Fantastic Flora in Australia – Federation to Fifties


From ancient Persia to the modern private estates of Europe, North America and Australia, the art of gardening is one of the most consistent signs of a great civilisation and a visually rewarding expression of culture. Our ancestors had an ability to be closer to the soil and nearer to reality than we have and their wisdom, acquired through experience will benefit the future if we seek to understand and appreciate it. An opal-hearted country, A wilful, lavish land, All you who have not loved her, You will not understand, Though Earth holds many splendours, Wherever I may die, I know to what brown Country, My homing thoughts will fly…*

England’s Captain James Cook found a well sheltered natural harbour when he was exploring the coastline of the great Southern land and returned home to describe what he had observed.

The English, because of his voyages gained a monopoly of knowledge. However the reason for his first landfall being called ‘Botany’ Bay was seemingly at first, put aside.

The precious flora collected, which may have helped its first settlers establish themselves, languished unpublished for years while they lived off imported seed and food.

Delicately drawn details of plants by the early botanists helped plant hunters to identify rare and special species.

One of the best illustrators was natural history painter Ferdinand Bauer, a protége of Banks whose drawings of flora and fauna are considered never to have been surpassed.

His drawing of the Banksia Serrata is one he completed when he travelled with a group of men selected by Joseph Banks for an expedition to ‘Terra Australis’. They were Robert Brown botanist, Peter Good gardener and William Westall landscape painter, and they sailed on the leaky Investigator under the command of Captain Matthew Flinders seeking to map its coastline and advance the study of botany.

Massive Old Paper Bark Eucalpts, in a sensational stand of trees in Centennial Park at Sydney

Today Joseph Banks collection of plant drawings and specimens gathered in Australia form the nucleus of one of the core collections of the Natural History Museum’s Department of Botany at London. They remind us of how important the representation of flora was at that time contributing to the current theories and debates attached to natural history and natural selection.

The flora of the British Isles was mainly exotic, meaning that it originally came from other lands. Before the arrival of the Romans the landscape of ‘Albion’ (England) had been fairly bleak. Only a small cache of indigenous plants and trees provided food.

The Romans were great nature lovers and also enjoyed good wine and fine cuisine so everywhere they went they took everything with them that contributed to their joi de vivre, especially when they were conquering and expanding into new territories.

They took to England seeds and many varieties of sprouting fruit trees, which were grown in pots and transported on the deck of their galleys.

By the time the first fleet sailed out to Australia in 1788 Britain’s rich inheritance of flora was available to free settling colonists, who also sent fascinating new plants they discovered home to the ‘mother’ country.

From the beginning of European settlement builders were busy building and planting and creating sunscreens for houses using a tracery of lattice or a well-planted Eucalyptus tree.

The Australian landscape is dominated by Eucalypts and Acacia, both of which adapt well in different areas of the continent, leading to an extraordinary diversification of plant life.

Acacia (Mimosa) more commonly called wattle in Australia is the national emblem. It is the most widespread of the two and is also found in Asia and Africa, while Eucalypts are the tree truly identified with Australia.

Eucalypts belong to the Myrtaceae family and with their tough resinous foliage and showy brush balls of fluffy white flowers are a major world source of hardwood, their growth and yield being nothing short of spectacular.

As in England by the turn of the 20th century ownership of a country estate in Australia represented the pinnacle of material and social achievement.

Homestead portraits commissioned by owners to adorn many a mantelpiece revealed the beauty of the Australian landscape with houses, outbuildings and gardens depicted with accurate detail.

Rippon-LeaGrand examples were mansions with palace facades, surmounted by Italian loggia-topped towers that overlooked manicured terraces. The boom years of the Industrial Revolution and the Gold Rush in Australia meant grand houses like Melbourne’s Rippon Lea, reflected the economic growth and extravagance of the era.

View over Lake at Rippon Lea.  Its ‘picturesque’ garden was created at the time when artist Claude Monet was creating his garden at Giverny

Originally its garden was planted out in the popular English ‘gardenesque’ style of Sir Humphrey Repton where it was possible to focus on individual plants rather than on the overall design quality.

But in 1882 its new owner William Sangster pumping water from the surrounding suburbs created a lake and garden in a style that was far more ‘picturesque’, reflective and contemplative.

Full of exotics, it was all about ‘man associating with the garden and its ‘ideas’. Its owner was said to have hurried outside whenever rain would arrive so that he could begin ‘rejoicing with the plants as he could almost see them grow‘.

Lurking gloriously, but with intent…Sydney Botanical Gardens, sculpted by Charles Summers

In a turn of the twentieth century garden, whether public or private in Australia, it was certainly not uncommon to find statues of a temple Virgin, of Venus, Napoleon, or Captain Cook lurking about among the trees, or peering out from an ornamental bed massed with the fifties favourites carnations, verbenas, zinnias, chrysanthemums, marigolds, nasturtiums, hydrangeas, dahlias and cornflowers.

