Sunday, 7 August 2011

The Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens, Mt Tomah

The name ‘Blue Mountains’ conjures up exotic images of a mysterious, ancient landscape untouched by the modern world. Such an evocative name for a mountain range seems obvious when you stare out over the blue landscape from the summit of Mount Tomah, 105 kms west of Sydney. Apparently the blue colour is caused by the optical distortion of light through droplets of air-born eucalyptus oil released from the forest below. 

The Blue Mountains

At 987 metres above sea level, Mount Tomah is one of the higher peaks of these mountains. An extinct volcanic vent, the summit’s only reminder of its violent past is the dark basalt rock and the nutrient-rich soil. The depth and quality of the earth is evident in the tall trees growing on the peak when compared with the stunted forest covering the impoverished sandstone soils found lower down the mountain.

Its soil and dramatic position make Mt Tomah a perfect site for a garden. Opened in 1987, the ‘Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Mount Tomah’ is the cool-climate annex of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney. This must be one of the most beautifully sighted parks in the world - from the wisteria-covered observation deck you get a panoramic view of the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains National Park.

Young cone on a Wollemi pine

In August 1994, ranger David Noble accidentally discovered a colony of ancient conifers growing in a sheltered rainforest gully in the nearby Wollemi wilderness. The tall Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis, named in honour of its discoverer) had somehow survived continental drift, climate change and bushfires. Fossil records suggest that this species dates back over 150 million years and may have once grown in Antarctica, India, New Zealand and South America when they were joined to Australia in the super continent Gondwana.

Both exotic and native trees flourish on the rich soil

The Wollomi pine is arguably the greatest botanical discovery of the second half of the 20th century. At Mount Tomah, you can see this close cousin of the Norfolk Island pine and monkey puzzle tree growing near the visitors’ centre. It will be interesting to see how it develops in the rich volcanic soil. Offering refuge for rare and endangered plants is a big part of the work carried out here. Education is also important.

Exhibit on fungi in the visitors centre

At Mount Tomah there are some wonderful walks which will open your eyes to the wonders of plants and the discoveries made by earlier plant explorers. From one of these walks you even get a distant easterly vista of the city of Sydney.

The first European to discover Mount Tomah was the botanical collector, George Caley (1770-1829), who accompanied by his dog and three convict servants, reached the summit of Fern Tree Hill (as it was first described) on 10th November 1804. In a letter to his patron, Sir Joseph Banks, Caley wrote: “My journey to the Carmarthen Mountains (an early colonial name for the hills of the northern Blue Mountains region) was a rough one. I was out three weeks which was as long as I was able to abide for the want of provisions. The roughness of the country I found beyond description.”

Caley was by no means the first to discover Mount Tomah. For thousands of years the area was the home of the Dharug Aboriginal people until they were wiped out by diseases introduced by the early colonialists. Although little remains of their language, the word tomah survives – it means “tree fern”. These elegant ferns grow in profusion in the garden and on surrounding mountain tops. Many have been incorporated into the main rock garden, which is also home to high-altitude plants - mainly from the Southern Hemisphere - including the architecturally dramatic protea and giant lobellia from Africa, the Australian banksia and the spring-flowering waratah.

Lobelia giberroa from the highlands of east Africa

Brightly coloured parrots and honeyeaters feed on the nectar-rich flowers. Keep a lookout for the ground-dwelling lyrebird. This shy songbird is one of the greatest mimics on earth. With such prolific birdlife and its magnificent landscape, this 28ha botanic ark is a must-see – as witnessed by nearly 100,000 visitors a year. And now thanks to a recent election promise admission charges have been removed.

Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Mount Tomah, Bells Line of Road, Mount Tomah, NSW
Open daily (no admission charge) tel: 02 - 4567 2154

Monday, 1 August 2011

Vintage views of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney

An early 20th century view of the Botanic Gardens, Sydney

Many years ago I came across a book titled Postcards from Kew. This well illustrated work highlighted a collection of old postcards of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London. Inspired I decided to search for similar postcards showing views of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney (RBG). Within weeks I had discovered a couple of dozen images dating from the early years of the last century. As a garden historian I was intrigued by these images and went in search of more at markets and postcard fairs. Within a couple of years I had a collection of several hundred cards. Clearly the botanic gardens in Sydney was just as popular with postcard collectors as was Kew.

In this beautifully printed German card we see a
 glimpse of Sydney Harbour from the Botanic Gardens

Several years ago I showed part of my collection to Judy Blood and Miguel Garcia of the RBG research library. Fascinated by these images they asked permission to scan the works for research purposes. Recently a series of these images have been printed by the RBG for sale at their bookshop. Many of thepostcards used come from my collection while others come from the album of RBG guide Jenny Pattison, a fellow postcard collector. The ‘Vintage Views’ cards sell for $1, and there are mounted prints which sell for a very reasonable $9.95. These images were recently used in an interactive walk in the gardens where the vintage views where set up at the same spot where the original photographs were taken.

In the back ground of this postcard
is the Chess Pavillion built in 1897

One of my cards being used in the Vintage Views
 self-guided walk at the Royal Botanic Gardens.
While the Chess Pavillion is still on site the ornamental
 fountain in the postcard image is long gone

Why we think of the brief text based message as correspondence from our time - think of  Twitter, SMS and e-mail - but the succinct message dates from the mid 19th century when the telegram was invented. Later in the century the postcard was introduced. The collecting of postcards became a craze around the world from the 1890s to the time of World War One and many photographers and publishers produced cards with tempting images of people and places, including public parks and gardens.

Classically inspired statuary near the Levy Fountain

Swiss printed view of the Botanical Gardens
looking east towards the palm grove

While most of my postcard images are Sydney based I also have some fine views of other towns and cities in Australia and around the world. Every few weeks I will post some more postcard images from my collection.  Any requests?
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