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Garden evolution

Volume 6 Number 9 September 6 - October 10 2010

Tucked away behind the School of Botany is Melbourne’s unique and historic System Garden. Tim Uebergang, a member of the grounds department with responsibility for the garden’s maintenance, talks about his labour of love.

The University of Melbourne’s System Garden dates back to 1856, three years after the founding of the University and 10 years after the Royal Botanic Gardens of Melbourne were established.

It was first called the Botanical Garden until about 1900 and since then it’s been known as the System Garden.

The Botanical Garden was a unique formal scientific, cultural and landscape feature rather than a recreational garden. Like the highly regarded University gardens in the US and Europe, it is truly unique to have one of our very own here and as far as we know, it is the oldest and only remaining garden that operates within systematic guidelines in Australia or even the Southern Hemisphere.

Originally it was a large circular area encompassing around 7.5 hectares. Building development over the years has left only a little less than 2 hectares.

The first Professor of Natural Sciences, Frederick McCoy, asked the architect Edward La Trobe Bateman to design a circular garden reminiscent of the renaissance botanical gardens of Pisa and Padua and the later Physic Garden of the Apothecaries in Chelsea.

It has been suggested also that the plantings, commenced three years before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published, were designed in such a way as to understand God.

All that remains today of the original garden is the centrally located tower, the iconic figure of the System Garden. The tower once had attached to it a unique octagonal conservatory complex and was surrounded by a moat.

You can still find brick paving that is set into the grass that acts only as a representation of the circular and radial paths that once existed.

Some remnant plantings also remain from the original garden, these are now mature trees that include the Osage Orange, (Maclura pomifera) that is part of the National Heritage tree register, a Canary Island Date Palm (Phoenix canariensis), a Chillean Wine Palm, (Jubaea chilensis), a River She-oak (Casuarina cunninghamiana), a Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla), and a Cabbage Tree (Cordyline australis).

The systematic principle on which the garden is based is that devised by Carl Linnaeus.

But now Molecular systematic methods such as DNA and sequencing have extended the range of characters and are playing a great role in the direction of re-naming and classifying certain plant groups, such as the inclusion of Dryandra into Banksia.

The System Gardens plantings are laid out with an evolutionary narrative in mind. This allows one to follow the evolution of plants by beginning with the pre-flowering plants at the fernery beside the Botany building.

Plant evolution begins with the mosses, lichens and ferns, following these are the cycad collection then the conifers. A single representation of a small plant group called the Gnetales that most botanists suspect represents a transition from conifers to flowering plants can be found finishing the pre-flowering group. The flowering plants are displayed in major groupings made up of all the subclasses. With an extremely large number of species to consider our aim is to exploit the variety of form and species diversity within each subclass that the site conditions allow.

 It is hoped that within each subclass the full range of species may be grown that exemplify flower size, colour, foliage type and structure, helping to illustrate the extreme diversity of forms that can be found within close relation.

As well as representing diverse forms, each subclass will display examples of plants widely used in horticulture, plants with culinary or medicinal uses, and an Australian specimen. An Australian representative is always useful for overseas students to understand how worldwide plant families have adapted and diversified in Australia and what we have to offer that particular plant family.

Also under development is a rainforest garden that will explore features of Australian rainforests such as epiphytic plants and palm and fern diversity as well as an arborescent life forms garden displaying different structures the tree world has on offer.

The System Garden has had a diverse and interesting life and has seen many changes over the past one and a half centuries but primarily it was always created as a teaching garden and that is still its function today. As well as attracting curious wildlife and being an amazing recreational space in the middle of the city for students, academics and the public alike it’s a place to relax and enjoy the surrounds and maybe even discover something new.

Under the watchful eyes of the talented horticulturists from the University’s grounds department and the valuable relationship they share with the School of Botany the garden has a bright future.

It is hoped that as well as being a teaching garden unlike any other in the country for University of Melbourne students, it poses a potential learning hub for primary and tertiary students alike with the opportunities to learn the basics about the relationships of plants and a little about evolution, with just a stroll in the System Garden’s serene surrounds.