Fantastic Flora in Australia – First Fleet to Federation

Australia's first Government House
Australia's first Government House

Half city, half bush, Australia’s house and garden style from the arrival of the first European fleet to Federation (1788 – 1901) reflects an individuality that was formed through the interplay of international influences.

In Australia today the countryside, or bush as it’s more affectionately known, still remains a romantic ideal.

The majority of our population clings to a quarter acre suburban block, while life in town requires a whole new set of rules and renewed aspirations.

In 1788 at English colonization of this vast and extraordinary continent, the flora of the new world seemed exotic to European eyes.

So much so many of the early explorers believed they had come upon the site of the original Garden of Eden.

The natural form, foliage and colour of its native flora was entirely seductive to the new settlers.

The native plant the extremely exotic and lively red ‘waratah’ (Telopea speciosissima,) would become the emblem of the new colony of New South Wales.  Sir James Smith (1759-1828), a noted botanist and founder of the Linnaean Society in England, wrote in 1793

The most magnificent plant which the prolific soil of New Holland affords is, by common consent, both of Europeans and Natives, the Waratah. It is moreover a favourite with the latter, upon account of a rich honeyed juice which they sip from its flowers’.

The British moved as free settlers to the exotic new shores of Australia because it held out a promise of rebirth, of beginning again, even though their particular vision of Eden was far more limited and austere compared to that of those with a Mediterranean imagination.

Distinguished English botanist Joseph Banks advised Governor Phillip, who was leading the first fleet to colonize Australia in 1788. The first people settling here had faith that nature’s prodigality would produce a supply of all that was needed from a garden to exist, with little or no work on the part of the settlers. That faith would prove short lived when the truth about the fertility of its soil was revealed.

When, some 90 million years ago the land mass of Australia had split off from the northern continents, while it remained free from the sort of traumas that affected the rest of the world during this period, such as glaciation and continental collision.

It also had its downside because in the long term it was left with the poorest soil quality of all the continents only having, on average, half the levels of nutrients (nitrates and phosphates) of similar soils in other areas of the world.

It makes the story of the native aboriginal all the more interesting and amazing because they managed to survive for so many thousands and thousands of years on limited resources provided by the natural habitat.

Understandingly, nutrient conservation is a major theme running throughout the story of the evolution of plant life in Australia, especially since the British first colonized it.

Dr Daniel Solander, Sir Joseph Banks, Captain James Cook, Dr John Hawkesworth and Earl Sandwich by John Hamilton Mortimer

Unsurprisingly the first initiative of the first colonists was to find an effective propagation ground to plant young seedlings and grafted fruit trees to ensure the viability of its economy and survival for its early settlers.

Joseph Banks knew about the plants that could be obtained en route at Rio de Janeiro and the Cape of Good Hope because he had originally sailed with Captain Cook on his first great expedition to find the great south land (1768–1771).

When they found the shores of what is now known as Australia Banks had only dug into the earth to take away specimens, and it is for that reason many consider him the founder of Australian gardening.

Wheat-Close-UpCorn and wheat seed were the only staples crops sent from England to sustain Governor Phillip’s pioneering troops and convicts. At the Cape of Good Hope, acting on Bank’s advice, Phillip took on board various fruit trees including quince, apple, pear, strawberry and fig, as well as bamboo, Spanish reed, sugar cane, oaks and myrtles, the latter two being introduced for their decorative qualities.

At Sydney land had been set aside for farm and garden and Governor Phillip reported to London within the year of his arrival (1788) about  ‘a farm of nine acres planted in corn’. However it did not thrive as well as expected so within a short time it was moved to better quality soil by the newly discovered Hawkesbury River.

Hardship provoked ingenuity, not culture and fashion. The memory of landscaped gardens in fashionable England seemingly as remote in motivation as they were in distance.

The appreciation for the native flora also didn’t last long. The heat, the flies and other pesky insects, as well as pioneering difficulties tended to sour any initial delight.

Only a handful of gentlewomen wrote about, or illustrated the beauties of the Australian bush, including Hibiscus heterophyllus, (pictured) which was grown by the Empress Josephine at the Chateau Malmaison nearby to Paris.

Governor Phillip’s House, Sydney Cove Port Jackson c1789

An early settler Mrs. Meredith reported that she deplored the system of clearing, which saw native trees and shrub being torn down giving a ‘most bare and ugly appearance to a new place’.

She discussed the care given to planting woods and groves in England and noted here the very opposite was the case. She spoke of the grand Norfolk Island Pine trees as the most noble and stately tree of all the pine family and for her its destruction was dismaying.

The first conscious attempt at a garden layout was most certainly the grounds of the first Government House, constructed in 1788. A view of Governor Phillip’s House, Sydney Cove Port Jackson c1792 depicts the house as a naïve pavilion inspired by the Palladian Style, set in a clearing on the harbour’s edge with the wild primeval forest fringing the tiny settlement.

