Category Archives: Botanical

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).
YALLAMBIE_LSE3a
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:

zygomarguerite_daisydaisy

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. http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/29449

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
Poppies

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
Bluebells

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
Meleanthus

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.
Ipheion

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.
Hellebores

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.

 

 

Picture this

If you live anywhere in Melbourne or thereabouts, it’s odds on that you’ve already encountered the name “Howitt” somewhere along your travels whilst scarcely noticing it. The fact is, it’s a name that is closely associated with the early story of the Port Phillip District. There are Howitt streets and roads, Howitt parks and palms and the occasional memorial cairns and monuments, all named after the various members of that most interesting family of our early history.

The monotypic genus Howittia, a native blue-flowered mallow, named by Baron von Mueller in acknowledgement of Howitt's "devotion to botany".
The monotypic genus Howittia, a native blue-flowered mallow, named by Baron von Mueller in acknowledgement of Godfrey Howitt’s “devotion to botany”.

There’s even a Mt Howitt somewhere in the so called Australian Alps which you can climb, as Mallory once said, “Because it’s there”.

mount-howitt-track-sign

However there are no streets in Yallambie named after these Howitts, which is perhaps surprising. There are no mountains either, for that matter.

William Howitt
William Howitt

As previously discussed in the pages of this blog, both Richard and William Howitt visited the Bakewell farm at Yallambee and wrote about their experiences in 1842 and 1852 respectively. That’s a story that deserves a closer inspection later alongside the Yallambie connection of that prominent exponent of Melbourne’s early cultural establishment, Dr Godfrey Howitt.

Dr Godfrey Howitt, by Samuel Calvert, 1873.
Dr Godfrey Howitt, by Samuel Calvert, 1873.
Phoebe Bakewell (Mrs Godfrey Howitt) c1858-c1862
Phoebe Bakewell (Mrs Godfrey Howitt) c1858-c1862

The good doctor was the brother of William and Richard and the brother in law of Yallambee’s John and Robert Bakewell, Godfrey and his wife Phoebe having travelled with the Bakewells when emigrating to Port Phillip aboard the SS Lord Goderich in 1840. Godfrey and Phoebe came to Australia partly in an attempt to improve the health of their eldest child, John Henry Howitt who it was considered would benefit from the warmer climate. The eleven year old John Henry Howitt is known to have visited his Bakewell uncles at Yallambee in 1842, a year before his premature death from Tuberculosis. He wrote a very interesting and eloquent letter to his then similarly aged cousin in England, the future Australian explorer, Alfred Howitt, describing the Bakewell farm and the exploits of the marauding Plenty River bushrangers.

However, more to that story in my next post.

With this in mind, it was while Googling the name of Dr Godfrey Howitt today that I found the following two images online, the property of the State Library of Victoria.

1. "Dr. Godfrey Howitt's garden" [sic]", SLV.
1. “Dr. Godfrey Howitt’s garden” [sic]”, SLV.
2. "Dr. Godfrey Howitt's garden" [sic]", SLV.
2. “Dr. Godfrey Howitt’s garden” [sic]”, SLV.
The pictures are sixth-plate Daguerreotypes from the collection of Stanley Yalkowsky and were purchased at auction by the Library at Sotheby’s in New York in 2010 for USD$18,750, nearly three times the pre-sale estimate price. The pictures reportedly carry a pencil inscription describing the images as being “Dr Godfrey Howitt’s garden”.

I had these images open on my lap top, wondering about them in a curious way when my wife came along and glanced over my shoulder.

“Oh look,” she said. “It’s the Station Plenty. Is it on ebay?” she added hopefully.

“You would have needed $20,000 6 years ago to buy it,” I replied. But she was right. It did look like Yallambee.

View of the Station Plenty, Port Phillip district, (I) Distant view of station with cattle in foreground, 1853-1856, Edward La Trobe Bateman, NGV.
View of the Station Plenty, Port Phillip district, (I) Distant view of station with cattle in foreground, 1853-1856, Edward La Trobe Bateman, NGV.

A lot.

