Sandi PullmanHistoric gardens and plant provenance

Our garden at La Trobe’s Cottage has lots of plants with a fascinating history. They have come from a wide range of people and some have good provenance and others don’t.

Olive tree at La Trobe’s Cottage

Our olive came from Ballam Park which is a historic property in Frankston on the Mornington Peninsular of the Liardet family. Georgiana McCrae (another early settler of the Mornington Peninsular and friend of La Trobe) gave a cutting from her orchard to her friend at Ballam Park. It struck and is still there today. About 5 to 6 years ago, the National Trust took some cuttings and we planted ours in 2009 to celebrate La Trobe’s 170th anniversary of his arrival in Melbourne.

Another fantastic connection is Jenny Happell (a descendant of Georgiana) who volunteers as a guide at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne and she collected and germinated the seed of golden fields wattle Acacia acinacea syn. Acacia latrobei from the plants in the garden. She gave us a couple and we now have the ‘exceedingly pretty little dwarf acacia flowering abundantly in its native soil at Jolimont’ which La Trobe mentions in a letter to his Tasmanian friend Ronald Gunn in the 1840s.

Agave americana

In 2011 I heard along the grape vine – excuse the pun, that there may be some escapee succulents that could have quite possibly come from his rockery which grow today along the East Melbourne/Jolimont train line. I decided to go and check it. It was rather an adventure as I haven’t climb over a high wire fence into a place where I should not have been for about 20 years. I decided that being over 45 I was starting to get too old to scrounge plants in this way.

Aloe arborescens along the railway line


I got some Aeonium arboretum, Agave americana, and Aloe arborescens. They are species that would have been available to La Trobe and could easily be self-seeded from his original stock. I bought them home to propagate and then plant into the garden at the cottage.


Maurandya planted near the front steps

Another plant with very early connections to the early settlers of Melbourne is the creeper Maurandya barclaiana (Mexican viper – this is an ominous common name) which La Trobe spelt Mirandia? Barcliana. His came from Mrs. Perry who was Melbourne’s first Anglican Bishop’s wife and lived in La Trobe’s second cottage Upper Jolimont. Ours also originated from Jenny Happell. Running out of room in the garden, and not wanting to put a vigorous climber on our new fence, I floundered around as where to put it. I decided to plant it at the front steps of the cottage. I probably have created a huge problem for myself, but will worry about that another gardening day.

Pelargonium tomentosum

The last plant is the geranium Pelargonium tomentosum. It has a lovely peppermint-scented leaf and is also another vigorous grower. Its story is – Doug Gunn worked at Bedggood’s Factory*. He used to eat his lunch in the garden near what was left of the Cottage – La Trobe’s Dining Room and the adjoining ‘Butler’s Pantry’. At that time, there was a geranium growing near the Cottage, from which cuttings were taken. Doug’s friend, Stewart Bradley, grew these cuttings. Stewart gave Helen Botham some cuttings from which were grown the plants around the Cottage. It is a great story but unfortunately there is no proof that this is true.

*After La Trobe returned to England, he sold Jolimont and eventually the Bedggood shoe factory was built right up next to the original cottage.

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Sandi Pullman

About Sandi Pullman

Sandi was a horticultural advisor to ABC TV’s Gardening Australia and has 21 years experience. She is a regular contributor to Vasili’s Good Gardening and Your Vegie Patch. She has also contributed to the Gardening section of The Age and to the Australian Garden History Society journal over the years. She is a founding member of the Friends of Burnley Gardens and now is volunteer garden co-ordinator for the Friends of La Trobe’s Cottage and is researching what plants were available from 1800 to 1854 to recreate an authentic garden of early Melbourne.

4 thoughts on “Historic gardens and plant provenance

  1. I read your post, Sandi, straight after reading Tim Entwisle’s post about invasive aquatic plants that create trouble when let loose in new environments. Gardeners have always loved trying new plants but I wondered at what point an (undesirable?) alien becomes transformed into a respectable “historic plant”? It seems as if at least some of the plants with connections to Australia’s European pioneers might be treading a fine line between the two – that Aloe growing along the railway line looks as if it could be quite a thug!

    • Hi Alison
      Yes, it is quite a conundrum. I don’t know that I have an answer. I know I deliberately decided not to put prickly pear or bamboo both of which we know were in La Trobe’s garden. As John Arnott from the Geelong Botanic Gardens once said to me about the new entrance full of succulents and drought tolerant plants from all around the world, ‘I don’t know what I have introduced that may be future weeds’. That is so true.
      Yes, the aloe in that position is on hand a weed, but if did come from La Trobe’s original rockery then it does have some genetic and historical value. Often plants become weeds, because people don’t look after them, or they dump them where they shouldn’t and governments don’t value putting in the resources to save our bushland. And we must not forget Australian plants out of their native habitat can become weeds too like the Acacia baileyana Cootamundra wattle.

      Thanks for your comment very good point.

  2. Interesting post, Sandi. I love the pale grey wash of the agave americana. Is it really that colour or is it a trick of light on the photograph? Wish I could find some wild growing up here. I’d climb a fence or two to get to them.
    The Mexican viper is intriguing as well. Great name. Sounds like a drug cartel.

    • Hi Julie
      Yes, it does sound like a drug cartel. We are also growing the succulents under nettting to prevent the possums eating them which looks dodgie, even though it isn’t. Yes, the agave is that colour. Look out for it, I dug some out from along the Port Melbourne Light Rail for the garden. If you live in the country I wouldn’t plant it as it can become a really bad problem.

      Cheers Sandi

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