Select Page


Horticulture is embedded in political, social and cultural history. For this context read these articles in conjunction with the articles on Australian history, nursery networks, the cultural background of the early settlers from Georgian England; the developments in the 18th century Enlightenment and Enlightenment2 including , Enlightenment science, botanophilia, Enlightenment gardener-botanists, plant hunters, cultivated plant globalization, and history of gardening in the western tradition.

Australian garden history


The study of garden history was, only in recent times, included in educational curricula in response to an introspective phase of western horticulture that began in the 1960s.

As usual, Australia took its lead from the United Kingdom whose The Garden History Society was founded in 1966 in London, its aim to study and promote garden history, and to protect historic gardens. In 2015, after merging with the Association of Gardens Trusts, these organizations formed the amalgamated The Gardens Trust.

The study of garden history in Australia advanced rapidly after the formation of the Australian Garden History Society in 1980, following pioneering studies by the Australian Heritage Commission and National Trust of Australia in the late 1970s.

This article provides a broad introduction to the more detailed and narrower timeframes to follow.

Historical context

Australian horticulture developed out of its European roots.

Australian gardening has, until recent times, been largely an extension of traditions inherited from Britain. These in turn were an eclectic mix of garden traditions harking back to Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, and the eastern Mediterranean as synthesized by the more opulent classical Greek and Roman styles as introduced to Britain by the Roman garrisons that occupied Britannia for about 400 years.

For the 1000 years after the Roman withdrawal from Britain in 410 CE we have just a few scattered written records of Medieval gardens, but no garden archaeology either in Britain or on the continent, and only a few hypothetical pictorial records of these gardens up to about 1550.

The broadl European influence on western gardening is reflected in the way traditional garden history has been expressed in terms of garden styles established by European royalty at a time when social tastes and fashions flowed ‘downward’ from the more elevated echelons of society. Gardens reflected social hierarchy. Only those with wealth and power could bring to fruition those garden designs that would attract sufficient attention to leave a permanent record. This required remarkable artistic sensitivity, and finances that could support a large labour force. Their exclusivity was also underlined by their dependence on the latest engineering, architecture, botany, and literature – which ruled out all but the few.

This social hierarchy was even acknowledged internationally so, for example, across Christian Europe, the prevailing garden fashions consolidated by Roman society were subsequently determined by the politically and economically influential countries of the day which were, in rough sequence, Renaissance Italy, then Spain and Portugal, Holland, France, and eventually England.

The general historical trend towards more democratic and egalitarian social institutions has meant that garden fashions and traditions became progressively more socially inclusive. would later become more broadly based as upwardly mobile wealthy merchants joined the ranks of the nobility at the apex of society.

have gathered momentum up to the present day. Though wealth and social influence are still important, horticultural fashion is increasingly international and populist. From England’s Victorian era trends and fashions became increasingly set by all sectors of society as social stratification has dissolved, until today there is a blending of ideas generated across all media and countries at the local to international scales. Historically, however, there can be no doubt that in the 18th to 19th centuries western horticulture reached its zenith in the United Kingdom’s colonial period in a phase of accelerated cultivated plant globalization that encompassed not only ornamental plants but spices, and forest trees, along with temperate and tropical crops.

From about the 16th century continental influences set the horticultural agenda for Britain’s ruling elite, in broad general terms these flowed from the Spanish and Portuguese, Dutch, and French as each in turn enjoyed periods of political ascendancy including the widely-emulated latter-day English landscape style. The horticultural landscape would be transformed by the importation of plants to Britain as a consequence of that dictated the cultural agenda of the ruling classes. European influences , followed by European traditions that increasingly incorporated plants and styles consequent on colonial expansion.

Developments in Australia

Preservation of garden heritage, primarily plants and gardens, became a preoccupation of western gardeners in the 1970s and ’80s encouraged by the Royal Horticultural Society and British gardening community who had initiated the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (NCCPG, now Plant Heritage) in 1978 (see for example Genders 1969, 1971, 1975 & Brickell 1981, Brickell & Sharman 1986). The English National Trust was founded in 1895, its Herb Society in 1927, and the Garden History Society in 1966 (since 2015 it has been partner to The Gardens Trust). Careful investigation of the remains of old gardens became popular when the Council for British Archaeology gave formal recognition to the academic discipline of garden archaeology in 1986. Following Britain’s lead, the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) was founded in 1956, and both the Herb Society of Victoria and Australian Garden History Society were formed in 1980 along with the Australian journal Historic Environment.

