Royal Botanic Gardens: ‘A Walk to Remember’

I remember visiting the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney with the family. My Dad had been there before, but he was looking forward to another day trip. This was the first such foray for the rest of us. The 30-hectare botanic garden is a nature lover’s haven. Situated on the eastern end of downtown Sydney, the garden has been around since 1816. This makes it the country’s oldest such oasis. The garden was added to the state heritage register in 1999, along with The Domain. Both green spaces, which are adjacent to each other, are open year-round and entrance is free. The garden is well-known as a paramount event venue, flora extraordinaire, and public recreation spot. The local city government oversees the greenery.

 Tales from the garden

As mentioned, the garden has a long history that dates back over two centuries. Then-Governor Macquarie established the current landmark’s site in 1816. The area used to be farmland. Thus began Australia’s epic history with plants, with the appointment of a veteran botanist a year later. The garden represents ‘the oldest scientific institution’ in the land. Moreover, the spot has played a critical role in plant acclimatation from various other loci. A few key people were involved in the growth of the garden. Charles Moore was the society’s director from 1849. Through numerous projects, he advanced the garden’s cause. During his three decades in the role, the garden expanded and flourished. Subsequently, Joseph Maiden succeeded Moore and was Director for 28 years. He further finetuned Moore’s astute landscape. He oversaw the garden during the WW1 and the Great Depression. In 1919, the total area among the Botanic Garden and The Domain was 72.6 hectares.  

In 1959, ‘Royal’ was added to the appellation following the visit of Queen Elizabeth II. Dr Lawrence Johnson was head honcho from 1972-1985. New flora categorisation and labelling were introduced. Changes in arrangements and the addition of new species ensued. Further activities and programs were foregrounded. In the 70s, a new cacti garden was also annexed. By 1980, a Royal Act was promulgated to conserve the area, which had then diminished to 63.04 hectares. Centennial Park, erstwhile a part of the garden, likewise became autonomous. During the 80s, other buildings and patches were appended or repurposed. This involved the Director’s House, which was opened by then-Premier Neville Wran. 

The eighties onward

In 1988, two satellite botanic gardens were also instituted. One is in Campbelltown, while another sits in the Blue Mountains. The 2000 Sydney Olympic Games also saw some quickie upgrades, as staff hastily facelifted the grounds to get some second glances from unsuspecting tourists. The Palm Grove was restored, with a noted philanthropist donating 1300 trees to recapture the magic. The Grove was once the foremost of its kind and the aim is to equal that honour, if not surpass it. In 2016, the Botanic Garden turned two hundred and there were many activities dedicated to celebrating this distinction. The Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust administer the gardens. Since 1980, the Act gave them jurisdiction over The Domain, the garden, and later – the two satellite gardens. In 2014, the management of Centennial Park was returned to its erstwhile stewards. 

Four precincts

The Sydney Domain’s 51 hectares surround the garden’s 30 hectares. The garden is shaped in a sizeable natural amphitheatre. The location is divided into four quadrants: the Lower, Middle, and Palace Gardens alongside the Bennelong Precinct. Within these are loads of smaller gardens and wooded areas. Approximately halfway between the precincts is the Palm Grove Centre, where lies a few stores and a resto. The large and sophisticated garden has a strong nineteenth century vibe. Charles Moore was responsible for expanding the Lower Garden. The work on the shrubbery took decades. The current version has retained much of the eloquent parkland of yesteryears. I recall browsing the shop with my parents. We had lunch at the eatery, which at first glance seemed like it had a few Michelin stars. The joint catered to tourist dollars. 

The flower beds of the Middle Gardens have evolved through the years. What used to be a park laid out in English style has since transformed into a mosaic of plants, shrubs, and trees. A gate was built to separate the middle gardens from the lower garden, still standing two centuries later. This area houses the Palm Grove, notable for its international collection of palm and rainforest species. Other attractions include a tourist-friendly repertoire of oaks, lilies, and a cedar tree circa 1822. Meanwhile, the Bennelong Precinct contains Government House – the official residence of the state Governor. The House was completed in 1847 and features Gothic revival architecture. The garden is also archeologically significant as a site that could prove culturally or historically pivotal. The area is potentially rich in archaeological deposits, both during colonial settlement and during Aboriginal positioning. 

Unfolding history

Just like my family, you could spend a full afternoon discovering the delights of this green space. Indeed, I half-expected my dad to stumble upon the Mirror of Erised like in Harry Potter. In this sense, it has a calming quality like Hyde Park. With 30 hectares, the effect is more pronounced. The garden is adjacent to the Opera House and Sydney Harbour is in the north. Thus, the garden occupies a location stunner, which ensures its status as one of the city’s biggest draws. The garden predates other nearby landmarks such as the Queen Victoria Building (1893) and the Art Gallery of NSW (1874). Moreover, the attraction has been around much longer than the adjoining Opera House (1973).

My dad, who has a green thumb, was really looking forward to this jaunt. Though he had visited before, he was keen to wander for another time. We bought tickets for the touring train, which traversed the grounds. The circuit ended near the Opera House with a strong sea breeze from the harbour. I remember it being a beauteous summer’s day. Dad’s zeal carried over. In the spring of 2014, I went to Hobart with a friend. There, we checked out the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens. Established in 1818, this represents the second oldest botanical garden. I even have the fridge magnet as souvenir. If you’re passing through Sydney, why not take in some ferns? Marvel at botanists’ creations; grab a memento in the shop; gawk at some paintings. As ‘the oldest scientific institution’ in Oz, by just exploring you become part of history. 

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