Not everything historical in Sydney has been built. Some of the most significant things in our city are trees and landscapes; some remnants of a Sydney basin before Europeans and some made by hand to reflect social taste and memories.
This week the City of Sydney released an updated significant tree register, a type of heritage list for trees in the city. At least one of them, a Grey Ironbark in a church yard at Glebe is thought to predate Europeans in the area and might just be the last of what was a large Turpentine-Ironbark forest that ran through Glebe and the surrounding areas.
There is little left in the inner city area of the original bushland, although pockets do remain. Some bits and pieces still survive inside the walls of the Royal Botanic Gardens. A few Port Jackson Figs down near Mrs Macquarie’s chair for example, or the small grove of Swamp Oaks in the lower gardens that would once have been on the high tide mark of the harbour and show us how much reclamation has taken place, and two lone Forest Red Gums sole survivors of the natural forest that once covered the entire city.
Other areas that remain include the headland parks along the north shore of the harbour or the areas in the Royal National Park, Lane Cove and other areas set aside by Government. Too rocky or isolated to attract much development, they maintained their bush cover. Although, having said that, some areas have been generously regenerated, while others have regrown thicker due to the cessation of traditional Aboriginal thinning through fire.
Out west some larger areas of now rare Cumberland woodland have also managed to hold on. The woodland once covered large areas of the Sydney basin, thriving on the clay soils formed from the shale of the Sydney area. Grey Box eucalypts, Forest Red Gums, Ironbark and Spotted Gums dominated these forests that in 1877 still covered over 107,000 hectares, almost 30% of the Sydney plain. Now less than 6000 hectares remains in scattered groups across Sydney’s western edges. Scheyville National Park, near Windsor, has the largest remaining pocket, the RBG Mount Annan gardens also protects it.
Most of our landscapes around Sydney though are made via human interaction. They are cultural landscapes-created by us for us. And because of this these landscapes can also tell us a bit about our history.
The Royal Botanic Gardens is a classic example. While parts of the garden remain as remnant pieces of the natural, pre-European environment, most of it and the Domain next door are created. From as early as 1788, Governor Phillip set aside the area that now covers the RBG and Domain as his private reserve. Successive Governor’s kept up the domain as their own space. Governor Macquarie formalised the space by building a wall through the centre, marking an inner sanctum for him and his wife. The wall remains standing in the gardens flanked by a row of Swamp Mahogany’s planted by Macquarie to define part of Mrs Macquarie’s road. These trees are the oldest row of street trees planted in Australia. Curious that Macquarie, quiet the Scottish officer type, would choose native trees to plant when he was surrounded by native trees at the time.
That is not to say exotics weren’t planted. Macquarie also planted English Oaks and Willows, as well as collecting plants from around NSW and Australia as different areas were ‘discovered’ like cedar, planted there in 1822.
The gardens were a type of plant zoo, planted out to show the populace the strange new plants that were being discovered. Now the gardens and the survivors can be read as a landscape that talks to us about our city’s past.