been known to drip out onto the deck below, or even back into the ceiling inside the house where a stain on the plaster took several thousand licks of paint to conceal. Other than that though they don’t seem to be doing much real harm, and with the old verandah looking a bit shonky these days, it may be that honey is the only thing holding the whole humongous hotchpotch upright. With bees in trouble on several fronts, to my mind they might as well stay where they are. Our friends the bees are in need of all the help they can get.

Shingled verandah photographed in better repair in 1995.
Shingled verandah photographed in better repair in 1995.

You’ve probably heard that there’s something wrong with bees. They are on the decline worldwide with parasites, loss of habitat, pesticides and the mysterious colony collapse disorder held largely to blame, yet bees have been buzzing around this island earth since a time before the dinosaurs. As a motif they have long been used by man to symbolize industry and orderliness, yet on an evolutionary scale, it has taken us the mere blink of an eye to bring bees in this modern age to their bees’ bended knees.

Napoleon prided industry and orderliness and bee-lieved himself to be an emperor to boot, (watercolour on ivory by J Parent).
Napoleon prided industry and orderliness and bee-lieved himself to be an emperor to boot, (watercolour on ivory by J Parent).

The experimental film director Godfrey Reggio introduced the Native American word “Koyaanisqatsi” to popular culture in 1982. In the Hopi language it means “unbalanced life”, but in the more than three decades since, the situation Reggio described in film has not changed. All over Melbourne right now, developers are smashing up gardens for multiple occupancy dwellings, tearing up farm land for new suburbs, all the while cynically leaving here and there an occasional geriatric gum tree or token strip of park to appease the regulators. It’s not much chop for the people but it’s tantamount to a desert landscape for bees.

Bee hive boufants from Koyaanisqatsi, (Godfrey Reggio, ©1983).
Bee hive boufants from Koyaanisqatsi, (Godfrey Reggio, ©1983).
"...there are now many other plants following the almonds into flower."
“…there are now many other plants following the almonds into flower.”

August was almond pollination season in the southern states of Australia. The two almond trees we have in our garden already have fruit on them, at least until the cockies cotton on to it, but in the natural order of things there are now many other plants following the almonds into flower. It highlights the importance of a diversity in flowering plants in the garden, an idea that has been promoted by bee activist and author, Doug Purdie, in books like “Backyard Bees”.

By contrast the monoculture farming techniques used up country creates Koyaanisqatsi of the highest order. These techniques offer bees rich sources of nectar for short periods, then nothing for the remainder of the year. Commercial production of almonds in the triangle between South Australia, NSW and north-west Victoria is a case in point and highlights the inherent dangers of these practices. It involves vast numbers of almond trees being grown artificially in a marginal landscape using lots of Murray River irrigation. Because there are few other trees in this area, truck-loads of bee hives are brought in from interstate every spring to assist in a pollination event which is is as surprising as it is unsustainable. Bees are brought from as far away as Queensland where worryingly a pest bee, the Asian Honey Bee, has recently been found. The Asian Honey Bee is believed to have been the original source of the parasitic mite, Varroa destructor which has caused so much damage to bee colonies around the planet. Australia remains one of the few places in the world where the destructor mite has not been seen but with the related Varroa jacobsoni already present on Asian honey bees around Townsville, the introduction of the destructor in the near future is now taken as a given. When that happens, it is farming practices like the almond pollination events of southern Australia that will make the spread of the mite across this island continent virtually unstoppable.

"Robbing a beehive": harvesting bush honey in the early years of the 20th century, central Victoria. Photograph by Lindsay G Cumming, c1910, State Library Victoria.
“Robbing a beehive”: harvesting bush honey in the early years of the 20th century, central Victoria. Photograph by Lindsay G Cumming, c1910, State Library Victoria.

The European bee so familiar to our gardens was introduced to Australia in 1822 and in the nectar rich regions of our flowering eucalypt forests it soon became firmly established. It is the heavy work horse of the pollination world, a typical hive containing about 80,000 bees. Native bees, of which there are about 2000 varieties, are by comparison smaller, generally solitary and produce less honey. To the early settlers with their peculiar idea of finders keepers, this great southern land where little bits of Europe seemed so easily to reinvent itself must have seemed like a land flowing with proverbial milk and honey. In due course it had to be admitted that the keepers weren’t the finders after all but while the milk comes in suburban cartons these days, at Yallambie the second part of that flow equation can be thought of as being quite literally true.

