2. The plants
See also Phases of plant introduction.
With the arrival of Europeans in Australia came a whole ‘plant package’ that included laws concerning land and property ownership, general values and beliefs about the human relationship to the natural world, and the plant management practices and technologies of agriculture and horticulture. This was in stark contrast to the beliefs and practices of the continent’s indigenous inhabitants who, when the English arrived, had not developed either agriculture or horticulture to any extent and who, during their c. 60,000 year presence, had introduced few if any plants from outside the continent. The change was sudden and drastic. In 225 years the continent’s new inhabitants introduced several tens of thousands of plant taxa and commandeered well over half the land surface for crops, pasture and forestry.
Such differences in lifestyle give us pause for thought on both the underlying cultural reasons for these two vastly different methods of land management as well as the social, economic and environmental consequences of each.
Australia’s garden plants
Most plants in the city gardens of south-eastern Australia do not grow naturally in Australia, they are more likely to have come ultimately from the Mediterranean, Africa, the Americas or Asia. However, they largely did not arrive here directly from these places but indirectly, mostly via Britain. It was Britain that did the original collecting and accumulation of different plants, these then being passed on to Australia.
t the time of Australia’s colonisation Britain’s garden flora was large and still growing rapidly, fuelled by the Enlightenment voyages of scientific exploration and the increasing reach of the British Empire as it prospered during the 100 year period from 1814-1914 when it included 20% of the world’s population
and covered 25% of the Earth’s land area. With vastly improved naval and other transport systems linking a global network of territories this was a period of unprecedented plant hunting in the interests of horticulture and economic botany. Part of the colonial enterprise was a botanical inventory of the British Empire which included Floras of North America, Flora Boreali-Americana (W. Hooker
, 1829-1840), Antarctica (J. Hooker, 1844-1847), New Zealand, Flora Novae-Zelandiae (J. Hooker, 1852-55), Tasmania, Flora Tasmaniae (J. Hooker, 1855-1859), West Indies, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Enumeratio plantarum Zeylaniae (G. Thwaites & J. Hooker, 1858-1864), Flora of the British West Indian Islands (A.H.R. Grisebach, 1859-1864 (3 vols)), Cape of South Africa, Flora Capensis (W. Harvey, O. Sonder & W. Thistleton-Dyer, 1859-1933 (7 vols)), Hong Kong, Flora Hongkongensis (G. Bentham, 1861), and Australia, Flora Australiensis (G. Bentham & F. Mueller
, 1863-1878 (7 vols), British India, Flora of British India (J. Hooker, 1872-1897 (7 vols)).
This is a remarkable phase in the history of human influence on the current distribution of vegetation on our planet. Britain is unrivalled for the sheer numbers of different plant taxa that it has appropriated from foreign lands and redistributed across the globe. These plants, largely through agriculture, have totally transformed not only the British landscape, but landscapes across the temperate world.
Tropaeolum majus, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, Plate 23 (1793): “The present plant is a native of Peru, and is said by Linnaeus to have been first brought into Europe in the year 1684; it is certainly one of the greatest ornaments the flower garden can boast: it varies in colour, and is also found in the Nurseries with double flowers” Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne
Botanical historian William Stearn has recognised nine geographic phases of plant introduction to Europe in general but Britain in particular (Stearn, 1965), these phases reflecting European colonial expansion and improvements in technology, especially in shipbuilding, navigation and other transport systems. To these phases can be added a tenth resulting from the recent rise of biotechnology (Table 1)
Table 1: Ten phases of plant introduction into Europe (based on the ideas of William Stearn and Gregor Krauss)
1. Europe-Mediterranean To 1560
2. Near East / many bulbs 1560-1620
3. Canada and Virginia/herbaceous plants 1620-1686
4. Cape /bulbs etc. 1687-1772
5. North America/trees and shrubs 1687-1772
6. Australia 1772-1820
7. Japan and North America/tropical glasshouse plants and hardy plants 1820-1900
8. West China 1900-1930
9. Plant hybridisation 1930 ->
10. Genetic engineering 1970 ->
Plant numbers known and grown
It is difficult to quantify precisely the extent of global plant redistribution that has occurred as a result of human activity. It seems to have happened without us really noticing. We have information on the world’s major economic crops but tracking ornamental plants as they burst across the world would be extremely difficult.
In Australia, especially, it would be interesting to know with reasonable accuracy: the number of plant taxa that have been introduced from overseas; the proportion of introductions that came from Britain; the number of ‘commonly’ available exotic plants in both gardens and the nursery industry; and the proportion of our garden flora that are cultigens (plants that have been altered or specially selected by humans). However, we can only guess at these numbers.
Today the total number of botanically described seed plants in the world is estimated to be about 270, 000. At the time of the Roman Empire about 1300 and 1400 different plants had been recorded in the West. By 1613 an attempt by Frenchman Jean Bauhin to calculate the total number of plants in the world put the figure at about 4000, his son Gaspard increasing this number of published species to 6000 in 1623. Ray’s three-volume Historia Plantarum (1686, 1688, 1704) lists some 18,700 different kinds it seems.
Carl Linnaeus, Europe’s most renowned naturalist of the eighteenth century in his entire career assembled the names of about 7,700 species of flowering plants. In 1753, less than 40 years before Australian settlement, he believed that the total number of plant species in the world was unlikely to exceed 10,000.
Correa pulchella, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, Plate 4029 (1843): “For plants of this very beautiful species of Correathe Royal Gardens are indebted to Messrs. Lowe of Clapton. It was first introduced at their nursery in 1824, by their collector, Mr. Baxter from Kangaroo Island on the south coast of New Holland” Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne
It was from this time in the late 18th century, with its colonial expansion and blossoming plant taxonomy that the number of known species would rocket to well over a hundred thousand. Meanwhile Britain’s gardens had swollen with the influx of new plants. As the Industrial Revolution increased the wealth of the British middle classes, demand for garden plants powered a surge in nurseries. Garden and agricultural plants from around the world accumulated in Britain to be redistributed around the globe.