Many of these sculptural fantasies fell victim to changing attitudes and were removed during the first decade of the 20th century. Some were even destroyed as being a ‘menace to public morals’.

At Sydney happily some surviving statues were kept in the stoneyard, now known as the ‘graveyard’, behind the succulent garden in the Botanical Gardens. Our delightful pensive Goddess, now restored is standing among that favourite turn of all twentieth century plants for shady places, the sensational ‘orange’ clivea.

Completed by Charles Summers, a successful Australian sculptor living in Carrara, Italy at the time, interestingly it was a copy of a work by renowned sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822), the original of which has been lost. Given a new head, hand and foot by Polish-born mason Jacek Luszczyk from photos provided by the Canova Foundation in Italy she was unveiled in 2009 to continue to lurk with intent, gloriously.

It was on January 1, 1901 in Centennial Park at Sydney, before a hushed jubilant crowd of more than 150,000 people, the new nation of Australia was proclaimed.

Guns roared, whistles blew and some ten thousand children sang the national Anthem “God Save the King”. This ensured it was very emotional affair.

By now the Australian states had realized they could not ‘go it alone’ and that everyone benefited from Federation, which included nationalising defense, the telegraph and postal service systems.

It also meant that a new architectural style was born, one that was solid, stylish unique combination of elements that while a reminder of houses ‘at home’ in England retained a few ‘Aussie’ characteristics of its own.

Victorian-FederationWhile Federation meant we were getting on with it, Australia was still a colony of England and loyalty ran deep in her veins. The Federation House borrowed heavily from the English Queen Anne Style and added the writhing sensuality of French Art Noveau. It reflected a nationalistic flavour of God Save the King and Advance Australia Fair and was exceedingly ‘picturesque’.

Verandah from AboveIt had a covered shady verandah an essential Aussie appendage to any house since colonial days. That’s where you could sit and read your book, relax and enjoy a meal with the family looking out on the garden safe from the weather, whatever it might turn out be. It also often had a large piece of land set aside for a tennis court, which by itself was an additional statement of status. With its high-pitched roofs, wooden picket fences, brick pointed detail, fantastic chimneystacks and carved and curved timbered details the Federation House was a picturesque composition of great complexity.

Haberfield in Sydney was the first residential subdivision designed as a ‘garden estate’. Real estate entrepreneur Richard Stanton, a strong supporter of Federation, ensured that the names of early colonial heroes were applied to its streets. He even went so far as to place a covenant on the suburb to prevent construction in timber and corrugated iron.

The lead lighting in its appealing colonial cottages incorporated many designs of Australian flora and fauna. On the walls inside were pictures, a painting or photograph of grandparents, a landscape scene of the English or Scottish countryside, alongside a portrait of the old Queen or the new King.

The people who brought the houses at Haberfield were not wealthy enough to build mansions, or to retain many servants, perhaps an ironing lady and a housekeeper. However they liked living with a parlour to entertain guests and enjoy their leisure while still retaining their dignity.

The estate comprised some fifteen hundred quality houses each believed to have been individually designed by the company’s architect, J. Spencer-Stansfield.

Notable architect and town planner John Sulman praised the comprehensive street planting and absence of back lanes previously needed for sewerage disposal. These new houses were exceedingly modern with internal bathrooms with an inside ‘loo’ so the backyard dunny was no longer required

Aerial Shot Appian Way, Burwood

Between 1903 and 1909 wealthy steel industrialist George Hoskins constructed another model residential estate. This time it was at Burwood in Sydney and was called the Appian Way. He commissioned designer and builder William Richards to complete it.

Richards laid out the serpentine shaped estate around an elliptical shaped recreational area that included facilities for croquet, bowls and tennis, catering for all age groups

The underlying philosophy in landscaping the houses of the Appian Way was to nestle the house into a garden with tree planting and shrubbery. It was brought up close to the house to frame the building. Within the garden of the Federation era house a sense of seclusion was important. Fences and boundaries were concealed by informal planting without preventing the sense of space from spilling over to the adjoining property.

The emphasis was on mixed planting kept tidy, but not clipped so that the natural growth of the plant was respected. The elegant serpentine sweep of the Appian Way was beautifully planned its streets were all lined with pin oaks and plane trees. All of the houses, excepting one were single storied.

There were 36 houses one storey in height. The Victorian styled mansion, ‘St Cloud’ owned by Hoskins was opposite the new estate. Occupation was for select tenants of appropriate social standing, reflecting that in Australia at this time the British class system still held full sway. If there were roses climbing over the gate they were meant to impress.

