On 15 November, 1850, Victorians gathered under a tree to celebrate the news of Victorias separation from New South Wales. The news had reached Melbourne only four days prior and was celebrated with rejoicing, fireworks, street demonstrations and three public holidays. This tree became known as the Separation tree, and would stand tall in Melbournes gardens for around 400 years.
The _Eucalyptus camaldulensis_ \(River Red Gum\) stood 24 metres high with a canopy spread of 23 x 27 metres, and a circumference of 3.83 metres at its girth. The tree was placed on the Significant Tree Register of the National Trust of Victoria in 1982, and along with two other trees located in the Royal Botanic Gardens, became one of Melbournes oldest trees. However, this was an honour that would be short\-lived.
On 21 August 2010 the tree was ringbarked by vandals which saw an estimated 90 per cent of its cambial or outer bark tissue destroyed. On 20 July 2013 a second attack removed the remaining 10 per cent of this and significantly worsened the wound.
The Gardens staff worked tirelessly to try and save the tree, attempting a range of innovative horticulturist techniques such as patch grafting, bridge grafting and approach grafting.
Sadly, the Separation Trees deteriorating condition left the gardeners with no other choice than to begin to reducing the canopy in 2015, marking the death of one of Melbournes most beloved trees. The remaining trunk and three main scaffold limbs still stand as a testament to the grand River Red Gum.
The History of the Land
Three layers represent three generations, Royal Botanic Gardens Indigenous guide Ben Church explains as he prepares the kindling for a smoke ceremony.
The traditional practice is a mark of respect for the creators of the land, Bunjil the great eagle and Waa the black crow.
Silver wattle, native to Victoria, is used to represent the elders and forms the base layer.
The second layer is a variety of cherry ballart, collected from the banks of the Yarra River, and used to celebrate the current and future generations.
The third and final layer is eucalyptus, the most recognizable of the layers Church has mentioned so far.
It represents the people who come into your life, Church says, handing me a green eucalyptus leaf to add on to the gently smouldering pile of kindling.
The single leaf has a remarkable impact, causing smoke to spew out of the wooden bowl and wash over me.
Church adds one too, as he grew up on a different dreamtime in an aboriginal community in the Western Districts of Victoria.
As the crack and pop of the flames begins to quieten, and become engulfed in the more familiar sound of a nearby police sirens, we begin our tour.
Not five metres away, Church points out an unremarkable looking shrub, with dark leaves and small purple flowers.
“That’s the secret women’s business plant,” he says, gently handling a branch of the plant to proudly show off its scaly looking leaves.
I’m left guessing what Church means for about about five minutes as he takes me through the other uses for the _solanum laciniatum_ or ‘Kangaroo Apple’.
“Indigenous people used to crush the purple flowers, and use them as a dye for clothes… they also used to bury the flower buds, and after they ripened eat them like tomatoes… “.
Aboriginal women also historically used Kangaroo Apple as a contraception method, hence “the secret women’s business”.
Hidden talents within ordinary looking plants soon become a common theme throughout our walk, with Church regularly making quick pit stops to point out flora you wouldn’t usually take a second glance at.
Thats a native orchid…its very rare, takes about 10 years to grow, he says, stretching his arm to a cluster of delicate ivory coloured orchids huddled happily in the cavity of a tree.
“And there… that’s a coastal Banskia which is around 200 years old… the cones which fall from the branches are really great fire torches…the flowers also have great nectar which were used as a sweet drink.”
“Here’s the Moreton Bay Fig has little fruits that were often eaten….but they were was most popular in tribes for their medicinal purposes,” Church says as he squeezes a drop of white sap from a small, bulbous fruit dropped from the tree so large it shrouds the surrounds in dappled light.
As we weave our way back through to the entrance gate where the tour began, light rain begins to spit from the heavy grey clouds above.
I guess thats Bunjil calling time, Church says with a little grin as we go our separate ways.
As I quietly make out the Gardens, I feel I have discovered a side of my backyard I never knew existed.
_Text, video and images by Lexie Jeuniewic_
Bunjil was a spiritual creator. Taking the form of a wedge tailed eagle, he gave life to the first people of the land, creating the rivers, mountains, animals and trees; all living and natural things in the Kulin Nation.
The Royal Botanic Gardens of Melbourne were established in 1846 by Lieutenant Governor Charles La Trobe. Over sixty years, the landscape was transformed, with Queen Elizabeth II to bestow the Royal prefix in 1958.
Visits by botanists to the shores of Port Phillip Bay date back as far as 1802. However, the first published record of plants in the Port Phillip area, Hortus Victoriensis, was published by an English gardener named Daniel Bruce in 1851.
Australia has an impressive 24,000 species of native plants. After European settlement, many of Melbournes natives were eliminated due to clearing and the introduction of exotic grasses and weeds.
Melbourne’s urban forest now maintains over 70,000 trees and boasts many beautiful parks. The agriculture, forestry and fishing sector is Melbournes smallest industry. In 2015, it accounted for only 0.09% of Melbournes total employment and 0.07% of the citys Gross Local Product.
How Important Are Trees in a modern City?
Protecting Our Trees
Plans to build Domain Station by the Melbourne Metro Rail Authority threatens to cut down over 200 trees in St Kilda Road that covers a stretch of over 700 metres. The trees have been planted over 80 years ago and are an important part of the heritage of the area.
Should the trees go, it would take decades before the area recovers its former beauty. In response to this, a group known as Save St Kilda Road are working hard to preserve the heritage of the area and are urging authorities to ‘dig deeper’ to save the trees.