Keeping Aridity at Bay: Acclimatisation and Settler Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Australia

by Paul Fox

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Much of the discourse of Australian gardening has been about the remembered landscape of Europe and in particular the British Isles. While English gardening was influential in Australia, there were other movements afoot from the 1840s till the turn of the century that saw the English garden undergo changes that accompanied the introduction of ever-increasing plants from overseas. The coining of the term ‘Gardenesque’ by Loudon in 1832 signifies how gardening accommodated the growing number of plant discoveries and new hybrids.

Travellers to the colony remarked on the differences between the Australian garden and its English counterpart. For instance, John Gould Veitch of the leading British nursery, Veitch and Sons, visiting the garden of Sir William Macarthur of Camden Park outside Sydney, was agog at the planting combinations he saw. At Camden oleanders from the West Indies grew in the open ground beside Chinese elms, Magnolia grandiflora from the southern United States, the variegated Arundo from the Mediterranean and plumbago from the Cape of Good Hope. In the Australian colonies, the climate allowed a very different planting schema to that seen in England.1

The Australian colonial garden was not a facsimile of an English template. Part of the practice of gardening in Australia involved understanding which imported plants might be grown where. The colonial nurseryman was at the forefront of this experimentation. Thomas Lang of the goldfields town of Ballarat in Victoria was one of these nurserymen. In the twelve years to 1870 Lang was to import a million plants into the colony.2 The financial resources involved were considerable; by 1866, Lang had expended 5000 pounds with expenses exceeding sales until 1865.3 Something of the thinking that lay behind this prodigious effort may be glimpsed in the thinking of Lang’s business partner, William Elliot. Addressing the Ballarat Horticultural Society in 1865 on the subject of ‘Deciduous Trees Adapted to the Climate’, Elliot argued these trees were not ‘generally adapted to bear the heat of countries where the temperature rises so high as in these latitudes and where during summer is so extremely dry’.4

For this reason the station owner, Henry Nicoll was experimenting with what might be suitable plants to grow on his Victorian Wimmera station where despite being sited on the Richardson River, temperatures reached over 125 degrees Fahrenheit. By 1864 Nicoll was adapting his gardening practices to the climate – erecting a timber-slated shade house instead of the conventional glass house. Despite this precaution, ornamentals such as fuchsias sent by Daniel Bunce, the curator of the Geelong Botanic Gardens, suffered in the extreme heat. Yet Bunce’s gifts of plants were to be instrumental in determining that the imported Banana and Orange, and the Moreton Bay Fig and Chestnut from north-east Australia could be successfully grown in this part of Australia, Nothing was certain in Australian gardening while the question of what could be grown in the different climatic zones of the colony remained unresolved.5

Botanic gardens played a role in helping up-country settlers determine what might be successfully grown in different climatic zones in the colony. For instance in 1862 Bunce gave a lecture to the Horticultural Improvement Association of the Western District on ‘A List of Plants Capable of Resisting Long Drought’ – information that was gleaned from both his own observations in the Geelong Gardens and the success or failure of in excess of 30,000 plants he distributed gratis every year to ‘gentlemen possessing gardens and villas’. Bunce was not the only one to engage in this practice; Ferdinand Mueller, the Director of the Melbourne Botanic Garden, a colossus who bestrode the colonial botanical world, did likewise. While private nurseryman often complained about this arrangement – it might be argued that the State, by subsidising the distribution of plants throughout the colony, provided the means whereby information could be ascertained regarding the limits of distribution of imported plants in the colony.6

If William Elliot was dubious about the suitability of deciduous trees to the colony, Ferdinand Mueller selected conifers when sending plants up-country. For instance in supplying plants to three locations around the Victorian township of Kyneton – the Botanic Gardens located on the Campaspe River, the Church reserves in the township and the Cemetery found on the unprotected plains outside the town – he carefully selected species of pines and cypresses appropriate to each of these locations.7

During the 1860s there was a growing recognition in the colony that many pines could be successfully grown beyond the garden. This was not just the result of the experiments of Mueller and Bunce but also of Andrew Chirnside, a large landholder in Victoria ‘s Western District who was supplied by nurseryman Thomas Lang in 1865 with Scotch, stone and black Austrian pines. These pines were planted as windbreaks so as to ameliorate the climate.8

The understanding that conifers could be successfully grown in paddocks also illustrates how the gardening fashion known as the pinetum (which consumed large sums of private money) was highly influential in understanding which introduced plants were appropriate for different climatic zones of the colony. This resulted in a different relationship between garden and country than English examples.

