A very botanical State of Origin

A very botanical State of Origin

Above, a cropped image of Jacaranda, by Wayne Singleton

By Susan Prior

Can Brisbane claim the first jacaranda in Australia?

The first time I saw a jacaranda mimosifolia was at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. We had a visitor staying with us from the UK; he pointed to the purple blossoms and asked me what kind of tree it was. Having arrived only a few years earlier from the UK, myself, and not having been out of Victoria, I didn’t have a clue.

The next time I saw these trees, not long after my first sighting, was when I visited my brother in Nairobi, Kenya. From the terrace of his home, stretched below us was a stunning, thickly vegetated view down a steep-sided gully, with houses dotted along the ridge. Studded through the thick jungly vegetation were jacarandas in full vivid bloom.

Fast forward many years later, and I found myself living in Mary Street in Toowoomba, with its breathtaking avenue of purple. Each year with the blossoming of the trees would inevitably come an early summer storm. Nothing is more beautifully dramatic than a sunlit jacaranda in the late afternoon light against a blackened storm-brooding sky. The inevitable aftermath of the rain, though, is the treacherous slip-sliding on jacaranda mush. Definitely an undesirable down side!

Later still, I moved to Brisbane and was thrilled to see the city blossom with a purple haze each year. My boss, a long- time Brisbanite, once said to me that you always knew it was exam season because that is when the jacaranda trumpets bloom. And so it is. Sweaty palms and butterflies in stomachs are often associated with the spreading purple-bedecked limbs of the jacaranda.

We are fortunate in Australia, because outside its native Brazil we have a near-perfect climate for growing these beauties. For most of the year, the trees hide unobtrusively in plain sight. Over the dry Brisbane winter, the feathery fern-like leaves of the jacaranda, quietly and subtly, turn a lime-green before going yellow and shedding. But the trees are rarely naked for even a short time, with the fresh blooms often arriving before the new foliage, creating a stark colour shock that both assaults and gladdens our senses. The saturated purple blossoms are accentuated against the contrasting elephantine-grey bark of the tree. As well, I rather like the woody seed pods that can cling on long after it is polite and seemly to do so.

Having researched a little about the jacaranda’s history here in Queensland, I lighted on an article claiming that the first tree to bloom in Australia was in Maryborough, although I suspected it might have actually been pipped to the post by one here in Brisbane. Which got me thinking. I was keen to know if Queensland had the first tree in Australia – a kind of botanical ‘State of Origin’!

Maryborough or Brisbane?

This is the article that I found, in an Official Guide Book to the Capital of Queensland, 1940 (p. 19):

‘The first Jacaranda that ever bloomed in Australia was planted by Richard Bingham Sheridan, who obtained it from Mauritius and planted it in the little botanic garden that he was instrumental in establishing in Maryborough. The dominant note of Brisbane’s parks and gardens and streets during early summer is the misty mauve and lavender and delicate amethyst of Jacarandas — the trees that made the blood tingle in the veins of Dame Sybil Thorndike as she absorbed their loveliness when she was here eight years ago.’

An article in The Richmond River Herald and Northern Districts Advertiser, also mentions Richard Bingham, Friday, 23 December, 1938.

I think this claim was based on a newspaper article in The Richmond River Herald and Northern Districts Advertiser from two years earlier (see inset, right).

I approached Dale Arvidsson, curator of the Brisbane Botanic Gardens and of the Sherwood Arboretum, to ask him about this bold claim and to see if he had any insights. To say he has been helpful is an understatement, so I would publicly like to extend my grateful thanks. I suspect he quite liked the idea of claiming the ‘jacaranda crown’, too!

According to Dale, the first jacaranda was planted in the city gardens in 1864 by Walter Hill. He says, ‘Plants grown from seeds [or] seedlings from this tree were later sent to Rockhampton and Maryborough Botanic Gardens (Queens Park). Both of these botanic gardens were commenced in 1873 – well after the City Botanic Gardens were declared in 1855 and the Jacaranda planted [in 1864], so the chance of Maryborough having a flowering tree before the City Botanic Gardens would be “unlikely”, even if the tree was sourced from Mauritius as reported.’

Dale went on to say:

‘RB Sheridan who developed Queens Park in Maryborough had become a trustee of the Brisbane Botanic Gardens in 1885, so this may have also been the opportunity to source plant material, and the first state Arbor day was 1890, where more plant material grown from seed at the City Botanic Gardens was widely distributed throughout Queensland.

