The Floral Emblem of Queensland – Cooktown Orchid

The Floral Emblem of Queensland – Cooktown Orchid

If you should happen to be on a road trip in Queensland and perchance, travelling along the Bruce Highway, your interaction with the world is maintained via the Trivia Quiz placed at various intervals, on the roadside.  The bitumen road is known for its tedium of straight and dangerous stretches.  While travellers are en route from Brisbane, motoring along the 1,679 km to Cairns, Fatigue Zone Trivia questions on Bruce Highway help keep drivers alert.

The solution to each question is revealed 5 km further along the highway.

When Queensland was preparing for its centenary in 1959, a poll was held by The Courier-Mail to select a state floral emblem.  Among the important criteria for selection were that the species should be a native plant of Queensland and relatively easy to grow. A number of possibilities were chosen for the poll and the purple Cooktown Orchid was a clear winner.  It was proclaimed the floral emblem of Queensland on 19 November 1959. 

The name of the plant refers to the northern Queensland town named by Captain James Cook.  Cooktown is at the mouth of the Endeavour River on Cape York Peninsular named also by Captain Cook when he beached his ship, The Endeavour there for repairs in 1770.

The taxonomy of this plant seems to have had a bit of a confusing history.  Currently, the Cooktown Orchid is known botanically as Dendrobium bigibbum var. phalaenopsisDendrobium comes from the Greek dendron, tree and bios, life while bigibbum describes the plant as an epiphytic orchid and it grows on the trunks and branches of trees obtaining food and moisture from the air.  Consequently, the humid tropics are the natural habitat for orchids in general.  The specific name phalaenopsis comes from the Greek phalaina, moth.  It is thought, the flower of the Cooktown orchid resembles a moth. 

Although found in the northern Queensland tropical districts that experience very high summer rainfall, the Cooktown orchid is not a rainforest species.  It grows in exposed situations usually attached to tree trunks.  As with a number of Australia’s native species it is now rare in the wild due to habitat loss and collection.  Cooktown falls within the orchid’s natural growing range.  It can be grown outdoors as far south as Brisbane, but in Melbourne it will only thrive in warm, well-lit rooms or greenhouses.

Cooktown is located about 2,000 kilometres north of Brisbane depending upon which way the crow flies and 3,026 km north of Melbourne depending upon which way another one of those jolly crows fly!  Not exactly the quick trip home should the State borders close for travellers during these Covid days.

Image: Dendrobium bigibbum by Ian Valentine

Plant of the Month

Echinacea purpurea

The genus Echinacea consists of nine species of summer flowering perennials which belong to the daisy family, Asteraceae and originate in dry prairies, gravelly hillsides and open woodlands in the eastern USA.  They are commonly called ‘coneflowers’ and spread by rhizomes which can colonise large areas after a few years.  The dried rhizomes and roots are widely used as an ingredient in herbal medicines as they are thought to boost the immune system’s power to fend off infection,

Echinacea purpurea has oval, rough-hairy basal leaves to 15 cm and toothed oval-lance shaped stem leaves.  The flowers are borne on upright red-tinted stems 50-120 cm in height through summer and autumn.  The flower heads are up to 12 cm across with golden brown cone shaped discs with partly reflexed magenta-purple ray-florets.

‘Rich Red’ is a well branched, bushy variety to 40 cm forming neat clumps with rich red petals surrounding the orange/brown cone.  It is quite drought and frost hardy.

Grow Echinaceas in a sunny herbaceous border or in an open woodland.  They respond well to deep, well drained, humus rich soil.

Photos by Anne Day. Article by Shane Williams.  Both Anne and Shane are members of the Growing Friends.

The Floral Emblem of South Australia – Sturt’s Desert Pea

The Floral Emblem of South Australia – Sturt’s Desert Pea

Sturt’s Desert Pea is an oldie and a goodie.  There are stories throughout time about its origins, discoveries and botanical names.  Although this species now commemorates the notable Captain Charles Sturt, the stories of Sturt’s Desert Pea began with a Dreamtime Story from when the world was young.  The Legend of the Sturt Desert Pea is a story of love, pain and loss and in that place where the tragedy occurred grew “The Flower of Blood” as the First Nations People call it.