Shaping of hedges was a characteristic of the formal styled garden and one popular in Melbourne, the capital of Victoria where walking through an arch at the front gate was all about creating a dramatic effect. In Brisbane, the capital of Queensland planting Jacaranda trees became the fashion and its mauve splendour became a hallmark of the city.

It was important to define the street boundary because it provided the Federation house with an air of increased substance.

A solid front door was an important statement, the depth of its mouldings, the added decorative elements, the fittings were all made of quality brass and locally produced hand made leadlight glass, indicating the status and importance of the people who lived inside.

Tessellated geometric tiles with encaustic patterned centre tiles enhanced the image of a generous front porch. All manner of bells and boxes also reflected a tradition of personalized service because mail, milk, bread, ice or vegetable delivery was an integral aspect of the good life at the time.

The Wunderlich Company distributed the Marseilles tile that had arrived in Australia from France after 1892. However it was forced into local production by the outbreak of World War I.

Gardens were not complete without a gazebo or summerhouse, which was often designed as the romantic focal point of the garden.

Conservatories too were free standing or attached to the house. They were used for cultivating, nurturing and displaying new plants and shrubs until they were ready to plant out. Ample natural light was an essential characteristic of the conservatory, along with elegant leadlight windows with sinuous decoration. It was a place to show off your horticultural prowess to others and for growing new plants from cuttings or seed.

There would rarely have been a garden constructed at this time that didn’t have a pergola, a rose arch or a trellised or latticed fence forming screens at the side of the house to grow sweet smelling sweet peas, jasmine or wonderful wisteria.  Made popular by French artist Claude Monet at his garden at Giverny wisteria’s popularity has continued over the century or so since.

W.G. Layton in his 1906 article on landscape gardens placed emphasis on garden paths. They were to be laid out in graceful sweeps, rather than straight or regular lines, as there were no straight lines in nature. The idea was that the more English a home was the more respectable was the family who lived in it.

Rose Trellis Wallpaper, roses one of the most popular garden flowers of the Federation era

The people who lived in these new suburban houses did not like the idea of change. They were loyal to Britain, to King Edward and their families saluted the flag daily and always did their duty by King and country.

Unlike a factory worker’s house, there were separate bedrooms for parents and children. Rose Trellis wallpaper brought in from Morris and Company in England was just one of the preferred patterns used.

Lace and velvet curtains with matching cushions were popular and their were mats and rugs on polished floorboards and a piano in the corner. Somewhere in the room, perhaps on the piano, was the family bible.

The family kept warm in front of a wood fire, the wood delivered just like the bread by a horse and cart.

Queenslander, the best option for a tropical climate

The only Australian home prior to the fifties that was designed to stay cool or warm in the extremes of a tropical climate and protect its occupants from floods and snakes was the elevated, elegant latticed timber so called “Queenslander”.

They drew their inspiration from the hill stations of India when it was part of the British Empire. Their wide verandah’s a necessity to outdoor living during the time of the summer rains.

Their gardens grew in great abundance, especially trees the southern states couldn’t, such as fruiting avocado and mango trees, the ubiquitous frangipani and the spectacular red flowering Poinciana tree.

In Australia between the two world wars the name that stands out the most in the gardening world is Edna Walling (1895-1973). Born in England after a few years with her family in New Zealand she arrived aged 17, to study and live in the cool climate of Melbourne, Victoria .

Edna Wallings ‘The Barn’

The gardens she produced in Melbourne harked back to her days in England. A personal account of her experiences building East Point on the Great Ocean Road near Lorne, Victoria, is fittingly called The happiest days of my life.

Today she is remembered for having achieved a synthesis and unity between Australian native plants and the preferred exotics, which still inspires today’s Australian garden designers.

Bickleigh Vale was a village she developed on 20 acres or so of land she aquired on the outskirts of Melbourne city, for people prepared to accept designs for cottages and gardens that she designed.

Today most of the houses are obscured by leafy gardens, where no electric wires are visible and there are no footpaths. She lived there from 1951 to 1967 in a property she called ‘The Barn’.

She wrote  ‘for my part I love all the things most gardeners abhor; moss in lawns, lichen on trees; more greenery than ‘colour’… bare branches in winter; and root ridden ground…I like sheets and sheets of forget me nots and anything else that will self-sow and look beautiful. I like soft grey green leaves, and blue, mauve and pale yellow flowers, with only the tiniest spot of red. I like white flowers both in the daytime and at night, in the house and in the garden…I like quite a lot of plants for their foliage alone, and never care if they don’t flower’.

The Dahlia, an exotic, was the most popular of flowers coming in many colours, petal sizes and shapes. Native to Mexico, it was cultivated from 1813 in England and over the next century became a commercial success all around the world.