Dr Godfrey’s house in Collins Street East was the centre of Melbourne culture in the early colony and the beauty and the extent of his garden was widely regarded. On the face of it the photographs could have been this garden but all the same, one of the Daguerreotypes seemed to show a pre-fabricated building similar to the sort put up by Superintendant La Trobe at Jolimont or the Bakewell buildings at Yallambee. Dr Godfrey and Phoebe are believed to have built something similar in Collins Street in the 1840s but the only pictures I had seen previously of the Howitts’ house in Melbourne were of a later date and of a rendered brick building in the 1860s.

Home of Dr Godfrey and Phoebe (ne Bakewell) Howitt on the corner of Collins Street East and Spring Street, Melbourne, 1868, SLV.
Home of Dr Godfrey and Phoebe (ne Bakewell) Howitt on the corner of Collins Street East and Spring Street, Melbourne, 1868, SLV.

Daguerreotypes are laterally reversed or mirror images because they are necessarily viewed from the side that originally faced the camera lens. By reversing the first of the SLV pictures and comparing it to a cropped detail of Edward La Trobe Bateman’s View I, the truth suddenly becomes clear. The Howitt Daguerreotype of the building is taken looking up at the roof line and from a closer proximity than the Bateman drawing, which was made from the top of the ridge on the modern day Yallambie Road, but in essence the picture is the same. The trees are the same. The trellis is the same. The chimney is the same.

Comparative detail View I of the Station Plenty, Port Phillip district, by Edward La Trobe Bateman (reversed) and 1. Dr. Godfrey Howitt's garden [sic].
Comparative detail View I of the Station Plenty, Port Phillip district, by Edward La Trobe Bateman (reversed) and 1. Dr. Godfrey Howitt’s garden [sic].
Comparative detail View IX of the Station Plenty, Port Phillip district, by Edward La Trobe Bateman and 2. Dr. Godfrey Howitt's garden [sic].
Comparative detail View IX of the Station Plenty, Port Phillip district, by Edward La Trobe Bateman and 2. Dr. Godfrey Howitt’s garden [sic].
As to the second Daguerreotype, I would suggest that the Yucca depicted is the same plant visible on the right of picture in the Edward La Trobe Bateman drawing, View IX.

The photographs are extraordinarily rare out door images from the colonial era. The author of the images is unknown and one can only wonder at the reason behind and under what difficult circumstances the pictures could possibly have been made. The Howitt provenance is clear but the Bakewell connection is at this stage, speculative. One of the few photographers working in the Daguerreotype medium in early Melbourne, Douglas T Kilburn, was like Dr Godfrey’s son John Henry, a consumptive. Kilburn kept Melbourne’s first professional photographic studio in Little Collins Street and it is perhaps easy to guess at the situation leading to the creation of the SLV pictures.

Douglas T Kilburn, 1850s, SLT.
Douglas T Kilburn, 1850s, SLT.

To my mind the SLV “Howitt” Daguerreotypes should join the 12 Edward La Trobe Bateman Station Plenty drawings as a part of documentary evidence in any discussion of the early farm at the Bakewell brothers’, “Yallambee Park”. The story of how the Daguerreotypes came to be made, almost in unison with the Bateman drawings and at a time of or before the Victorian gold rushes, remains uncertain. Clearly more research needs to be conducted from this point by those with an academic persuasion.

However, as a last but probably not final word, it is interesting to note that Dr Ann Neale in her PHD thesis, “Illuminating Nature”, suggested that the 12 Station Plenty Bateman drawings at the NGV may have been part of an overlapping series, only a part of which the Bakewells retained privately.

Might the SLV Daguerreotypes have somehow figured in this theoretical series?

Might the two SLV photographic images have once been a part of a larger whole?

daguerreotype camera

Green Days

In the previous post, Lady Betty Lush remembered her childhood visits to the Yallambie Homestead:

“I also loved to be allowed to wander in the garden under the tall pine trees and around the river. It seemed to me a dream garden…”

Travelling around the suburb of Yallambie today it is sometimes hard to reconcile those impressions with the reality of life in a modern city. In 1959 when Nancy and Cliff Bush prepared to leave their farm at Yallambie after a century of occupation by the Wragge family, they commissioned a film maker and family friend, Peter Bassett-Smith to make a 16mm film as a record of the property before it was consumed by the proposed A V Jennings housing development. That film is now housed at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra after its owner, Bill Bush donated it to the library. As a testimony to a farm in close proximity to a capital city in Australia in the middle part of the 20th century, it is a fascinating picture. The scenes of rolling green fields, mature tree lined drives and gardens, the dams filled with water, and the solid, old homestead with its c1840 stable block are a glimpse into a golden, nostalgic world of which only a remnant has survived to the present day.