The first explorers who ventured into the southern hemisphere were more interested in the cartography of the Great South Land.  In 1699, on his second exploratory visit to the west coast of Australia the former buccaneer, explorer and writer William Dampier (1651-1715) collected several botanical species including the desert pea.  He reportedly dried the specimens carefully, pressed the plants between pages of a book and took them together with some seeds, back to England.  Today they are in the Herbarium at Oxford University.

Sturt’s Desert Pea, Swainsona formosa is a member of the pea family, Fabaceae and it was adopted as the floral emblem of South Australia on 23 November 1961, using the name Clianthus formosus.  This distinctive plant is also on the current south Australian Coat of Arms.  Sturt’s Desert Pea grows in Australia in all States except Victoria and Tasmania thriving in arid regions that receive between 125 and 250 mm of rain each year.  The plant is a horizontal creeper that runs for up to 2 metres along the ground with soft, silky grey leaves.  The stems and leaves are covered in a hairy down.  The flower is about 9 cm long, like a bean blossom but larger.  The petals are a deep, vibrant red colour with a black swelling known as a boss in the centre.  The blooms cluster in groups of six to eight and the species creates a stunning display from Spring through to Summer.  Sturt’s Desert Pea seeds can lie dormant until the vital natural elements are in place for germination to occur.

In the 18th century, the pea belonged to the genus Clianthus as Clianthus dampieri and later became more widely known as Clianthus formosus. It was later reclassified in 1990 as Swainsona formosa the name by which it is officially known today.  The species was named after the English botanist Isaac Swainson (1746-1812) and formosa, Latin for beautiful.  Isaac Swainson was a keen botanist with an interest in medical botany.  He was devoted to preparing and successfully marketing a vegetable syrup known as ‘Syrop of De Velnos’ and reputedly made £5,000.

Although Captain Charles Sturt (1795-1869) did not find the inland sea he believed existed on his expedition to central Australia in 1844, Sturt did comment in his journal, Narrative of an Expedition upon the displays of Swainsona formosa.  He refers several times to the beauty of the desert pea in flower in contrast to the harsh nature of the plant’s habitat.

Sturt’s Desert Pea is a resilient, eye-catching plant with a story to tell.

Article by Marg Thomas.

Image: Swainsona formosa by Valda Jenkins

Sensory Garden

We were excited to see the Sensory Garden officially open on 17 December 2020, when Peter Kelly, former Chair of the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne Trust Fund, the project’s major donor, shared the honour of cutting the official ribbon – a length of vine – with RBGV Chair, Ms Chris Trotman. RBGV Director and Chief Executive, Professor Tim Entwisle also officially launched the RBGV Melbourne Gardens Master Plan 2020-2040 at the same time.

Donors and other guests were given a tour of the new garden by Landscape Architect Andrew Laidlaw and horticulturist Terry Smyth, and it was pleasing to see plants contributed by the Growing Friends nursery as part of the landscaping. The garden gives visitors a place of quiet contemplation overlooking the water of Central Lake as well as a place to enjoy the different sensations of colour, scent, sound and texture, from the rustling of bamboo to the scent of thyme under foot.

The FRBGM Trust Fund grant of $200,000 towards the Sensory Garden helps to complete the Melbourne Gardens’ Fern Gully Restoration Project. This has been a major area of financial support from the Trust Fund over several years, with previous grants going towards the Fern Gully Boardwalk ($300,000), rainforest misting ($52,000) and the Fern Gully Rest House restoration ($75,000).

The Friends are proud to have been able to contribute to the redevelopment of this important precinct within the Melbourne Gardens.

The Nareeb Gates

The beautiful Nareeb Gates are back in place at D Gate. They have recently been restored to their former glory with the aid of generous donors, a project the Friends’ Trust Fund was also pleased to contribute to. Apart from the refurbished, shiny gold decoration, one of the gates’ most striking features are the tall gas lamps adorning both pillars. They will also shine again – but not with gaslight!

