23 October 2020

Botanic Gardens 'extreme horticulture' rises to banksia garden challenge

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Max Bourke planting bush with Minister Sussan Ley.

Max Bourke from Friends of the Australian National Botanic Gardens helps to plant a banksia solandri specimen with Federal Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley. Photo: Genevieve Jacobs.

It’s been a year of extremes at the Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANBG) as it celebrates its birthday.

But this week the sun shone at the opening of the ANBG’s 50th anniversary gift: the banksia gardens. More than 80 species from around Australia have been planted in the new space – which was previously the Banks Loop – in a remarkable feat of horticultural expertise and engineering.

Banksias often enjoy light, sandy soils, and many are from distinctly warmer climes than Canberra’s, which means they require built-up beds, heat-retaining walls and imported sandy, gravel soils. Some species have even been expertly grafted onto local specimens to enable them to survive our colder winters.

Australian National Botanic Gardens worker holding banksia.

Banksias have been propagated in the Australian National Botanic Gardens’ greenhouses. Photo: Supplied.

It’s hoped banksia species from Tasmania to Kakadu will eventually thrive in the gardens.

Some of the most spectacular Western Australian species have been planted on mounds of free-draining soil up to four metres deep, and specially designed drainage systems have been installed. Species have also been trialled in various other parts of the gardens to see how they’ll respond to the climate.

Soils have been pasteurised to ensure they are free of pathogens that could encourage root rot while other species have been planted in pots that can be moved inside or sheltered next to heat-retaining walls.

Dr Judy West with Minister Sussan Ley.

Australian National Botanic Gardens director Dr Judy West with Federal Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley. Photo: Genevieve Jacobs.

The banksia gardens have been several years in the making and ANBG director Dr Judy West described “a real journey” to bring the project to fruition, from bushfire threats and hazardous smoke to COVID-19.

She paid tribute to the dedicated staff, project managers and horticulturists who have been involved in bringing the complex project to life.

Dr West said banksia experts from around the country had been consulted about the sometimes tricky species, and she thanked Western Australian specialists in particular for their expertise.

The ANBG’s actual 50th birthday was on 20 October. Fifty years ago, then Prime Minister John Gorton officially opened the gardens. A $120,000 gift from Friends of the Australian National Botanic Gardens funded the banksia garden development and immediate past-president Max Bourke paid tribute to staff, friends and volunteers.

Friends of the Australian National Botanic Gardens now boasts 2800 members, a total that’s increased during this strange year when, Mr Bourke said, many have sought the solace of the gardens.

Banksia plant.

A banksia media specimen at the Australian National Botanic Gardens. Photo: Supplied.

“This is probably the greatest cultural institution in the ACT,” he said. “I want to thank Dave Taylor and his crew for the superb job they’ve done preparing this garden.

“Banksias are one of the great, iconic genera of Australian flora. The educational value of these gardens will be gobsmacking for the 400,000 to 500,000 plus people who come through. The Friends feel our investment in this project is a really worthwhile one.”

The banksia gardens were officially opened by Federal Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley, who also helped to plant a purple leaf banksia solandri specimen from Western Australia.

Minister Ley noted the many ways in which banksias are integral to Australia’s culture and life, from the nectar rich blooms enjoyed by native insects to May Gibbs’s banksia man.

“A garden dedicated to banksias is a fitting tribute to a species that is such a large part of our national identity,” she said.

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