In retrospect we can see the last 400 years of plant introduction as a massive transference of plant species from all corners of the globe into Europe and especially imperial Britain, with the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London at its hub. From Britain plants were redistributed to the Americas, British colonies and beyond.
Britain, with a meagre indigenous flora, now has a rich cultivated flora from around the world in a tradition of acquisition that continues to the present day. The 2013 Royal Horticultural Society Plant Finder, essentially a listing of all the commercially available garden plants in the British Isles, proudly lists over 70,000 different plants (species and cultivars). Australia’s equivalent book, TheAussie Plant Finder of 2004, listed more than 35,000 different commercially available garden plants linked to retail outlets. The actual number of introduced plants is likely to be much higher. Of the 3,842 higher plant species that grow on British soil, but outside its gardens, about 50% are naturalised leaving a meagre 1,500 or so indigenous plants (plants native to Britain).
In the face of these figures, it perhaps seems paradoxical that in 1977 the Royal Horticultural Society should set up the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (now Plant Heritage) to ‘Conserve Cultivated Plants’. It would seem to any conservation biologist a bizarre twist of conservation thinking in the light of such a depauperate indigenous flora that cultivated plants should generate so much concern, but perhaps not surprising for a country seemingly obsessed with gardening. Clearly the devotion to collections of species and cultivars encouraged by Plant Heritage demonstrates that the plant collecting impulse is alive and well today.
British plant acquisitiveness has been eagerly taken up in Australia, its cultivated flora coming largely from the British gardening palette, in the early days fed, in part, through botanic gardens. In spite of having a much richer native flora (estimated to be over 25,000 taxa), Australia also has thousands of exotic (non-Australian) garden plants, many recorded in the Horticultural flora of south-eastern Australia’s five hefty volumes. No equivalent flora covers our northern gardens, so estimates of the total number of Australia’s garden plants remains difficult. Following the English lead, Australia has the Garden Plant Conservation Association of Australia Inc. (founded in 1986 as the Ornamental Plant Collections Association).
We are only now beginning to realise the scale of plant redistribution across the world and its implications for global ecology.
3. LANDSCAPE DESIGN
There is also the story of how this increasing palette of garden plants was used in the European landscape: the art of garden design, each historical stage reflecting the social, economic and environmental conditions of the time and place where it flourished. We cover this all too briefly in this article.
Not surprisingly it is the large gardens – those that really impress – which have dominated the historical record. Gardens like these are social statements signifying wealth, a cultured sensitive creative imagination, social influence and almost certainly political power. So began western gardening and urban design, embedded in the hierarchies of the ancient western civilizations that launched the traditions we know today – the pharaohs, kings, priests, and aristocrats who managed the public and private spaces associated with the palaces and temples of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, the Near East, Greece and Rome.
The transition from the sacred groves of prehistory to the artistically and technologically sophisticated gardens of wealthy Romans represents a giant cultural leap and one that underlay the advance of subsequent garden design in Europe from the Renaissance. Gardening among the wealthy in sixteenth century Italy, seventeenth century France and eighteenth century England was a mark of taste and fashionable artistic sensitivity.
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries of the Renaissance revival in art, literature and learning, Europeans rediscovered the classical garden arts that had been largely lost for over a thousand years. Renaissance gardens were influenced by the physical presence of Roman ruins, the literary references to gardens found in the work of Roman scholars like Pliny the Younger (c. 61-112 CE), and also by the Islamic influence of gardens in Spain.
Italian Renaissance gardens were an integral part of the house, the two designed and built together, the garden providing an important space to live and welcome guests. Importantly, the sloping sites of Italy encouraged views out towards the wider world, rather than being inward- looking courtyards (garden means enclosure).
Florence was the centre for the early Renaissance garden (1450-1503) with the strong influences of the wealthy patrons of the arts, the Medici family, but later moved to Rome where the gardens were necessarily architectural in style to cope with the steep sites. Terraces like those linking the Vatican and the Belvedere were a feature. Gardens became settings for sculptures, especially from Ancient Rome, and playful water features were included, although water scarcity meant these were more notable in gardens outside Rome.
Ancient Roman influence also remained in Spain, one of the wealthiest of the empire’s provinces. Later Islamic invaders inherited Roman villas along the north African coast continuing a cloistered (peristyle) tradition.
Climate was an important factor in how garden design was expressed in palaces like the Alhambra. Gardens, following ancient Persian tradition, were a retreat from the parched Spanish landscape with glimpses outside heightening the pleasure of the cool colonnades, pools and fountains within. Rectangular, reflective water pools brought the sky, light and brightness into the enclosed courts. The Spanish were masters of the water jet that provided movement and sound.
The Italian Renaissance had little effect on garden styles in Spain. Phillip IV’s (1621-65) garden of Buen Retiro to the east of Madrid incorporated fashionable components of the time, but with little sense of unity. Buen Retiro was however an important setting for elaborate pageants presented by the king, and a reflection of the Spanish temperament. Interestingly, Buen Retiro included an area of country-like fields and trees reminiscent of the English style to come, although whether this was an intentional design is unclear.
Italian influences came to France over a long period, but when Italian artists assisted in the rebuilding of Fontainebleau (southeast of Paris) in the 1500s, the French were taught the essence of Renaissance design. There began the shaping of a new style under France’s different political system, the seat of the monarchy situated in flat and more northerly, cooler plains. Views were less accessible than in Italy’s hill gardens but were created with careful planning, and still water was easier to use than cascades. Elevated walks, still a part of French gardens, encouraged the use of parterre (on the ground) to be viewed from above. The French garden reflected the Gallic orderliness of mind, of reason and geometry.
Boyceau’s book on gardening (1638) heralded the great period of French gardening with his principles of symmetry, proportion and variety. The family of Henri IV’s gardener, Claude Mollet, was the most influential in France and was one of the select families appointed to the Royal gardens. André le Notre, the designer of one of the world’s most celebrated gardens, Versailles, grew up amongst these families.
