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Garden Design

How to interpret a historic garden

Sandi Pullman

Sandi Pullman

October 21, 2012

Just over 3 years ago, I became involved with a group of volunteers that formed the Friends of La Trobe’s Cottage (FOLTC) which is a National Trust property in Melbourne. I have been blogging about all the changes happening in the cottage garden on my blog Sandi’s Garden Patch. A lot has happened over the last 3 years with the help of the garden volunteers, Citywide and some money from the Federal Government Stimulus Package a new roof, new fence and a well needed fresh new coat of paint.

Weeping Elm (Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’)

Charles Joseph La Trobe (1801 to 1875) was Melbourne’s first Superintendent (he became Lieutenant Governor in 1851) arriving in 1839 with his Swiss wife Sophie and their first daughter Agnes. There was no house provided for him, so he brought his own prefabricated cottage from an English firm called Mannings. It was quite common for settlers going out to the British colonies to bring their own homes with them. (Ikea isn’t new). There was also no land provided to put his cottage and he had to gain permission from Governor Gipps in Sydney to bid for 12.5 acres of the Government Paddock which is today known as Jolimont and is adjacent to the Melbourne Cricket Ground. He and Sophie named their cottage Jolimont after the country house in Switzerland where they spent their honeymoon. La Trobe was a cultured and educated man and was determined to provide his refined wife with a residence in sympathy of her lifestyle in Switzerland.

It was a private residence for his family and friends and the first government house in Melbourne was not built until 1876. Over the 15 years they lived in Melbourne, the house grew and the garden became wild and romantic. Over time a rockery and grotto was built, a sweeping driveway to the front door, and a vegetable garden, orchard and flower garden were established.

The olive tree

It was a gentleman’s estate but unfortunately today, we don’t have 12.5 acres to play with, we only have the size of the average house block. There are strict rules of what we can and can’t do. We can improve the garden within the fence, but outside the fence line, we need permission from the City of Melbourne and that is difficult to get. So unfortunately, we can’t reinstate any of the garden features and that is why I chose to only use plants from that time.


Heritage apples just bursting into growth

In the late 1950s the house was still in Jolimont but destined to be demolished and so the newly formed National Trust of Victoria saved it. Today it stands in the Kings Domain Gardens which are just behind the Shrine of Remembrance.

The garden lost its wild and romantic feel and had developed a municipal atmosphere and was essentially planted up with sacred bamboo (Nandina domestica) and yuccas and you can only have so many before a garden becomes boring. Charles loved plants and created a wild and romantic garden, full of exotics at first, then he fell in love with native plants. The FOLTC are trying to recreate the garden using the sketches of his cousin Edward La Trobe Bateman (who later on designed the Treasury and Fitzroy Gardens) to identify plants. The sketches are invaluable, but there is a lot of artistic licence and some of the plants are impossible to identify. But that helps create mystery and a jolly good challenge.

Looking down side of House – Banksia Rose flowering

Other reasons I decided we should only use plants that available up to 1854 (when La Trobe returned to England) are:

  1. To make the garden more authentic
  2. Melbourne has enough examples of Victorian period gardens
  3. To show the public an early garden before the Gold Rush

It has been a real challenge to find original species, because so many plants now are hybridised or cultivars. It has taken me 2½ years to establish a really good network of specialised gardening groups such as the Salvia Society, The Australian Native Plant Society, The Growing Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens, The Friends of Burnley Gardens and Andrew from Cactusland. I would be lost without their help and I wouldn’t have found plants like Salvia patens, Correa latrobeana or Ferocactus horridus.

To check if the plants were available I use the NSW Historic Houses Trust – Colonial Plants Database and Hortus Camdenensis. The Melbourne Catalogue of Nurseries Plants Listed in Nursery Catalogues in Victoria 1855-1889 starts in 1855 and La Trobe had long gone by then.

Pelargonium triste

I have discovered you can’t assume what is thought to be an old fashion plant such as forget-me-knots (Myosotis alpestris) were in early gardens. I have checked the above data bases and I haven’t been able to find them. True, they may have been in gardens, but I can’t prove it, so I don’t put them in.


Rosa ‘Louise Odier’ and Pelargonium inquinans (Scarlet geranium)


I was very excited when I discovered La Trobe had quite a few plants named after him and a genus Latrobea, in the Fabacaeas family. From what I can tell they are found in Western Australia but I haven’t been able to source any. Quite a few species were named after him, some by Ferdinand von Mueller, who was appointed by La Trobe as Victoria’s first qualified botanist. But as we all know the rules in naming plants state that the first person to describe it is gets to name it, so poor old La Trobe’s name didn’t last. There is a lovely letter by Mueller to William Hooker at Kew, lamenting that Tecoma latrobei is going to be named Tecoma australis, now known as Pandorea pandorana, the wonga wonga vine. He was sad because he had named it in acknowledgement of the support his patron La Trobe had given him.

We now have in the cottage garden the following Australian native plants with a La Trobe connection:

Acacia acinacea syn. Acacia latrobei (Lindl)

Correa lawrenceana var. latrobeana syn. Correa latrobeana (Muell)

Eremophila latrobei (Muell),

Grevillea rosmarinifolia subspecies rosmarinifolia (A. Cunn) syn. G. Latrobei  (Meisn)

Glycine latrobeana (Benth)

The glycine is a special one which I have only just sourced, two specimens kindly donated by the Euroa Arboretum.  It is a clover related to the soya bean and its legal status is Threatened within Victoria.  We have 2 lovely plants, one flowering would you believe in the garden.  We hope to help raise the general public’s awareness of it status.

For information on the garden visit the Friends of La Trobe website

The cottage is open from October to April on Sunday afternoons from 2.00pm to 4.00pm. You can also book a tour of La Trobe’s Cottage and Government House.


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Julie Thomson
10 years ago

What a lovely and informative post, Sandi, I have put a visit to La Trobe’ s cottage and garden on the “must do” list for when I am next in Melbourne. What a charming project and fascinating to track down the historic plants.

Troy Scott Smith
Troy Scott Smith
4 years ago

Interesting to read about the work you are doing and all he little puzzles to resolve.

Sandra Pullman
Sandra Pullman
4 years ago

Hi Troy,
Thank you, yes, I love trying to solve the little puzzles, that is the fun part, it is like being a detective.
Cheers Sandi