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22 Apr 2020

A brief history of our Palm collection

Daranggara or Cabbage Tree Palms (Livistona australis), grew on Cadi and were an important plant to the Cadigal, the traditional owners and custodians of the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney site. These wild palms were cleared intensively by early European settlers for food and construction, but many planted specimens, decades old, are growing in our Palm Grove.

However, the oldest planted palms in the Garden are two specimens of a related species, the Chinese Fan Palm (Livistona chnensis). They were shipped to the Garden in large wooden tubs in 1840 from La Reunion Islands, part of the transnational global exchange of plants between botanic gardens in the nineteenth century. Planted at the original southern entrance to the Garden, they have stood sentinel for 180 years, but at the time they were a precursor of things to come.

Moore’s Palms

In the mid nineteenth century, the horticultural world was entranced by the sub-tropical look in garden design. Charles Moore, our longest serving director (1848-1896), was similarly smitten following a plant collecting trip to the South Pacific on the H.M.S. Havanna in 1850. By 1862, his collection of palms was growing too large, in number and size, for their glasshouse home. Moore began nervously planting, what he called “hardy types”, such as the Bangalow (Archontophoenix cunnighamiana) and Chinese Windmill Palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) in the Middle Garden.

Palm Grove historical photo

A famous collection

The canopy provided by existing Australian rainforest trees, planted from 1828, combined with well worked soil in the old experimental Garden, meant the palms flourished. This encouraged Moore to introduce additional species, including famously, two species native to Lord Howe Island; the Kentia (Howea forsteriana) and the Curly Palm (Howea belmoreana). In 1882 the collection was recommended in a guidebook: “The collection of palms in the Sydney Botanical Gardens is nowhere excelled, and we question whether finer individual specimens are to be found in any other parts of the globe.”
The Palm Grove had become the Garden’s most famous plant collection and a haven for visitors escaping the heat of the city centre and indulging in fantasies of faraway tropical places. Additional palm beds were added to the Palm Grove and new Palm Gardens were created in the Lower Garden and the Domain in the early twentieth century under the directorship of Joseph Maiden (1896-1924). Maiden also widely promoted a single species, the Canary Island Date Palm (Phoenix canariensis) as a street tree. Most famously using it to line Macquarie street after it was expanded in 1911.

New additions

Significant additions of rare, wild collected specimens from Australia and New Caledonia were made in the 1980s. The Palm Grove was severely impacted by more than 25,000 Grey Headed Flying Foxes in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Canopy trees and emergent palms were lost but with the dispersal of the flying foxes in 2012, a new era began for this venerable plant collection.
With the assistance of philanthropist and palm enthusiast, Colin Wilson, horticulturists carried out a thorough assessment of the existing collection. Duplicates were removed, irrigation repaired and hundreds of new palm species from all over the world acquired or grown from seed.

These new palms included; rare and threatened species from palm biodiversity hot spots like Madagascar, understory Chamaedorea palms from Central America and charismatic Australian species such as the Queensland Fan Palm (Licuala ramsayi). Our collection now stands at over 500 species, including over 300 species displayed in the heritage Palm Grove. Explore the palms in our collection and you will be astounded by the diversity of their leaves, stems, flowers and fruit.

Palms perform a huge range of environmental services in their native habitats in warmer parts of the world and of course provide us with coconuts, dates, sago and acai. For 180 years palms have helped create the structural framework of our Garden and they continue to help transport visitors from the urban brutalism of the CBD to the peace and tranquillity of an imagined tropical paradise … cue ukulele and gentle breezes.
Find out more about the Palm Grove here or learn about other areas of the Garden that make up the Living Collection here.ds

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