Botanical Gardens

Koroit Botanic Gardens are at the centre of the original plan for the township of Koroit developed in 1857. Not much development occurred until 1870, when State Botanist Baron von Mueller donated 190 trees and plants. Local MP William Anderson, then commissioned Australia's greatest landscape designer, William Guilfoyle, to prepare a master plan which was completed in 1880. After falling into decline in the early 1990s, a conservation plan was then prepared in 1999. The gardens were listed on the State Heritage Register in 2006. The gardens contain over 100 rare and unusul trees from around the world and are now being restored by a partnership project between Moyne Shire and local community groups.

Audio Feature: Bart Gane talks about the Koroit Botanic Gardens

Koroit Botanic Gardens - Developing a learning resource for the next century

On 3 June 2012 to mark World Environment Day and Mabo Day, the largest tree planting event since Baron von Mueller’s pioneer donation in 1870 took place in the Koroit Botanic Gardens.

With the removal of a 140 year old cypress hedge along the southern border, there were two options for the Koroit Botanic Gardens– slow death or renewal. The community chose to lead by example and plant around 60 new rare and unusual trees and shrubs as a learning resource for the children of Koroit. Adding to the range of remnant old trees, there are now Podocarpus elatus, two Wollemia nobilis, Widdringtonia schwarzii, Castanospermum australe, Elaeocarpus reticulatus, Waterhousia floribunda, Salix caprea and Quercus robur, amongst many others. There are reinstated plants from the original master plan, including Pinus pinaster, Agathis, Cupressus lusitanica (‘Private Green’), Araucaria, Picea abies, lawn specimens of Butia capitata, Phoenix dactylifera, and a range of ornamental shrubs and foliage as a start to the reinstatement of understorey planting.

Koroit Botanic Gardens was reserved in 1857 at the centre of the town plan for Koroit. However, little development occurred until 1870, when State Botanist, Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, donated 190 plants. The Baron’s plantings formed the basis of the garden until 1877 when local MP, William Anderson of ‘Rosemount’, commissioned William Guilfoyle, Director of the Royal Melbourne Botanical Gardens, to prepare a master plan.

Following the Second World War, austerity cuts led to the decline of the gardens, with much of the understorey planting and flower beds being removed. By the 1970s, the front picket fence was falling into disrepair and a caravan park was established in a derelict corner at the rear of the gardens. In the early 1990s, the care taker’s cottage was demolished and prolonged drought and lack of staff hastened the decline of many of the original trees.

In 1999 a conservation management plan was prepared by Helen Doyle, Richard Aitken and Pamela Jellie, with State Government assistance, an active local steering committee and through the support of a Director of the Moyne Shire Council, Peter Reeves. Helen Doyle’s research noted that community days and commemorative plantings were important occasions for new plantings. A number of trees commemorate historical figures, such as a local historian and doctor.

In 2006, an application to extend powered caravan sites further into the grounds led to a successful nomination by the National Trust of Australia, Victoria, to have the gardens included on the Victorian Heritage Register for scientific and aesthetic significance. The Heritage Council refused the caravan park extension on the grounds that the root zones of adjoining trees would be affected and because of unacceptable aesthetic impact.

The serpentine paths, some shrub beds and many of the tree species outlined in the Guilfoyle master plan were installed as planned. The master plan had a strong emphasis on conifers, but also (and unexpectedly), included a row of local sheoak trees and a Coastal Wattle (Acacia longifolia) as a prominent lawn specimen. Municipal gardeners also added their own touches, by adding in large quantities of eastern Australian rainforest species, such as rapanea, brachychiton, lophostemon and a range of ficus.

The Fraxinus excelsior ‘Aurea’ in the eastern border is perhaps one of the largest in Victoria. Several trees, including Ficus platypoda (as named, but more likely, F. obliqua), Araucaria columnaris, Draceana draco, Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’, Agathis robusta, Cupressus torulosa and Araucaria cunninghamii are all recognised as being of State significance.

As part of the renewed interest in regional botanic gardens, a Burnley College student research project by Rawson, Yourn and Knight investigated tree condition in the Koroit Botanic Gardens in 2007. The results of this study were that nearly 50% of trees had emergent roots due partly to their old age. 98% of emergent roots showed signs of significant physical damage and this damage correlated with poor tree condition. Mowers operating in the critical root zone were the major cause of damage.

Interestingly, the study noted that there was not simply one or two age classes of trees, but that periods of decline and tree removal were matched with periods of major additional planting. There have been significant planting phases in the gardens about every 20 years over the last 155 years.

With the original boundary hedge senescing, Heritage Victoria provided advice in recommending incremental removal and replacement of the perimeter hedge on the west and south borders. The last stage of the hedge removal commenced earlier this year and was the perfect opportunity to obtain a large quantity of mulch for root zone mulching.

About 50% of trees were mulched in a small community ‘mulching day’ in April. This was followed up with a community planting day led by the Koroit Business and Tourism Association on 3 June 2012.

Young local Gunditjamara woman, Yaraan Bundle, marked the planting day event by presenting a traditional welcome in her local, Dhauward Wurrung language to a group of about 20 people and by planting a new 2 m high Bunya Bunya Pine at the southern entrance. The location of the pine correlates directly with the Guilfoyle plan, although Guilfoyle proposed Araucaria aracana. A. arancana is notoriously unreliable and was avoided this time around.

Around 60 new trees and shrubs were planted, with many matching the exact species and location from the Guilfoyle master plan. The intention for the day was to either match the same species, or equivalent plants into the precise locations from the master plan where possible, and to cluster plant locations where the Guilfoyle shrub beds can eventually be reinstated in their entirety. An important treatment has been to return accents of large foliage along the main eastern path, using strelitzia, bamboo, Australian Black Bean, Catalpa and small palms to reinstate aesthetic interest.

To protect the root zones of the oldest trees and retain the integrity of the master plan, a network of community activists prepose to eventually plant out the understorey beds with a simplified planting combination of low water use monocot foliage and shrubs. Yarran Bundle has proposed species suitable for basket weaving so young people and elders from the Gunditjamara can meet in public space and pass on their craft traditions. (Ms Bundle’s family planted a row of Allocasuarina verticillata to assist in screening the council caravan park until it can eventually be moved.)

Another planting and mulching day is planned for September to coincide with a possible regional tour by the Garden History Society of Victoria. When additional resources can be obtained, monocot beds will be reinstated as soon as possible, including a key Guilfoyle design feature, which is a large Gymea Lily bed under a Kauri Pine at the northeast entrance.

Part of the task of managing the old tree population requires not only technical input, but also social involvement and community action. One of the great design achievements in the planning of Koroit is that the gardens are surrounded by two nearby primary schools, a scout hall, library and kindergarten. This makes it a perfect resource for education and inspires themes for future plantings. The community of Koroit are reclaiming their public garden and reinterpreting it for a new generation.

Acknowledgement: special thanks go to John Fitzgibbon of Metropolitan Tree Growers, Janet O’Hehir of Camperdown and Ngalawoort Plant Nursery for plant donations.

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