In Australia the dahlia was at the height of its fashion following the war during the 1950’s, helped by the fact gardeners in temperate climates could grow dahlias successfully.

An enthusiastic gardener would follow the baker’s horse and cart until they secured a huge pile of manure. Soaking it in water in metal drums they added a few ‘secret’ ingredients and then, when it was ‘just right’, the potent mixture was hand watered onto the dahlias, which would win every first prize at every flower show in town.

Dahlia-775733Dahlia’s flourished in the gardens of Federation style Houses, alongside many different sizes of Roses, Daisies, Hydrangeas, Marigolds, sweet scented Daphne, Erica, Veronica and the wonderful Spirea (May bush), whose long arching canes covered in white blossoms bent low to the ground in spring in Australia (September rather than May in England).

The strong axial treatment of a garden in the southern state of Victoria saw paths flanked by birches leading to a separate space decorated by massed shrub planting. Following the path you would reach a staircase descending between dense planting that directed the eye towards a pool of water. On the pool’s outer rim a diversity of trees shaded the water’s surface with on the inner rim the richness of rhododendrons. They look best as a massed display or when interspersed among other trees to create a natural ‘woodland’ style setting.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…the beeches with white, naked limbs leant close to one another, their branches intermingled in a strange embrace, making a vault above my head like the archway of a church..the rhododendrons stood fifty feet high, twisted and entwined with bracken…*

Rhododendrons gained notoriety in Daphne du Maurier’s book Rebecca. They grew best in the southern states of Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania in Australia because of their cooler climates. Botanist and Explorer Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) had travelled to India to collect Rhododendron plants for Kew gardens in England 1847 – 1851.

His expedition to Sikkim, a landlocked state in the Himalayas where he was imprisoned and released after an appeal to the King, was an important landmark for rhododendron gardening. This attractive shrub adapted quickly and became integral in even quite modest suburban gardening landscape both in England and southern Australia, especially in its mountainous areas and the Victorian high country.

Federation-House-3Today the characteristics of world design styles have been re-interpreted, distilled and decanted into something quite unique in Australia. Each reflects the cultures from which they were born.

The impact the Federation house and garden style had on all sections of society is clearly demonstrated in that even today it can still fulfill its original residential function with relatively little need for change.

Its picturesque relaxed informality and richness is now appreciated fully by those lovingly caring and conserving these symbols of our nationalism. Their gardens were integral to a time and place, when a mixture of exotic trees, shrubs and sometimes birds like peacocks were an integral aspect of the display.

There was a genuine fascination with Flora that when displaced from its original environment managed to adapt and flourish. It was intriguing to observe the new characteristics plants developed to suit the regions in which they found themselves.

A glamorous Hollywood style house on Sydney’s North Shore with a garden filled with exotics, magnolias, azaleas and camellias, and a unique Canadian Redwood tree

Many uniquely styled Spanish and California inspired bungalows were built in Australia between the two world wars and they established sensational exotic filled gardens. Following World War II, and inspired by the French and American Art Deco styles of the twenties and thirties glamorous Hollywood style houses were added to the mix.

They had romantic gardens in which azaleas and camellias flourished together while white magnolia trees were planted for love. Masses of exotic ground covers spilled out and over terraces, which were defined by dry rock walls.

Fountains were also a popular focal point, while pergolas groaned with the weight of the flowers of the Bouganvillia which flourished in the noon day sun.

Mawarra, garden design Edna Walling 1927-1933

Being able to select plants that will thrive in different climates is part of the legacy of knowledge we have inherited from the early plant hunters and collectors.

From the 1970’s onward Australian flora finally came into focus in a land re-newing its identity as immigration swelled and multiculturalism became a human, as well as plant reality.

During these heady times gum nuts from eucalyptus, the vibrant yellow bracts of wattle, or mimosa, the brilliant red spikey elegant bottlebrush, kangaroo paw, all types of protea and everlasting daisies were all exported.

Today they grow happily in California and southern France, while Australian native cut flowers can be bought in American, French and English flower markets.

EucalyptGive me a home among the gum trees
With lots of plum trees
A sheep or two, a k-kangaroo
A clothesline out the back
Verandah out the front
And an old rocking chair.

Some people like their houses
With fences all around
Others live in mansions
And some beneath the ground
But me I like the bush you know
With rabbits running round
And a pumpkin vine out the back#

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2014

*Dorothea MacKeller

*Read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca FREE Online

# Home Among The Gum Trees By Wally Johnson and Bob Brown 1975


  • Therese says:

    Who wouldn’t love to have a new home in Australia? This country’s natural beauty is just jaw-dropping.

  • Home Renovations, Perth W.A. says:

    These houses are amazing. I love how they are full of flowers and they are perfect examples of wonderful houses.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.