Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney, Australia


Tree Truths

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Histories and legends of some of the Royal Botanic Garden's most significant trees

This self-guided walk through the Royal Botanic Garden was developed as part of Big Answers to Big Questions. You can print a map and take the tour, or just enjoy it here on our website!

The Royal Botanic Garden is home to many interesting and significant trees, some with colourful histories and others with an interesting future ahead of them. This walk will introduce you to some of these fascinating trees.

1. Wollemi Pine - dinosaur of the tree world

The Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis) has survived unchanged as a species for an incredibly long time - since the age of the dinosaurs, as far back as 200 million years ago! The only surviving population of less than 100 Wollemi Pines grows in seclusion only 150 km from Sydney.

The pines were discovered in 1994 by a bushwalker in a remote, inaccessible location in the Wollemi National Park. To protect this threatened species and its habitat, a conservation program is underway to cultivate the ‘Wolli’ and make it available for everyone to grow.

2. Palm Grove - high-rise ghetto

Nearly 150 years ago the Palm Grove was created, with a mixture of hardy and more delicate palms planted by the then Director Charles Moore. Colonies of Grey-headed Flying Foxes have roosted high in the canopy for years and large numbers of them cause extensive damage to the trees.

In the past, they were controlled by shooting, but nowadays the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust must use only non-harmful methods to discourage them from roosting here. However, they have resisted many eviction attempts such as jets of water, repellent chemicals, sudden loud noises and music - even the Dr Who soundtrack!

3. A Royal Tree - the first of its kind

This slow growing Brazilian rainforest tree (Chrysophyllum imperiale) was planted in 1868 by Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. His journey to the antipodean colony of Australia was the first by English royalty, and nearly ended abruptly when an attempt was made on his life at Clontarf by Henry James O’Farrell.

Although Florence Nightingale nursed the Prince back to health, enabling him to continue his tour before returning home to England, the incident sparked a regrettable era of racism with an anti-Irish Catholic movement lasting for many years.

4. Ginkgo - ancient medicine

Charles Darwin dubbed the ancient Ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba) a ‘living fossil’. In mythology it has been named the ‘tree of life’, as individual trees have an average lifespan of 1000 years. In the Buddhist religion the Ginkgo is considered sacred, so they are often found growing in and around temples throughout China and Japan.

Many parts of the tree, including the leaves and seeds, have been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years and more recently in the West as an energizer to improve mood, alertness, memory and attention span.

5. A Wishing Tree - or an imposter?

Do you have a favourite tree? Trees can hold mystical significance for individuals and even whole communities. Visitors to this Garden in the 1800s made pilgrimages to the ‘Wishing Tree’ to ask for their heart’s desires. They would walk around the tree six times; three times forward and three back, closing their eyes while making a secret wish.

The original ‘Wishing Tree’ was a Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) planted in 1818 by order of the Governor’s wife, Mrs Macquarie. By 1935, it reached the end of its life and was replaced by this new wishing tree in this new location. Unfortunately this Norfolk Island Pine has never attained the magical and cherished status of its predecessor.

6. Original Street Trees - stalwart survivors

Planted by order of Governor Macquarie in 1816, these three Swamp Mahoganies (Eucalyptus robusta) are the last survivors of Sydney’s earliest avenue of trees. Today councils, landscapers and others still differ on what species of tree work best for street landscaping.

In our cities, how do we balance essential utilities and infrastructure like footpaths, pipes and electrical wires with the environmental and health benefits of an urban forest?

7. Replacement Street Trees - struggle for survival

These younger trees were planted here in the early 1990s as replacements for the original avenue which was in sad decline. The new arrivals have not thrived and are a good example of why it is sometimes better to remove older trees completely before attempting to establish replacements.

If older trees remain, the younger trees must compete for root space, light and nutrients. They can become stunted or even die. With the recent removal of the declining original trees these younger trees will hopefully have a new lease on life!

8. Supermarket Tree - bountiful boughs

Why keep a dead tree in a botanic garden? Although some might think this lifeless Forest Red Gum (Eucalyptus tereticornis) is a blight on the landscape, it is one of the oldest tress in the Royal Botanic Garden, and is believed to have been standing here since before the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.

It is also an example of how dying and dead trees become valuable as they are animal habitats, although to us they may appear unattractive. Trees in cities tend to be pruned neatly as they grow and are rarely left to develop the hollows and rotten sections that are perfect homes for animals.

9. She Oaks - markers of a vanished shoreline

Coastal She-oaks or Swamp-oaks (Casuarina glauca) usually grow along the edge of rivers, lakes and the high-tide line of the seashore. These trees may seem out of place, but they are descendants of the she oaks which once grew along the edge of Farm Cove (traditionally known as Woccanmagully).

Not so long ago, from here you would have gazed over a rocky shelf, a sandy beach and a tidal flat leading to the harbour. But between 1848 and 1878, a sea wall was built and the flats filled with earthworks from city construction sites, creating the sunny lawns that visitors now enjoy.

10. Children’s Fig - an affectionate friend

For over 100 years, this massive Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus macrophylla) has shaded the Farm Cove lawns. For generations it has been well-loved by visitors to the Gardens - particularly children, who have swung from its boughs, climbed in its branches and played under the shelter of its canopy.

In 1983 the tree was dubbed the ‘Children’s Fig’ in recognition of its long-held role as playground for the Gardens’ youngest visitors. Today, it is old and unstable and can only be loved from afar.

11. Coolabah Tree - growing by a billabong

The small gum tree leaning over the pond is a Coolabah Tree (Eucalyptus coolabah) - an important symbol of Australian identity. Our ‘unoffical national anthem’ Waltzing Matilda is the tale of a swagman who camped under the shade of a Coolabah tree.

Another story, dating from 1861, tells of the intrepid explorers Burke and Wills dying of starvation under a Coolabah tree at Coopers Creek in South Australia. They would have survived, if only they had taken note of the word ‘DIG’ carved into the trunk - directing them to a stash of food buried at the foot of the tree.

12. Domain Figs - past or future avenue?

The Domain’s grand avenues of Moreton Bay Figs (Ficus macrophylla) were planted along Art Gallery Rd, Hospital Rd and Mrs Macquaries Rd over 150 years ago. Unfortunately they are reaching the end of their lifespan and are now in declining health.

Although many people feel strongly that they should be retained forever, the trees are not immortal and will continue to deteriorate. At some stage the decision has to be made to replace them with young trees for future generations to enjoy. The Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust has developed a Masterplan for the management of trees in the Domain.


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bats in palm grove


children's fig