At the bottom of George Street, Brisbane, in the curve of the river, there was a convict farm growing maize and vegetables. In time, the New Farm was established as well, and later the Eagle Farm.
In 1855, after the convict era ended, the New South Wales Government established Botanic Gardens on the George Street land, and appointed Walter Hill, trained in London’s Kew Gardens, as Superintendent. In 1859 he was appointed government botanist. For twenty-six years, until he retired and afterwards, Walter Hill worked at introducing, propagating and sharing plants species across Queensland, Australia and the world. He propagated the first macadamia tree in cultivation, which is still standing today in the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens and still producing nuts.
He also experimented with varieties of sugar cane, and helped refine it – the first sugar to be produced in Queensland.
He collected native plants, and especially loved bunya and hoop pines, planting hundreds of them, along with fig trees. His avenue of bunya pines still dominates the riverside walk in the Gardens.
It was Walter Hill who successfully grew, in the Brisbane Botanic Gardens, what is said to be the first jacaranda tree in Australia – later the subject of Queensland Art Gallery’s most loved painting. He sent seeds from this tree, a native plant of Brazil, far and wide and transformed the parks, gardens, and street plantings of Queensland. The tree blew down in a storm in 1980.
Walter Hill travelled Queensland, collecting native plant species and setting aside land in Toowoomba, Maryborough, Rockhampton, Mackay, Bowen, Cardwell, Cairns and other regional towns for agricultural study and botanical gardens. Some of them were never developed, but the ones in Rockhampton, Cairns and Toowoomba have become magnificent, much-loved and much-visited places, popular sites for weddings and functions, and home to fine plant and sculpture collections.
There’s some wonderful art in botanic gardens. It isn’t always widely known, and it often comes as a surprise.
On a visit to Kew Gardens, which could be considered the oldest and greatest of botanic gardens, I was astonished by the colourful paintings of the nineteenth century English botanical artist Marianne North – 833 paintings, the product of thirteen years of world travels and literally covering the walls of a charming, specially designed 1880s building.
One large group of paintings depicts the plants and forests of tropical Queensland.
The nineteenth century was a time of scientific fascination with plants and animals. From the 1850s onwards, botanists, naturalists and “Acclimatisation Societies” in Australia, New Zealand, and across the British Empire sent huge numbers of plants and animals all over the world to see how they would thrive in different conditions.
Echidnas to London, wombats to Paris; possums to New Zealand.
In New Zealand, when some of the introduced species got out of hand, stoats, ferrets and weasels were introduced to control them.
The delicate balance of nature would never be the same again.
One of the earliest botanic gardens in Queensland was in Cooktown. It was established in 1878 and revitalised in the late twentieth century, as tourism grew. Now, heritage listed and with interesting plant collections, it holds in its art gallery a collection of Vera Scarth-Johnson’s botanical paintings. I bought a print of the Cooktown orchid, Queensland’s floral emblem.
In many parts of Queensland there are now botanic gardens established by local councils, such as those in the Gold Coast and Hervey Bay; all of them supported by groups of keen volunteers.
Others are privately owned and run, such as the Maleny Botanic Gardens. My favourite of these is the Myall Park Botanic Garden, outside Glenmorgan, 380 kilometres west of Brisbane. This garden has been devoted to the collection, propagation and study of plants that thrive in arid and semi-arid conditions – especially the grevillea.
We found this treasure by accident, when travelling to Roma via Tara and Meandarra to Surat and the Carnarvon Highway. It was begun in the 1940s, on a sheep station owned by the Gordon family, and spreads over a large area, with paths and information boards, a gallery and interesting shop, and accommodation.
Different sections are devoted to different species, there is a bird hide, there are sculptures and artwork across the park, and the gallery features the botanical paintings of Dorothy Gordon.
This garden is where the well-known and hardy red-flowering Robyn Gordon grevillea cultivar emerged by chance in the 1960s and was widely planted across Australia and beyond. Touchingly, it is named in memory of one of the Gordon family daughters, who died tragically young.
Walter and Jane Hill also had a daughter, Ann, who died young, in 1871. She was their only child; and there is a plant associated with her death, too. Ann was buried in Toowong Cemetery, only the second person to be buried there; and near her grave, to shade it, Walter planted a hoop pine. Today it is enormous.
The plant collections of Queensland’s botanic gardens are developed on scientific principles, these days with an emphasis on native species. The plants are interesting, but I love the gardens most for their beauty, and their history.
The art to be found there is a bonus.