Geometry, symmetry and proportion: view towards the Château from the Basin of Apollo in André le Notre’s gardens of Versailles, home for the court of Louis XIV. An engraving from The famous parks and gardens of the world. T. Nelson & Sons, London, 1880
At Versailles, as he had at Vaux-le-Vicomte before, le Notre created a ‘stupendous theatre for fêtes’ and introduced the vista garden. Versailles’ enormous garden is designed to view at a glance, being long, narrow and framed by woods on either side; the eye is carried forward into the distance. Variation among its parts is of less importance than the vision of the whole. The garden stunned. It was for show and with its fame grew the fame of the Sun King, Louis XIV, the centre of power of the influential French Court.
Had European garden design reached its ultimate conclusion, its peak in the theatrical baroque of France? What could reinvigorate the art of gardening? From the earliest beginnings until the French landscape style, the form of gardens reflected the form of buildings, their geometry. Was geometrical framework an essential basis of all garden design?
A revolution was to come.
England’s earlier gardens
Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey (c. 1475-1530) played a part in England’s acceptance of the Renaissance but his Hampton Court, later to become the King’s, and other gardens of the time were not Italian even though they may have incorporated Italian features. And unlike the unity of vision found in French gardens, those in England could appear as if they had grown bit by bit without an overall plan, the integration of separate parts was not strongly considered.
The landscapes at Hatfield (1611) and Wilton (1615), designed by the French father and son Solomon and Isaac de Caux, mark the beginning of more sophisticated English gardens, the start of a long period of French influence on English gardening and the move from direct Italian influences to those of French interpretation. Wilton displayed many features of the classical garden – the terrace, parterres, balustrading, statuary – but especially important were the generous scale and the unity of design.
The foundations of change
Increasingly gardeners found the French style constraining and by the late seventeenth century, the pre-eminence of the French style began to fade. Yet, there was no indication of what could be a new approach for landscaping the grand estates of Europe. In England, transformations in society provided the perfect setting for a radical change.
In England, the simplification of the French landscapes hastened with the influence of the Dutch-born William III, and later, the parsimonious Queen Anne (French landscapes were costly to maintain). At the same time English horticulturists challenged the domination of the continentals. Commercial gardeners replaced artist gardeners and nurseries like London and Wise in Brompton (established in 1681) supplied vast numbers of plants more cheaply enabling larger gardens and more of them to be established.
The English spirit
Enjoying outdoor spaces where philosophers lingered, politicians debated and courtesans paraded in the warmer more southerly gardens of Greece, Italy and France contrasts markedly with experiencing gardens in England. Cool and damp, the climate enabled the development of a wonderful gardening tradition and shaped how gardens are used. For the English, fondness for gardens has come from physical activities – gardening, walking and playing games – not for sitting around.
Familiarity with Chinese asymmetry
During the seventeenth century Chinese lacquer ware, porcelain, wallpaper and silks steadily flowed into Europe’s fashionable homes, surging during the first few decades of the eighteenth century (and stimulating the development of Chinoiserie style), and importantly, familiarising the English to asymmetry in art. By the mid-1720s, the strong axial vista, the symmetry and the embroidered parterres had lost favour.
Until the seventeenth century it was assumed that nature was imperfect and ready for man’s improvement, to be shaped by geometry into perfect gardens. By the turn of the century opinion was changing and the notion of nature unspoilt being perfection began to arise amongst philosophers. Essayist and politician Joseph Addison (1672-1719) wrote in the Spectator (1712) of his preference for a tree ‘in all its luxuriancy’ than one trimmed into a mathematical figure.
As England’s political and economic power increased, so did its confidence. It was the Age of Reason, with new technological inventions powering industrial progress. The British believed there were no better landscapes than theirs. There was no need for emulation any more and England itself provided the setting where ideas in art, literature, philosophy, horticulture, society and economics could stimulate the formation of a new landscape style.
The essence of the English landscape garden embraced two principles: the admiration of nature and the creation of landscapes as paintings. The English garden brought nature to the walls of the house and extended, without visible boundaries, to the world of nature beyond.
The turf bridge and pantheon at Stourhead in Wiltshire, England. This landscape was described in the 1740s as a ‘living work of art’. Stourhead is now considered to be the finest existing example of an English garden as inspired by the 17th century landscape painters
Photo: Rob Cross
During the first half of the eighteenth century it became clearer what the new English landscape style could be like and ideas were tested by practical experimentation. Influences came from many directions. Young English elite, culturally enlightened through their Grand Tours across continental Europe, brought home with them the ideals of Palladian architecture (after Venetian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580)) and souvenir romantic landscape paintings by Claude and Poussin (Stourhead clearly reflects Claude’s paintings). William Kent (c. 1685-1748), who ‘leaped the fence’ and believed all nature was a garden, probably tried to mimic in his landscapes, the almost two centuries old Italian gardens he visited with their mossy and lichened stone steps and sculptures under an overgrown canopy of vegetation disguising the original geometrical plan.
An important practical introduction was the use of the French military defence, the ha-ha (a deep ditch, often with a wall providing an abrupt change of level) which allowed the garden boundaries to be hidden from view, for the garden to “extend” into the distance. Another design innovation was the “belt”, a walk or drive through irregularly planted trees along the perimeter of the garden which provided glimpsed views in towards the house in addition to points de vue from the house familiar to those visiting Italian and French gardens.
The great master was Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716-1783). He found his opportunities at Lord Cobham’s Stowe in Buckinghamshire, initially as a kitchen gardener and eventually as Head Gardener and Bailiff implementing Kent’s plans. Brown’s own design abilities quickly surfaced after Kent’s death in 1749, both at Stowe and on other estates. His reputation grew rapidly and by 1751 he included the building of mansions to his landscape skills, the first for Lord Coventry. It is interesting to ponder “Capability” Brown, the landscape gardener, creating houses for the landscape just as architects had created gardens for houses in Italy.