Still from the film "Yallambie" by Peter Bassett-Smith
Still from the film “Yallambie” by Peter Bassett-Smith

When surveyed at the start of the 1960s, the A V Jennings plan for the subdivision of Yallambie cut through the house garden. Pegs observed close to the Homestead at that time suggest that Jennings also contemplated the demolition of the c1870 farm house.

Still from the film "Yallambie" by Peter Bassett-Smith
Still from the film “Yallambie” by Peter Bassett-Smith

After construction, Tarcoola Drive cut through the house paddock and Lambruk Court opposite the Homestead crossed the site of the old stockyards and loading ramps. A V Jennings auctioned the first blocks of land at Yallambie in September, 1966 for an average price of £4118. From 1974, after the Victorian Government Gazette published its approval, the new suburb was officially listed as “Yallambie”, within the City of Heidelberg (now City of Banyule). Today it is home to a resident population of several thousand people, many of whom are probably unaware of its earlier history. For them and for any others who might be interested to see the beauty of a now vanished farming era, here is that film:

Diggers in the Garden State

Sometime in the 1980s in the last decade of the “Cold War”, there was a tall graffiti on a bus stop in Greensborough Rd outside the entrance to the Watsonia Military Camp. “U2” it proclaimed in large letters of carefully drawn sans serif. It was there for a long time, homage to a rock band from Ireland, without deference to the base beyond or to American spy planes flying thickly in the blue skies up above.

"American spy planes flying thickly in the blue skies up above..."
“American spy planes flying thickly in the blue skies up above…”

Travelling quickly past, the army barracks in Heidelberg’s north wasn’t something we thought about much, unless while turning the pages of a Neville Shute book on the beach on the Mornington Peninsula in the summer holidays. There was some expectation that suburbia would someday obliterate the barracks, if the Cold War Ruskies didn’t manage it first, as agrarian land has never been able to co-exist for long in Melbourne without someone, somewhere wanting to come along and put a housing estate on it. And there were several hundred acres of it enclosing the Watsonia Camp.

The thing is, the “Watsonia Army Barracks” as we called it wasn’t actually in Watsonia. A Commonwealth reserve, the land the camp occupies has habitually been a geographic part of Yallambie, separated from neighbouring Watsonia and Macleod by the Greensborough Hwy and the western end of Yallambie Rd. Known simply as the Simpson Barracks after 1986, not after the Private soldier with the donkey (who incidentally was not a Simpson but a Kirkpatrick), but after a World War II Army brass hat, its official address is Mackay Rd, Yallambie and it occupies what was in the 19th century the western most portion of the Yallambie estate.

Wragge women on a post and rail fence. Sarah Ann Wragge appears to be the person in the middle. Picture taken probably in the fields that later became the Simpson Army Barracks.
Wragge women on a post and rail fence. Sarah Ann Wragge appears to be the person in the middle. Picture taken probably in the fields that later became the Simpson Army Barracks.

When Thomas Wragge died in 1910 his 604 acre Heidelberg property, Yallambie Park, passed to his wife Sarah Ann (less one acre bequeathed to the Church of England) and upon her death five years later, to three of their surviving children, Sarah Annie Murdoch, (ne Wragge) and her brothers Syd and Harry, with a another brother sharing equally from the income.

Between 1920 and 1921, Annie, Syd and Harry agreed to divide the Yallambie estate between them. While the two men received a larger share of the land, Annie took the homestead with 109 acres, including the gardens and the prime alluvial river flats on the western banks of the Plenty River. Syd and Harry both received 247 acres.

Syd leased his brother’s share and with the two portions he and his wife, Grace, developed a farm on the western most part of Yallambie. They named the enterprise “Tulla” after the Wragge family’s famous Riverina sheep station. Syd’s daughter, Lady Betty Lush, (ne Wragge) would later recall her father’s Blanding Castle style farming activities with the following description chronicled by Winty Calder in her book, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”:

“We built a weekend house on the highest ridge and bought and moved from nearby another house for the manager. Stockyards, fowl pens, stables and cow bails were erected and we went into farming in a small way. In my father’s lifetime we kept bees, fowls, had horses out on agistment in the paddocks but most profitable of all were some middle Yorkshire pigs. These if not a financial success, and it has been said most of my father’s ventures were not a financial success, were definitely a breeding success as one boar ‘Tulla Laird’ (we called the farm Tulla) was champion pig for three years at the Royal Melbourne Show…”

Tulla Laird, with apologies to the Empress of Blandings.
Tulla Laird, with apologies to the Empress of Blandings.

