Oaks of the Gardens Exhibition

Friday 15 March - Sunday 24 March 2024

This exhibition, proudly presented by The Friends of Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, showcases nine oak species that thrive in our Melbourne Gardens today.    

The oaks in the RBG were planted en masse by the first Director, Baron Ferdinand von Mueller and subsequently transplanted and added to by William Guilfoyle. Past Director RTM Pescott, Director Royal Botanic Gardens 1957- 1970, wrote in his book, The Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, a history from 1845 to 1970 (published in 1982):

The year 1861 saw the planting of the nucleus of the now famous Oak Lawn in the south-western section of the present Gardens by then Director, Ferdinand von Mueller.   From this initial planting the great Oak Lawn of today, beautiful and distinguished in both summer and winter, originated.  Mueller realised the potential of this newly planted area. ‘These, no doubt, will in due time form a conspicuous and attractive a feature of the landscape’.

Though many of the original plantings no longer exist, the Oak Lawn is a testament to the vision of both men.

The Gardens is home to 127 oaks, several of which are over 100 years of age.  Forty-six of those oak trees are planted in Oak Lawn, representing 38 of the 71 species in the Gardens overall.

As acorns lose their viability quickly and cannot be stored like many seeds, the Oak Lawn at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne is like a giant seed bank but outdoors. As about 40% of oaks are considered of conservation concern and they are a Keystone Species in many ecosystems across the world, this living collection of oaks, one of just 26 Living Collections curated at the Melbourne Gardens, is vital for research and conservation.

Such collections are becoming more and more important as suburban gardens shrink in size. Big trees such as oaks grow slowly and are costly to manage. They hybridise readily, which means that collecting and growing the acorns from under a varied group of oaks is a risky business because often they will not grow true to the parent form. Acorns are only viable for a short period, so must be sown quickly after they have dropped from the trees. 

We invite you to walk over to Oak Lawn after viewing these works on show to seek out the oaks, now showing off their first autumnal colours.  A map of the oaks on show can be found below.

Quercus canarienses

Algerian Oak, Mirbeck's Oak

Despite the scientific name, the Algerian Oak does not occur naturally in the Canary lslands but is native to Southern Portugal, Spain, Tunisia and Morocco.  Traditionally, the short trunk of the species was considered an advantage to the English navy and her merchant ships providing ‘knees’ and ‘elbows’, that is, big angle boughs for ship building rather than the more common planks.

This oak is a deciduous or semi-evergreen tree, narrow when young and broadening with age. Large shallowly-lobed rich green leaves become yellowish brown in autumn, often persisting into late winter. This Oak is festooned with the tassel-like male flowers botanically known as ‘catkins’, each made up of hundreds of minute flowers, in spring.  It is a glorious summer shade tree and is heat and drought tolerant.

The Mirbeck’s Oak is a much-loved tree in our Gardens with thirteen planted across the landscape today.  One specimen is the largest tree on Hopetoun Lawn that boasts a 45-metre spread. The large scar on its trunk is from an act of vandalism in 2014, showing just how vulnerable even large trees are.

Another example, The Director’s Oak or Guilfoyle’s Oak sits sentry at the entry to Gardens House and is a beautiful representation of the species. The then Director William Guilfoyle planted this oak on 17 August, 1873 at the entry to his residence.  This specimen at the time of planting was three years and remains a living memorial to his contribution to the Gardens.  

About the artist: Esma Lawley

Drawing has always been part of Esma’s life; she has been interested in plants, insects and birds since her grandmother took her on long walks through the paddocks and creeks of Preston.  After three years at Emily McPherson College, Esma went on to work in fashion design but joined the Friends and the Whirlies group to pursue her love of botanical illustration in the early 1990s.  She continues to paint with the group and is taking part in the group’s current projects are the Significant Trees of the Melbourne Gardens and The Robert Brown Collection.