Brown’s linear landscapes are of contrasting undulations of tones, light and shade, of green turf and still reflective water, of trees singly, clumped or in bands. Brown used the grammatical terms parenthesis, comma and full stop to describe how the plantings in his landscape contain vistas, pause the eye or complete a scene before beginning the next. Perhaps his inclusion into contracts, “With a poet’s feeling and painter’s eye”, reflected not only his promise but his achievement.
Lancelot “Capability” Brown completed the revolution. Geometry no longer dictated the shape of gardens.
All the while gardens became less the domain of the landed gentry with a rising wealthy merchant class, and Britain’s territories were expanding, Australia being added to the Empire just five years before Brown’s death. His landscape values and subsequent reappraisals were still fresh in the minds of the settlers and they had a profound effect on how an Australian vision would grow and how its landscapes would be changed forever.
Brown had created an English landscape revolution by transforming European landscape gardens from geometric displays into ‘natural pictures’ using just a few unspectacular species and relying on the simplicity of combining turf, trees, light and shade. This was the landscape style in vogue at the time Britain was preparing to settle Australia. As with all fashions, a re-evaluation was to follow. Although more and more landscape gardens were changed to Brown’s new style there were complaints about the bland uniformity this imposed on the countryside. The gentry persisted with the new fashion but there were those who argued that this national style was neither natural nor picturesque. Flower gardeners in particular felt ignored and wanted to reclaim their place in gardening.
Chambers, Banks & Repton
The keen eye of William Chambers (1723-1796), architect of the Kew Gardens Pagoda, had closely observed Chinese landscapes, noting their gentle transitions in scale and colour, from the foreground to the middle and background. He proposed re-establishing a place in English gardens for the close views that had been lacking in the vistas of the eighteenth century French and later English landscapes in which the eye was drawn to the middle distance and beyond. Emphasising the foreground allowed the return of flowers with their colours and perfumes.
Meanwhile botany, plant hunting and plant collecting had captivated a different audience and gardens displaying the spoils of the plant hunters increasingly had their place. Plant importation surged after Joseph Banks (1743–1820) returned from the first of James Cook’s circumnavigations of the globe. A personal friend of George III he became, in 1772 de facto director of the royal gardens at Kew. As Kew took over the central role of plant introduction from the Chelsea Physic Garden, the number of species increased rapidly, expanding to 5,500 in 1789 and to more than 11,000 by 1813. Britain’s spreading empire gave access to economic and ornamental plants from a great diversity of habitats and gardeners with technical knowledge of plant cultivation were favoured over those with greater design sense. Technological developments now allowed a wide range of tender plants to be grown in protected and heated environments.
The distinction between a pleasure garden and a botanical collection was beginning to blur. Humphrey Repton (1752-1818) provided ways of incorporating more plant variety into the pleasure garden without compromising its design and even incorporated specialist ornamental feature gardens within larger gardens, like the ‘thornery’ at Woburn Abbey. He also reintroduced some geometrical elements that provided a transition between the architectural house and the natural garden beyond, and recognised that gardens can provide seclusion, not just views reaching beyond the garden’s boundaries. Repton was an eclectic who wanted a bit of everything in his gardens. Tender and highly ornamental new species were prepared in glasshouses for planting out in beds during spring. These “bedding” plants as they were known, introduced new and vibrant colours contrasting with the formerly preferred subdued colours, and they were often displayed in beds with disparate shapes, like stars or crescents, dotted across the lawns.
Eclecticism influenced the character of gardens through much of the nineteenth century. People borrowed from earlier landscape design traditions as diverse as the Dutch and Chinese. Gardens began to lose their unity of design, a quality that had been embraced by both the English and French landscape styles.
From the eighteenth to the nineteenth century we see the elevation in status of the ‘gardener’ who gradually replaced architects, poets, and philosophers as creators of gardens. The literature of the time reflected this. Books published about garden aesthetics dwindled in number, while those on gardening itself flourished, especially publications describing and illustrating new plants and how to cultivate them – as did The Gardeners’ Chronicle, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine and Edwards’s Botanical Register. Gardens came to be seen less as a product of taste, and more as an exercise in cultivation.
By 1840 the gardenesque school, so named and promoted by John Loudon (1783-1843), had established itself as the main influence on nineteenth century gardens that would be felt in Australia. Some argued that it lacked style. Loudon wrote that it ‘ … adds to the acknowledged charms of the Repton School, all those which the sciences and botany in their present advanced state, are capable of producing …”. He believed art should be recognised as art and not as nature, and gardens should be recognised as gardens by including only foreign plants or improved native ones. Loudon wrote for the expanding and self-confident middle class rather than the previously dominant aristocratic one as British society continued to change.
The middle class had dreams of living on large country estates even though their reality was more likely to be that of house on a small quarter acre or acre block in the suburbs of the growing cities. Here views of other small blocks beyond their garden rather than idyllic rural scenes would be a reminder that their aspirations had not been met, and the importance of seclusion and of sanctuary in gardens regained prominence. Boundaries were densely planted to exclude the neighbours beyond, providing a backdrop for a flower-bordered lawn and a haven for the householders.
Settlers looking to improve their prospects in Australia brought with them values derived from a long European intellectual tradition and a newly industrialised society as they struggled to establish new lives and homes in the young colonies. These values, beliefs and traditions were in stark contrast to those of the indigenous people who had occupied the continent for about 55,000 years. This will be the topic of our next article.
Aboriginal & settler landscapes
These vistas became part of the fabric of memories accompanying British emigrants as they made their way to a new life in Australia.