Betty also remembered with fondness her visits to the Yallambie Homestead in the 1920s, by then occupied solely by her Aunt Sarah Annie and Uncle Walter Murdoch and their daughter, her cousin, Nancy. By the early 20th century the garden planted by the Bakewell brothers and Thomas Wragge had reached its maturity and fully justified its nomenclature, Yallambie Park.

"The garden planted by the Bakewell brothers and Thomas Wragge had reached its maturity..."
“The garden planted by the Bakewell brothers and Thomas Wragge had reached its maturity…”

“As a small child I can well remember our trips out to Heidelberg every Sunday afternoon, wet or fine, to supervise the running of the farm, first father then mother, and our weekend visits and Easter vacations spent there. On these longer visits one or all of us were invited always for some reason to Yallambie, very often for dinner and the evening. I loved these visits even though nearly always in the early years I would fall asleep with a book by the billiard room fire while the older ones played a game or so after dinner. Often I would ride down there with a message, only too glad of an excuse to go there. Auntie Annie was always very generous and seemed pleased to see us, and I had what was then known as a “crush” on Nancy. I also loved to be allowed to wander in the garden under the tall pine trees and around the river. It seemed to me a dream garden…”

Kath Wright (later Adams) at Yallambie, 1918
Kathleen (Kath) Wright who, like Betty Wragge, was a cousin of Nancy Murdoch. Kath grew up at “The Trossachs” in Odenwald Rd, Eaglemont and “often rode her horse from her home in Eaglemont to Yallambie when visiting Nancy”. This photograph was taken in 1918 in the stable yard at Yallambie when Kath was about 18 years old.

Betty’s father, Syd Wragge, died prematurely in 1927 aged only 53. His widow Grace initially continued running their Heidelberg farm as a dairy but due to the poor soils on the remote heights located away from the Plenty River flood plain, (Richard Howitt’s “vast and sterile stringy-bark forests” of 1841), and the fact that artificial fertilisers were not used, it was never a great success. In 1934 she decided to sell her 247 acres for £10,000 to Ainslie Meares, a family friend and relation of the wife of a cousin, Jim (JP) Hearn.

Ainslie Dixon Meares (1910-1986) was born in Melbourne and after graduating in medicine from Melbourne University, practiced in the field of psychiatry. He pioneered the concept of therapeutic meditation and wrote many books on the subject on his way to becoming arguably Australia’s most distinguished, certainly its best known and most flamboyant, psychiatrist.

Ainslie Dixon Meares (1910-1986)
Ainslie Dixon Meares (1910-1986)

Meares employed the architect Lesley Forsyth, renowned for his Neo-Tudor houses, to design a two storey brick residence. It was built in 1936 on the high ground that had earlier been selected by Syd Wragge for his dairy farm. Ainslie Meares and his wife Bonnie (ne Byrne) named their house “Aldermaston” after the village in the UK where the couple had spent their honeymoon two years earlier. It was constructed in the style of an English country house at an estimated cost of £7000 and featured a turreted castle tower, steeply graded slate roofs and crisp, white French windows. Its blend of Art Deco and Gothic constructional ideas, together with its sweeping views of Mt Dandenong and the Plenty Ranges was a remarkable architectural realization. A contemporary newspaper report described the finished building:

The circular wooden staircase lies in a rounded turret and leads to the balcony, which surrounds the central hall… all the main rooms open from this spacious hall, which is panelled with Queensland maple … opening from the left hand side of the hall with folding doors is the long, light sitting room at the end of which a tall bay window is carried from ceiling to floor …directly opposite is the dining-room. One of the most attractive rooms in the house is the study, which is octagonal and is panelled with Queensland maple to match the hall. This delightful room has windows on three sides and a door opening to the garden from a fourth …a breakfast room corresponding in shape and size opens from the opposite corner of the hall, and leads to the kitchen and servants’ quarters which are in a separate self-contained wing.