Quercus dentata

Daimyo Oak, Japanese Emperor Oak

Quercus dentata is a native of eastern Asia (Japan, Korea, and China) and is sometimes called Japanese Emperor Oak or Daimyo Oak. It is often translated as ‘sweet oak’ in English to distinguish it from western European varieties. The Japanese name Daimy means ‘feudal lord’ and is also synonymous with Jyshu, meaning the owner of the castle, fort or residence. Feudal lords controlled the various provinces of Japan during the feudal period (1600-1853).  The unusual shape of this large tree resembles that of a traditional Japanese castle; the name also suggests that the tree was originally imported from Japan to the West.

As it is remarkably adaptable in various climates, tolerant of most soil types and is long lived, this oak contributes to overall biodiversity by providing habitats and food for a diverse range of birds, animals, and insects.  This oak has a large leaf and has horizontal to almost descending branch and stem architecture.

A deciduous tree, its leaves are amongst the largest of all oaks. The broad leathery leaves are distinctive, featuring deeply incised lobes that give the tree an exquisite and unique appearance.   Turning a tawny pink colour in autumn, they are often retained dead on the tree well into winter.

There are three living specimens in the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne – two on the Oak Lawn and one on Tennyson Lawn. The Oak Lawn trees are the most striking oaks in the landscape; they have been allowed to keep their descending branches, which is unique in a public place.

About the artist: Tsuneko (Terry) Mimaji-Lawrence

Terry completed an MA in Japanese studies at Sydney University.  Upon arriving in Melbourne in 2002, Terry took up botanical painting and took classes with award-winning Botanical Illustrator and Friends’ tutor Dianne Emery.  Prior to this she had studied oil painting and nihonga (Japanese-style painting) in Japan.   Terry exhibited her work twice in Melbourne and a print of the featured painting was purchased by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. She was a long-time member of the Whirlies, enjoying the opportunity to work with other botanical artists in an informal group.

Quercus emoryi 

Emory Oak / Blackjack Oak

This tree, native to Arizona, Texas and New Mexico was named after William H. Emory (1811-1887), who collected many new specimens during a military reconnaissance of 1848 and later became director of the U.S.-Boundary Survey of 1857-59.  This oak typically grows in dry hills at moderate altitudes and is considered drought tolerant.  The tree is sacred to the Apachi people in Arizona.

A small tree, this species is well-suited to Melbourne and to our predicted climate in coming years, which may involve warmer temperatures and less rainfall.  It is an almost evergreen tree, retaining its glossy leathery leaves throughout the winter until new leaves are produced in spring. It has sweet acorns that are important food for wildlife in its native range.  Acorns can be ground into flour or roasted as a coffee substitute though they do need to be leached of their acids before they can be used.

The largest specimen in the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, sited on the Northern edge of Oak Lawn, was hit by the White Oak when that oak fell two days after Christmas in 2019. It has since been pruned extensively to promote healthy structure and balance its canopy catastrophe.

About the artist: Beris Caine

Botanical illustration was an interest for Beris for many years, having started in her twenties to artistically record specimens of Australian natives for her own enjoyment.  She visited many of The Art of Botanical lllustration (TABI) exhibitions, hosted biennially by the Friends and later, when time permitted, she took art classes with Dianne Emery, award-winning Botanical Illustrator and Friends’ tutor.   Beris joined the Whirlies group, meeting each Tuesday the painting sessions, for many years but is now retired though still dabbles in the art occasionally.

Quercus faginea

Portuguese Oak

Sometimes called the Lusitanian oak, this tree is a species of oak native to the Western Mediterranean region in the Iberian peninsula.  The Oak occurs naturally in mountainous areas up to 1900 metres and flourishes in a variety of soils and climates.  In its native region, it can grow to 20 metres in height and may live to 600 years of age.

The species name, faginea, refers to the superficial resemblance of the leaves to those of a beech (Fagus).  Traditionally, the wood was used not just for firewood but for construction timber for beams and posts. It is a medium-sized deciduous tree featuring broad glossy dark green leaves that are variably felted grey-white below.  Leaf fall is typically in mid- to late winter.  The acorns, like those of the Holm Oak or Cork tree, continue to be an important food for the free-range Iberian black pigs in the Mediterranean.