William Ferguson, was to be influential in articulating this relationship. Employed by Hugh Glass, the wealthiest man in the colony and great proponent of acclimatisation, Ferguson gardened Glass’s Flemington House estate as if it were different parts of the globe, grouping the plants he imported according to aspect, soil and climate. Like Mueller and Bunce, Ferguson also offered plants to public gardens in the colony. The conclusions he drew from his activities were broadcast in public addresses and reported in the colonial press. In 1865 he lectured on ‘Shrubs best adapted for planting in Victoria ‘, the following year ‘The Influence of Forests on Climate’ and in 1867 ‘The Acclimatisation of Plants’.9

From importing seeds and plants for Glass, Ferguson gained a reputation as ‘one of the very few people’ who could advise on which imported plants might be acclimatised. By 1866 he was in a position to envisage how ‘the magnificent timber trees of California and British Columbia ‘ would flourish on the Snowy Mountains and Victoria ‘s Western Alps as they did on the Sierra Nevada and Mackenzie River. Moreover the same trees could also be ‘profitably planted’ on many of the barren ranges that had been denuded by the gold rush. America was not the only inspiration for re-imagining colonial geography. India also influenced Ferguson ‘s understanding of acclimatisation. He believed the Indian cedar would ‘grow as vigorously on the plains and on the highest mountain ranges as it does on the Himalayas ‘. Like the cedar that grew on the Atlas ranges of Morocco in north-west Africa, it also had the added advantage of being of ‘immense value to succeeding generations’.10

Ferdinand Mueller shared Ferguson ‘s views. In 1866 Mueller envisaged how ‘judicious forest culture, appropriate to each (climatic) zone will vastly ameliorate the clime, and provide for the dense location of our race; for transplanting of almost every commodity both of the vegetable and animal empire, we possess, from the alp to the steppes, from the cool mountain-forests to the tropical jungles, conditions and ample space.’

At the same time Mueller (who had explored north-western Australia with Augustus Gregory and the artist Thomas Baines) corrected ‘the erroneous impression about the interior of the Australian continent as being ‘an untraversable desert’; describing it instead as consisting ‘much less of sandy ridges than of sub-saline or grassy flats, largely interspersed with tracts of scrub, and occasionally broken by comparatively timberless ranges’. And to overcome the problem of aridity, Mueller envisaged using the wasted water that flowed unutilised into the ocean and predicted how these ‘when caste over the back plains’, along with artesian borings, would ‘effect marvellous changes’.11

Alongside this desire to remake the Australian landscape, Mueller envisaged the transformation of overseas countries through the introduction of Australian eucalypts. He believed that ‘in Australian vegetation we probably possess the means of obliterating the rainless zones of the globe’ and spread at last woods over our deserts and thereby to mitigate the distressing drought’. The desolate ranges of Tunis, Algiers and Morocco might become wooded, and fertility might be secured again in the Holy Land by scattering ‘our drought resisting acacias and eucalypts and casuarinas at the termination of a hot season along any watercourse, or even along the crevices of rocks, or hard clays after refreshing rains’. So while Ferguson was suggesting the suitability of the Atlas ranges cedar of Morocco for Australia, Mueller recommended the eucalyptus for Morocco.12

This ability to imagine the colony’s climate and geography as being similar to other parts of the world was to have a profound impact on the European imagination in Australia. The landscape could always be imagined in terms of the other. Moreover on the rare occasions when the dreams associated with ecological imperialism were realised, the geographies of success gained a special place in the colonial imagination.