The Australian landscape was surprisingly familiar to many of the new settlers, with numerous descriptions recording its park-like qualities, similar to gentlemen’s estates at home. An early Tasmanian paper reported Westernport as being beautiful, resembling
“…the park of a country seat in England, the trees standing in picturesque groups to ornament the landscape……the eye roams over tracts of meadow land, waving with a heavy crop of grass…”
Australian landscape resembling a gentleman’s park
The Australian landscape had been home for Aboriginal people for millennia and much of Australia’s east coast reminded settlers of the British countryside and its estates. The grassy swards were probably the result of the Aboriginal burning that helped provide the resources needed for their society. By many accounts the land provided abundance.
Debate continues about the extent of Aboriginal land management and its impact on Australia’s landscape and biodiversity. Clarity concerning managed and unmanaged land, settled and nomadic communities, agriculture and horticulture, cultivated and wild crops have all proved elusive. There were multiple “nations”, and ways people lived varied across the continent. Early European documentation, still incompletely researched, has given us some insight into some of the Aboriginal practices.
fire was a tool used to create a patchwork of grassy fields with post-fire young new shoots attracting grazing kangaroos, and these fields were interspersed with belts of trees where other useful animals could thrive, a practice recently termed ‘firestick farming’. Early settler descriptions refer to aboriginal women using tools to cultivate and harvest fields of yams (Microseris spp. or Dioscorea spp.). Some Microseris species have roots that are not bitter and may represent a level of domestication. Other tuber-like plants, like Pterostylis nutans (Nodding Greenhood), were also important foods. Grasses were cultivated, their grains harvested, and early explorers found and sometimes raided their granary stores. Seeds of food plants were traded items. Aboriginal wells stabilised water supplies.
Life was mostly spent on the move, following seasonal sources of food. However, the constructed stone fish traps of Brewarrina in New South Wales (considered to be at least 3000 to perhaps 8000 years old) and at Lake Condah in Victoria (dated to 8000 years) where the scale of the constructed ponds and channels could have fed eels to up to 10,000 people, illustrate aboriginal aquaculture. Excess Lake Condah eels were possibly preserved in hollow-tree smokehouses adjacent to fish traps. John Batman, a founder of Melbourne, recorded finding fish traps and associated permanent housing on many rivers. At Lake Condah the houses were made of stone, but elsewhere other construction styles were used, often circular and domed. In some places of pre-contact Australia, there were villages of round houses with solid sloping walls of wood, bark and sealed with clay. Some villages were estimated to house 1000 or more people.
The arrival of Europeans in Australia lead to a rapid collapse of the aboriginal population, their social structures and their ability to manage the land as they had done for millennia. Diseases new to the continent and for which the indigenous population had little immunity, contributed to the breakdown, but there was also direct competition for the same sites that Aboriginal Australians favoured.
British settlers largely lost the opportunity to learn how these first Australians had managed the land, and were likely to have been overly confident about applying familiar European practices. Australian Aborigines were the product of the land – they were adapted to it and part of it – while European culture was more a response to the social demands of urban living, agriculture, and a trade network of people with very different cultures, lands, and traditions. Europeans, buoyed by science and technology, displayed a sense of moral superiority and were also restless for social change, improvement and development as the Industrial Revolution followed its course back in Europe.
We now know that Aborigines saw a spiritual landscape bearing the signatures and physical manifestations of their ancestors and creator-spirits reaching back into the Dreamtime. To survive they had to understand and care for this legacy, to ‘listen to the land’. They lived simply, efficiently, and sustainably. In contrast British settlers arrived from an apparently overpopulated country looking for arable land like that of the gentle homeland country estate and hoped, through hard work, to secure some property for themselves. To achieve that the land (often perceived as harsh and inhospitable) needed to be controlled and improved; as personal property it was a means of wealth-creation.
Former Aboriginal land now became defined and defended by fences. Fire frequency and intensity changed, altering the plant species composition. Soil that had been light and friable became trampled by hard-hooved domesticated animals and exposed soil was eroded. The grazing style of introduced stock changed the species mix in native grasslands. ‘Improved’ pastures required regular fertiliser applications. In a series of land grabs by squatters and selectors most of Australia was transformed into farmland, pasture and rangeland.
European agriculture superimposed on Aboriginal burning has resulted in a largely modified Australian landscape demanding thoughtful management strategies if we are to avoid negative outcomes.
Today we need both the Aboriginal respect for the land and the benefits of western science to achieve the sustainable management of our natural resources. Within our gardening traditions a new horticultural paradigm is emerging as we respond to local and global environmental challenges.
Nineteenth Century Interactions between Britain and Australia
How did the new settlers fair in Aboriginal Australia?
Early Australian settlers struggled to survive. They had left Georgian England with its landed gentry and gathering industrial revolution. Cottage and village were being converted to factory and town. Footloose soldiers from Britain’s defeat in the American War of Independence (1775-1783) found employment minding convicts who made up a labour force that would be gradually replaced by disenchanted hard-working yeomen (minor landholders, many being victims of enclosure laws) who made up a large proportion of Australia’s first freehold settlers eager to take up 30-acre farming lots.
By 1810, as the new colony began to expand, the utilitarian rectilinear garden plots established at Farm Cove were became more elaborate.. The Governor’s wife, Elizabeth Macquarie, cleared away the old Government House to create a picturesque landscape not unlike the homeland estates. But gardening with ornamental plants only really gathered momentum in the 1820s as the military colony evolved into a civil society boosted by early pastoral wealth. In Europe botanophilia with its lust for the exotica of travel and exploration, the Enlightenment’s love of science and learning, and the acquisition of plant treasures lovingly described and illustrated in the new garden journals … all this was beginning to subside. Australia now had its own emerging social elite setting the fashion in the 1830s through the gardens of Scotsmen Colonial Secretary Alexander McLeay and pastoralist William Macarthur who created gardens in the Gardenesque style promoted in his books and the journal, Gardener’s Magazine, of fellow Scotsman John Loudon back in England (first produced in 1826) which was Britain’s first truly horticultural periodical. The rest of the colony had small gardens in a comfortable but formal geometric style combining kitchen and ornamental gardens. There was just a small supply of seed, fruit trees and garden plants.
