Royal Botanic Gardens Autumn Discovery Tour

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By: Zoe Tovey


While summer is the time for picnickers to crowd the lawns of the Royal Botanic Gardens to fan themselves and watch hot actors run around in fairy costumes or animal suits, the gardens themselves offer unexpected delights in the cooler seasons, chief among them the chance to witness the changing foliage and autumn-blooming camellias in a peaceful, green habitat.

Volunteer guides hold seasonal discovery walks year-round, with an emphasis on the varying cycles of the flora within. The Autumn Discovery Tour was ideal to take on a cool, damp May afternoon, with the weather bringing out the scents of the dirt and the trees, and our guide David on hand to narrate the history of the gardens and introduce us to its secrets.

The character of the gardens still owes much to the vision of its early directors in the mid to late 19th century, Ferdinand von Mueller and his colleague and successor William Guilfoyle. Thanks in large part to a mixture of their creative obsessions and their fierce squabbles over the gardens’ direction (the botanist von Mueller accused the landscape gardener Guilfoyle of being a “nurseryman [with] no claims to scientific knowledge whatever”), Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens manage to be at once stately and wildly eclectic.

One thing the early directors weren’t, in spite of their colonial brief to replicate the great public gardens of London and Paris, was Eurocentric. Mueller in particular was excited by the opportunity to cultivate previously unknown flora from Australia and South-East Asia, sometimes planting dozens of exotics when he was seized by a passion for one. This means the visitor can be standing on manicured green lawns one moment, and among a dank tropical forest with stands of breadfruit and marshy reeds the next. But their legacy is most evident in the garden’s old trees, which include many oaks and elms, but also natives such as blue and red gums, lesser known eucalypts, and imports including a Coxcomb Coral from South America, known as the Harry Potter tree due to its resemblance to the Whomping Willow in the films.

Most poignant is the Separation Tree, a 400-year-old river red gum that was the site of celebrations on November 15, 1850, when Victoria was declared a separate colony to New South Wales. The towering gum was severely ring-barked by vandals in 2010, and is now protected by a fence and security camera. It has been attended to by tree surgeons and its bark appears to be healing, but David says it will be many years before they know if it will recover fully or eventually die. The tree’s descendants, however, cultivated from seeds, pepper the landscape around in various stages of growth.

Past the ornamental lake with punting rides, we move on to the hothouse, which houses the gardens’ most unusual and grotesque specimen – the titan arum,* a tall plant from western Sumatra that flowers for just 36 hours every three years or so. If that weren’t memorable enough, the flower itself is said to smell intensely of rotting flesh, the better to attract flies during its short blossoming. We were able to see two titan arum in different states of its dramatic life cycle – one upright, proud and green with a large bud at its head, and the other in a state of collapse, looking like a deflated balloon prop, with the whole stalk and plant on the floor. “That one,” said David, gesturing at the sorry wilted brown specimen, “was just like the other one a few days ago.” Soon, the seemingly dead plant will resurrect itself and form another bud, although the next flowering is not due for another two years.

Out of the hothouse, the cool autumn mists are a shock on bare skin, as we wander past the “volcano” a conical water-capturing structure covered in a stunning blanket of cacti, and move back towards the Observatory Gate. It’s an unusual but fitting ending to our journey: a tower of desert succulents amid the trimmed lawns broken by clusters of tropical plants – the adventurous and the staid, side by side, just as the forefathers planned it.


*Its Indonesian name Bunga Bangkai means “corpse flower”. Not to be outdone, botanists gave it the scientific name Amorphophallus titanium, which means “huge deformed penis”.

The Royal Botanical Gardens Autumn Discovery Tours run Tuesday–Sunday until the end of June, with winter tours starting in July. Meet at the Visitors’ Centre, Observatory Gate, Birdwood Avenue, across from the Shrine of Remembrance. Tours run from 11am–12.30pm and 2pm–3.30pm and are free. For bookings/enquiries call: 9252 2429

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