Bee boxes at the old Coghill home opposite the end of Jessop St, Greensborough, c1910, (Greensborough Historical Society picture).
Bee boxes at the old Coghill home opposite the end of Jessop St, Greensborough, c1910, (Greensborough Historical Society picture).

2. "Dr. Godfrey Howitt's garden" [sic]", SLV.
2. “Dr. Godfrey Howitt’s garden” [sic]”. Source: State Library of Victoria.
Bees were probably kept in this area from the early days and in the second of the State Library’s c1856 daguerreotypes of Robert Bakewell’s garden, a rectangular shape in a lower corner may be evidence of a bee box positioned at that time on the Plenty River flats. If this interpretation could be proved to be correct, then in would put the Bakewells at the cutting edge of apiarist technology at that time since bee boxes with removable combs, as opposed to the more traditional skeps, were only perfected by Lorenzo Langstroth from an earlier design at the start of the 1850s.

This portrait of Louisa Anne Meredith was her favourite which she described as "unadulterated vanity", (Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts).
Louisa Anne Meredith, (Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts).

Peter Barrett in “The Immigrant Bees”, (Springwood, 1995) quotes from Louisa Anne Meredith’s book “My Home in Tasmania” and uses her book as evidence of the Merediths’ bee keeping activities in Van Diemen’s Land in the 1840s. So the sight of bee boxes at Yallambee during Louisa’s 1856 visit would not, by association, seem to have been so out of place.

The Tembys kept bees during their tenure at Yallambie in the second half of the 20th century and a son of Ethel was still keeping bee boxes in Yallambie Park when we came to live here in the early 1990s. There were bees living inside a hollow oak in the Homestead garden at the time and I mentioned them to Ethel’s son, thinking they might be of use to him. “Yes, I can dispose of those feral bees,” he answered meaningfully. And so that was the end of that.

Bee box on the south lawn at Yallambie Homestead. Photograph from "Heidelberg Conservation Study, Part 1", by Graeme Butler, 1985.
Bee box on the south lawn at Yallambie Homestead. Photograph from “Heidelberg Conservation Study, Part 1”, by Graeme Butler, 1985.

The bees are still in the oak and have now spread to an elm. They may have been the original source of the bees in our verandah. At this time of year the garden is literally buzzing with the busy little blighters. The Pride of Madeiras in our garden are in bloom and truly live up to their axiom, “the bee flowers”.

The "bee flowers" at Yallambie, September, 2016.
The “bee flowers” at Yallambie, September, 2016.

The above is about as good as I could manage with my simple point and shoot camera but it has been a good spring and there are plenty of other flowers in the garden around which the bees have been plying their trade. Some time ago my father in law turned up with a new lens on his camera and took the following series of photographs:


lavenderWhen seen up close in these pictures at a size not usually possible to our eyes, I like to wonder, ‘What goes on inside those little pin size heads?’ It’s all a question of scale and macro lens technology, but if you met one of these very alien looking little creatures up close, what sort of conversation might you have about their perspective on life? Do they know something we don’t know? Maybe you would find their space ships had been, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, “due to a terrible miscalculation of scale… accidentally swallowed by a small dog.”

"...but if you met one of these very alien looking little creatures up close, what sort of conversation might you have about their perspective on life?"
“…but if you met one of these very alien looking little creatures up close, what sort of conversation might you have about their perspective on life?”

Bees are known to forage up to 8km from their hives, even without their space ships, so the bees centrally located here at Yallambie are potentially now at work across the entire length and breadth of the City of Banyule. The Council doesn’t have any special planning laws restricting bee keeping in the community, providing all activities remain in accordance with the Apiary Code of Practice which requires the owner of hives to provide a nearby water source and also limits the number of hives and their location within urban environments. Bless them. I wonder if it insists on drinking straws for the bees as well?

Australia is a huge producer of honey and we actually produce more honey than our population of 23 million can consume. At the same time however we import honey into this country on a large scale. Australian honey is very pure and is therefore a valuable commodity on the world market. Not surprisingly therefore, cheap foreign honey is imported for the locals while the best home grown produce goes overseas. Ask any New Zealander about the cost of dairy produce in their country and you will hear a similar tale told.

