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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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:
“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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
When 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.