Australia and Tasmania were still firmly tied to Britain through trade and tradition. An archipelago of new settlements had been established in Victoria, South Australia, and Queensland with a greedy grab of arable land establishing agriculture in an arc that stretched from southern Queensland through to South Australia while, under the influence of the gold rush of the 1850s, the population soared.
By mid-century nurseries in British tradition now stocked garden plants introduced from across the world and Australia’s new land barons, mercantile operators, and newly literate public were taking a civic pride in their appearance.
What was interesting, important and fashionable in England was equally so in Australia, and the new colonists eagerly waited for news, goods, gossip and guidance from ‘home’. What they emulated in Australia was the surge in municipal parks and gardens with their promenades, brass bands, pavilions, and ‘carpet bedding’ of colourful annuals planted in assorted patterns, the establishment of city squares and boulevards. We see this in Australia in not only the capital cities of each colony but also in the affluent gold-rush towns like Ballarat and Bendigo.
Ballarat, Sturt Street.
Blue Gum Avenue, 1885.
London’s Regents Park (site of the zoo) was the first major public park, opened in 1835, and this was followed by many more public spaces including boating lakes, sports grounds and regional botanic gardens. Careful attention was paid to the gardens around schools and hospitals. In Australia between 1850 and 1870 Victoria alone saw the establishment of 14 regional botanic gardens with the acclimatisation and trialling of new introductions a major objective. In the mid-1870s when many of Melbourne’s reserves were laid out there was a noticeable shift in tree preference from the former formal conifers to deciduous trees with colourful autumn foliage like those planted in major European cities.
Science and technology were influencing gardening and discussion of composts, fertilisers, pesticides, garden structures, and greenhouse technology (London’s Crystal Palace completed by Paxton for the Great Exhibition in 1851 was the exemplary masterpiece) although in Australia the ‘bush house’ (an idea imported from India) proved popular.
Gender roles were evident in horticulture as elsewhere in society with the men working vegetable allotments and women looking after the flowers. Genteel ladies studied botany and horticulture and were permitted to engage in plant pressing and painting. However, it was not long before women were achieving eminence and early in the twentieth century young women were among the students at Burnley Horticultural College in Melbourne.
In the Victorian era the trend towards garden democratisation continued. Successive British governments increased land taxes further affecting the already debilitated landed gentry who were succumbing to the new wealth of industrial magnates and city businessmen. Literacy rocketed, and monolithic design trends of the past fragmented into more short-term fashions – for ferns and ferneries, palms, succulents, the pinetum, roses, monkey-puzzles (in Australia this was the several araucarias) and aspidistras. Taste was now defined by the stratum of society who occupied the urban ‘villa’.
Resistance to industrialisation saw the late 19th century formation of the Arts and Crafts Movement led by William Morris (1834-1896) and social critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) who damned the grime and crime of the cities, their uncreative mass-production, and the mind-numbing and inhumane repetition of factory work. They encouraged use of natural materials and enjoyment of the connections between nature, art, and simple rustic living. It was a movement whose ideas were strongly applied in horticulture and which has continued in various forms to the present day. Cottage gardens, whose rise in popularity had begun in the late 18th century, enjoyed a revival with their traditional honeysuckle, climbing roses, hollyhocks, marigolds – and window boxes for geraniums and or succulents.
Gardening clubs and societies flourished as tradesman, cloth-makers, railwaymen, factory workers, and miners in England’s northern cities competed in gardening shows, selecting and proudly displaying cultivars of ranunculus, pinks, auriculas, carnations, chrysanthemums, pansies, violas, polyanthus and many more. The establishment of the Royal Horticultural Society of Victoria in 1848 reflects a similar enthusiasm here. Vegetable allotments proliferated on the outskirts of the cities, where extra produce could be grown year-round for a small fee.
So-called ‘naturalism’ was encouraged by William Robinson (1838–1935) a member of the Linnean Society. He was a friend of Charles Darwin and London Nurseryman James Veitch who kept a (mostly approving) diary of his visit to Australia. Robinson introduced the ‘mixed border’, liberal use of trellises for roses, beds of shrubs, large lawns, and he discouraged the colourful carpet bedding schemes that were prevalent at that time. His ideas about herbaceous borders were extended by Gertrude Jekyll (1843–1932) a trained artist who admired the work of Monet and Turner and who was now famed for the colour schemes she employed in her borders. Jekyll worked with eminent designer Edward Lutyens (1869-1944), designers now no longer working at the scale of palace or country estate, more that of the Country House with its outside rooms. Sometimes these country houses were even planned, adored and carefully maintained by the owners themselves rather than being the product of professional designers and gardeners. Gardens like Sissinghurst, Munstead Wood, Hidcote, Gravetye and Great Dixter and the various ideas they incorporated had their loose equivalents in Australia although through the 1890s land would be subdivided. New public transport systems and the invention of the lawnmower and garden hose prepared the way for the suburban home garden.
Two world wars and the Depression would continue the process of garden democratisation, the old estates and country houses becoming celebrity gardens as amusement for tourists and sightseers and a garden community looking for ideas that could be applied in a simpler way to their own less grandiose gardens.
Australian wool had clothed millions of Europeans, much of the Australian landscape now resembling rural Britain’s ‘green and pleasant land’. Australian raw materials guaranteed the lasting connection between the opposite sides of the world. Aboriginals had been swept aside and dismissed as a dying race. By the early 20th century all major branches of today’s horticulture and agriculture were established on both sides of the globe. Although Australia did have its Wattle Day and a Federation enthusiasm for the Australian flora, a spirit of independence was still some way away.
Globalisation has created a brand new era of social, economic, and environmental challenges. In the last article of this series we discuss how modern-day concerns have had what will be a lasting impact on horticulture, a paradigm shift in horticultural philosophy.