For all of the problematic future facing our bees, they remain an integral part of the eco-system and the single most important link in our industrial food chain. All our crops are heavily reliant on their pollinating efforts but bees have been around a long time and over the passage of millennia have witnessed many changes. Whether they survive the current climate of change reflects on the ability of mankind itself to survive. So plant something flowering today and give the bees a helping hand. A world without bees would be quite simply a world without.

The busy bees
The busy bees

To everything there’s a season

Busy bee at Yallambie.
Busy bee at Yallambie.

September in Melbourne and there’s something in the air. It could be the sight of footballers sailing through the sky, hanging speckys off the back of the pack, or perhaps it’s the art of conversation as people cast off their winter coats to sit in the pale sunshine and dine al fresco along fashionable shopping strips, but for those of a horticultural disposition, it’s the scent of flowers. Like an uncoiling movement from inside a vintage Swiss watch, spring has sprung in Melbourne and in Yallambie the smell of new mown grass and the staccato sound of motor mowers in the distance fills the air as gardens and their gardeners awaken from a wintery sleep.

Yallambie poppies
Yallambie poppies

Most properties in Yallambie enjoy a back yard and gardening as a leisure time activity is pursued by many green thumbed residents in a variety of ways and to a varying form of extent. Even Banyule Council has lately got in on the act, planting a load of scratchy looking bottle brushes up and down the nature strip in Yallambie Rd. Not quite guerrilla, gardening it’s more like some kind of monkey business.

"Consider the lilies", September, 2016.
“Consider the lilies”, September, 2016.

Although not immediately obvious, the story of gardening in Yallambie dates back to the earliest days of settlement when the Bakewells’ garden “Yallambee Park” was arguably one of the finest experimental acclimatization projects of exotic plants then operating in the Port Phillip District. The Bakewells called their home “Floraville” and, from the early 1840s onwards, surviving written accounts and the visual record portray an estate of rambling style, used both as a working farm and as a living herbarium.

YALLAMBEE by George Alexander Gilbert, c1850, elevated view of river, vineyard on side of hill rising from the river and house at crest of hill.
YALLAMBEE by George Alexander Gilbert,  elevated view of river, vineyard on side of hill rising from the river and house at crest of hill. Source: State Library of Victoria, H29575.

Richard and William Howitt, the brothers of the Bakewells’ brother in law Dr Godfrey Howitt, himself also a keen gardener, both wrote previously quoted, interesting accounts of Yallambee Park in 1842 and 1852 respectively. Richard and William both had training as pharmacists, an occupation which in the early 19th century required a close understanding of plants and herbalism. Their writing at Yallambee underscores this training with careful observations of what had been planted and with what success.

William Howitt
William Howitt, (British Library collection).

“At the river Plenty reside J. and R. B. The river is a small one, but as its name imports, never exhausted,” (Richard Howitt, Impressions), and “All these things you see growing amid the strangest and most foreign-looking things,” (William Howitt, Land Labour & Gold).

Some little time after the second Howitt visit, the artist Edward La Trobe Bateman recorded the property with a minute, Pre-Raphaelite inspired attention to detail in his “Station Plenty” series of drawings.

Edward La Trobe Bateman, NLNZ
Edward La Trobe Bateman, Source: National Library of New Zealand

The precise date of these drawings, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, remains unclear. Bateman didn’t arrive in Australia until a little while after the time of William Howitt’s 1852 visit but some of the pictures may have been ready to be seen at the Melbourne Exhibition of 1854 for the visiting Irish psychologist W. H. Harvey, Professor of Botany at Dublin wrote of the show, “I was more interested in some very spirited sketches of Australian home scenes and also of wildflowers drawn by a La Trobe Bateman”. The artist had been preparing a number of drawings for a proposed project, “The Bush Homes of Australia” but whether the Plenty drawings were ever intended to be a part of that project, they were evidently completed as a set sometime before mid-1856 when they were exhibited and reviewed in London.

Thomas Wragge
Thomas Wragge, (Bush collection).

