The First Jacaranda

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.

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“Under the Jacaranda”, Godfrey Rivers, 1903 Queensland Art Gallery collection

 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.

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Main building at Mackay Botanic Garden mackayregionalbotanicgardens.com.au

There’s some wonderful art in botanic gardens. It isn’t always widely known, and it often comes as a surprise.

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Sandstone rose sculpture, Mt Coot-tha Botanic Gardens, Brisbane

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.

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Marianne North Gallery, Kew Gardens hotenough.com

One large group of paintings depicts the plants and forests of tropical Queensland.

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Marianne North’s Australian and Queensland paintings (obscured by reflections)

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.

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Print of Cooktown Orchid by Vera Scarth-Johnson, from the Cooktown Botanic Gardens Gallery

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.

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Tank stand sculpture, Myall Park Botanic Garden

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.

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Decorative pavers leading to a bird hide, Myall Park

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.

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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.

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A “Robyn Gordon” grevillea flowering in a park beside a busy Brisbane road

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.

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Hoop pine and grave of Ann Hill and her parents, Toowong Cemetery

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.

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Grevillea plate from Myall Park Botanic Garden Gift-shop

Sugar Town

 

Narrow country roads, sugar cane fields, flecks of soot in the air. This was Nambour, in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland: my childhood home.

Now the sugar cane has gone from around here, replaced by housing estates and turf farms.

Back then, farmers burned the cane before harvesting. The cane fires blazed in the still evening air, spreading across the paddocks, and flecks of black fell out of the sky night and day. In crushing season, the smell of sugar filled the town, and narrow-gauge, coal-burning cane tram engines rumbled across the main street on their way out to the fields and back, whistles blowing in warning. Lengths of cane lay across long lines of flat cars towed to the mill yard, with a plume of purple cane flower sticking up out of the last truck as a flag.

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We kids would pick up half-burned lengths of cane fallen from the trucks, and bend and crack them until the sugar juice ran out into our mouths and down our chins.

In Queensland, only the Railway Department call their rolling stock trains. The narrow-gauge sugar mill engines and trucks are referred to as trams. In North Queensland, brightly-painted, chunky diesel locomotives, known as locos, still drag long rows of cane bins to the mills, crossing the highway while tourists take photos.

Until the twenty-first century, sugar mills seemed to Queenslanders to be as permanent as mountains, indicators of employment and prosperity. Now, in Babinda, Far North Queensland, where until recent years a steam-belching mill stood alongside the Bruce Highway, there is nothing to see but long grass and concrete foundations; and at Mourilyan, south of Innisfail, only the old mill sheds still stand, roosting spaces for Indian mynah birds.

Moreton Central Sugar Mill in Nambour seemed enormous to us kids, with its chimneys, high corrugated iron roofs, towers and sheds, and the unloading deck for the cane trucks. We were taken on tours of its mysterious and noisy workings. I looked with horrid fascination into the pit where the trucks rolled over and tipped the cane into devouring steel crushers. The pleasant scent of sugar became a foul stink inside the mill.

There’s something special about sugar towns, though: green and tropical, with palms and fig trees, the impressive mill manager’s house, and tram lines running along the street to the great mill buildings. It’s a nostalgic pleasure for me when we drive north towards Tully in crushing season and see from a distance the clouds of steam billowing from the chimneys of its busy mill, white against the forest green of the mountains behind.

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I recently drove down to see South Queensland’s only remaining sugar mill, the Rocky Point mill near the small bayside town of Jacob’s Well, halfway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. I’d never been there before, but it was instantly familiar. Old trees and palms, a magnificent house, and the looming mill with its tram lines and chimneys.

Moreton Central stayed in operation until 2003, when the last of the locos pulled a train of empty bins into the mill yard. The Sunshine Coast street directory no longer shows the cane tramlines as it used to do: North Branch, Maroochy, Petrie Creek. The locos with their familiar, local names – Petrie, Dunethin, Coolum – have gone; and Nambour has lost something picturesque, as well as its long-time economic heart.

A few years ago, Con and I drove back from the far north in rain all the way down the Bruce Highway. Just before dark, rather than face the city peak hour in the wet, we turned off the motorway and checked into a motel in Nambour for the night.

When the rain eased off, I walked up Mill Street, and found that the sugar mill was gone. Demolished. There is a Coles Supermarket on the site now. Only the cane tram tracks and traffic lights remain, down Howard Street, as a reminder. Coles has bought the old mill administration buildings and restored them; and those once-terrifying steel crushers have been welded into an attractive industrial sculpture, standing in the middle of the garden roundabout in Mill Street. Nambour has moved on.

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