Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens

2018 will see the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens (RTBG) celebrate its 200th anniversary. Established in 1818, the RTBG is the second oldest botanical garden in Australia after Sydney. Developed on the site of Hangan’s Farm on the banks of the River Derwent, the number of nearby middens attests to a rich and far longer history of human habitation.

A Significant History

Like other colonial era botanical gardens, the RTBG played a vital role in the early establishment of the colony as a central point for the introduction and dissemination of food producing plants for the growing settlement.

The RTBG boasts strong links to Tasmania’s convict past, with convicts providing much of the labour for the early development of the gardens Many of the older structures were also built with convict labour, including the Arthur Wall, one of the few heated walls in the Southern Hemisphere, and the Eardley-Wilmot Wall, which was rumoured to have been built to keep out locusts!

For many years convict labourers and garden superintendents lived side by side at the gardens, but while the history of the garden’s former superintendents and directors is reasonably well documented, very little is known about the convicts who worked on site.

Growing the Collections

Not surprisingly, the garden’s original plantings were very focused on food, utility and the sustainability of the colony.  (Some early writings tell of the great abundance and variety of fruit and vegetables in the gardens and go on to speak glowingly about the quality and size of the fruit.)

Nevertheless the colonists very quickly started to investigate the local flora, initially to determine its usefulness as either timber, food or fuel, before later going on to investigate it from a scientific and ornamental perspective. Early records and photographs of the gardens include images and documentation of a number of Tasmanian plants already well established in cultivation by the mid 1800s.

The alien nature of Tasmania’s evergreen sclerophyll forests with their untidy litter layers of bark and branches and their frightening propensity for wildfires led to homesickness and a longing for the more benign forest trees of the Northern Hemisphere. Consequently, plantings of conifers and exotic deciduous trees now form the dominant canopy in the garden’s heritage landscape.

In relatively recent times the garden’s collections have seen a shift towards the flora of the Southern Hemisphere and in particular Tasmania (including Tasmania’s distant territory, the sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island).

Behind the scenes, RTBG staff work on programs aimed at conserving Tasmania’s rarest and most threatened plants in the garden’s nursery, as both collections and seed orchards, with the ultimate aim of eventually returning the plants to a secure future in the wild.

In addition, the Tasmanian Seed Conservation Centre, part of the global Millennium Seedbank project, aims to eventually hold viable seed collections of all Tasmania’s flora in long-term storage. One additional benefit of the seed collecting process is the resultant germination testing of every collection gathered, a process which is helping develop an important body of data on the germination requirements of Tasmanian flora, including many plants that have never before been studied.

 

A Place for People

While the RTGB is about plants, collections, education and conservation, it is primarily about people. The early lieutenant-governors of the developing colony recognised the potentially civilizing influence of a botanical garden to a populace trying to find their place in a strange land. Since those earliest days the RTBG has remained a place where people go to meet, to learn, to relax and to contemplate.

For Tasmanians, the gardens are part of their collective memory, having visited them as children and many times afterwards to celebrate significant events in their (and others) lives.

Today more than ever, the gardens contribute to the community through education programs and Outreach projects, cultural activities, exhibitions, events and festivals.

Attracting more than 400,000 visitors annually, the gardens are one of Tasmania’s most visited sites and play an important role in enabling visitors to experience Tasmania’s vibrant community and cultural atmosphere through its seasonal program of festivals and events.

 Words & Images : Ben Davidson

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