1856 seems to have been a decisive year in the history of Yallambee. The Victorian gold rushes had changed colonial society irrevocably and in the midst of it all the Bakewells announced their plans to return to the UK, sailing in 1857 where two years later John would marry Dr Godfrey’s English niece, Emily. The Bakewells’ pastoral activities north of Heidelberg meanwhile settled into the hands of a young Thomas Wragge, who became their active tenant at Yallambee.

This portrait of Louisa Anne Meredith was her favourite which she described as "unadulterated vanity", (Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts).
This portrait of Louisa Anne Meredith was her favourite which she described as “unadulterated vanity”, (Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts).

Also in the year 1856, the Vandemonian artist and writer Louisa Anne Meredith, a life-long friend and correspondent of Bateman and friend of the extended Howitt family, put pen to paper to write another description of Yallambee after stopping by during a whistle stop tour of the Victorian Colony. Her report, more theatrical in style than either of the two earlier Howitt efforts of carefully chosen prose, is nevertheless of great interest for what is said, and for what is not:

“Lo! another vision of a Victorian garden, on the banks of the river ‘Plenty’; not by any means English in character, but rather Oriental in its associations, with groves of massive fig trees of various kinds, rich with their luscious autumn gifts; rows of graceful olives, laden with fruit. Mulberry, peach, and all common orchard trees, in luxuriant abundance; vineyards, where the grapes have nearly all been gathered, but the leaves of each kind, assuming a different set of tints in their autumnal changes, made a glorious show of colour.

Daylily at Yallambie, September, 2016.
Daylily at Yallambie, September, 2016.

Some had scarcely altered their green summer garb; others wore it with a change of paly gold just gleaming over, showing the veins and deeper mid-rib, more emerald still – like verdant valleys, in a land of ripening harvest; some seemed as they had drunk the fervid sunshine in, until an amber light reflected it from every vein and tissue; here, pale and tender; there, deepening into golden russet; some had but shades of brown; but these, how exquisitely blent and softened! If one could dress in hues from such a pallette!

Purple native hibiscus, September, 2016
Purple native hibiscus

Creamy-fawn, passing to cinnamon colour, and then warmed with touches of burnt sienna, where the sun had rested longest, and relieved by dark full browns in the deeper shades; some again, parti-coloured green and gold, were flecked with vivid scarlet, like a sunset sky in the tropics; and others, with crimson for the gorgeous ground-tint, shaded it with deep maroon and purple, till, where shadows rested on it, they were black.

Poppies, September, 2016

The beauty of the fruit still left there, was as naught beside those wondrous leaves. In other places, tall spiral cypresses, darkly verdant, rose from a neighbourhood of rounder-growing, lighter-tinted trees, with tropical-looking cycal zamias and yuccas, making such exquisite groups of varied foliage, such charming bits of light and shade, that they seemed asking to be photographed forthwith; and some of the nooks have received even worthier honour from Mr. E. L. Bateman’s pencil.

Bluebells, September, 2016

One is a rustic flight of broad wooden steps, down a steep bank, not a formal flight (like the stately stone terrace steps in noble old English gardens, with great vases on the heavy massive balustrades, and one of Juno’s own peacocks, shedding over the grey stone his train of rainbow jewels in the sun), but with an easy bend in it, artfully concealing one end, as you stand on the other; and decorated with ivy, that runs down on either side in clustering luxuriance, and sends out long straight shoots along the angle where a carpet-rod would be on a house stair, with delicate, young, green leaves, laid as closely and precisely as if Titania’s upholsterer had devised the wreaths. A noble cypress stands grandly, in lieu of a statue, at the stair-foot, and great leaved tropic growths fill-in the foreground.

Meleanthus, September, 2016

And then the wreath of roses! Nothing like them has gladdened my senses since. One, monarch of the whole, seemed a giant elder brother of the noble ‘cloth-of-gold’, with great ruddy juicy stems, polished spreading leaves; and such flowers!

A full-blown one might have formed a bouquet for the ample bosom of Glumdalclitch herself; the colour was rich warm buff, almost saffron colour, deepening in the centre, and the texture of the broad petals was that rich wax-like substance, like a Camelia, but even thicker.

Ipheion, September, 2016.

It was the noblest of the rose-tribe I ever saw, and well contrasted by the delicate Annie Vibert and Devonienses, Banksias, &c., while the cloth-of-gold and some other deep-red roses aided to make up the courtly group around.

