Arboretum – A place grown with trees

Arboretum – A place grown with trees

Above: Panoramic view from Francis Lookout, Corinda, across the Sherwood Arboretum and the Brisbane River towards Mt. Coot-tha, 1931. Photo courtesy of SLQ, neg. no: 59074.

By Susan Prior

On a drizzly afternoon, I catch up with Dale Arvidsson, the curator of Brisbane’s Botanic Gardens, at the Joseph Street entrance to the Sherwood Arboretum.

Even on such an overcast, somewhat unprepossessing, day, the vista is impressive; more than 1100 Australian native specimen trees in an almost European, ‘Capability Brown’, park-like setting sweep out before us. The Queensland heritage-listed arboretum is 15 hectares of inner-city green space, with freshwater wetlands and a frontage onto a decent stretch of the Brisbane River.

It is important to draw a distinction between an arboretum, a botanical garden, and a recreational park. I confess, I haven’t given it much thought until now.

  • An arboretum specialises in trees. In the case of the Sherwood Arboretum, it is Australian native timber trees, although some arboreta may contain exotic species as well. Think of it as being a bit like a zoo – but for trees. Some arboreta may specialise in, for example, conifers, or oaks, or even willows.
  • A botanical garden differs from an arboretum in that it has displays of all kinds of plants, including, for example, trees, shrubs, and herbs.
  • And a recreational park is just that: space set aside purely for ‘play’.

Arboreta are artificial constructs, places where trees are taken out of their natural ecosystems and are displayed and grown together to make studying them for scientific purposes easier. Sherwood Arboretum was originally conceived as a place to grow and scientifically study Australian native timber trees, but today its role has blurred and now it is also an important place for recreation.

Dale wasn’t familiar with this side of Brisbane before he became curator of the arboretum in October 2015, alongside Brisbane’s two other botanical gardens – Brisbane Botanic Gardens (at Mt Coot-tha) and the City Botanic Gardens, which he took over in March 2015. He is now, and he loves it.

Prior to this appointment Dale spent 12 years in Mackay at the Regional Botanic Gardens, most of that time as curator. And before that, he was in Bundaberg, as a marketing manager for the Bundaberg Region Ltd. Dale’s tertiary qualifications in Conservation and Land Management, and in Horticulture mean he has a unique combination of skills to offer Brisbane’s botanical treasures.

He can’t speak highly enough of the efforts of the Friends of Sherwood Arboretum (FOSA). ‘I would really like to acknowledge the amazing enthusiasm of FOSA,’ which has allowed for the curatorship of the arboretum alongside Brisbane’s other two botanical gardens. He says that the amount of information they have collected about the arboretum is just incredible.

Dale Arvidsson, curator of Brisbane’s Botanic Gardens, sitting in front of Brachychiton rupestris, the Queensland bottle tree.

I ask him about the Sir Matthew Nathan Avenue, an avenue of 72 kauri trees, planted on 21 March 1925 and named for the Queensland Governor at the time. It is impressive, but, clearly, some of the trees are under stress.

‘It really has happened since the 2011 floods, when the water table recharged after being so dry for so long. [Pre 2011] the trees had adapted to the dry by sending out their roots a long way searching for moisture. Once the water table rose again, and stayed up, some of the trees developed fungal problems in their roots. Kauris were probably not the best choice for this site. You can see how beautiful they are up here, but as you go down the hill they get smaller. So council is now beginning to do some work on that area, lifting them up higher, and treating the fungus. It is a multi-pronged approach.’

Historically, the trees in this avenue are important, so it will be interesting to see how they respond to the treatment.

While we walk, we chat about the different, and sometimes conflicting roles of the arboretum. ‘Primarily,’ he says, ‘it is a place to teach. Yes, it provides recreation, but ultimately it is about education. We have to get the balance right, between it being a spectacular and scientific collection of trees, while also being a green space for the local community to come and enjoy.’

He says he is concerned about our children. Kids are becoming increasingly urbanised and are not engaging as much with nature. ‘I saw that a lot when I was working in Mackay. Often, when children visited the botanic gardens it was their first exposure to nature.’

One of the ways he wants to encourage children to visit the arboretum is to add to the ‘amazing work’ done by FOSA, by providing a range of interpretative programmes, including digital apps that can be used to guide visitors through the arboretum. Dale believes it is important to get school children into the arboretum to learn about the importance of plants – for example, as food, as homes for wildlife, and how plants ‘talk’ to each other.

In case you were wondering, Botany Bay was give that name by Captain Cook on account of the great variety of plants found there.

‘These are living places,’ says Dale, ‘and if we want to keep them open in the future we have to open the doors. We have to broaden their appeal.’

He also has plans to expand the collection of trees. ‘We are adding trees for the first time in a long time.’ He showed me all the little orange flags signposting where, at the time of writing this article, the new plantings will go. Many will be in place by 29 May, in time for the inaugural National Botanic Garden Day, which is being organised as a joint venture between the Brisbane Botanic Garden’s volunteers and FOSA.

Next time you visit the arboretum it is worth contemplating its true raison d’être, its reason for being. Where else can you do a botanic tour of the whole of Queensland in a matter of minutes? We are very lucky that our forebears had the vision to create Sherwood’s arboretum.

For more information visit the Friends of Sherwood Arboretum's Facebook page, here

The ‘Journey Home’

The 'Journey Home' plaque.

Sherwood Arboretum is home to one of the six plaques that were installed as part of the Stolen Generations Commemorative Plaques Project. The ‘Journey Home’ plaque is by the river near the Joseph Street entrance to the arboretum. Enter the arboretum and turn right, then walk diagonally left towards the river. The plaque faces the river.

The arboretum was chosen as the site for one of these plaques because of the history of the area; there were a number of Salvation Army ‘Industrial Schools’ in Sherwood and Chelmer that accepted ‘stolen children’ at various times. One of these was ‘The Nest’ in Victoria Avenue, Chelmer, which later became Warrina village Nursing Home, and is now being redeveloped by the Salvation Army for retirement units – Regis Chelmer.

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