Social and economic change
In the last few decades we have seen the rise of Asia and decline in Euro-American power, an unprecedented mixing of cultures, and greater urbanization. Scientific and technological innovation has created a communication and information revolution, and ensured the flow of a greater diversity and quantity of resources to an expanding world population. Increasing affluence has brought more people out of poverty and into the global economy.
Global changes like these translate into new community and individual lifestyles. A greater number of people means less space per individual as cities extend upwards and suburbs press outwards into nature, eventually fusing into giant conurbations like the developing megalopolis that stretches down the Australian east coast. Urbanites now see nature from apartment balconies and experience it at arm’s length through carefully-designed, limited and precious green space at ground level, while in the suburbs space is also becoming increasingly scarce.
The historical process of gardening democratization now appears complete as almost everyone falls under the universal category of ‘home gardener’ – the last vestiges of garden snobbery dissolving away during the wave of informality that swept through the western world in the 1960s. Grand gestures in design are now generally commissioned by governments and corporations and overseen by landscape architects. Today’s time-poor working families are favouring lower-maintenance gardens and a quick make-over or retro-fit, as gardening competes with many other interests. Gardeners who once communicated through books, magazines, and gardening clubs increasingly socialize and exchange information through computer-based social media, television, and smart phones.
Convenience shopping has led to a reduced range of plants and emphasis on colour and instant appeal. Horticultural commerce has followed general business trends with emphasis now placed on large-scale plant retail outlets like garden centres and nurseries associated with chain-stores all offering fancy goods and light meals, and steadily replacing the small informal and specialist plantsmen nurseries.
Plant production and sale is becoming increasingly streamlined and automated. Production efficiencies favour plants that can be machine-potted and packed into convenient transit modules and rapid turnover demands plants with a predictable shelf-life that can be fitted into a strictly planned sales schedule.
Intellectual property, so prevalent in other areas of commerce, is now a part of horticulture. Latin scientific names are becoming less prominent while legally-protected new cultivars (protected using Plant Breeder’s Rights) are becoming more common along with complex trademarking and patenting – which adds to plant name confusion. The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), governing Plant Breeder’s Rights, originated in Europe in 1961, came into force in 1968, and was joined by Australia in 1989 and the European Community in 2005.
All these factors influence the kinds of plants that we will see in gardens of the future.
The resource consumption that improves material standards is often associated with environmental degradation. This is manifest in global environmental problems like climate change, fresh water depletion, pollution of air and waterways, habitat fragmentation, loss of biodiversity, difficulties with waste disposal and hazardous chemicals, species extinction, invasive organisms and, at a more general global scale, changes in the biogeochemical global cycling of life-critical water, carbon, phosphorus, and nitrogen.
Globalization – as economic growth, increased trade, and greater flow of goods – can be expressed in simple terms as the consumption of food and materials while the energy and water embodied during their production and transport are of special environmental concern. All these resources support human lives but are obtained from natural and man-modified ecosystems at an environmental cost as a debit from our natural capital account, which means the erosion of Ecosystem Services. This too has become global since the world can now be divided into ecological debtor and creditor countries, affluent countries poor in natural resources effectively exporting their environmental impact to other, often poorer, countries by importing their goods.
Agriculture, which makes a heavy demand on land, water and other resources, must feed world population growth until at least 2050. Though the principles of sustainable agriculture are now well entrenched in the western world the farming that fuels population growth, and therefore urbanization, also leads to the steady conversion of natural landscapes into cultural landscapes. There are no simple solutions to these problems, and since many of them are hidden from our view, being mindful of their existence can benefit decision-making.
Since the eighteenth century there has been an extraordinary global redistribution of plants, mostly as crops, but also as ornamental plants. Naturalized plants now make up a substantial proportion of the floras of many countries. In Australia these plants make up about 12% of its total flora. Led by British gardeners the western world has exchanged garden plants on a grand scale, many of these escaping to damage and diminish natural plant communities, and facilitating the spread of disease (like Dutch Elm disease). Though the British rural countryside is pleasing to the eye it is a sobering thought that naturalised plants now make up over 50% of its flora. A developing awareness of this environmental downside has created a new era of biosecurity and a more cautionary approach to plant exchange in both the nursery industry and botanic gardens. Though the science of invasive organisms is quite advanced the historical account of plant redistribution across the world has received little attention.
Advances in genetics have resulted in more cultivated plants being bred and selected for not only ornamental but other characteristics – non-weedy, pest and disease resistant, herbicide-resistant, salt-tolerant, low-maintenance, and so on.
The Sustainability Revolution
Stresses on the natural environment will reduce when economic growth is decoupled from environmental degradation, and adopting more sustainable practices through all levels of society is critical. The global response already in play will define our own particular time in history, and horticulture will play a prominent role in this transition through its links to the natural world. Responding to these challenges will permanently change horticultural practices and the character of gardening.
An important goal is to link human to natural systems through the integrated management of natural and cultivated landscapes which requires the collective interdisciplinary effort of many, including horticulturists, landscape architects, ecologists, town planners, local government, community organizations … and it is already well underway.
Sustainable horticulture does not involve a particular kind of landscape or design; it is more an underlying philosophy or set of principles. No matter how natural or contrived our surroundings, sustainability principles can be incorporated from planning and design, to the technology used, the practices and materials employed in construction, and the subsequent maintenance. These changes are already being incorporated as part of the paradigm shift we are currently experiencing.
An ecological approach
Gardens as a microcosm of nature, contributing to natural cycles
Illustration Rob Cross
An ecological approach to horticulture attempts to integrate human and natural processes by recognizing gardens and public landscapes as microcosms of the biosphere itself. Greater emphasis is being placed on caring for the natural cycles and systems that operate across all landscapes, including agricultural and urban ones. Importantly, taking account of environmental concerns need not constrain creativity or dictate fashion. It does not lock us into a particular design formula.
Ecological design for sustainability respects the local environment and sense of place while also attending to global concerns. Evidence of sensitivity to such issues in horticulture is now coming from many sources.