Hellebores, September, 2016.

What treasures we carried back with us to Melbourne, after that merry luncheon in the cottage-room, with its windows curtained by fuschias and passion-flowers!”
(Over the Straits, Louisa Anne Meredith, pp181-184)

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view II by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Detailed view of house and verandah.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view II by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Detailed view of house and verandah. Source: National Gallery of Victoria
Louisa Anne Meredith painted by her friend Georgiana McCrae, c1860. Source: National Gallery of Victoria
Louisa Anne Meredith painted by her friend Georgiana McCrae, c1860. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

It’s a beautiful picture, a picture that would be hard to emulate in any place outside of a botanical gardens today. The author of this description, Louisa Anne Meredith (1812-95) – artist, writer, feminist, environmentalist, animal activist (and passionate hater of Staffordshire figurines, “this menagerie of crockery monsters”, ibid) – is a fascinating personality from Australia’s early colonial past. After immigrating with her new husband Charles to Van Diemen’s Land in 1839, Louisa became part of a group of amateur painters which had been working in that colony from the arrival of John Glover a decade earlier. In the 1840s the group included the Colonial Auditor, G. W. T. B. Boyes; the first Bishop of Van Dieman’s Land, Francis Russell Nixon, and Mrs Nixon; Lady Franklin’s nephew, Lieutenant F. G. Simpkinson;  Surveyor-General, George Frankland and surveyor James Erskine Calder; poet and lecturer, Samuel Prout Hill; art teacher and lithographer, Thomas Evans Chapman; and Louisa herself. According to Vivienne Rae Ellis, writing in her biography “Louisa Anne Meredith – A Tigress in Exile”, both Bishop Nixon and Louisa in particular are known to have exercised, in addition to their painting activities, a keen interest in the early photographic processes. Louisa had seen an “exhibition of Daguerre’s first essay in sun-printing – the very dawn of photography”, at a soiree she and her husband attended in Oxford in 1839 shortly before embarking for the land Downunder. “Louisa recognised immediately the value of Daguerre’s revolutionary process, and became one of the earliest amateur photographers in the colonies”. (LAM – A Tigress in Exile, Blubber Head Press, 1979).

Furthermore, Ellis goes on to speculate in her biography that “it is highly probable that some of the illustrations in Over the Straits were engraved from Louisa’s own photographs taken in Victoria in 1856, but there is no proof of this.” (ibid)

Dr Anne Neale, in her PHD discussion of the work of E L Bateman, observed that: “It is interesting to note that Meredith considered the planting at the Plenty to be ‘Oriental” and ‘tropical’ in flavour, while William Howitt had been impressed by its Englishness. Meredith herself was inclined to find English comparisons for Australian landscapes: the ‘Oriental’ comment suggests that Bateman himself, with his well-established appreciation of oriental design, may have been her guide in viewing the gardens at the Plenty Station.” (Illuminating Nature, Anne Neale).

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VIII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Cypress and steps.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VIII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Cypress and steps. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

Louisa’s description of “a rustic flight of broad wooden steps, down a steep bank” suggests her familiarity with at least one of Bateman’s Yallambee pictures, View VIII in the Plenty Station series. Did she have Bateman’s pictures to draw from in memory, or did she have physical access to them during her visit to Yallambee? Louisa’s words “they seemed asking to be photographed forthwith; and some of the nooks have received even worthier honour from Mr. E. L. Bateman’s pencil” appear to be trying to tell us something from between the published lines, no mean feat from this great distance of more than 160 years hence.

1. "Dr. Godfrey Howitt's garden" [sic]", SLV.
1. Yallmabee, “Dr. Godfrey Howitt’s garden” [sic]”, State Library of Victoria.
In these pages I have speculated previously about the identity of the “unknown photographer” who took the SLV-Daguerreotypes, formerly mis-attributed as representing Dr Godfrey Howitt’s garden but which are, due to their similarity to Bateman’s drawings, readily identifiable as the Bakewells’ Yallambee Park. Stay with me then for a moment while I draw what is very possibly a very tight string on a on a very lengthy metaphoric long bow and imagine one day in late summer in the first half of the year 1856. It is a day when the garden at Yallambee is as yet in full bloom. Summer fruits burden trees with a late harvest. The owners of the garden have announced their plans to shortly return to the land of their birth and have invited friends and family for a last visit and a “merry luncheon in the cottage-room”.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view III by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. House with lattice-work verandah and garden.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view III by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. House with lattice-work verandah and garden. Source: National Gallery of Victoria.