The establishment of the Australian Garden History Society arose out of the first garden history conference which was held in Melbourne in 1980, driven by the enthusiasm of garden-orientated architects. Interest in historic gardens was stimulated by studies of the Australian Heritage Commission undertaken between 1978 and 1980. Most notable was the work of Howard Tanner and the national touring expedition Converting the Wilderness: the Art of Gardening in Colonial Australia (1979) and his publications Great Gardens of Australia (Tanner & Begg 1976) and Towards an Australian Garden (1983). This was followed by the influential work of architect Peter Watts and his work on garden designer Edna Walling (Watts 1981) and his Historic Gardens of Victoria: A Reconnaissance (1983). This historical turn in horticulture would have a lasting effect on the character of Australia’s public and private gardens. A proud opening address in the new Australian Garden History Journal of 1989 announced the intention to capture Australia’s major gardens on the Register of the National Estate (Tanner 1989).

This historical movement stimulated an inventory of early Australian horticultural literature (Crittenden 1986; Spencer and Cohn 1986) and nursery catalogues (Polya 1981) while, at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (RBGV), a catalogue of the plants stocked by Victoria’s first nurseries during the period 1855-1889 was compiled (Brookes & Barley 1992, revised by Brookes in 2009).

This all occurred in a period of new social and environmental awareness. Through the 1960s and 1970s native plant ‘bush gardens’ gathered a groundswell of supporters. This was, in part, a reaction and resistance to European, and especially British, gardening influences and the desire to establish a national gardening identity. But it was followed by a return to European preoccupations as trends in cottage and herb gardens followed in the 1980s.

Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, Australia experienced a new pride in its past as neat and tidy country towns, painted in heritage colours, attracted tourists with their goldmining and other historical themes. Horticultural interest was focused on the conservation and restoration of historic gardens, a revival of the cottage garden and herb garden, perennial borders, and a desire to grow authentic heritage plants. This was not confined to Australia but part of an international movement across the Anglosphere that would determine the kinds of plants and gardens that would enjoy a period of fashionable popularity.

The RBGV was part of the trend, introducing a new herb garden, perennial border, grey garden, Plant Craft Cottage, and an inventory of its historic trees – which all required careful plant selection and/or knowledge of plants. There was also major involvement of horticultural botany staff in historical plants and gardens, both private and public, including cemeteries of country Victoria. Definitive histories and conservation analyses of many of Australia’s major city gardens and older regional gardens were completed during this period.

The title ‘landscape architect’ was first used in the modern sense – as a profession – by American Olmsted and Englishman Vaux in 1863 after they resigned from overseeing their designed construction of Central Park in New York (Correy 2002). The term did not arrive in Australia until a competition for the design of the new national capital of Canberra was won by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin in 1912. In 1979, the Australia ICOMOS Charter (International Council on Monuments and Sites) for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Significance was adopted at a meeting of Australia ICOMOS at the historic mining town of Burra in South Australia. The ‘Burra Charter’ outlined the conservation principles and procedures that must be applied when assessing historic objects and sites. Revised in 1999 it has since been adopted by the Australian Heritage Council (December 2004) as a pioneering milestone in a new approach to cultural heritage that included historic gardens.

Through the 1960s and 1970s the design of parks, gardens and landscapes had been the work of conscientious people from diverse backgrounds and training, but when university courses in landscape architecture were first offered in the 1970s their graduates became engaged in public projects and historical analysis (see, for example, Fox 2004). For a historical account of landscape architecture in Australia see Saniga (2013) and for the nursery industry see the commemorative centenary special edition of Australian Horticulture in 2003.

The vehicle for the preservation of the historic values of parks and gardens was the conservation analysis, which followed on the heels of the work on historic landscapes and sites. Nigel Lewis was partnered by Richard Aitken in a landscape architecture practice that would complete many historic garden conservation analyses, including those of the RBGV (Lewis & Aitken 1992), and the Adelaide Botanic Gardens in 2006. Richard Aitken, an active member of the Australian Garden History Society, has retained a lifelong interest in historic gardens. As editor of the society’s quality journal for many years he has shown a keen eye for period illustrations, and has authored several key works on Australian garden history including editorship of the definitive Oxford Companion to Australian Gardens, with Michael Looker, which synthesised and extended much of the accumulated Australian garden history (see Aitken & Looker 2002; Aitken 2004; Aitken 2010).

