Mediterranean Garden Society

Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne, Australia: The Changing Face of Botanical Gardens

by Peter de Figueiredo
Photographs by Peter de Figueiredo

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 108, April 2022

The photo at the top of this page shows theRed Sand Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne

Peter de Figueiredo reflects on the role and evolution of botanical gardens over the centuries. He writes: “In recent years the guardians of botanic gardens have turned their attention to other issues. They have focused on education, research and conservation, with particular attention given to climate change and the threat from human actions to endangered species and natural habitats. The underlying theme of sustainability has also re-emphasized the importance of local or national plants rather than those from other parts of the world

Scribbly Path and Eucalypt Walk

Exceptional in this movement towards sustainability is Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne, built for and serving as the second Royal Botanic Gardens of Melbourne, Australia. It occupies 363 hectares of largely flat land - originally inhabited by the Boon Wurrung people - 45km south-east of Melbourne on a site which had been used by the military since 1889 and for sand mining. Created in two phases, the first opening in 2006 and the second in 2012, it was designed by landscape architects Taylor Cullity Lethlean working with plantsman Paul Thompson. It consists of two elements, the greater part of which is remnant bushland; this surrounds the main visitor attraction which is a created contemporary landscape known as the Australian Garden. 

Xanthorrhoea australis

The extent of land is unusual for a botanical garden (it is 10 times the size of its partner garden in Melbourne), but the inclusion of an extensive area of natural Australian bush with eucalyptus woodland, heathland, open grassland, and wetland was essential to the vision. Unlike the 19th-century botanical gardens in the centre of Melbourne, or those in Sydney and Adelaide, where indigenous trees stand in a pastoral European-style landscape, the landscape at Cranbourne is one of few areas left intact where you can see an ecosystem as it used to be before European settlement. The bushland has a diverse range of native plants maintained by the botanic garden teams who use controlled burns to allow understorey plants such as orchids to prosper. Here you will find Leptospermum myrsinoides, Ricinocarpos pinifolius, Melaleuca ericifolia, Banksia ser. Dryandra, Proteaceae, the Grass trees Xanthorrhoea australis, some of which have been growing here for half a millennium, and varieties of eucalyptus such as the Swamp Gum Eucalyptus ovata and the Coat Manna Gum Eucalyptus viminalis subsp. pryoriana.

Grevillea eriostachya

Detailed scientific research carried out by the teams is being used not only to inform the conservation of the natural areas on site, but also to encourage the creation of sustainable urban landscapes in the residential developments that surround the gardens. The area south-east of Melbourne is one of the fastest developing regions in Australia, and as with other remnant patches of bushland outside the boundary fence, RBG Cranbourne is in danger of becoming a landlocked island of habitat in an urban and agricultural wilderness. Such isolation of habitats restricts the diversity of fauna and flora species, making them more vulnerable to population loss or extinction. Retaining or recreating connectivity between these patches is critical for their continued ecological survival and habitat corridors, or biolinks, are essential to provide land bridges and facilitate movement.

The Australian gardener has traditionally looked to European landscapes and plant selection for inspiration, but that is now changing and RBG Cranbourne is a significant catalyst in the rediscovery of indigenous plants. These are showcased in the Australian Garden, the contemporary landscape which displays the diversity and beauty of native flora.

Look out in Gondwana Garden

The visitor enters the site at the Australian Garden where the café and shop are conveniently situated. From the balcony of the enticing café, you can look out over the created landscape which occupies a mere 15 of the 363 hectares. It represents a journey from the arid heart of the continent to the sea, passing through a series of 15 landscape displays, starting with the stunning Red Sand Garden, a vast expanse of vibrant red sand dotted with small clumps of Atriplex, and including the Rockpool Waterway, the Riverwalk, and finishing with the Seaboard, where the rains suddenly fall, bringing out a spectacular display of multi-coloured wildflowers. Each of these displays is an artistic reflection on the country’s diverse and wondrous landscapes.

Diversity Garden

There are also smaller exhibition gardens to inspire the domestic gardener. The Diversity Garden has choice plants from the 85 bioregions of Australia, planted in narrow beds separated by different coloured pebbles. The Water Saving Garden features plants that are suitable for Melbourne gardens in three categories of water usage: a moderate water use terrace, a low water use terrace and a dry terrace. The Home Garden includes both a cottage garden style and a contemporary deck with more formal planting. In all these gardens the plants are indigenous to Australia, and the message is that you can have your heritage or cottage garden or any other style you fancy using Australian plants, and they will require less water than introduced species. There is even a Kids’ Backyard with natural wood climbing frames rather than the plastic and metal commonly found in Australian children’s back yards.

Red Sand Garden

Other displays have a story to tell, such as the Bloodwood Garden which relates how Ferdinand von Mueller, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne from 1857-73, sent blue gum seeds to help dry out the swamps outside Rome and eliminate malaria, for which he was awarded a papal knighthood. The Peppermint Garden evokes smells of home, as recalled by wartime soldiers, and there are other references to the gold rushes and to children lost and found in the bush. There is complementary information about garden design, habitat creation, use of recycled materials, plant selection and cultivation. 

Dry River Bed

The plan of these created landscapes evokes rather than copies the natural landscape. Seen from above, it is reminiscent of Aboriginal art, with snaking paths, meandering dried-up riverbeds, concentric circles and crescent-shaped mounds suggesting geological forms, all defining the patterns of planting and giving shape to the overall design. There are striking sculptures such as the Ephemeral Lake designed by Mark Stoner and Edwina Kearney which is inspired by water arriving at or leaving the desert landscape, branching out, separating, drying into salt pans, or swelling into temporary inland seas.

Rock Garden with Brachychiton rupestris (Queensland BottleTrees)

The Escarpment Wall by Greg Clark, constructed of red rusted Corten steel, and the Rockpool Waterway evoke the cliffs and gorges found in central Australia such as Uluru and Kings Canyon. A wiggly path like a scribble attaches itself to the broad Eucalypt Walk. There is even an amusing sculpture of massed bright blue watering cans – promoting waterwise gardening of course.

Lily Pad Bridge and Gondwana Garden

In some respects, RBG Cranbourne recalls the rift of 1873 when von Mueller was dismissed from his position as Director of the Melbourne gardens and restricted to scientific research as Government Botanist in response to complaints by influential Melburnians. His successor William Guilfoyle then proceeded to create the much-loved pleasure garden that made the Melbourne Botanic Gardens famous. I suspect that Mueller would have approved of the emphasis on research and the celebration of Australian plants that Cranbourne promotes, but at the same time Guilfoyle would have appreciated its bold and striking design. It is also respectful of the traditions of the Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin nation, whose land this was before the settlers came.

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