The leaves are on the oak trees still and the yuccas are in flower. It is a day when bees drone in a lazy way around bee boxes placed on the river flat for that purpose by one, Robert Bakewell.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view IX by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Gardening shed.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view IX by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Gardening shed. Source: National Gallery of Victoria.

2. "Dr. Godfrey Howitt's garden" [sic]", SLV.
2. Yallambee, “Dr. Godfrey Howitt’s garden” [sic]”, State Library of Victoria.
It is a day when maybe, just maybe, Edward La Trobe Bateman and his friend and artistic collaborator, Louisa Anne Meredith, have found themselves together for a short while in the convivial surroundings of the Bakewell garden, one to stand at an easel, possibly sketching additional material for a probably already complete set of well-known Pre-Raphaelite drawings due to be exhibited in England later that year, the other to stand alongside him with a photographic tripod on which she has mounted an early Daguerreotype form of camera, brought here on a voyage from “over the straits” for just this purpose.

Spring in the garden at Yallambie with c1910 garage, September, 2016.
Spring in the garden at Yallambie with c1910 garage, September, 2016.

Speculation certainly, but could it explain the identity of the “unknown photographer”, the mysterious author of the pictures in the SLV collection? It’s a fascinating possibility but in the words of Ellis, “there is no proof of this”. 

Louisa returned to Van Diemen’s Land, styled from 1856 as the colony of Tasmania, and continued to write and paint while living a seemingly semi-nomadic life with her husband and family and never residing in one place for very many years. She maintained a correspondence with Bateman in Victoria and later in Scotland, when he settled there after 1869, but in her winter years, Louisa like her friend Georgiana McCrae, considered her life to have been a failure. In 1892 near the end of her long life, Louisa wrote to Henry Parkes, Australia’s ‘Father of Federation’, remarking that “I was born under an evil star.” History has been kinder and today Louisa Anne Meredith is recognized for the considerable contribution she made to Victoria’s 19th century cultural landscape. The story of Yallambie is the richer for it.



Walking with dinosaurs

A dinosaur was seen at Yallambie yesterday. Not the reptilian monster variety so favoured in the movies of Ray Harryhausen and Steven Spielberg, but a cone from a tree, largely unchanged since the Jurassic period.

Bunya cone
Bunya cone

The Bunya Bunya “Pine” or Araucaria bidwilli is a native of Queensland. The huge cones it produces erratically every few years contain edible seeds, a little like a potato or roasted chestnut. The tree in the garden at Yallambie that dropped the cone almost certainly pre dates the current Homestead. It was planted about 150 years ago by the early settlers from a seed reportedly supplied by Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, colonial Government Botanist and the then director of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, possibly to mark the event of the first Royal visit to Australia by Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh.

Early picture taken on the south lawn at Yallambie with Bunya pine on left.
Early picture taken on the south lawn at Yallambie with Bunya pine on left.
Group on the lawn at Yallambie, seated under the Bunya pine. Annie Murdoch (ne Wragge) is seated behind the dog. Alice Wragge is far right behind the Bunya branch, holding her hat.
Group on the lawn at Yallambie, seated under the Bunya pine. Annie Murdoch (ne Wragge) is seated behind the dog. Alice Wragge is far right behind the Bunya branch, holding her hat.

The Bunya is an Araucaria, a curious genus of evergreen coniferous trees in the family of Araucariaceae and a survivor from a time more than 100 million years ago when much of the land in the southern hemisphere was joined into a single super continent – Gondwanaland. Trees like the Bunya of Queensland, the Norfolk and New Caledonia “Pines” and the Monkey Puzzle of Chile, Araucarias all, are a clue to the original distribution of the species. Seen from a distance the Monkey Puzzle, so named because the task of climbing the sharp and interlocked branches are a puzzle even for the monkeys of South America, is a very similar tree in aspect to the Bunya. The Bunya is sometimes even referred to as the “False” Monkey Puzzle. The Bunya is however slightly more open in growth than the Monkey Puzzle, which is a handy thing when, like the monkeys of Chile, you need to climb one.

