Saturday, January 25, 2014

Why Australia Day?

down under cropeedAustralia Day celebrates the landing of the First Fleet of eleven convict ships from Great Britain in Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788. Also known as Foundation Day, this national holiday celebrates Australia's first permanent settlement in what is now the city of Sydney.  

But why does Boyce Thompson Arboretum bother to celebrate this island country from the southern hemisphere, 7500 lonely ocean miles from the west coast of the U.S.? The answer, as you might expect, has everything to do with plants.

The tallest gum trees that you see dominating the skyline along the Main Trail--including our largest red gum tree, "Mr. Big"--were planted in the mid to late 1920s and early 1930s. As these trees grew, even more were planted, many with exotic-sounding names like tea tree, mallee, she-oak, ironbark, and gimlet. Over the years, these plants eventually formed a dominant forest canopy and understory that is unmistakably Australian. Volatile eucalyptus oil fill the warm air, and long sinuous strips of bark peal and pile at the base of every gum tree each summer, just as it does in Australia. Yet, as impressive as this eight acre collection of plants had become by the late 1980s, it had never benefited from a formal development and interpretive plan.

The answer, as you might expect, has everything to do with plants.       

In 1989, a landscape architecture firm was retained that specializes in exhibit development within botanical gardens. Over the span of nearly three years--with input from Arboretum staff and other experts--an exhaustive document was created that identified and described eight distinct Australian plant communities. Detailed plant lists were included for each community and authentic cultural amenities added to augment the realism of the overall exhibit. Several Arboretum staff members spent three weeks in Australia in 1995 to see the country first hand and develop sources for wild collected seed that, once grown and planted, became the Mulga, Mallee, Shrubby Woodland, Blue Bush, and other plant communities that you see today. The Benson Outback Bridge across Silver King Wash, the Drover's Wool Shed, Papuana Pass, the Aboriginal Seep, and the Aussie Pavilion all sprang from this landscape plan (directly or indirectly), corroborated by hundreds of photos taken by our staff of the cultural landscapes in the outback of western and southeastern Australia.

With one of the finest Australian Desert exhibits in North America, we think it fitting to celebrate our version of Australia on the same day that the Aussies celebrate theirs (that is to say, on the Saturday that is closest to January 26).  So, for over 15 years, we've featured Australia's most famous musical instrument, the didgeridoo, along with the botany, food, lore, and culture of both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians on Australia Day. So say "g'day," and spend one Saturday a year down under--on top.   

Kim Stone

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