In the Melbourne Gardens, this very mature specimen is situated towards the lower or northern end of the Oak Lawn. Here, the Portuguese Oak has a classic form which is exactly what you would expect for a beautiful oak growing in a park and is a favourite for form and beauty.

About the artist: James Hobill

James, a former secondary teacher, joined the Friends’ Whirlies group upon retirement.   He has exhibited works in many The Art of Botanical Illustration (TABI) exhibitions over the years and his illustration of Banksia speciosa Showy Banksia, was purchased for the State Botanical Collection in 2005.

Quercus aff. Alba

The White Oak

One of Melbourne’s most loved trees, the White Oak sited at the south-west corner of Oak Lawn, fell over just after Christmas in 2019.  Staff and Melbourne were devasted.  The Gardens Facebook page recorded:

It is with great sadness that we announce the treasured White Oak (Quercus alba) on Melbourne Garden’s Oak Lawn has now completely fallen and cannot be saved. This much-loved tree has provided oak lawn with shady beauty for over 130 years, and thousands of visitors have sat beneath it, protected by its majestic canopy.

Tim Entwisle wrote in his August 2020 article for the International Oak Society[1]:

It was recorded as Quercus aff. alba (White Oak) on the Gardens database, probably a hybrid and most likely with Quercus robur (English or pedunculate oak). Quercus alba looks a bit like the better-known Quercus robur but hails from eastern North America and has leaves attached by longer stalks, bluish underneath, and with 3–4 lobes on each side, each often a little further lobed. This tree was one of the standout specimens among the 6,000 or so growing in Melbourne Gardens. 

 The White Oak split in two, with the first tranche falling early in the day, the second, late afternoon [in December 2019]. We are not sure why it fell but most likely a mix of old age (these trees live to 300 years or more in natural habitat of eastern and central North America, but in Melbourne oaks and elms grow almost twice as fast as in their natural home, due to our mild winters, and can senesce at a younger age), droughts (including the recent Millennial Drought), strong winds and the cumulative effects of climate change (we know some oaks will not tolerate higher temps and less rainfall modeled for Melbourne).

The White Oak Project that ensued was the brainchild of RBGV Landscape Architect, Andrew Laidlaw, who then collaborated with furniture maker Alastair Boell and Gardens’ arborist Charlie Carrol to transform a fallen giant into a sculptural meeting place that would, in Andrew’s words, ‘allow the tree to keep giving’. 

The Gardens’ Flourish issue, May 2021, provided the following update about the revitalization of the area:

Nestled on Oak Lawn, three small saplings, Quercus lobata (Valley Oak), Quercus rysophylla (Loquat Leaf Oak) and Quercus nigra (Water Oak), begin their century long journey in the shadow of their fallen sister, the beloved Quercus aff. Alba (White Oak) that fell in late 2019.

Although small now, these trees are part of a sentimental project to commemorate the deceased tree’s life. Last year, Landscape Architect, Andrew Laidlaw chose to create a meeting place carved into the fallen limbs instead of wood chipping the debris. The decision called for complementary trees with the potential to survive Melbourne’s future climate.

“It’s the end of something, but it’s also the beginning,” says Arborist Peter Berbee, who hand-collected two of the new tree’s acorns overseas. “Before I chose the acorns, I conducted assessments on several species to ensure that those chosen would be suitable for planting in Melbourne from a climate-risk perspective.”

Peter collected the Quercus lobata acorns while attending the 2018 International Oak Society Conference at UC Davis in California, thanks to a scholarship he was awarded by the Friends. During the conference tours he had the opportunity to see the region’s 19 species of endemic oaks.

“While on a tour to Mendocino County in northern California I was able to collect the Quercus lobata acorns from a grove of remnant trees at a private ranch,” says Peter. “I was lucky to get permission from the owner of the land, and that the trees were producing acorns that year.”

