Like so many other baby boomers, my husband Peter and I love to travel. We enjoy experiencing other cultures and are particularly attracted to remote places with wide open spaces where people are few and the countryside reveals its natural beauty. Peter, a geophysicist, is seriously into rocks and I am seriously into plants. We both like animals, but unlike plants and rocks, they rarely stand still so getting a good look at them on a road trip is often more frustrating than satisfying!
Driving around Iceland’s Ring Road and on the single track roads in the Scottish highlands is our idea of fun. Peter points out the unique geological features and I draw his attention to the changing vegetation and how well adapted it is to its environment. With the scenery changing every turn of the wheel our road trips are more dynamic and entertaining than watching a movie in a darkened theatre.
Instead of accelerating through an indifferent world we’re interested and engaged in our surroundings. As any cultural tourist can tell you – when you know what to look for, or have it pointed out to you, the world is full of wondrous sights and stories.
Our latest adventure was to drive from Sydney to Alice Springs. The plan was that I would drop Peter off to walk the Larapinta Trail in the MacDonnell Ranges and on my solo journey home I would visit seven botanic gardens with a specific task in mind. As raised in my previous blog I’m keen to help define ‘What is a botanic garden?’
Before I left home I came up with the following four criteria to test how the core functions of botanic gardens (science, education, horticulture and recreation) are conveyed to the general visitor. I wanted to see how well each of the seven botanic gardens I visited created meaningful and emotional connections to plants and the place.
Did I experience a sense of arrival?
Did I ‘live the moment’ and did I learn anything?
Were plants centre-stage?
Did I leave with a positive lasting impression?
Each visit lasted one to three hours and I was surprised and not so surprised, to find that only one garden satisfied all my criteria (although this depended through which gate I entered). The rest did some things well and other things not as well.
We all have expectations of what we hope to find when we visit places and first impressions often make or break an experience. By the time I reached the entrance to The Arid Lands Botanic Gardens at Port Augusta I’d been told by the receptionist at my motel to make sure I took a guided walk, over breakfast I’d read about Angus Stewart’s upcoming visit in the local paper and I’d followed clearly marked road signs to get there.
I could have been disappointed if I’d arrived to a nondescript entrance (or worse still, driven right past it!) but the imposing sandstone gates beautifully framing the distant Flinders Ranges made a statement.
The long drive in looked much like the highway I had just travelled but the signage on the way
and the increasing diversity of labelled plants and sculptures around the car park told me this place was different … and it was going to be all about plants.
The orientation map with timed walks and the welcoming volunteer guide (with his bag of interpretive tricks) completed my introduction to this memorable tourist attraction.
As an educator I’m passionate to see botanic gardens connect people with nature and help them learn about our place in the greater global garden. The Adelaide Botanic Garden nailed this for me when I entered via the Goodman Gates.
As well as great orientation signage on the left of the entrance, a sign in the Herbarium window (on the right) encouraged me to imagine and follow up what ‘really important work’ goes on inside that building. Massive and unusual Yucca elephantipes stand sentinel on either side of the gate enticing me in to the botanical treats beyond.
The First Creek Wetland just inside these gates eclectically and aesthetically communicated the importance of water. Beautiful landscape, art installations and botanical treats abound in the Adelaide Botanic Garden. Interestingly, Adelaide Botanic Garden is the only botanic garden in Australia to have formal accreditation – albeit through the American Alliance of Museums.
By its very nature this criterion is subjective, as everyone’s knowledge, interests and life experiences are different. Learning occurs best when we’re relaxed and open to discovery. In botanic gardens it’s a case of: ‘The experience? – you’re standing in it!’ It’s easy to become lost in the moment and totally receptive to our surroundings. When all our senses are engaged like this, learning occurs on multiple levels and we can readily experience ‘aha/wow’ moments of inspiration or enlightenment.
As an Australian tourist visiting our Red Centre, I enjoyed those aha/wow moments when I experienced something new or found out something I’d forgotten about the Australian bush. I was particularly keen to identify plants Peter and I had seen in abundance on either side of the road as the kilometres flew by.