Grace Wragge (ne Wilson) standing with shawl around her shoulders. Probably her sister, Alice Wragge, seated and Syd Wragge, Grace’s husband lying down. A fence around the old east west tennis court is on the left. Bunya pine visible in the background.
Grace Wragge (ne Wilson) standing with shawl around her shoulders. Probably her sister, Alice Wragge, seated and Syd Wragge, Grace’s husband lying down. Bunya pine is visible in the background.
Harry Wragge at Yallambie holding up a shot gun. His father, Thomas Wragge, is standing behind on the left of picture. Another son, Syd Wragge, is lying in front of him also with shot gun. Annie Wragge, Thomas' eldest daughter, is sitting up next to Syd. Another daughter, Alice Wragge, seems to be in the middle of the 3 women behind Harry, (eyes turned down). The 3 point tree in the background above Alice’s shoulder is the Bakewell era, Italian cypress still growing at Yallambie. The Bunya pine is to the right.
Harry Wragge at Yallambie holding up a shot gun. His father, Thomas Wragge, is standing behind on the left of picture. Another son, Syd Wragge, is lying in front of him also with shot gun. Annie Wragge, Thomas’ eldest daughter, is sitting up next to Syd. Another daughter, Alice Wragge, seems to be in the middle of the 3 women behind Harry, (eyes turned down). The 3 point tree in the background above Alice’s shoulder is the Bakewell era, Italian cypress still growing at Yallambie. The Bunya pine is to the right.

A few years ago, when our son was still quite young, Father Christmas brought him a radio controlled, model aeroplane of infinite possibility. In that time honoured tradition, I took our son outside on Christmas Day to educate him first hand in the finer arts of piloting a model aeroplane. After his initial test flight, I took the controls myself and managed to fly the plane on my first pass into the top most branches of the Bunya nearly 40m above our heads. The expression on my son’s face as I looked at him and he looked at me, tears welling in his eyes, resolved me immediately in my course of action. To the strains of “Don’t do it Daddy – I’d rather have a daddy than a plane,” and with a passing thought to those monkeys across the Pacific, I hoisted myself up into the sharp branches of the Bunya, pausing only once to wonder at a mummified possum, (an indicator perhaps to my possible fate) eventually climbing all the way to the top from where I was able to dislodge the plane to the ground. That done the only question remaining then was, “Now how do I get back down?”

By the time I stood once more safely on Terra Firma, having miraculously avoided that all too rapid descent, my clothes were in tatters and my arms cut to ribbons but I had the time honoured words ready, used by father to son for generations. “Don’t tell your mother.”

The Bunya "Pine" at Yallambie, c1955
The Bunya “Pine” at Yallambie, c1955

There are several other old Araucarias growing in the Yallambie Park reserve and one or two in the private properties neighbouring its boundaries, including at least one other Bunya. One old Hoop Pine (Araucaria cunninghamii) was cut down in its prime in a private garden in Moola Close in recent times but the “Lone” Hoop Pine which is growing still so superbly on the river flat in Yallambie Park is a magnificent specimen. Standing alone, noble and tall and listed by the National Trust of Australia Register of Significant Trees, it is ranked of State significance. I collected a seed from a cone of this tree nearly 20 years ago and planted a seedling at the bottom of our garden adjacent to an old Pinus radiata that was at that time in sharp decline. The Pinus is long gone now but the Hoop Pine is growing nicely in its place and measures something now over 5m tall.

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

There are a few Bunyas growing in Heidelberg Gardens, probably planted there by fellow Heidelberg Shire Councillor of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge, Peter Fanning in the 19th century. I remember running barefoot through Heidelberg Gardens as a child, my chief memory from then being of that “prickly park”. Araucaria’s are seen in many types of parkland but considering the size of its cones, it’s a wonder that the Bunya has been planted so extensively in public spaces. Summer nights in Yallambie are occasionally disturbed by Narnian “Dufflepud” thumping when the Bunya has a mind to drop its cones. It’s a bit like Tom Hanks in the movie “Castaway” with his sleep disturbed by the coconuts falling around his camp. Years ago I travelled through some remote parts of the Pacific and the fear of falling coconuts is something you hear people talk about there but not with any great seriousness. Likewise, although unlikely,I imagine the damage would be pretty severe were a Bunya nut ever to nut your noggin.