Peter collected the Quercus rysophylla seedling from a private collector’s farm in the Dandenongs. “He has been collecting oaks for several decades and has one of the largest collections in Australia,”, says Peter. “This species is not widely planted outside its native range, but it has a beautiful form and foliage and should be suitable for Melbourne’s warmer future climate.”

The third new sapling is Quercus nigra. Its acorn was obtained from The International Oak Society Conference acorn exchange. Attendees brought acorns from their country and city of origin and made them available for other attendees to take home.

The White Oak project is now complete and already a favourite for Melbourne Gardens visitors. “It’s gratifying to be able to contribute to the planting of these new oaks,” says Peter. “Much work goes into the collection of seeds and raising young plants, so it’s rewarding to see them planted and beginning to grow well.”

1 The White Oak by Professor Tim Entwisle, August 2020

Published https://www.internationaloaksociety.org/content/white-oak-royal-botanic-gardens-victoria


Quercus lobata

California White Oak / Valley Oak

The Valley Oak is endemic to California and is their largest oak and of North America. Its common name describes the tree’s tendency to be found in deep bottomland soil. The early Spanish name for the tree was Roble, as it was reminiscent of Quercus robur in both stature and leaf shape. It grows in dense riparian forests, open foothill woodlands and river valley savannas. It thrives in deep, rich soil with an assured water supply but also grows in shallow, stony soil if it can tap into sufficient moisture. The Oak’s large acorns, up to 6cm long, were included in the daily food for most Californian First Nations People.

This species is well suited to Melbourne’s current and predicted future climate.

The Melbourne Gardens feature a number of these beautiful specimen trees with three on Oak Lawn including the one that fell just after Christmas 2019.

About the artist: Alwynne Fairweather

A lifetime interest in botany and Australian flora led Alwynne to attend classes in botanical illustration conducted by Anita Barley in 1987, who was then employed by the Gardens as the first Botanical Illustrator at the National  Herbarium of Victoria.  Alwynne loved her classes and subsequently became a founding member of the Whirlies, along with several of her fellow class mates, and only recently retired from the group. She has exhibited at almost all sixteen The Art of Botanical Illustration (TABI) exhibitions held, as well as many other exhibitions mounted by private galleries. Although Alwynne painted many species over the years, she found that illustrating native plants was probably the most satisfying. Many of these were sourced from her own garden.

Alwynne also volunteered in the Collections Branch of the Herbarium at the Gardens where she regularly attended each Monday for 28 years, retiring in March 2021.

Quercus robur 'Atropurpurea'

English Purple Oak

Forests of Quercus Robur that once covered the British Isles saw Druids moving through them, Saxon farmers tending their swine feeding on acorns and various Roman, Viking, Danish and Norman invaders. The timber was used to carry trade to the many corners of the world and was present in the ships that drove off the Spanish Armada.  An estimated 5,000 mature oak trees were used in the construction of Admiral Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, built between 1759 and 1765, that won at Trafalgar.  [1] Today, Quercus robur is planted for forestry and produces long lasting and durable heart wood, much used in interior and furniture work.

The purple English oak is notable for its deep purple foliage upon emergence in the spring. The stunning leaves become greener as the season progresses but retain a hint of red. It is a standout oak native to most of Europe and western Asia and is noted for its value to natural ecosystems, supporting a wide diversity of herbivorous insects and other pests, predators, and pathogens.

The first planting of an oak in the Gardens was a Quercus robur in 1857 on Princes Lawn which was raised from an acorn brought from Bothwell Castle, Lanarkshire, Scotland. Sadly, this specimen no longer exists.

The specimen of the Q. robur Antropupurea, a small, slow-growing deciduous tree, can be found in the Oak Lawn, and was propagated from Gardens stock.  This specimen was planted by Mrs FR Rae, in memory of Director FJ Rae, in September 1942.[2]  The National Trust website states that this tree is one of only three known examples of the Quercus robur Antropupurea in Victoria.