One of the places where the dreams associated with acclimatisation were successfully realised was Mount Macedon, north-west of Melbourne. Rising some 3000 feet above sea level, it provided a cool climate where introduced plants were found to grow easily. In 1872 the Government established the State Nursery under William Ferguson to distribute plants throughout the colony as well as to re-afforest the Mount. In the newly planted Macedon forests, Californian pines produced ‘quite a skyline’ when seen from the lower slopes while groups of Indian cedars created ‘beautiful outlines amongst the other conifers’.13 This sense of a place apart from the wider landscape was compounded by Macedon’s wealthy private gardeners who travelled to Europe via the United States so they might possess American plants unknown in the colony, and by the Governor building his summer residence. In time Macedon became in the words of the colonial novelist, Rolf Boldrewood: the Simla of the south.14

Yet there were limits to this imaginative success. Acclimatisation was less successful as agricultural settlement moved to the drier parts of Victoria where summer temperatures and lack of water initially made cultivation less easy. When Ferguson established another State Nursery in the Wimmera at Longerenong, some 200 hundred miles to the north-west of Melbourne, he experienced difficulties he had not encountered at Macedon. In 1878 he had confidently planted 3000 trees from the Macedon State Nursery; selecting English oaks, walnuts, planes, ashes and English and Canadian elms. This choice was probably determined by the desire to plant shade trees. Ferguson ‘s only concession to the climate was the planting of the Syrian Carob Bean tree. Yet Longerenong was not Macedon. While the ashes succeeded, willows died, and the hot Wimmera winds lacerated the leaves of the Indian bean tree. Nonetheless the acclimatiser’s vision didn’t die; in 1880 the Director of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens, William Guilfoyle, designed a botanic gardens at the edge of the Wimmera River for the nearby town of Horsham.15

This new landscape brought other realities to bear. The frontier of the Victorian Wimmera was not like its counterpart in the United States. As the colonial agricultural journalist, Josiah Mitchell warned, ‘the settler subdues a piece of land, flogs it to death, abandons the carcase, and repeats the operation on a new subject’, in Victoria there was no far west to fall back on.16 One solution to this inability to transfer an overseas paradigm to north-western Victoria was found by settlers who would develop dry farming practices. Another was the construction of channels to supply water to farmers; the consequence of the growth of rural popularism associated with the formation of the Victorian Farmers Union in 1878.17 By such means it was hoped ‘the occasional droughts’ described by the Victorian Government Astronomer, Robert Ellery as ‘the worst vicissitude of the climate of Victoria ‘ could be overcome.18

As a consequence the colonial Australian landscape came to be read in multitudinous ways. It could be seen in terms of other climatic zones of the world, the dreams and experiments of the garden, the American frontier experience, and Australian inventiveness. The resulting pattern was a mosaic of landscapes where the settler could move between the dead willows of the Longerenong State Nursery, the public world of the Horsham Botanic Garden, the shade house of McNicoll, a farm cultivated by German settlers from South Australia who pioneered dry farming techniques and the dream of the private world of the squatter’s Longerenong home paddock where ostriches and deer were gardened in front of a residence copied from the American designer Andrew Jackson Dowling’s pattern book. At once the Australian landscape was a narrative that collaged opposites into a space where the failures associated with settlement were offset by successfully imagining Australia in terms of foreign places.19

By perceiving the landscape in this way, the settler was able to keep the psychological effects of aridity at bay. Such a landscape was the You Yang ranges by 1880. They had been so denuded of timber that the local shire determined to re-afforest the ranges in the belief this would increase the rainfall. Ferguson now as Inspector of Forests was employed to implement this vision. Rabbits and fires ruined his attempts and dashed the dreams of the local municipal worthies. The You Yangs remained a symbol of the unfilled hopes associated with acclimatisation’s unsuccessful transformation of the colonial landscape.20

Yet within sight of the You Yangs lay Windermere, the sheep station named after one of the lakes of the English Lake District, although there was no such body of water on the property. Even though Windermere was in the shadow of the You Yangs, it was successfully planted with trees. In this transformed landscape, it became possible to stage rowing competitions (‘bumps’) on the artificial dam, similar to those at Cambridge University where the sons of the station owner had studied.21

The Australian settler countered this landscape of failure by developing an eye for the landscape of success. What resulted was a distinctive Australian patterning of the landscape where the successfully transposed landscape offered the hope that the failures of settlement would be overcome.