Contributions from the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria

As part of an outreach program at the RBGV, conservation analyses, concentrating on the historic plant component, were made of the historic landscapes and plantings of gold mining towns of Maldon (Lumley et al. 1982) and Ballarat (Lumley et al. 1984, presented to the mayor on 13 June 1984) the study including the outlying town of Buninyong. There was also a conservation study of the historically important cemeteries at Beechworth (Spencer, Dyke & Worboys, 1981), a report on the Melbourne General Cemetery (Spencer et al., 1983, see also Maroske 1991, & Hawker & Spencer, 1992) as well as a conservation analysis of the homestead garden on Westernport’s Churchill Island, site of Victoria’s first garden (Dyke & Spencer 1982). Herbarium collections were also made in studies of the state’s trees – especially oaks, elms, and pines and exceptional trees of the RBGV’s Living Collections (Lumley & Spencer 1982, also a gardens brochure with tree locations marked) and the changing historical fashions in street tree plantings in Victoria (see Spencer, Beetham & Lumley 1981; Spencer 1986).

In the Dandenong Ranges and Mt Macedon, 19th century cool climate Hill Station garden retreats formerly owned by Melbourne’s wealthy in a tradition that dates back to antiquity, now contain some of the state’s finest mature trees. Visits and records were established by horticultural botany staff for gardens like ‘Alton’ and ‘Hascombe’ at Mt Macedon.

On 16 February 1983, the severe ‘Ash Wednesday’ fires, fanned by winds of over 100 km/hr, burned across Victoria and South Australia. Mt Macedon was badly affected and RBGV horticultural botany staff were asked to assess the damage and discuss the future of the gardens with their owners. Surveys of the plants at ‘Huntly Burn’, ‘Greystanes’ and the old Taylor & Sangster Nursery site were completed at this time.

In 1973 the Victorian government purchased the property Werribee Park, an Italianate mansion completed between 1874 and 1877, the garden possibly designed by William Guilfoyle, and owned by trailblazers of the Victorian squattocracy, the Chirnside family. David Churchill, a member of its committee of management, with Superintendent Alan Gardiner frequently visited the site, helping to supervise, among other initiatives, the reconstruction of a parterre garden and collection of roses that subsequently became the award-winning Victoria State Rose Garden. There was also the repair of glasshouses and the establishment of a small arboretum replenished with excess stock from the RBGV nursery. A list of the plants growing at Werribee Park was completed by horticultural botany staff in 1978.

The stocktake of historic gardens undertaken at this time included that of botanic gardens. On 9 December 1981 (shortly after the International Botanical Congress held in Sydney held in August, when the first volume of the Flora of Australia was launched), the history of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, written by former Director Richard Pescott (1905–1986), was launched at the Director’s Residence. It was followed by Lionel Gilbert’s history of the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney (Gilbert 1986), Marcus Hurburgh’s history of the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens (Hurburgh 1986), and an overview of all of Australia’s major botanic gardens by Carol Henty in For the peoples’ pleasure (Henty 1988).

The respect for history and heritage values and the rejuvenation of country Victoria continued into the 1990s as more public parks and gardens, buildings and townships, were given heritage protection as tourism became a much-needed source of revenue.

Colony of New South Wales

Garden History 44 suppl. 1 Discusses Lancelot Brown’s influence across Europe.
– See Mauldon, V. Shaping the Domain: The Macquaries, presige and parklands in colonial Parramatta. Garden History 44 suppl. 1 191-203.

In 1810 Elizabeth Macquarie, wife of the new Governor Macquarie took charge of their new land to introduce winding paths and landscape features to enhance and compliment the surroundings. There were a few other examples of ‘landscaped’ gardens but until the late 1820s gardening was militaristic and functional, gradually softening with the development of civil society, pastoral wealth and official sanction of ‘villa allotments’. By the 1830s a measure of affluence permitted the display of ‘taste’ as exemplified by the Colonial Secretary Alexander McCleay with his gardens at Elizabeth Bay and Brownlow Hill, and pastoralist William Macarthur at Camden Park. These gentlemen were able to indulge the gardenesque style of the 1830s – the ‘Gardenesque’ (plants separated to display their individual attributes), promoted by their highly influential mutual Scottish friend John Claudius Loudon. This style was emulated both in New South Wales and the other colonies although the smaller gardens continued to be mostly rectilinear and symmetric.

Vaucluse – Sir Hayes took to farming and the ‘ gentleman convict turned gentleman farmer’ also built a house there called Vaucluse House. Elizabeth Bay House is the most elegant and sophisticated house of the 1830s in New South Wales. Alexander Macleay, who arrived in Sydney in 1826 with his wife and six daughters. The Macleays’ interests included entomology, horticulture, landscape design, architecture, natural history illustration and fine art. of poor girls as servants.

