Anne LatreilleAbsorbed by garden detail

When I take time out at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG), there are two major options. I can walk…and walk…and walk some more, relishing the big picture. The history of the garden and its inviting design. The great variety of plant species. The way the big old trees interact with newer or smaller ones and set off the sloping expanses of deep green lawns. The winding paths, the lakes, the shape and definition of intriguing shrubbery, the fine ground-cover planting,

Or I can settle at a specific spot, to look at detail.  This is what I did today.

It was a surprise, because I really had intended to walk. Briskly, right around the RBG whose area is 38 hectares, up and down the steep slopes and steps. I came in halfway up the hill, through Gate B past a splendid Moreton Bay fig, and thought OK, this is a good starting point. But I wasn’t sure which way to begin. Down towards the Viburnum collection? Up through the roses?

Pink flowers reach into the blue sky


Then as I looked around, some way off I spotted the top of a broad tree covered in deep pink flowers, reaching into the blue sky above and between shorter trees and shrubs and beside a towering palm tree.

What on earth is that? I wondered.  And headed along a curving path to find out.

Stretching up…


The tree stretched up in the midst of a small, round garden bed, with shrubs on either side of its fascinating trunk giving way to lower plantings and ground covers.

…amidst a garden bed


As I got closer it displayed fewer flowers, especially on the lower branches.

A few flowers on the lower branches


Then I looked down and realised the flowers – each with five cream-centred petals – were falling fast, lying in profusion on the ground…

Petals on the ground


yet retaining their hue and shape, decorating not only the low plants that filled the bed but the grass beyond it.  And also the roots that were visible at the base of the tree – which is fascinating viewed close-up, its trunk deeply green-stained in places…

A green-stained tree trunk


and studded with short spiky prickles.

A trunk studded with spiky prickles


Those fallen petals set off more silver-leafed planting. Eucalyptus pulverulenta, the mountain gum from New South Wales

Juvenile eucalyptus foliage spears up amidst the plants


which is kept small and cut down to ground level every second year to maintain its juvenile round foliage. Hibbertia truncata from Victoria,

Hibbertia truncata


Homoranthus flavescens from NSW and Queensland,

Homoranthus flavescens


Ajania pacifica – one I’d never heard offrom Japan,

Ajania pacifica

and also some that didn’t show a name.

An unnamed groundcover


Just like that beautiful big tree. I did wish I could identify it.

This was a small garden bed, only 60 steps around, but noting the plants took plenty of time. Half an hour elapsed as I moved on slowly, admiring those that were unlabelled, again silver-leafed but with flowers in different hues – deep pink/purple, soft brown giving way to cream/white with a gorgeous touch of yellow, deep yellow.

Soft yellow-brown hues give way to cream

Silvery leaves amid inviting hues


Plus one that had finished flowering. It looked like nothing much but the name was interesting – Armeria pungens or ‘Sea Pinks’. It is said to grow naturally along the coastal dunes of Portugal, southern Spain, Corsica and Sardinia.

How I admire the way in which the Royal Botanic Gardens blends Australian and imported plants!  They match superbly, and almost seem to be talking to each other. Now if one of them could tell me what that picturesque flowering tree is called, I’d be happy.

Getting closer and spiralling upwards


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Anne Latreille

About Anne Latreille

Writer, editor and journalist. Author of 'Garden Voices' (about Australian garden designers past and present, September 2013), 'Garden of a Lifetime' (Dame Elisabeth Murdoch at Cruden Farm), 'Kindred Spirits' and 'The Natural Garden'. Melbourne, Victoria.

17 thoughts on “Absorbed by garden detail

  1. It’s either Chorisia speciosa or Chorisia insignis. There’s a lighter pink one elsewhere in the gardens which is labelled as Chorisia insignis,

  2. Lovely piece Anne.
    I tend to be a big picture person myself. So it was a pleasure to be reacquainted with the beauty in the detail of my favourite public garden in such a charming fashion.

  3. I’ve often found interesting plants in botanic gardens and been frustrated by the lack of signage. I like everything to be clearly identified!
    And then I read about your experience with this tree and now I’ve changed my mind. Not knowing what something is becomes an invitation to explore and wonder and observe a plant much more closely, going back to those fundamental principles we use to identify plants – looking closely at flowers, foliage, bark and habit, trying to find relationships and similarities with plants we already know. In an age when you can just google everything, you have suddenly drawn me back to the idea of not doing that, and trying to figure things out for myself. Thank you, Anne.

  4. Loved your story Anne as I too walk regularly around the RBG admiring and reflecting on possibilities. The beautiful pink flowered tree is also one I have been admiring recently – it is Ceiba speciosa (Silk Floss Tree). A beauty native to South America. Enjoy your future wanderings

  5. the pink flowered tree is a Ceiba speciosa. There is a good one next to the Tropical Glasshouse, and a cluster of them near the Volcano, which all have better prickly trunks. The Silk Floss (common name) comes out of the seed pods, all white and silky.

      • I decided to follow up on this, and tracked to Lambley Nursery (Victoria). Here’s what they say about the pelargonium – sounds really good!

        “Pelargonium reniforme is one of an interesting and beautiful group of frost hardy South African Pelargoniums. It’s been growing in our dry garden for three years and has performed so well we have planted another large patch by the side of a gravel path. Evergreen with round hairy greyish green scalloped leaves about the size of a fifty cent coin. It flowers from spring until winter with dozens of magenta moths hovering well above the foliage”.

        • Thanks for a wonderful article bytheway, I also have a love for the details. Pelargonium sidoides is a similar plant and one of my favourites for its wine red velvet flowers and pale scalloped foliage, I think Lambley do that one too.

  6. Hi Anne
    There is an absolutely massive Ceiba growing in the Notting Hill hotel just off Ferntree Gully Rd . I also have a Ceiba that I bought from the RBG last year as a form that has lemon coloured flowers.It is still too young so hasn’t bloomed as yet . I’m also aware of a variegated form .

  7. Will try to have a look next time I am up that way. I did read somewhere that the ceiba also came with yellow flowering but didn’t know about variegation. I do really respond to variegated plants and use quite a few in my own (large-ish) garden.

    • Hi Anne , I’ve always loved variegated plants .
      Some of the ones I have are Melia , Jacaranda , Liquid amber , Gardenia , Fatsia , Pisonia , and recently Mandevillea laxa and Clerodendrum thomsoniae . I’m always looking for more but it’s not that easy . At the moment I’m trying to find variegated Stephanotis and Thunbergia grandiflora .

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