I could do this easily and enjoyably in Alice Springs’ Desert Park and Olive Pink Botanic Garden.
As good as in the centre of town, the Olive Pink Botanic Garden has a great ambience and the cafe setting is a favourite meeting place for locals. What a great name Olive Pink had and her personality, passion for plants and longstanding connection with the Aboriginal community is the very fabric of this botanic garden.
As well as savouring the local ambience and sorting out my plants I discovered a bower bird’s nest. A sign nearby told me male Western Bowerbirds decorate their nest with white objects as opposed to blue objects collected by the more familiar Eastern Australian Satin Bowerbirds. Who knew?
What a joy it was to walk around the Alice Springs Desert Park! It has matured beautifully since my last visit (when it first opened) and the easy-to-navigate paths are now well-shaded and the extensive plant collection is established and thriving.
The Desert Park is both a zoo and a botanic garden and at this time of the year the mass plantings of wildflowers are in full bloom and the bird-filled aviaries fulfil the entrance banner’s promise of:
‘You’ll never look at deserts the same way again’.
Ecoparks like these are perhaps the future for a holistic cultural and natural experience. I was surprised to find that my aha/wow moments were mainly animal-focused. I’d forgotten budgerigars are Australian natives and I’ve never seen anything like the Australian Bustard before. I was reminded me how easy it is to be seduced by animals and to take plants for granted.
Wagga Botanic Gardens has a zoo and that’s where 90% of its visitors can be found despite having an exceptional Camellia collection and other themed gardens.
You don’t see the plants for the peacocks!
With next to no plant labels it’s understandable that most visitors don’t even notice the spectacular well-maintained plants on display. Yet the animals are labelled, including every bird in the aviaries.
At least attention was drawn to the high standard of horticulture by seeing lots of horticulturists at work around the gardens.
All this tells me affirmative action is needed to put plants centre-stage to draw people’s attention to them, especially in countries without four distinct seasons. In cold climates everyone notices the first leaves of springtime.
The relatively new Pangarinda Botanic Garden – situated on 30 ha of Crown land in Wellington East, SA and established by volunteers – is doing this well. It’s Coorong District Council’s ‘best kept secret’ but if you do find out about it you’re in for a treat – especially if you manage to see it in Springtime as I did.
It’s unstaffed but there’s a small visitors centre and the limited interpretive signage is informative.
Give me a star picket with an accurate plant ID label any day as opposed to no labels at all!
Botanic gardens are public places and watching them evolve as plants mature and immersing yourself in them as seasons change makes for a unique visitor experience. As regional and community assets they can be something for everyone. The Australian Inland Botanic Garden near Mildura belongs to the local community as the signage clearly points out.
It’s a much-loved community asset and shows their strong commitment to the land.
The impressive Entrance Avenue of Lemon-scented gums was launched by Sir Ninian Stephens at an initial planting ceremony in April 1991.
This garden is popular for bush weddings, markets, tractor rides, education about plants by volunteers, its Rose Garden and as a green oasis in an arid landscape. The signage works for the community, with the use of dip tins keeping their local history alive and displaying local inventions. I’m not sure how well it works for international tourists.
In conclusion, my road trip showed me that ‘What is a botanic garden?’ is reinforced by myriad factors on display that contribute to a good visitor experience. These include horticultural excellence, beauty in landscape design, botanical and environmental education, effective marketing and appropriate recreational opportunities.
Visitor perceive these factors when they are welcomed by a friendly face and feel a sense of arrival, learn something, pay attention to the plants and leave with a lasting positive impression.
Across the gardens I visited, I saw things to celebrate as well as room for improvement. I see a real opportunity for the establishment of standards and benchmarks along these lines. These would valuably assist all our botanic gardens in measuring success, striving for improvement and professionalism, achieving genuine status as a botanic garden and ensuring visitors leave with their head and heart connected to the place.