Ainslie’s brother is reported to have lived in a house on another ridge in the district and the two properties were within sight of each other.  Many years later Meares wrote about the inspiration for the design of Aldermaston:

“The old home in which I had been brought up was of unusual design with a central hall going up to the full height of the two storeys. We often try to relive our childhood fancies in later life, and I drew a plan for a house on this principle. I gave these ideas to the architect Mr Les Forsyth, and he designed the details and supervised the building”.

 

Meares' Aldermaston Manor
Meares’ Aldermaston Manor

Aldermaston was rated with an A1 grading by Graeme Butler in his 1985, “Heidelberg Conservation Study, Part 1” which contained the following glowing citation:

“Built in the Neo-Tudor style, so favoured in Heidelberg. Aldermaston is perhaps the biggest and the best, showing an extension of the eclectic style to suit the modern concept of massing. Clinker face brickwork, steep overlapping slated gabled roofs and multi-paned shuttered windows are the components of the style, whilst the curved driveway, with main and service entrances spaced along its length, illustrates a design for facility on a grand scale. Internally, the two levels of the house are carried through to overlook a vast two level space, in the Great Hall manner, with the lacquered veneered panelling, large fireplace, and gallery which communicates with the upper level rooms. The garden has basically survived and is an important part of the hillside setting. This is an outstanding and original house of the Neo-Tudor style and the former first marital home of Australia’s most renowned psychiatrist, Dr Ainslie Meares. The building is of state importance, architecturally and historically.”

Picture from The "Heidelberg Conservation Study, Part 1", 1985
Picture from The “Heidelberg Conservation Study, Part 1”, 1985

In 2011, the Banyule Heritage Review recommended the house for inclusion on the Commonwealth Heritage List.

The Meares lived at Aldermaston for only a brief time in the 1930s before the Army requisitioned the property for training purposes. With the threat of war looming, the adjacent land to the north of the property was developed as an Army training ground and included administrative staff, reception and transit camps for the troops. The area was given the official title of “Camp Q”, but soon became known, somewhat inaccurately, as simply the “Watsonia Barracks”.

Army cadets at Watsonia (Yallambie) military camp, 1944, AWM
Army cadets at Watsonia (Yallambie) military camp, 1944, AWM

In 1941 the Army formally purchased a part of the property and the Meares home was turned into a training hospital for the duration. By that time, Ainslie Meares had enlisted in the Army as a doctor with the rank of Captain. On at least one occasion during those years, Captain Meares, like Evelyn Waugh’s fictional Captain in “Brideshead Revisited”, found himself billeted in Army barracks at the Camp while senior officers were living in the comfort of the manor house.

The 7th Division on parade at Watsonia (Yallambie) military camp, 1944, AWM
The 7th Division on parade at Watsonia (Yallambie) military camp, 1944, AWM

With victory in World War II, the “Watsonia Barracks” began to wind down and by 1946 it was practically deserted. Between 1946 and 1951 the old Army Nissan huts were being used by the Victorian Government as makeshift housing. Some were removed and were to find new life in other uses, such as meeting halls for Scout troops in the district.

Eaglemont Scout Group Hall, removed to Chelsworth Park, Ivanhoe from the "Watsonia" Barracks in 1958.
Eaglemont Scout Group Hall, removed to Chelsworth Park, Ivanhoe from the “Watsonia” Barracks in 1958.

Dr Ainslie and Bonnie Meares returned to Aldermaston Manor but in 1951 they vacated the house again and sold the remaining part of their property to the Army which had decided to extend the Watsonia Camp. At the time there was an expectation that the Army would also purchase the Yallambie Homestead, its gardens and river side farmland. Sarah Annie Murdoch had died in 1949 and the remaining Wragge property at Yallambie had passed to her daughter, Nancy. A preliminary approach was made to Nancy and her husband, Cliff Bush.

The Hon Josiah Francis, Minister for the Army in 1954
The Hon Josiah Francis, Minister for the Army in 1954

“About 1954, the Federal Government put Nancy under considerable pressure to sell her property for extension of the Watsonia Military Camp. She opposed the resumption, but invited Mr Francis, Minister for the Army, to visit her at Yallambie. The entertainment she provided included good food and a Henry Clay cigar, out of which a silverfish popped. Whether for that or for some other reason, the government dropped its plans to compulsorily acquire Yallambie.”

(Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, Winty Calder, Jimaringle Press, 1996).

Vintage Henry Clay cigar box of the 1880s.
Vintage Henry Clay cigar box of the 1880s.

The Army’s collective “nyet” meant that after 1951 the Camp did not expand beyond its existing boundaries. Nancy retained her Yallambie property but at the end of the decade, after a century of occupation by the Wragge family, she sold it to the real estate developer A. V. Jennings which developed the Yallambie housing estate there after 1966.

Meares’ Aldermaston House remained largely immune from advancing suburbia and was utilised as a residence by the Army’s Victorian Military District commander in the 1970s. Since 1984 it has been the HQ for the Defence Force School of Music where the crashing of cymbals can no doubt be heard mixed in with the laughter of the kookaburras.

In 1991 the Commonwealth declared about 120 acres (50 hectares) of the Simpson Barracks, surplus to Army requirements and sold it to the Defence Housing Authority. The “Pioneer Property Group” entered into a joint venture with the Authority and developed about 500 house lots on the land which was dubbed “Streeton Views” estate at Yallambie. Arthur Streeton had been an official artist in the Great War but I expect it was his earlier Heidelberg School paintings and not his visions of war torn France that the developers had in mind when imagining the Yallambie project.

Pond at Streeton Views estate, Yallambie, March, 2015
Pond at Streeton Views estate, Yallambie, March, 2015

As housing estates go, the Streeton Views exercise was handled with some degree of sensitivity. A grassy common intended to reflect the style of the nearby Meares house and ornamental lakes fashioned from levees banks bordering Lower Plenty Rd were significant features. John Hawker, horticulturalist with Heritage Victoria, was retained to provide advice on preserving a number of significant, pre settlement native trees within the development. The estate won the 1994 Housing Industry Award for best medium density development and the 1996 Urban Design Institute of Australia Award for Best Estate over 200 lots nationwide.

River red gum and pond adjacent to Lower Plenty Rd at Streeton Views estate, Yallambie, March, 2015
River red gum and pond adjacent to Lower Plenty Rd at Streeton Views estate, Yallambie, March, 2015

A recent Armed Services audit of assets at Yallambie is rumoured to have attached a staggering one hundred million dollar price tag on the remaining Army land at the Simpson Barracks, but Mum’s the word, Mr Hockey. The Army has been spending millions on building programmes inside the Simpson Barracks and on security upgrades to the entry points. New gatehouses, due to be completed in June, are being constructed at the main entrance on Greensborough Rd and on the Yallambie Rd entry points.

I saw inside Aldermaston in 2009 while on a tour arranged by the Heidelberg Historical Society but photography was forbidden at that time. Late last month, for the purpose of illustrating this post, I went up to the barracks with the intention of photographing Aldermaston from public stomping ground outside the fence. After a conversation with the guards at the nearby gatehouse that included a discussion about the relative merits of the art of photography around a secure military base, I put my post 9/11 camera away and didn’t get much of a picture I’m afraid.

Aldermaston, photographed with a post 9/11 camera, March, 2015
Aldermaston, photographed with a post 9/11 camera, March, 2015

Thinking about what became of Meares’ home, the greatest distinction of Aldermaston House remains its superlative setting on the highest ground in Yallambie and, thanks to the Army, this has never been built out. The occasional fly over by Army helicopters and loosened roof slates is the price we pay in this suburb for having that extra slice of green swath down the road.

Army Black Hawk helicopters flying low over roof top chimneys of Yallambie Homestead, March, 2011
Army Black Hawk helicopters flying low over roof top chimneys of Yallambie Homestead, March, 2011

It’s an irony that in a world that can no longer afford the environmental destructions caused by military conflicts, it is the Army that has done much to develop a land management strategy at Yallambie. Indigenous trees have been replanted, stands of River Red Gums regenerated and the Yallambie Creek that runs through the Base has been stabilised and overplanted, a boon for wildlife. Driving past on a Saturday morning a few weeks ago the Army woodland bordering Yallambie Rd was brim full of kangaroos. Captain Kangaroo, the all new recruit, perhaps?