The imperial narrative increased this symbolic reading of the colonial landscape. Josiah Mitchell saw gardeners as occupying a position analogous to that which ‘the first Romans did when they settled in England ‘. Mueller agreed with this estimation, believing Australia was destined to attain ‘that greatness to which British sovereignty will forever give a firm stability’.22

Moreover as colonial nurserymen marched with their legions of imported plants across the land, Aboriginal knowledge of plants was eradicated. Daniel Bunce remembered a landscape before it had been eaten out, and irreducibly altered, by sheep and cattle. During his 1849 trip to Adelaide, Bunce had traversed the ‘dreary, treeless, stoneless, grassless and waterless’ Terrick Terrick Plains of northern Victoria (where even the waterholes were known as ‘dead men’s holes’) before coming upon ‘scrubby country’ which continued until he reached Mr Campbell’s station on the Murray River. Here an Aboriginal woman, Kitty had ‘a name for most of the plants on this run’. She identified some edible finger bulbs as Binyong Binyong (from Binyongata, meaning hand),the Melaleuca as Ehrook or ‘good mother’ while the name Boobornyong, a salt bush with an abundance of balls of a kind of silk or cotton, probably gave its name to Booboornaka sheep.23

Bunce was not alone in relating the changed landscape to the destruction of its Indigenous people. By the 1860s the owner of the Melbourne Argus newspaper, Edward Wilson, used Charles Darwin’s recently published The Origin of Species to read this irrevocably altered landscape. Noting the destruction of Australian eucalypts, Wilson suggested this was caused by an increase in possums that had once been kept in check by Aboriginal people. It comes as no surprise therefore to learn that Wilson was an ardent acclimatiser.24

In a land where within twenty years the hooves of imported animals hardened the land, increasing run-off and doubling the width of some rivers, the imported plant and the private garden, newly established public park and forest plantation were taken as a harbinger of what might replace a ruined landscape and keep its disconcerting spectre of failure at bay.

By the 1860s the notion of the ruined natural landscape was often heard in the colony. Among its proponents was Josiah Mitchell who argued the colony faced ruin through improper farming practices. As Mitchell observed in 1866, ‘we have much to learn yet in this climate’. He was to become increasingly critical of the colonial Selection Acts that allowed farmers to select land for agricultural purposes. He believed that ‘the small patches of land’ allowed by the legislation resulted in inappropriate farming practices which decreased the fertility of the soil. In particular he was critical of the farming practices around goldfield towns like Ballarat where overcropping and a lack of manuring had led to farms being abandoned as settlers moved to new lands in the north, north-east and east of Victoria. By 1870 he was fearing that the next generation of farmers would become ‘possessed of the erroneous notion that ploughing, sowing, reaping and mowing constitutes the sum of cultivation’; selling ‘the birthright of mankind for a few pieces of glittering ore’.25

By December 1870 Mitchell was a member of the committee appointed to make recommendations concerning the future of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens. While his appointment has been seen as part of the nurseryman’s push to celebrate the ornamental over the scientific, it might be argued that as a former nurseryman and articulator of the spectre of aridity, Mitchell’s presence on the committee also ensured a voice for those who believed gardens were an idealised representation of what the colony might become.26

In 1872 William Guilfoyle was chosen to replace Mueller. Guilfoyle was not only a nurseryman and garden designer but also a selector from the colonial frontier on the Tweed River in northern New South Wales. Moreover under William Guilfoyle, the Melbourne Gardens were not only botanically but also geographically arranged. For example there was to be an American garden, a New Zealand garden, there were beds containing northern New South Wales and Queensland plants, the Fern Gully had ferns taken from Victorian places such as Gippsland, Mount Macedon and Blacks Spur, and the Anderson Street reservoir evoked the active volcano on the Pacific island of Tanna. To visit these gardens after 1872 was therefore to circumnavigate the globe and glimpse ‘the commercially valuable productions of the world’s vegetable kingdom that promised to economically transform the colony’.27

Guilfoyle also prepared a display of fibre-producing plants for the Victorian Court of an exhibition held at the Imperial Institute, London in 1893. The purpose of the exhibit was to illustrate that ‘the climate and soils of Victoria were well adapted for the growth of fibre-producing plants’, and to this end agaves and other plants from the drier parts of the globe were included. Despite this, these plants had been raised in a garden supplied with fresh water from a special pipe that came from above Dwight’s Falls on the Yarra river. Here the artifice of the colonial garden was revealed for all to see: in a dry continent technology could water foreign plants to create the successful myth of Australia as a garden oasis reminiscent of foreign places.28


Paul Fox is an honorary fellow at the Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne.