Governor Phillip’s House, Sydney Cove Port Jackson c1792

The eucalypt forest has been thinned and wooden picket fences protected the garden, which was more sophisticated in its planning than the new cottage gardens to the west. From here a hedge-lined path descended to the waterfront between a grid of garden beds. A pair of exotic trees, highly valued at this point in garden history, are given special emphasis by their placement within circular beds while two clumps of ornamental shrubs receive similar treatment before the windows of the house

Sir Joseph Banks painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1773 following his return from his trip to Australia and his immediate fame

Sir Joseph Banks painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1773 following his return from his trip to Australia and his immediate fame

Due to the interest of Sir Joseph Banks in the colony the unusually interesting character of Australian plants soon became known in England.

Blandfordia nobilis was the first Australian plant successfully grown in Britain by James Edward Smith, one of the most enthusiastic proponents of the cultivation of non-native species. Botanists and nurserymen competed eagerly for specimens.

The pioneer of Australian plant cultivation in England was Lewis Kennedy at the famous Vineyard nursery at Hammersmith.

Kennedy was official supplier of plants to Empress Josephine and was given a pass by the French Government to pass into the environs of Paris to deliver them, despite France being at war with the English.


In 1810 Government House at Sydney was put into a complete state of repair to welcome the new Governor Lieutenant-Colonel Lachlan Macquarie and his wife Elizabeth. Their presence heralded the arrival of Culture in the Colonies.

An eager clientele in Europe and England now awaited the strange and exotic plants from England’s newest colony, which were hurried from ships to London nurseries.

In west London alone, there were ten enterprises covering well over 40 hectares. They were also willing to swap plants with the new colony and tubs and closed casks of living plants and seeds were shipped to Sydney at every opportunity so that exchanges for the desired native flora could be made.

At minimum cost the best products of English horticulture were dispatched to Port Jackson. Although the mortality rate of plants in transit was great, the collections in Sydney and Hobart Town gardens increased rapidly.

Giant Douglas FirThe Horticultural Society at London was formed in 1804 with the encouragement of Sir Joseph Banks. They proved so successful that by 1842 there were 200 branches in England alone.  Intrepid plant hunters braved the wilds of foreign climes and jungles to bring home new specimens.

It meant not only instant social success, but also great wealth but often success came with a high price! Scotsman David Douglas made several journeys to the Americas in 1823 and 1832, the Douglas fir (pictured) is named for him, and it was he who introduced the California poppy to England. Douglas met an untimely end in Hawaii, having fallen into a trap already inhabited by a wild bull!

The fuchsia arrived in England in a sailor’s bag, brought home from the West Indies to his wife in 1792. Nurseryman James Lee purchased and propagated it with great skill, and it was admired when spotted in the window of their poor abode. By the end of the next year he had 300 flowering plants for sale. ‘Chariots flew to the gates of old Lee’s nursery grounds’ and in no time all the plants were sold.

Fuchsias became a mainstay of indoor decoration both as pot plants and cut flowers throughout the nineteenth century and beyond. Joseph Banks himself would not allow anyone else to carry it into the greenhouse at Kew so excited was he by its arrival.

The thirst for exotic horticultural knowledge was described in children’s books of the period such as ‘A Visit to the Bazaar’, in which discussions take place between Mr. and Mrs. Durnford and their daughters about the derivation and development of flowers.

‘I should like that pot of china roses Mamma’, said Emily, ‘they came originally, I believe, from China, and are called Rosa sinensis’…’Oh Mamma! do buy that sweet myrtle’ cried Caroline,  “I am so fond of myrtles and geraniums. Tell me Mama ‘What is the Latin term for myrtle”? ...

At Hobart in Tasmania, responding to the cool climate roses and geraniums were growing in abundance by the 1830’s. The first Australian Horticultural Society had been established c1826 with popular social events held in elaborate marquees to shade the floral splendours.

Newly imported plants were also studied and horticultural improvements discussed. ‘I found myself adoring a buttercup, idolizing a daisy, and ardently coveting possession of a glorious dandelion, classically labelled “Leontodon taraxacum’, occupying one of the highest places at the exhibition… I was treated like an illustrious foreigner’. Lt. Col Mundy commented.

Early gardens owed more to expediency than design and planning was based on simple geometry; straight walks, shrubberies and hedges, with sometimes a natural feature.

During the 1830’s in New South Wales the aspirations of great pastoral landholders and merchants were realized in the building of Greek revival mansions. Alexander MacLeay, Colonial Secretary under Governors Darling and Bourke embraced horticulture and botany.

He had been secretary of the Linnaean Society (1798-1825) in England and a variety of Bocconia was named Macleaya cordata in his honour. ‘

McLeay’s own house at Elizabeth Bay in Sydney was renowned for its steeply sloping site, combining elements of the landscape and picturesque movements advocated by English garden design guru Humphrey Repton. ‘From the first commencement Mr Macleay never suffered a tree of any kind to be destroyed, until he saw the necessity of doing so’.