The pressures that suburban development can bring can be illustrated by a brief mention of the story of the Plenty Gorge Park upriver from Yallambie. The first proposal for a Park in the Gorge came in the Melbourne Planning Scheme of 1928 however nothing was done until suburban development reached the area in the 1970s and 80s. A community action group, the “Friends of the Plenty Gorge, Inc” was formed in 1987 with the stated aim of extending the Plenty Gorge Park into the southern fringes of the Gorge environment. Irreconcilable differences within the group emerged when land owners bordering the Gorge around Janefield in the south, many of whom had previously maintained the area and thought themselves best qualified to do so, found themselves at loggerheads with environmentalists who favoured a wider strategy. The group effectively disintegrated soon after the southern boundaries of the Park, which placed urban development in close proximity to the Gorge bushland, were declared.

“The debate that tore apart Friends of the Plenty Gorge in many ways reflected debate occurring in the wider society regarding private and public ownership of assets.”

(A Story in Landscape, Gerry Closs, The Australian Experience in the Plenty Valley, Plenty Valley Papers, vol 2, 1996.)

Batman's c1841 apple tree and old Maroondah Aquaduct pipe bridge near the corner of Corowa Cr and Lear Ct, Greensborough, downstream from the Plenty Gorge, March 2015.
Batman’s c1841 apple tree and old Maroondah Aquaduct pipe bridge near the corner of Corowa Cr and Lear Ct, Greensborough, downstream from the Plenty Gorge, March 2015.

Travel anywhere around Melbourne these days and you will find open land is now at a premium. In most suburbs temporary fencing surrounds building projects, very often where houses have been demolished on larger blocks to make way for the multiple unit constructions that seem to be forever popping up like mushrooms. Big Ears might be happy to live in a mushroom but somebody is certainly getting wealthy on the strength of it. A newspaper report last month suggested that “developers are making apartments smaller and smaller because it supercharges their profits.” (The Age, 19 March, 2015). Look at the following link to see what the 70 years since the end of World War II have done to Melbourne and its suburbs.

http://1945.melbourne/

Where will we be in another 70 years? It is a frightening fact that the Chinese used more greenhouse gas producing concrete in three years from 2011 than the United States used throughout the entire course of the previous one hundred years. As Paul Gilding so eloquently explained, “The Earth is Full” and we’re not about to get another one to replace it. There’s a war going on out in the suburbs and this one doesn’t involve the Army. Dr Meares treated returned servicemen suffering from the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress after the War but today it is modern living that is creating victims and people are both its culprits and casualties. Apartment living and the fashion for smaller house blocks might answer the needs of an expanding metropolis but they deny people the health giving benefits in both a physical and spiritual sense of managing a garden.

I was driving with my son yesterday and he pointed at the slogan that can be seen on the number plates of most, late model cars — VICTORIA THE PLACE TO BE.

“What does that mean?” he said.

“Dunno, not New South Wales I suppose. I remember when the plates used to say — THE GARDEN STATE.”

In addition to his series of drawings of "Yallambee", E La Trobe Bateman was a noted garden designer and laid out East Melbourne's Fitzroy Gardens in 1856. In 2011 a plaque was placed on a "meditation bench" in the Gardens to commemorate the life of Ainslie Meares. This is the view from that bench.
In addition to his series of drawings of “Yallambee”, E La Trobe Bateman was a noted garden designer and laid out East Melbourne’s Fitzroy Gardens in 1856. In 2011 a plaque was placed on a “meditation bench” in the Gardens to commemorate the life of Ainslie Meares. This is the view from that bench.

Former State Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett has appeared on television recently and written in the press, proclaiming the health giving benefits of gardening. “I know from experience that gardening is a great antidote to stress and anxiety”, (Herald Sun, 4 March, 2015). Loved and loathed by Victorians in equal measure, Jeff was a controversial figure in political office but since leaving government he has undergone something of a transformation. His work for the mental health organization, Beyond Blue is well known but Jeff claims that it is his garden that gives his life the balance that it needs on a day to day basis and that moreover, Beyond Blue is the most important work he has ever done. It’s an idea that I think would have left old Dr Meares chuffed.

Inscription on the "meditation bench", Fitzroy Gardens, East Melbourne.
Inscription on the “meditation bench”, Fitzroy Gardens, East Melbourne.

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