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Eucalypt trail finds stories in the trees

On 23 March 2016 the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (RBGV) celebrated National Eucalypt Day with our partners at the Bjarne K Dahl Trust (Dahl Trust) by launching a new trail at Cranbourne Gardens Eucalypts for your home garden. This trail uses plant labels, signage and QR codes, linked to deeper web content and video, to highlight 40 small eucalypts that are terrific for Melbourne home gardens such as the beautiful Eucalyptus cosmophylla. The trail contains a wealth of information about how to: select, plant and care for a small gum tree that would be ideal for your home garden.

Russell, Chapman, Bren, Arnott and Ashton Eucalypt trail at Cranbourne gardens

Chris Russell (Director Cranbourne), Sebastian Chapman (Board Member Bjarne K Dahl Trust), Catherine Ashton (RBGV), Professor Leon Bren (Board Member Bjarne K Dahl Trust) and John Arnott (RBGV) with E. cosmophylla in full bloom. Photographer: Warren Worboys.

The 23 March date marks the birthday of the founder and benefactor of the Dahl Trust, Bjarne K Dahl (1898 – 1993), a Norwegian forester who worked in the Victorian forests from 1928 to 1961. Dahl developed a deep connection to the Australian bush, and as a mark of his affection, he left his estate to the Forests Commission of Victoria (later the Department of Sustainability and Environment) in order to establish a trust focused on eucalypts. A grant from the Dahl Trust has enabled the RBGV to establish the Eucalypts for your home garden trail.

Eucalyptus cosmophylla in flower in the Australian Garden. Grows to 10m as a single trunk for or to 5 m as a multi-stem mallee form. Photographer: Rodger Elliot.

Eucalyptus cosmophylla in flower in the Australian Garden. Grows to 10m as a single trunk for or to 5 m as a multi-stem mallee form. Photographer: Rodger Elliot.

Eucalyptus is certainly a genus that has inspired many passionate advocates. For me the really interesting thing about gums are the stories of the people, such as Dahl, who have become enchanted by these trees especially the botanists who have sort to classify and name them over and over again as technology or our understandings of relationships within the genus have changed. Recently I met with Dr Pina Milne, Manager Collections, and Dr Frank Udovicic, Manager Plant Sciences, who both work for the RBGV in the National Herbarium of Victoria, to take a peek at the kinds of stories that are encoded on herbarium voucher specimens. The herbarium holds approximately 1.5 million dried plant, algae and fungi specimens. Each one of these voucher specimens contains a wealth of information about each species. We had a look at one of the original specimen of Eucalyptus cosmophylla together.

Voucher specimen, Eucalyptus cosmophylla or Cup Gum. Photograph courtesy of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.

Voucher specimen, Eucalyptus cosmophylla or Cup Gum. Photograph courtesy of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.

Pina pointed out to me the label on the bottom right hand corner of the voucher (see image above).

Look”, Pina marvelled, “This label shows that this cutting was made by Ferdinand Mueller in November 1848 in the Lofty Ranges of South Australia and named Eucalyptus cosmophylla by him”. Mueller (1825 – 1896) was Government Botanist of Victoria from 1853 to 1896 and Director Melbourne Garden from 1857 to 1873. He arrived in SA with his two sisters from Germany in December 1847 and as this specimen demonstrates very quickly started botanising. It was amazing to me, to find myself, looking down at an original piece of Mueller’s handwriting from 168 years ago. I hardly dared to breathe as the three of us bent over this old and fragile specimen, the urge to reach out and touch the ink of his hand writing was almost unbearable.

Mueller's label on Eucalyptus cosmophylla specimen

Mueller’s label on Eucalyptus cosmophylla specimen

Frank pointed out the red label “SYN-TYPE” which means that Mueller made a number of cuttings of Eucalyptus cosmophylla from different locations however, “he didn’t designate which one was the “type specimen” that he specifically named the species for”. Frank pointed out that “this can make it difficult in the future if botanists decide that there are variations between the three cuttings – which one is then cosmophylla”? Mueller published one of the first classifications of the eucalypts between 1879 – 1884 Eucalyptographia: A descriptive Atlas of the Eucalypts of Australia and the Adjoining Islands and he was one of the first individuals to take a scientific and conservation interest in Victoria’s forests. In June 1871 Mueller wrote:

I regard the forests as an heritage given to us by nature, not for spoil or to devastate, but to be wisely used, reverently honoured and carefully maintained. I regard the forests as a gift, entrusted to any of us only for transient care during a short space of time, to be surrendered to posterity again as an unimpaired property, with increased riches and augmented blessings, to pass as a sacred patrimony from generation to generation.

The thin label “HERBARIUM O. W. Sonder (1812 – 1881)” shows that this voucher at some point in its life travelled to Germany to the botanist and apothecary Otto Wilhelm Sonder where it became part of his private herbarium possibly returning to Melbourne when through Mueller’s persistent efforts, the majority of Sonder’s herbarium was acquired in 1883.

The label “National Herbarium of Victoria SYNTYPE Determinavit G. Chippendale 15 AUG 1977” shows that the CSIRO eucalyptographer George Chippendale (1921 – 2010) visited the Melbourne Herbarium in August 1977 and that he reviewed this specimen and confirmed that it was Eucalyptus cosmophylla. By 1977 Chippendale may have been working on his 1981 publication The Natural Distribution of Eucalyptus in Australia viewing this specimen as part of that work. Chippendale was an early advocate of the use and enjoyment of Australian native flora in home gardens.

Herbarium labels on Eucalyptus cosmophylla

Herbarium labels on Eucalyptus cosmophylla

The label on the left hand side “Eucalyptus cosmophylla, Conf: M.I.H. Brooker Feb/March 1993” shows the Murray Ian Hill “Ian” Brooker (1934 – ) visited the Melbourne Herbarium in 1993 and reconfirmed that this specimen was E. cosmophylla. Brooker worked for the CSIRO and then joined the staff of the Australian National Herbarium in Canberra where he specialised in the eucalypts developing an interactive computer identification key to the eucalypts EUCLID between 1997 and 2006.

We reflected on how the taxonomy of the Eucalypts is now the province of molecular systematists who use plant DNA to determine relationships and therefore classifications within the genus rather than the morphology of the plants as used by Mueller. Still the voucher specimens remain extremely important as the point of reference for that particular species name, and provide us with a window into a different time and place.

When I walk down the Eucalypt Walk in the Australian Garden I think of all the stories that are embedded in these trees and it reminds me of a quote from Ashley Hay’s terrific 2002 book Gum: The Story of Eucalypts and Their Champions:

“The scribbles make it easy to believe that there are stories hidden in the trees: if you could turn at the right moment or hold your head at the right angle, you’d catch their calligraphy resolving into words”.

Planting a small eucalypt in your home garden provides habitat for biodiversity in your neighbourhood and links your garden to the ongoing story of the conservation of the Gum trees and to people like Dahl and Mueller who also treasured these trees.

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