1. J. G. Veitch, ‘Extracts from the Journal of Mr John Gould Veitch during a Trip to the Australian Colonies and the South Sea Islands ‘, Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 27 January 1866, p. 76.

2. Thomas Lang and Company, Catalogue of Plants Cultivated for Sale by Thomas Lang and Company, 1870, p.5.

3. Thomas Lang to Sir William Macarthur, 11 January 1866, Macarthur papers, A2943, Mitchell Library.

4. Ballarat Star, 13 May 1865, supplement, p. 1.

5. Henry Nicoll, 15 February 1864, Nicoll papers, MS6329, State Library of Victoria.

6. George Jones, List Print Geelong, 1984, pp. 60, 208; Victorian Agricultural and Horticultural Gazette, 21 February 1859, p. 151.

7. Weekly Times, 30 March 1872, p. 6; Weekly Times, 14 December 1872, p. 7.

8. Portland Guardian, 29 June 1865, p. 2.

9. Argus, 11 April 1865, p. 4; Age, 26 September 1866, p. 7; Australasian, 14 September 1867, pp. 346-7.

10. Age, 26 September 1866, p. 7.

11. Russell Braddon, Thomas Baines and the North Australian Expedition, Collins in association with the Royal Geographical Society, Sydney, 1986, p. 17.

12. Ferdinand Mueller, Australian Vegetation, Indigenous and Introduced: Considered Especially in its Bearings on the Occupation of the Territory, and with a view of Unfolding its Resources, Blundell & Co., Melbourne, 1867, pp. 13, 18, 20.

13. William Ferguson, ‘State Nurseries Superintendent’s report, State Nursery, Macedon, 4 February 1884’, Report for the Secretary for the Department of Agriculture for the Year 1883, p. 9.

14. Paul Fox, ‘The Simla of the South’, Proceedings of the Australian Garden History Society: Fifteenth Annual National Conference, October 1994, pp. 10-14.

15. Australasian, 28 September 1878, p. 408; Peter Watts, ‘What did Guilfoyle Really Design?’, Australian Garden History, summer 1982, no. 3, pp. 8-12.

16. Australasian, 28 April 1866, p. 122.

17. Australasian, 21 June 1879, p. 701.

18. Robert L. J. Ellery, Notes on the Climate of Victoria : International Exhibition Essays, 1872-3, Mason, Firth & M’Cutcheon, Melbourne, 1873, pp. 3, 20.

19. The Heritage of Australia : The Illustrated Register of the National Estate, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1981, p. 189.

20. Australasian, 29 November 1884, p. 1035.

21. Paul Fox, ‘Over the Garden Fence’, Historic Environment, vol. 4, no. 3, 1985, p. 35.

22. Josiah Mitchell, ‘The Application of Known Principles in this colony’, Victorian Gardeners’ Mutual Improvement Society, essay book, 1860, pp. 1-4, MS12521, State Library of Victoria; Ferdinand Mueller, Australian Vegetation, Indigenous and Introduced, p. 20.

23. Argus, 22 March 1850, p. 2.

24. Paul Fox, ‘Puzzling Landscape’, in Sean Pickersgill (ed.), On What Ground(s)?, Society of Architectural Historians of Australia and New Zealand, Adelaide, 1997, p. 36.

25. Australasian, 28 April 1866, p. 122; Leader, 22 January 1870, p. 8.

26. R. T. M. Pescott, W. R. Guilfoyle 1840-1912, Oxford University Press, London, 1974, p. 64.

27. William Guilfoyle, ‘A Botanical Tour Among the South Seas’, Journal of Botany, British and Foreign, vol.7, 1869, pp. 117-36; R. T. M. Pescott, W. R. Guilfoyle 1840-1912, pp. 44, 95; Paul Fox, Clearings: Six Colonial Gardeners and their Landscapes, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2004, p. 131.

28. Imperial Institute, Catalogue of Exhibits in the Victorian Court, Illustrating the Natural Wealth and Industries of the Colony with Extracts from the Handbook of Victoria, R. S. Brain, Melbourne, 1893, pp 23-30; R. T. M. Pescott, op. cit., p. 95.

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