Psychiatric hospital therapeutic treatment isn’t what it used to be – perhaps we could learn lots from best-practice of 1880 or the 1910s? Publicly-funded, Government-Architect-designed (working with the medical clinicians), Government Botanist-supplied and influenced grounds that learnt from what the rest of the world were then doing meant that such hospital surrounds were deliberately spacious, green and verdantly planted. Screening the (mad) world outside, its inside productive, beautiful and deliberately therapeutic: part of a cure. Not just for patients, but staff, family and visitors.
Even in post-hospital phase, such poignant places as the former Rozelle Hospital, once called Callan Park, are marvellous repositories of landscape design, planting palettes, tastes, fashions and enthusiasms of earlier ages. To the observant they are rich in lessons: what’s tough, what survives neglect, what triumphs in time – good and poor choices. What wildlife loves and will nest in, feeds off, and gravitates towards. How people use and enjoy open space: shade, contrast, variety – simple principles often ejected in todays computer-screen and magazine-driven myopia. Designers and managers of parks, gardens, and even today’s reduced urban courtyards might well take note. Or a stroll.
I recently enjoyed a Botanical Tour with Roslyn Burge and the Friends of Callan Park on a perfect still warm autumn afternoon – a couple of hours to drink in this idyll in the midst of Sydney. Of course its grounds have seen better days with more staff, care, budget and tending. Yet they retain a charm, a generosity of space, quiet calm, undoubted beauty and inspiration, for those looking or needing this. Dog walkers, joggers and strollers pass by family picnicker groups, their blankets on the grass, rollicking football players are out on its open fields, and cars park to enjoy the Parramatta River views, not to mention views further afield to the North Shore or Blue Mountains, from its higher ridge lines.
Five things to love about Callan Park’s trees (apart from the above?):
1) Dragon’s blood trees (Dracaena draco):
The Canary Islands has a lot to answer for in terms of sheer exotic flora: these weird, Dr. Seuss book-type trees with their wide spreading, flattish crowns, fat swollen succulent trunks and martini-glass structure of fat branches, snake-skin feel grey leathery leaves and bunches of orange fleshy fruit can’t help catch the eye, and intrigue. Callan Park has eight such trees: a couple quite old – perhaps early 20th century; others younger. A seedling (eighth) is struggling within the folded buttressed roots of a Moreton Bay fig, showing their golden fruit is fertile – good luck to it!
2) Rainforest Gully and collection:
The former Broughton House/Hall estate, later joined with Callan Park, has a richly planted rainforest gully, teeming with New South Wales and Queensland rainforest species of trees and shrubs.
Towering Queensland kauri (Agathis robusta) with its luscious, ginger, flaky bark and massive trunk (several of these); hoop or Moreton Bay pines (Araucaria cunninghamii) like some giant poodle on sticks; black bean /native chestnut (Castanospermum australe) with its lustrous leaves and sculptural ‘bean pods’; firewheel trees (Stenocarpus sinuatus) with their Margaret Preston scarlet rings nestled amid intriguing leaves; Bangalow, Lord Howe Island, cabbage tree and Cocos Island / Queen palms (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, Kentia belmoreana, Livistona australis and Syragus romanzoffianum respectively); Queensland lacebark (Brachychiton discolor) and Illawarra flame tree (Brachychiton acerifolius) with their water-storing chubby trunks, for starters.
3) Rose apple/durobby / watermelon tree (Syzygium moorei)
Nearby is a rainforest rarity and particular favourite of mine, a large, glossy-leaved, ‘mega lilly pilly’, with hot pink velvety ‘fuzz’ of blossoms directly along branches and trunk, in true tropical tree style. These are followed by golf-ball sized white fruit – quite a show stopper. I know of a few in Double Bay’s Overthorpe garden (formerly Sir John Hay’s experimental garden) and in the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney – but no others in New South Wales gardens.
4) A massive spreading old Southern/evergreen magnolia or bull bay (Magnolia grandiflora)
Directly outside Garryowen, a c.1832 Mortimer Lewis-designed villa built on that estate prior to the establishment of Callan Park is a tree that could date to the 1830s – its trunk is over a meter in girth. With elevated position, good aspect, fairly rich clay/shale soil over sandstone, it has matured well. White fragrant saucers of flowers speck and drop year-round. Perhaps only NSW Writers’ Centre users notice?
5) Native cypress pine grove (Callitris glaucophylla), in Broughton Hall Clinic gardens west of the rainforest gully.
Arrayed around an artificial stream making the most of impressive slabs of folded sandstone on site, Dr. Frederick Norton Manning and patients in the 1920s-30s created sandstone walls, a Japanese-style red-lacquer-painted arched bridge, and a garden featuring a spectacular old lemon-scented gum (Corymbia citriodora) on a crest, flanked by cypress pines. These are wonderful, little-appreciated native conifers that grow in tight, tall columns, like a Mediterranean cypress (pencil pine) but paler, more olive-mid-green, finer in texture and feel. Callan Park has quite a few scattered about, probably reflecting their popularising by Botanic Garden Director Joseph Maiden and adoption by the Government Architect͛s Office for jobs – they turn up at Gladesville Hospital, court houses and the odd school grounds around New South Wales, of the time.
There is plenty more to enjoy around Callan Park – the odd pre-1788 gum and suckering casuarinas or river oaks, huge, airy paperbarks swaying in the breeze, groves of jacarandas (try November), brush boxes, and lemon-scented gums. And this is just trees! Callan Park is listed on the NSW State Heritage Register – more info at Environment NSW.
The Friends of Callan Park also run regular walks and events and recently published a great book Callan Park: Compassion and Conflict in The Asylum, after-life of an exhibition from 2015. This uses oral histories to quote many people with a connection to this place teasing out its stories, hidden inner life and ongoing meanings and reverberations. Worth a look – see more at callanpark.com