I’ll declare an interest in The Launceston Horticultural Society – A History, from the start. I’ve long awaited this book and am chuffed it’s out after much gainful labour. It tracks our oldest continuous horticultural society (1838+) which continues. I gave advice on its editing, helped with the glossary and some of the field trips that went into it ‘ground-truthing’ what remains of a series of remarkable gentlemen (descendants and successors of both genders). While the topic sounds local in range or interest, in fact it’s far broader.
The Society’s reach was well beyond Tasmanian shores, with Launceston spawning Portland, Melbourne and Victoria’s settlement, active nursery trade, plant exchanges between similar societies across the Tasman to New Zealand and much more. It demonstrates the tentacles of colonies, fledgling export trade, experimentation, growing self-reliance and autonomy.
‘Those gentlemen’ were hugely active, tapping networks in England, the Continent and America to get plants into and out of Tasmania, sharing prized imports amongst members, displaying their achievements (and those of their gardeners – a breakaway Society formed later of ‘trade’ which says much of rising confidence and less-silent expression of class). Impressive photographs of Albert and other halls stuffed to the gills for flower shows, floral arches, public processions and more show the active life of this society in that of the growing city over time.
Such societies took off at a time when few commercial nurseries existed, orchards and farms nascent and hungry for ‘economic’ (i.e. crop/income) plants and botanic gardens were playthings at the whim of a changing Governor-ship and exchequer. Launceston’s City Park was the home and demonstration ground of this one (1841-62): the de-facto botanic garden of Tasmania’s north, created by determined individuals in protest at lack of action by Government.
Such societies played a vital, under-studied role in spreading a love of gardening, teaching technical and artistic skills associated with it and growing an important domestic and export industry. They gave a rich medium of expression: civic pride, domestic and regional display, economic and cultural advancement. And they fostered early nurseries, spreading the palette of available plants, feeding businesses as well as private gardens, large or small, rural or urban.
I particularly enjoyed the chapters on founding fathers and early nurserymen (sorry, they were all men!), which explain so much of the richness of Central and Northern Tasmania still – country homestead gardens, what I call ‘dressy paddocks’ sporting woodland (deciduous) trees or conifers from another hemisphere, groaning old orchards full of old pears, quinces and more, delightful parks, large and small. How’d they all come about? Let alone how was Victoria spawned, settled and supplied early on? – from Tasmanian ports like Launceston. The vaunted ‘Garden State’ could be said to be but an offspring of a much older Garden State-parent!
Gwenda Sheridan is a dedicated scholar with amazing tact and tenacity in probing and eking out riches from archives (no colony was better recorded or archived than Tasmania, they say) and has done Australia a service in bringing such a wealth of information and trove of luscious period images (many from Walter Fitch and Curtis’ Botanical Magazine or Flower Garden Displayed – popular on those gentlemen’s tables at the time) treat both the eyes and mind.
We forget how exciting ‘new plants’ were to early settlers, homesick for Europe or England, curious about the great plant explorers (conifers and the craze for their collection and display are well covered – redwoods and fine pines seem the conifers of choice for ‘select’ gardens and parks in Tasmania, in contrast to say Bunya or hoop pines in south-eastern Australia.)
Norfolk Island pines had a craze all Tasmania’s own, with active propagation and export out of Hobart and Launceston to ready buyers, nation- and world-wide. That’s another story!
Glasshouse-requiring ‘delicates’ were a genre all their own, inspiring stiff competition. Much like Northern Europe and America, a fascination with plants from warmer climates led to great efforts to grow, flower, transport and display them. Against some odds.
The Society spent much energy on fruit and vegetable production with seeds, plants, products. They had huge ranges of fruit varieties early in the 1840s. Some of their fruit displays knock your socks off and, of course, helped make the ‘Apple Isle’, albeit now morphing into boutique ciders and ales. Early experiments with grapes paved the way for cool-climate wines of today, something Tasmania still hides under a bushel, needlessly.
Don’t dither – this print run will sell out and merits chasing. A fascinating read and a balanced portrait of a remarkable group of people who continue to achieve and share much. They were ‘go-getters’ but more than that; a strong social history and constant community-mindedness that is both scarce and heartening in today’s detached, rip-snort world. Strongly recommended.
*Published by The Launceston Horticultural Society, ISBN no.: 978-0-646-90835-9, 4to. 258pp, beautifully illustrated in colour and b&w. Soft covers with french flaps.
[Available from (via websites of) good bookshops including The Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, Astrolabe Books, Dymocks (Hobart), Fullers, Petrarch’s, Birchalls, Fullers Bookshop and the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (Launceston), or direct from the LHS, P.O. Box 2043, Launceston 7250 for $60 + Postage $16.00 (all states except WA) $20 for WA by cheque or money order.]