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28 Oct 2021

More to the ‘confusing’ Jacaranda than meets the eye

It’s that time of the year again when people line the streets of Sydney to get snaps of the iconic Jacaranda, but scientists say there’s more to the purple-flower than an Instagram worthy photo.  

Many don’t realise the Jacaranda, in full swing from late October to November when it blankets locations around Australia in lavender, “still has secrets to reveal” around its origins.  

Dr Russell Barrett, of the Australian Institute of Botanical Science, says while some people say Sydney’s jacaranda canopies are thanks to the efforts of a hospital matron who sent each newborn home with a jacaranda seedling, there are probably many people who deserve credit for its popularity.

“Even though Australians have developed a love affair with the Jacaranda mimosifolia, many don’t realise it’s actually native to arid parts of the Andes in Argentina and Bolivia,” Dr Barrett says. 

“It is commonly cultivated around the world and was first named from plants grown in England in 1822. 

“It was originally thought to be from Brazil, but it appears it was already in cultivation there in the early 1800s, confusing its native origins to this day. 

“It’s understood by some that the first seeds arrived in Brisbane from Argentinian shipping captains who thought they might be able to make some cash selling the unique seeds.” 

What's thought to be the oldest Jacaranda in Australia. Picture: Destination NSW

Dr Barrett – a systematic botanist who’s discovered countless new plant species around the world - says it’s believed Walter Hill, a former director of the Brisbane City Botanical Garden, bought some seeds off a shipping captain and planted them in 1864. 

“Evidence for a Brisbane arrival can be found in the digital records of the Australian Virtual Herbarium, with the earliest records radiating from Brisbane, and spreading further away with time,” he says. 

“But other records suggest that seeds may have arrived in Sydney a decade earlier. The ‘Lilydale’ Nursery in Marrickville was selling Jacarandas as early as 1867, and it appears they were already well-known by this time.”

Dr Barrett says the first newspaper mention of the species may have been in The Sydney Morning Herald on December 19, 1864 when it was described as “a large tree completely covered with purplish blue flowers”. 

The Sydney Mail records the tree in the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney as being “well worth a journey of 50 miles to see” in 1868.  

“These reports suggest the tree was already relatively mature by that time, and was probably established in the 1850s,” Dr Barrett says. 

“This means our tree is likely the oldest in the country and it’s a sight to see in full bloom on the iconic Sydney Harbour at the moment. 

“The Jacaranda no doubt still has secrets to reveal, and in a major milestone, scientists sequenced its genome for the first time in 2021. This will provide insights into an attractive species with known medicinal properties.”

See for yourself

The historic tree at the Garden is right near Busby's Bar so grab a drink and enjoy the view this spring!

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