Originally developed from a first settlers farm and then a convict maintained Colonial Gardens, the crucial resource in the fledgling colony; a Botanical Gardens were born. The Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens were established in 1818 by Lieut-Governor William Sorell. He dubbed this place the ‘Government Domain and Garden.’
It was a successor to Sorell, the tough and driven Govenor George Arthur that pushed for the 14-hectare site to be developed along systematic lines, thus creating one of Australia’s first scientific institutions and formalising the Gardens’ significant role in acclimatising plants from around the world.
Arthur appointed the first Superintendent, William Davidson in 1828. A horticulturalist of education and experience, Davidson planted some 800 trees, 200 grapevines, and a variety of seeds and cuttings. With convicts as labour and a supply of horse dung from the Army, the Gardens developed rapidly.
This formative period also furnished key structural elements, including the Arthur Wall, with its internal heating system to spur growth in exotic fruit and flowers, and the Superintendents Cottage, today the administration centre. George Arthur also initiated construction of the imposing Government House, adjacent to the Gardens.
Successive governors also made an impact including Sir John Eardley-Wilmot (1843-46), who arranged the construction of a remarkable 280-metre long convict-built brick wall that forms the boundary to the Gardens’ eastern section. Today that handsome structure is the backdrop to a brilliant series of specific horticultural displays.
Under stewardship of the Royal Society of Tasmania, the Gardens gained its striking entrance gates in 1878. Three metres in height and fifteen across, the iron gates were imported from England and were originally flanked timber fencing and railings. The gate displays both a coat of arms and a more subtle motif, that of the Roman god of fertility, Bacchus.
In its first century, the Gardens reflected the ambitions of the Victorian era: a melding of scientific disciplines in plant collection and classification, and the acclimatisation movement under which foreign flora were established in Tasmanian soils. As plants were primary sources of food, cloth, dyes, medicines and timber, the Gardens represented a crucial test bed.
Further, its gates and walls, promenades and beds established civic pride, and a sense of public gardens as places of both education and relaxation. It represented new thinking in garden design, such as establishing specimens of individual plants in gardens set with winding paths and carriage drives, or grouping plants together to please the visitor’s eye.
A particular mid-19th century fashion was formal collections of conifer trees, or pinetums as they were known. Many of these original trees make up a large proportion of the significant trees still present in the Gardens today. The Montezuma Cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) from Mexico, and the Californian redwood, or Sequoiadendron giganteum, are among this company of giants, hugely popular plants at that time.
Under the auspices of the Royal Society, (the Gardens gained the adjective ‘Botanical’ in its name with the appellation ‘Royal’ was not bestowed until 1967); but more importantly, propelled seminal education and interpretation projects by supplying plants across Australia — and the world.
It was a strategic approach that created great public and private gardens elsewhere, contributing locally to such intimate botanical settings as Salmon Ponds near New Norfolk, various parks in Hobart town, as well as regular consignments to the original Royal Botanical Gardens, at Kew in London. It is still a scientific imperative that remains a core task of the Gardens today through its scientific work in research and biodiversity.
The Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens now undertakes research and conservation initiatives in a world context. Among botanic strategies is the Millennium Seed Bank Project, under which the Gardens hold collections of hundreds of threatened taxa, or biological organisms. Separately, a unique Subantarctic Plant House is home to the plants of Macquarie Island.
In the Gardens today, one scientific focus is on the plant collections with strong thematic connections. For example the collations of Tasmanian native plants are significant as some 30% of species in Tasmania are endemic. Elsewhere, a Japanese Garden and French Memorial Fountain complement the sensibilities of the original nineteenth century Victorian park space.
Today, more than 400,000 visitors pass through the ornate gates of the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens each year, making this place, this rare synthesis of science and education, research and natural beauty, one of the most popular community draw cards in Tasmania.
Did You Know?
Our Royal Botanical Gardens are one of just six so-named in the world: there is one in Canada, two in Britain, and one each in Melbourne and Sydney.
Biographies: William Sorell, George Arthur, William Davidson
UTAS BRIEFS: Sheridan’s Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, Royal Society of Tasmania
For More Information:
Before 1818 and beyond
A History of Plant Collections