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

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