Bunya pine at Yallambie, January, 2015
Bunya pine at Yallambie, January, 2015

As a fruit tree the Bunya provided the first Australians with an important source of indigenous bush tucker in Queensland. It was one of the few foods that they would harvest in excess of their immediate needs, taking the seeds away and burying them to eat the edible tubers at a later date. The trees were highly prized by the Queensland tribes who called them Gubbi Gubbi and held vast gatherings in the forests of the Bunya Mountains when the cones were ripe. Stories exist of the murder by Aboriginals of unfortunate Red Cedar cutters in the Bunya Mountains, retribution for the damage done to Bunyas during the extraction of their cedar logs. From 1842 Bunyas were protected by the colonial government of New South Wales in what became known as the “Bunya Proclamation”. Unfortunately, one of the first acts of the new government of Queensland upon separation in 1859 was to revoke this decree and proclaim new timber getting regulations, an early example of victory by loggers over conservation but by that time the Bunya tree and other Araucarias were being planted in homestead gardens across Australia, including the garden at Yallambie.

Bunya pine at Yallambie, January, 2015
Bunya pine at Yallambie, January, 2015

In the family of Araucariaceae there are three genera of which the Araucarias form one. They are “living fossils” of the forest and it is commonly believed that the long necks of sauropod dinosaurs may have evolved specifically to graze on the foliage of the tall trees. A third genus known as Wollemia was known only through fossil records and its only extant species went undiscovered until 1994 when the Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis ) was found growing in an inaccessible canyon, 150km north west of Sydney. It’s a truly remarkable story and one I would suggest you read in detail elsewhere. I read a very informative book a few years ago by James Woodford on the subject but managed to leave it on the roof of my car one day so can’t lend it to you. I found the book later blowing up and down Lower Plenty Road in the rain but was at least able to salvage the last chapters describing the progress of the Wollemi Pine’s reintroduction into civilisation. Fewer than 100 trees are known to be growing in the wild, in three closely situated localities within Wollemi National Park. It is listed as critically endangered but a propagation programme is underway to sustain it in garden form. This might be meeting with some success. We were at a party last month and the Christmas tree in the home was an impressive living tree, standing more than two metres tall in a pot. Not a Norfolk Pine, the tree more usually used in Australia for such purposes, but a very fine looking Wollemi “Pine” that looked like it had stepped right out of Morticia’s garden room in the “The Addams Family”. It had lovely, fern like leaves which is a contrast to those of the Bunya which has sharp, prickly fronds well suited to ripping the motor out of a Victa lawn mower. The Wollemi would make a great landscape tree. I wonder whether Banyule Council could possibly be encouraged to plant one down in the Yallambie Park reserve?

As if in commentary to that farcical notion, my thoughts are suddenly interrupted here as the skies of Yallambie come alive with a flock of Sulphur Crested Cockatoos outside our window. They are wheeling and screeching around the neighbourhood to land in the upper branches of the Bunya where the model plane was once lodged. Don’t let it be said that native birds avoid exotic gardens. They know exactly where to come when doing the rounds. I dare say though that the cockies around here find the Bunya cones too tough even for their large beaks. It might explain the mess the pesky blighters have made recently of our other fruit trees. I caught them in our walnut earlier, stripping the branches leaf by leaf and dangling while they did so looking like they were hanging from a trapeze. They are sitting in the Bunya now looking at me as if to say, come and get me. They don’t know about that plane or the monkey in me. It’s said that if you’re looking for dinosaurs today, to look no further than to the birds of the sky. But just for a moment, look again at the trees they perch in. It might be that the herb you’re looking at is of a similar antediluvian origin.

Sulphur Crested Cockatoo in oak tree at Yallambie, January, 2015
Sulphur Crested Cockatoo in English oak tree at Yallambie, January, 2015
Agave "century plant" flower and parrot at Yallambie
Mexican Agave “century plant” flower and parrot at Yallambie
Pesky little blighters: Sulphur Crested Cockatoos in walnut tree at Yallambie, January, 2015
Pesky little blighters: Sulphur Crested Cockatoos in walnut tree at Yallambie, January, 2015