These ornate gates were manufactured in England, probably in the 1870s, started life in Melbourne with the land boom of the 1880s, and became part of one of the many grand Victorian estates recalled now only in the names of streets and courts around South Yarra, Toorak and nearby suburbs. The early ownership of the Nareeb estate at 166-170 Kooyong Road, Toorak, was changeable. It began in 1875 when 5 acres of land were sold to a Western District squatter named Josiah Watson. He chose not to develop the property and in 1883/84 sold it to piano manufacturer Octavius Beale, who built the mansion then known as Sommariva in 1888, under architect William Salway. Beale moved to Sydney and between about 1890 and 1906 the estate, under the name of Oma, changed hands between John Grice, Frederick Cato and John’s twin brother James Grice. In those years Oma was described as standing in ‘fine well planted grounds with handsome, elaborate scroll-work entrance gates (set in ornamental brick walls) opening onto a serpentine drive.’ (Stonnington History News, newsletter no.36, Oct-Nov 2001). In 1906 the estate was purchased by Walter Simmonds and renamed Nareeb. Simmons had become wealthy through property purchases and gold interests around Stawell in western Victoria. Among his properties for a few years had been Nareeb Nareeb at Glenthompson.

Nareeb in Toorak entered a period of stability and remained in the family’s ownership until the death of Miss Gertrude Simmons in 1964, when the 5-acre property was sold by the trustees. The National Trust had classified the house as ‘interesting, preservation desirable’ but fortunately Gertrude Simmons had asked that the gates be given to the National Trust to ensure their preservation, for the enjoyment of future generations. The mansion was opened to the public to raise funds for the National Trust in December 1964, with many thousands of Melbournians paying the 3 shilling fee and passing through the gates to see the historic property. The furnishings and fittings were sold at auction on site by Leonard Joel Pty Ltd a few days later. The property itself was sold, demolished and subdivided, becoming what is now Nareeb Court.

The gates were originally deemed significant as an excellent example of ironwork from the 1870s and presented to the RBG by the National Trust in 1966. They were officially declared open in November 1967 and are now listed on the Victorian Heritage Register as being ‘of historical significance as a symbol and a reminder of Melbourne’s heritage of large mansion estates, few of which now remain…… No other similar set of 19th century residential gates have been identified by heritage surveys in the City’. What stories those gates could tell!

The Floral Emblem of New South Wales – Waratah

How aptly named is the magnificent Waratah?

Well, in answer to the question, the First Nations people who originally lived in the area that became known as Sydney were the Eora people and they named this vibrant species – Waratah which means beautiful or a tree with red flowers in their language.  The botanical name, Telopea speciosissima is equally appropriate.  Telopea comes from the Greek telopos meaning seen from afar referring to the conspicuous flowers and speciosissima from the Latin speciosus meaning showy and issimus, most. 

On 24 October 1962, the Waratah, Telopea speciosissima was named the floral emblem of New South Wales.  This particular species is found within a radius of about 200 km around Sydney.

Today there are a number of hybrid species of the Waratah, however there is a white variation of the native species too.  In Gulpilil’s Stories of the Dreamtime, a female Wonga pigeon was out looking for her mate.  As she soared above the tree canopy she was attacked by a hawk.  Escaping its clutches, she flew over white Waratah flowers and her blood turned them red forever.  First Nations people also used the stalk of the Waratah to make their necklaces and the flower was immersed in water and the mix of the sap and the water was given to children as a tonic.

Adventurous botanists sailed on exploratory expeditions from England and Robert Brown, a Scottish born naturalist sailed with Sir Joseph Banks on the Matthew Flinders expedition to chart the coastline.  Brown named the genus and species in 1810 and kept the Eora name for the plant.  Robert Brown became Sir Joseph Banks’ librarian, and they may have been good buddies because when Banks died, Brown inherited his library and herbarium. 

The Waratah belongs to the Proteaceae family and it grows to between 3 and 4 metres high with dark, razored leathery leaves.  The Waratah naturally grows in sandy clay areas and is mainly pollinated by birds such as the Honey Eater which is attracted to the brilliant colour of the flowers and the abundant supply of nectar.  It flowers from September to November.  Nature has looked after this beauty because the seeds are winged for wind dispersal and there may be more than 250 seeds on one flowerhead in a good year.  After bushfires, which are common in its natural habitat, a Waratah can regenerate from its lignotuber – a woody swelling of its stem that lies partly or wholly under the ground.