Macleay developed Elizabeth Bay as a celebrated landscape garden. The site of the house was chosen for its vistas across Sydney Harbour. The native bush was retained and planted with exotics to enhance its botanical interest and the dramatic topography was embellished with picturesque structures: a turretted stables, cottages, a rustic bridge, terrace walls and grottoes. Macleay’s development of his garden reveals his informed taste and romantic enthusiasm. Macleay’s approach to the Australian bush was in contrast with that of the majority of colonists, who customarily cleared it and started afresh. The bush was planted with specimen orchids and ferns to enhance its botanical interest, which could be enjoyed in the course of a ‘wood walk’. Two notebooks survive – partly in the hand of Alexander and partly in the hand of William Sharp Macleay – Plants Received at Elizabeth Bay, c 1826-1840, and Seeds Received at Elizabeth Bay, 1836-1857. These list the sources of plants for the Elizabeth Bay garden and illustrate a comprehensive approach to plant collecting, similar to their approach to entomology. The plant and seed books contain entries for purchases from the nurserymen Messrs Loddiges of Hackney, London and exchanges with William Macarthur of Camden. They also record the plants contributed by visitors to the Elizabeth Bay estate and by William Sharp Macleay’s natural history collectors in India. Macleay’s garden was notable for its fruit trees. Many visitors also remarked on Macleay’s achievement in creating a garden in what some people believed to be Sydney’s dry conditions and sandy soil. The Elizabeth Bay estate was progressively lost to subdivisions.

The Governors garden, later the RBG Sydney c.1816, was a means of introducing useful plants to the colony.


On 22 Mar. 1801 Lt James Grant, in the Lady Nelson which had been specially fitted out for its exploration of the New Holland southern coast, landed on Churchill Island (Western Port, 150 m NE of Phillip Island) and was impressed by its horticultural potential, naming the island after John Churchill the Devonshire gentleman who supplied the ship with seed of vegetables and fruits. Grant had been given specific instructions from Governor King in the firm tradition of those issued to all Enlightenment voyages of discovery:

… to plant such seeds of fruit trees and useful vegetables as you are supplied with near to such landing places as you may discover in which a safe and commodious anchorage and easy landing render it likely that ships hereafter may frequent, and where the soil appears to be most fertile and productive, and to collect in all places such seeds of trees, plants, shrubs, and grasses as you may find in a state of maturity and judge to be worthy of notice either for their beauty, their particularity, or their possible utility, and to collect such specimens of vegetables, animals, and minerals as you may think likely to prove interesting to naturalists at home.

Grant had also been given the services of Kew-trained gardener and Banks’s resident gardener-botanist George Caley.[ HRNSW Vol.IV, p.483] On 28 March (?April) an area was prepared, sowing wheat, Indian corn, peas, rice, coffee and potatoes. A blockhouse was erected and fruits planted around it. On 8 Dec Lt John Murray who had succeeded Grant in command of the Lady Nelson visited the island eating some of the vegetables: wheat, corn, a few potatoes and two onions had survived. The exact site of the garden and blockhouse is not known. [Pizzey, G. & Ingpen, R. 1976. Churchill Island. Victoria Conservation Trust, Melbourne] Further seed was sown in 1826 by Captain Wright who established a Westernport settlement in 1826. The Hentys, who arrived in Portland Bay in 1834 also established fruit trees and vegetables as did Batman and Fawkner in Melbourne in 1835, Fawkner bringing about 2,500 assorted fruit trees from his nursery at Windmill Hill in Launceston planting these on the edge of a swamp that rose to Emerald Hill.

Although Daniel Bunce claimed to be the first botanist in Victoria he had arrived in the colony in 1839 as a horticulturist from Tasmania, eventually establishing Geelong Botanic garden in 1857.

* James Fleming was the first to plant seed in the Port Phillip district.[ Ducker 1986. Archives Natural History 13: 123-140]

NOTE: After she had arrived in New South Wales, the Lady Nelson was for the next twenty five years one of the most important vessels in the colony. She sailed regularly between Sydney, Norfolk Island, Hobart, Port Dalrymple and Port Macquarie.

In 1807 she was one of the four ships commissioned to bring the first evacuees from Norfolk Island to Hobart Town. She sailed again in 1808 for Hobart Town with more evacuees. Most of the these people were convicts from the First, Second and Third Fleet, along with a few military men, who had been living on Norfolk Island for the previous twenty years.

He was ordered to return and survey the deep bay which he had sailed across in Bass Strait, and in fact to make a general survey of the south coast. He left on 6 March 1801, got as far as Western Port of which a survey was made, and was back at Sydney on 14 May 1801.

Grant was himself conscious of his want of knowledge of nautical surveying. After his return to England Grant published in 1803 his Narrative of a Voyage of Discovery which was shortly afterwards translated into Dutch and German.

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019

Print Friendly, PDF & Email