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Royal Melbourne Botanic Gardens

A brief tour around this famous Botanic Garden, 'Down Under'
Adam St. Clair
Chamaerops No. 18, published online 23-07-2002

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Above: City skyline, with palms: Royal Melbourne Botanic Gardens, with skyscrapers and Phoenix palms
Below: Xanthorrhoea australis (‘Black Boy’), the Palm Lawn, and hidden Fern Gully

Forget your preconceptions about Australia despite the fact that they're all probably true. While a third of the country lies within the tropics there are lots of deserts and sunshine here at the bottom of the continent, we have a warm-temperate climate that is, well, a little bit disturbed. Well, certifiably psychotic really. Despite our latitude being similar to that of Athens, Australia looks at Melbourne's weather the same way that southern Europe looks at Britain's. Their condescension aside, our only climatic hazards to horticulture are occasional light frosts, roaring summer heat waves and unreliable rainfall. No snow.

These unbelievable gardens turn 150 in 1996. I could happily ramble on about the beautiful vistas, sweeping lawns, hills and lakes, but you want palms; what's hot and what's not, what thrives and what dies. There are three palms that are common throughout the gardens: Livistona australis (Victoria's only native palm), the C.I.D.P. (Canary Island Date Palm - Phoenix canariensis) and Archontophoenix cunninghamiana. They seem to pop up everywhere and are producing seedlings freely (at least, mine were free). It's surprising to see CIDP's so much in abundance around the gardens as they are so common anyway around Melbourne. The frequency of Livistona australis is also surprising as they are very rarely planted around Victoria, Washingtonia being preferred (which it much resembles). Pity.

The other Aussie, Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, called the Bangalow Palm, is a handsome one. They all seem to have different coloured crownshafts; green, brown, purple. This, when combined with the masses of bright red fruit makes for a very attractive palm.

Scattered among the acres of lawn are individuals and group plantings of palms you will be familiar with. Most species of Phoenix are grouped together in one gene-crunching, traithomogenising mess. Both green and silver-blue versions of Butia capitata are on show - are they really the same species? When planted close to one another, they certainly don't look it. Trachycarpus is not happy here - they all tend to look as though dynamite has been used nearby. Newsflash: 4°C and 10% humidity are not conducive to Trachycarpus' well-being. The two versions of Jubaea chilensis are to be seen in' Melbourne: the one with purely erect leaves - like a Rhopalostylis sapida on steroids - and the more common, spreading variety. Does anyone know why these dramatic differences occur? Is it geographical? Does one type beget the same type? I'd like to know. The Jubaeas are amazing - monoliths with leaves on top, and I applaud anybody who plants one because 90 years on, they stand as impressive as the Himalayas, except that at 2-3cm per year, I think the mountain range is growing faster.

Due to the domination of our palm industry by Queensland, where Jubaeas will not grow, they are unavailable commercially. Because seed collecting in the gardens is strictly forbidden it was extremely fortuitous that I happened to be walking past the perimeter fence when some particularly ripe fruit dislodged in a freak gust of wind, ricocheted off a Japanese tourist's camcorder and bounced over the fence, when I took a slip's catch with a propagating box. Coincidence. It has germinated; producing two leaves in rapid succession before, on realizing it was a Jubaea, lapsing into a coma.

The highlight of the gardens (especially for those with no interest in palms) is the Fern Gully. It owes its existence to the Australian custom of throwing the houseplants out into the garden once they've grown too large. Today a small creek runs through a rainforest with Archontophoenix cunninghamiana and Livistona australis forming the canopy, with both Howeias, tree ferns (Cyathea sp.), Platycerium and orchids forming the understory. It's dark in here, but not quiet. Hundreds of fruit bats have made this their home and squawk and screech and, well, hang upside-down from palm fronds, wrapped in their wings. Cockatoos compete in the decibel stakes but not so eerily as the rampant black bats. When it's not raining, they have the sprinklers on. When the sprinklers area t on, it rains little red bullets of Archontophoenix fruit and bat poo.

With over 10,000 species of plants here you'll forgive me for failing to mention the Jacarandas, Cycads, 20ft. Euphorbias, Yuccas and the Sabal bermudana that sounds hollow when slapped. But, as the gardens are open 365 days a year and entry is free, you can explore them yourself. Just the small matter of finding the air fare...

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