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26 Aug 2021

History of Sydney's Spring Walk

The Spring Walk in the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney is Australia’s oldest continuous horticultural display. For 163 years, it has brought joy, diverse blooms of colour and sweet scents to millions of visitors to the Garden each spring.

But how did it come to be?

Backed by the Macquarie Wall, which was originally built in 1810 to divide the government domain from the town, the Spring Walk in its first iteration began in 1855 during the directorship of Charles Moore (1848-1896).

Moore originally brought in soil from Rose Bay to improve the garden for Azalea and Rhododendron - a group of plants he described as ‘of considerable interest and beauty’.

In 1856, Azaleas and Rhododendrons were planted out on the southern side of the Macquarie Wall in the Middle Garden and became the basis of the Spring Walk.

Azaleas were especially popular as ‘collectibles’ in these early days of colonial Sydney as they were rare until the appearance of specialist nurseries in the 20th century.

Spring Walk 1928
Azaleas were popular in early days of colonial Sydney, the Spring Walk 1928 

On 10 June 1856, Charles Moore, the then Director of the Garden, had mixed success with the plantings reporting in 1871:

“…'a large number of ... Rhododendrons was planted ... nearly all ...have perished ... Azaleas, however ... succeed admirably here, and flower every year most profusely'.”

The name ‘Spring Walk’ seems to have come into common usage by the 1870s and appears in the book ‘Album of Australian Scenery’ by Lawrence Frost (1879).

Spring Walk, Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, Image by State Library NSW
Image courtesy of the State Library of NSW, Spring Walk 1934

New additions

Many other plants began to be planted along the Spring Walk in later years. In 1888, Charles Davis reported that there were some fine specimens of Elkhorn Ferns growing on the remains of the old Macquarie wall, and that they had been there for about 30 years.

In her 1943 satire ‘Ride on Stranger’, Kylie Tennant writes of an Azalea-obsessed character in the book coming:

“…with a trowel to the Botanic Gardens and with the help of a fellow azalea-lover, a priest with a big umbrella, ... had pinned down several ... shoots with hair-pins until they rooted; and again, with the help of his ally and the big umbrella, had dug these furtive treasures from the ground and carried them away under his coat'.”

Spring Walk, Royal Botanic Garden Sydney
The Spring Walk in 1934 being enjoyed by the crowds

However, Azaleas weren’t the only colourful plants on display and were joined in time by many other species.

The Spring Walk was replanted in 1926 and the annual display of Azaleas enlarged to include flowering peach, plum, cherry, wisteria, eupatorium and magnolia as its described in this later September 25, 1939 issue of the Sydney Morning Herald. The Gardening correspondent ‘Waratah’ wrote of the walk:

“Azaleas in the Spring Walk of the Botanic Gardens are now in full bloom. Exquisite peach blossom, may-bush, mauve eupatoriums. prunus, and shrub-trained wistaria add to the display of colour. Each year the Spring Walk is growing in size and loveliness, until it now bids fair to rival the famous public gardens and "walks" of other lands - Japan's cherries, Anierica'5 Arnold Arboretum, and Kew's Lilacs. Flower-lovers will find there much to interest them and a revelation Is waiting for those who have not yet realised what azaleas can do in this happy home of their adoption. Nowhere in the world are these dwarf members of the rhododendron family more happily placed than in Sydney. Along the south side of the brick dividing wall between the lower and upper gardens the Spring Walk is situated; to the left from the path which crosses the old wishing tree.”

Spring Walk sign, 1960

The walk was further modified in 1952 and its 100th anniversary celebrated in September 1956. 

Azaleas and wisterias became the dominant elements by the 1960s and 1970s but flowering peaches, cherries and plums and large swathes of bulbs and annuals became regular features during its history.

Royal Botanic Garden Spring Walk 1962
Spring Walk 1962

Evolution of the Spring Walk

During the 1990s the Azaleas in the Spring Walk were beginning to show their age. A build-up of Armillaria fungus in the soil had begun to affect the planting adversely.

Old azaleas were progressively removed from 2002 starting from the Lion Gate end of the walk. The last azaleas were removed in May 2002 and soil was then rehabilitated.

A major renovation of the Spring Walk was completed in 2004 and it was replanted with a mix of spring flowers and more tropical Asian Azalea (Rhododendron) species best suited to the Sydney climate. The dominant azaleas were replaced with a more diverse mix of rhododendrons, 20 types of wisterias and other spring flowering shrubs.

Spring Walk 2007, Royal Botanic Garden Sydney
Spring Walk 2007

By the 2010s the Spring Walk achieved a new popularity with the planting of the many colourful cultivars of the popular genus Tulipa. To celebrate the Garden’s 200th Birthday year in 2016, a special planting of over 10,000 red and white tulips were planted to represent the birthday colour theme, along with Viola, Alyssum and Primula, providing a spectacular spring display that year.

Since then the Garden’s horticulturists have been experimenting with other flowering annuals and flowering shrubs to adapt to Sydney’s mild weather over the last few years.

2016 200th Birthday Spring Walk display, Royal Botanic Garden Sydney
In 2016 the Garden's horticulturists celebrated with a red and white themed Spring Walk

Now in bloom

The Spring Walk will again dazzle your senses with colour and scent as we have planted a vibrant mix of annuals including Celosia ‘Fresh Look Mix’, Pentas lanceolata ‘Graffiti Mix’, Petunia x hybrida ‘Easy Wave Formula Mix’, Zinnia elegans ‘Short Stuff Mix’, Celosia argentea ‘Intenz’. Other annuals adding to the joyous swathe of colour include Lobularia maritima ‘Easter Bonnet Mix’, Verbena obsession ‘twister purple’, Tagetes erecta ‘Marvel’, Impatiens walleriana ‘Beacon Bright Red’, Scabiosa columbaria ‘Scoop Lavender’. Also spectacular in spring is the planting of spring bulbs in the Southern Africa Garden.

Spring Walk, Royal Botanic Garden Sydney 2019
Spring Walk 2019


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