As we have seen, the once unfettered redistribution of plants across the world is being subjected to increasing trade and biosecurity regulation, both within and between countries, to address concerns about the ownership of genetic resources, spread of pests and pathogens, and introduction of potentially invasive organisms.
Urban planning can critically influence how sustainably a city grows and operates. It cannot always anticipate the changes to urban areas resulting from rapid growth for example, however planning can be adjusted to maintain liveable localities. This is currently being played out in Australian cities. Gardens are being lost as larger houses or multiple dwellings replace older ones on standard suburban blocks leaving fewer large trees to shade roofs, walls and windows, this at a time when the conservation and improvement of urban forests has become a high priority, especially for their cooling effect in the face of climate change and the urban heat island effect. New research and technology has created design solutions like green walls and roofs that can aid the creation of high quality urban development. As building density increases, careful plant selection and some design tricks, allow city trees to be grown in constrained urban conditions. Then, using special structural soils, it is possible to improve root development and plant growth. Paving for drives, paths, and sitting areas can be porous to allow for soil aeration, and improved water penetration and retention on site.
Improved environmental outcomes are resulting from initiatives like suburb-wide Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) and rain gardens both of which retain water for plant growth and improve the quality of water runoff.
Management of gardens and public open space for enhancing biodiversity, particularly when adjacent to native vegetation, and the selective use of indigenous plants, is becoming more effective as horticulturists and other land managers become more environmentally informed. Ecological landscape design (like Edna Walling explored later in her career or as practised during the 1960s and 70s, for example, with the Sydney School or Melbourne Bush School) is the subject of research at institutions like the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria’s Australian Research Centre for Urban Ecology, and The University of Melbourne’s Burnley College as they investigate the intersection of horticulture with ecological processes and how these can be enhanced or mimicked in human landscapes, providing habitat for biodiversity, or contributing to the removal of pollution from waterways more effectively, and much more …
Ecological design respects the local environment and sense of place and by doing so contributes to the rich fabric of Earth’s biodiversity. Plant selection will be influenced by local environmental conditions, so indigenous plants are an obvious choice along with non-indigenous Australian and exotic plants whose ecology matches the site. Even where style and fashion are highly artificial, successful gardens are still matching plants to environmental conditions and architecture.
Low environmental impact plants are responsive to climate (macro and micro), soil (water logging, compaction, salinity, pH, disease etc.), and environmental stresses (air pollution, salt winds etc). Maintenance needs can be reduced by selecting plants resistant to pests and diseases, having a suitable size, growth rate, and longevity for the location in the landscape, being easily rejuvenated through pruning and producing easily managed prunings that can contribute to compost or mulch (green wealth for the garden). They can serve in erosion control and weed suppression. The sustainability of human settlements is improved by including food plants and plants that shelter buildings from sun or winds and complement energy efficient design (passive solar, renewable energy). These plants also harmonize with the district’s landscape character, its social, cultural and historic values and planning schemes, and importantly serve the aesthetic intent of the designer.
Cultivated plants are consumers as well as primary producers (they support all biodiversity), so more attention is being given to their demand on the water supply and other resources including their requirement for chemical fertilizers and pesticides that also consume resources. Understanding the site conditions guides plant selection for low or no watering, and helps with the placement of higher water demand plants in wetter areas of gardens. Cultivated plants can significantly contribute to wider ecological processes by providing habitat, nesting sites, and food for animals (leaf, pollen, nectar, flower or fruit). They are non-weedy.
Designing for longevity
Human landscapes that have a strong ecological basis to their design, are more likely to be robust in the face of challenges like pests and diseases.
Landscape designs also need to buffer against large scale environmental changes like climate change. So in Australia’s southeast, successful planning will take account of generally higher temperatures, more frequent extreme maximum temperatures, reduced rainfall that is more likely to be in intense bursts, more major weather events, and rising sea levels causing flooding of low lying areas of coastal towns and cities. Some cultivated taxa may become weedy as these changes proceed. Can we predict these? Already the RBGV has developed its Landscape Succession Strategy Melbourne Gardens 2016 –2036 – adapting a world-renowned botanical landscape to climate change 1 July 2016 – 30 June 2036, which will guide the transition of the Melbourne Gardens existing plantings “to a composition more suited to the projected climate and environmental conditions of 2090, while retaining the Gardens’ heritage character, landscape qualities and species diversity for future generations”.
Designing new landscapes or adapting existing landscapes to be sustainable as climate and other environmental changes occur, requires access to science-based information, particularly about the plant species, their tolerances, their habits and requirements. There are surprisingly few sources of high quality, relevant information, even globally, and some useful online local sources have restricted access.
Horticulture is now making a major contribution to the evolution of a more sustainable society by creating resilient landscapes in tune with the broader changing environment. Sustainability principles are being applied through all garden phases – design, construction, and maintenance – attending to demands for water, energy, materials, and other resources, with an awareness of their contribution to food harvests and to biodiversity. This marks a major and permanent change in the philosophy of horticultural practice: it doesn’t constrain creativity or the style of gardens and landscapes, it is more a challenge to be adaptive and inventive in response to new global circumstances.
Life is sustained by the Sun’s energy captured in carbon compounds built up in plants from carbon dioxide and water, and passed through the food chain. Humanity now controls the global distribution of these and a few other simple chemicals vital for life. The way we integrate human activity with that of the natural world will determine both our future and that of all life.
In the period between 1731 and 1768 the number of species cultivated in England doubled as plants came in from North America, the Cape of South Africa, Siberia, and the East and West Indies
Open Gardens Australia established in 1987 as Victoria’s Open Garden Scheme drew to a close in June 2015, a casualty of economic and technological developments. In 2011 the organisation was renamed Open Gardens Australia: it had opened close to 20,000 gardens and raised more than $6 million for charities and local causes. , our path to national expansion occurred over a period of two decades, with the final territory being added in 2000, when we truly became Australia’s Open Garden Scheme.