The Waratah once flourished in many areas of the Sydney metropolitan area. Sadly, the survival of this native plant is due now to its existence in national parks, reserves and relatively inaccessible areas where it is protected.   It causes me to wonder about the changes that have occurred due to a combination of our urban and rural developments.  I wonder what this beautiful country once looked like. 

Although the Golden Wattle, Acacia pycnantha is the national emblem the Waratah was definitely a contender when a national floral emblem was being selected.  One of the reasons the Golden Wattle was chosen is that species are found all over Australia whereas the Waratah is native only to the south eastern parts of Australia.  Over the years, the Waratah has featured in postage stamp designs and in many works of art.  The magnificent stained-glass windows in Sydney’s Town Hall feature the Waratah.  In the sporting world, the Waratah is the mascot for the NSW Rugby Union team, The Waratahs.  A good friend spurred me on to discover why Waratah Bay on Wilson’s Promontory is so named.  It was named after a ship that was anchored there for repairs.

Waratah Day is on 26 September.

Christmas Catalogue now available

This year we have a range of gorgeous gifts to help you have everything sorted early for Christmas. From beautiful linen tea towels, bees wax wraps, delicious gift-wrapped soaps, the 2021 Friends’ Botanical Art Calendar, Friends; gift memberships and much more.

CLICK HERE to view the Christmas catalogue.

You can order ONLINE or use the order form in the catalogue to order via email or mail.  You can also order by phoning (03) 9650 6398.

Purchases can be delivered or you can use our ‘click and collect’ option to pick up your purchases from Gate Lodge on the dates outlined in the catalogue.
If you are purchasing online, to ensure you receive a reduced member’s price, be sure to log into the Friends’ shop via the website HERE (‘log in’ button is located in the top right hand corner). If you are purchasing using the order form, the reduced member’s price is already listed.

We hope you find plenty of wonderful gifts for your family and friends.

Enjoy ‘The Art of Botanical Illustration’ during 2021

If you have fallen in love with the beautiful artworks within The Art of Botanical Illustration, why not pre-order a 2021 Botanical Art Calendar which will be ready for delivery in early October.  

Including some of the most outstanding artworks from the exhibition, this subline showcase of art is representative of artists from across the world.

The artworks of the two winners of the Celia Rosser Award, Dianne Emery and Joanne Knott are represented as are a diverse range of species across the year.

Presented in a new landscape format, the calendar also makes a perfect gift for birthdays and Christmas, especially for family and friends across the world.

A big thanks goes to all the artists who have allowed the Friends of the Gardens to use their artwork to produce this gorgeous publication.  Profits from the sale of the calendar assist the Friends to continue their support of the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne.

We hope you enjoy the calendar just as much as we did creating it.

Click here to preorder

Celia Rosser Awards

The Celia Rosser Award was created to commemorate Celia’s significant international achievements as a botanical artist.

Celia is best known for her stunning illustration of ‘The Banksias’, a 3-volume monograph of the entire 76 species of the genus Banksia known at the time which is regarded as one of the most finest collections of botanical paintings in the world.

This Award reflects Celia’s achievements and is presented to exhibiting artists whose works show excellence in one or more aspects of the art form including the highest degree of scientific accuracy.

This year, we would like to congratulate the winners of this year’s Celia Rosser Award:

Dianne is a third time winner of the Celia Rosser Award which clearly demonstrates her exceptional talents as a botanical artist. 

Joanne Knott, is a first time award winner, but must feel an enormous sense of pride receiving this award from Celia for her painting of a Banksia. 

Additionally, Celia would also like to make Honourable Mention to the following artists:

Haya is a student of Dianne Emery’s online botanic art classes conducted via the Friends of the Gardens.  Haya is based in the United Arab Emirates and gets up at 4am each Friday to attend her online classes.

Eunike is from Indonesia.


Congratulations to all artists for this wonderful achievement.

To visit the TABI Exhibition, click here.

Artwork Selected for the State Botanical Collection

The Royal Botanic Gardens have selected six artworks for botanical art collection which is a component of the State Botanical Collection incorporating original artworks, manuscripts, archives and specimen collection.

Congratulations to the following artists:

These artworks have been purchased through donations from the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens Trust Fund and the RBGV’s Director’s Circle.

To visit the TABI Exhibition, click here.