'The Jacaranda [in Brisbane] stood for 116 years until it came down in a storm in 1980.’

I'm sorry, Maryborough. It is more than likely that we flowered in Brisbane first, in which case we had the first tree!

Dale had answered that question for me, but what about whether we beat Sydney to the first jacaranda tree?

Brisbane or Sydney?

Dale mobilised his contacts in Sydney and had them scurrying through the historical records. The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney came back to him with this excerpt from the City of Sydney’s Significant Tree Register, about a jacaranda at Elizabeth Bay:

‘“Tradewinds”, 14–16 Onslow Avenue, Elizabeth Bay. 1880?

'Governor Darling granted Colonial Secretary Alexander Macleay 54 acres at Elizabeth Bay in 1826. From 1826–1926 the subject land was part of the Macleay family’s Elizabeth Bay estate garden, in which Alexander built his mansion in the 1830s to the west. Built well before the house, the estate was widely considered at the time (1820s onward) as ‘the finest house and garden in the colony’ and had a number of areas, in gardenesque style. This tree is comparable in size to specimens in the Royal Botanic Gardens and is much larger than the well-known specimen planted in 1928 by Professor E.G. Waterhouse in the Main Quadrangle, University of Sydney.’

Dale adds to this:

‘This suggests the [Sydney Botanic Gardens] oldest ones may have been of similar vintage. If they were sizeable trees in the 1880s then it suggests that perhaps they were introduced at the same time as the Brisbane material in the mid-1860s. … It’s most probable that as propagation material came into the country and was made available in one city for one botanic garden, it would have been available to others.’

Troy Lennon, history editor at The Daily Telegraph in Sydney, wrote an interesting article in October 2016. In it, he says this:

‘The first samples in Australia are believed to have arrived in the 1850s. The first to be successfully grown was planted by the superintendent of the Brisbane Botanic Gardens, Walter Hill, in the 1860s. In an 1870 report to the Queensland Legislative Council he said he was having some success growing them “on either side of the gravel path leading from the George St Entrance to the interacting gravel walk”.’

In a twist, it seems that the jacaranda is named in Charles Moore's catalogue in 1866. Moore was the government botanist and director of the Botanic Gardens in Sydney at that time. This implies that the jacaranda may have been planted there between five and seven years earlier, in the late 1850s.

However, my take out from Lennon's article is, Sydney may have planted seedlings very slightly earlier, but Brisbane can lay claim to the first ‘successfully grown’ jacaranda tree. If anyone knows otherwise, I'd love to hear from them.

I therefore choose to declare the Jacaranda State of Origin to be Queensland’s! (Until someone can categorically prove to me otherwise!)

Jacarandas as art

When I produced a local magazine called Living in The Shires (now, sadly, no more), I was delighted to reproduce a jacaranda print by relief block printmaker Wayne Singleton on the cover of the Spring 2015 edition. It was an instant hit. Because it is so beautiful I once again asked Wayne for his permission to reproduce it here. You can find more of his work on his website.

Housed in the Queensland Art Gallery is the popular drawcard painting Under the jacaranda, 1903, by Richard Godfrey Rivers. It is described on a QAGOMA blog as being 'one of the Gallery's iconic artworks'. The same article says that this tree is believed to be the first jacaranda grown here in Australia. 'The tree was blown over by a cyclone in 1979, but many jacarandas now growing in Brisbane are from the seeds and cuttings of this first jacaranda.'

(I wonder if this is the same tree that Dale talks about as being blown over in 1980.)

R Godfrey Rivers, England/Australia 1858–1925, Under the jacaranda 1903, Oil on canvas, purchased 1903, Collection: Queensland Art Gallery, reproduced here under the copyright terms stipulated by the Gallery for non-commercial use.

I’ll leave the (nearly) last word to Brisbane poet and journalist, Emily Bulcock who wrote a poem about the jacaranda:

A mystic thing — by angels kissed
To strange unearthly bloom
Haloed by dreamy lilac mist,
Softer than softest amethyst.

Purple dreaming

Jacaranda season will very soon be upon us. And one of the best places to view the full majesty of the blooming jacarandas in Brisbane is at The University of Queensland. My advice? Pay a visit to the university grounds, take the time to sit on a carpet of purple haze, gaze up through the spreading jacaranda boughs, and dream yourself a purple dream. 

A flowering jacaranda by The University of Queensland lake. Image © The University of Queensland, used with permission.


Goodna has a Jacaranda Festival on 27–29 October. You can find out more, here.

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