[1] Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History, by Bill Laws 2010

[2] A Guide Book, Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne Australia, by RTM Pescott, 1966

About the artist: Judy Jarman

After a lifelong interest in drawing and painting, Judy joined the Whirlies group when it was formed in 1990, and had lessons with Anita Barley and Jenny Phillips. She participated in many biennial Art of Botanical Illustration exhibitions and was a long-standing member of the Organising Committee and sometime Convener of the Botanical Art group within the Friends. She also exhibited at the Geelong, Hamilton and Benalla Regional galleries and other exhibitions.

Quercus palustris

Pin Oak

Also known as Swamp Oak or Spanish Oak, this oak is most used in landscaping due to its relatively fast growth and pollution tolerance. Its native habitat is in eastern and central United States and in the extreme south of Ontario, Canada.

It has a shorter life span than most other oaks, living perhaps 120 years as opposed to several centuries in many other species.  This oak has a distinctive canopy with the upper branches pointing upwards, the middle branches at right angles to the trunk and the lower branches drooping downwards. Unlike other oaks, the acorns are unpalatable to wildlife and humans as the kernel is very bitter. 

The oak has the most spectacular autumn colour and the juvenile trees retain their leaves throughout winter, sometimes for years.

The Oak Lawn specimen has large patches of lichen on the base of the trunk indicating a healthy environment for the tree.  Given its age, it is heavily managed.

About the Artist: Rita Parkinson

Rita graduated in Fine Arts from St Martins School of Art, London, and in Art History from the Courtauld Institute, London University. After graduation, she specialised in illustration for children’s literature and in educational publishing, including many books on natural history and science. She exhibited regularly in Australia, USA and UK and her works were selected for display in the prestigious American Society of Botanical Artists and Horticultural Society of New York exhibition in 2006 and included in the Beauty of Botany exhibition, Seattle, USA.  She was recipient of the Waterhouse Natural History Art Prize, Adelaide.   Rita has been past Convener of the Whirlies group, painting with the group for many years.  Rita’s work of Yucca gloriosa was donated to the State Botanical Collection in 2000 and her work Agave americana received a Celia Rosser Honourable Mention in 2004.  She was proud co-ordinator of the Oak Florilegium project in 2005.

Quercus petraea

Durmast Oak


About the artist: Meg Heriot


Quercus wiszlizenii

Californian Live Oak

The beautiful and unique Live Oak or Interior Live Oak is native to many areas of California down to Mexico, being abundant in the lower elevations of Sierra Nevada and widespread in the Pacific Coast Ranges. It was named after collector, Friedrich Adolph Wislizenus (1810 – 1889), Army surgeon, explorer, botanist and plant collector of German birth who travelled extensively in the southwestern United States.

It is a slow-growing, evergreen tree with a distinctive broad crown.  The glossy dark green leaves and reddish-brown bark give it a formal look.  In winter and spring, the oak blooms with green and white flowers with acorns that are small, nuggety and grow in clusters.

Being a resilient and adaptable species, it thrives in many diverse ecosystems and can grow in full shade.   It is a great climate match for our Gardens.  This sparsely foliated evergreen tree is situated at the edge of the Oak Lawn and another providing shade to our Viburnum Collection.

About the artist: Helene Wild

Helene Wild, is a Melbourne botanic artist and long-standing member of the Friends’ Whirlies.  She has been painting and drawing natural history subjects since primary school. Helene is represented in private and corporate collections worldwide, including the State Botanic Collection housed at the Herbarium. She was Resident Artist to the Habitat Trust for fifteen wonderful years, showcasing her work in their offices beside the Basaltica WaterWise Garden in Altona North. Since 1989, Helene has enjoyed editing the Australasian Native Orchid Society Victorian Group monthly Bulletin.  Helene is currently co-ordinating the Significant Trees of the Garden project of the Whirlies, that will comprise illustrations of noteworthy trees to be completed in 2025.


This interesting multiple comparative image of acorns is the work of several artists who individually painted the acorn from their contribution to The Oak Florilegium onto one sheet.  This sheet was then passed to the next in line for their rendering.  As can be imagined this caused much anxiety amongst the artists, both those who had already painted and those still to paint.  The result is a very popular and pleasing work of art.