Today only a small overgrown fragment of the garden survives around a house that has been preserved for the nation. Detailed descriptions of it however keep its place in the evolution of gardens in Australia.

Flower Garden Show 9Englishman John Claudius Loudon produced four significant books on horticulture, gardening and domestic architecture. They were available in New South Wales and at Hobart in Tasmania. They brought the planting ideas of the Victorian Age to the colonist’s door. Loudon declared that every point of the garden should have some sort of ornament or architectural feature as a focal point.

His new gardenesque style featured individual plants in an endeavour to showcase botanical differences. According to the ‘gardenesque school’ wrote Loudon, ‘all the trees and shrubs planted are arranged in regard to their kinds and dimensions and they are planted at first at, or as they grow thinned out to, such distances apart as may best display the natural form and habit of each’.

At Mawallok near Beaufort, William Guilfoyle designed an extensive garden with a park setting, complete with an English invention, the ha ha or, a deep ditch that created an illusion of an uninterrupted view from the garden into the landscape, keeping the animals grazing at a picturesque distance.

The vogue for spending the summer at a summer retreat achieved favour in the 1870’s and William Robinson in his gardening journals advocated the subtle mixing of a diverse group of plants resulting in a ‘natural appearance’.

The Botanical gardens at Brisbane, on the river, and the gardens of the Brisbane Acclimatization Society, were established by the 1880’s. They were widely known for their enlightened research and generous policy of distribution. Many plants were recognized as being suitable for subtropical gardening at Brisbane.

There is an example of a great banyan tree, the national tree of India that still survives today in the botanical gardens at Brisbane.

One of the most spectacular plants for formal hedging would have to be the Bougainvillea.

A native of South America and a rampant climber, it could be trained into a hedge provided it had initial framework built as a support.

It grew in any soil but preferred rich loam, flowering on the side facing the north, a fact that was required be kept in mind when floral displays were planned.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, garden labour became more expensive and a broad and impressive landscape style took over.

While the theories of English garden landscape genius’s Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton were known and respected, they were seldom being put into practice in the average quarter acre allotment.

Most Australian gardeners contented themselves with an area at the front of the house adorned with flowers, shrubs and trees, with out the back, a small kitchen garden and a lawn for the children to play on.

The city dweller in late Victorian Australia had very little or no garden, with the newly built terrace row houses frequently built on to the edge of the street.

Small vegetable plots flanked the well-trodden path to the outhouse, with a patch of herbs under the garden tap and a timber picket fence concealing a tiny garden from passers by.

The vogue for spending mid summer in a mountain retreat between 1870 – 1910 led to the establishment of hill stations, where whole families moved to escape the city summer heat.

In Leura at the Blue Mountains in NSW, at Mount Macedon in Victoria, in Stirling in the hills at Adelaide and at Toowoomba in Queensland larger houses with far more pretentious gardens were built. In all these places the soil was richer and the climate colder so that exotics from many different parts of the world would flourish.

As they developed there was a conscious attempt to naturalize into the Australian landscape, plants far more spectacular than any native flora could furnish.

Banks of rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and delightful alpine plants were planted in great drifts, which were very effective. W.G. Layton in his 1906 article on landscape gardens placed emphasis on the path…it should be laid out in graceful sweeps rather than straight and regular’.

Properties were fenced to define the street boundary and provide the house with an air of increased substance. And, gardens were not complete without a gazebo or summerhouse, often designed as the romantic focal point of the garden.

There would rarely have been a garden constructed at this time that didn’t have a pergola…. or a rose arch…or trellised and latticed fences forming screens at the side of the house.

queenslanderThe impact that the Australian Federation building style had on all sections of society is demonstrated in that even today it can still fulfill its original residential function with relatively little need for change. Its picturesque and relaxed informality and richness was appreciated fully by those lovingly caring and conserving these symbols of our countries nationalism.

Informal gardens sought to imitate nature, although not literally. Within the garden a sense of seclusion was important, and 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 the natural growth of the plant was respected.

Along the northern coastline in Queensland the ever-present heat, dictated style. The demand for housing, with plenty of shaded areas and good ventilation meant that, almost from the beginning of European settlement builders were busy creating architectural sunscreens.

Houses had a deep verandah, a tracery of lattice, and later the addition of angular slat louvers as a basis for a distinctive Queenslander style. The garden that set off such a style needed to be conceived as integral to its philosophy as a whole and designed to provide flowers that would fill the rooms of the house providing profusion and a sense of abundance, indicative of what became known as the ‘lucky country’.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2013

Garden Plant Conservation Association of Australia aims to conserve Australia’s plant diversity through a number of programs – including the registration of plant collections.

The Australian Native Plants Society (Australia) – ANPSA – caters for people interested in Australia’s native flora whether that interest is simple appreciation of the beauty and diversity of the flora or whether it extends to propagation, cultivation and conservation.

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