Concerning Australia’s Batty Forests And Convict Lettuce

Eric the Black flying fox, Pteropus alecto

Eric the Black flying fox, Pteropus alecto

I’d like to start my Australia Day speech by acknowledging the Bundjalung people, Beaudesert’s original landscape gardeners.

I’d also like to thank Woolworth’s who have been supporting Australia Day for thirteen years.

I am lucky. I seem to have made a career out of doing what I love. I am a freelance curator, broadcaster and gardener.

I come from four generations of English farmers and gardeners. I was educated by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, England: the world’s leading botanic garden.

I first visited Australia in 1982 after qualifying at Kew. I spent six months on a botanical expedition to Western Australia. In 1992 I emigrated. Why? Because Australia is one of the most biodiverse countries on Earth, and I love the wildflowers.

What I didn’t anticipate on my first trip to Australia was the sensory impact of arrival. It was like leaving behind a world of monochrome – the soft light, low cloud, gloomy winters and miserable summers of England – for one of glorious Australian technicolor.

I’ll also never forget my first whiff of fragrant boronia flowers (Boronia megastigma) on that first spring morning in Perth. On my expedition I discovered a new species of plant, the endangered Harlequin Bell, Darwinia polychroma.

I also collected and photographed plants that, as it turned out, had never been recorded. I immediately felt an affinity with Australia’s weird and wonderful nature.

Since emigrating, I’ve spent 22 years educating managers in professional, green services: delivering better horticultural services, and helping people become better gardeners. My focus is gardening in ways that conserve nature, that sustain people and the environment while saving money. I am a bridge between science and gardening, and conservation and gardening.

I spent twelve years managing the botanical estate of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney (RBGS) and I did it as Kew Gardens would have done: better staff training, better organisation and better equipment, and the gardens looked better than they had looked in the past thirty years (according to garden lover, Janet Holmes a Court).

Crucially, market testing revealed the horticultural services we delivered were also cheaper, better quality, and more efficient than anything the private sector could offer.

One of my favourite botanic exhibits was the First Farm display, where gardeners maintained some of the heritage crops, like ‘First Fleet‘ coffee, brought out with many other crops by the First Fleet to feed the new colony. The land that formed the First Farm is now included in the RBGS. There’s a special feeling when you garden with the same soil that the first colonists farmed on.

I moved to Brisbane in 2003 because I wanted to create a model, affordable, sustainable home and garden, I wanted to practice what I preach, and I also wanted to experience gardening in the subtropics.

Through ABC TV, and now 4BC Radio, Queensland’s gardeners have been able to watch me living ‘the good life’ as my flood-absorbing, drought-proofed garden matured. I have documented the transformational effects of organic gardening on barren ground, and shown people how they can conserve water, energy, and reduce waste, whilst reducing the cost of living.

Queensland is a challenging place to live and garden. South East Queensland is particularly fascinating because the landscape, soils and weather are highly variable, and no season exactly repeats. This combination of factors, I believe, is why this region produces some of the best  growers in the country.

I love learning. Early on, I discovered our east coast forests generate local rainfall as they ‘breathe’ (technically, this is transpiration), and that these forests owe their existence to flying foxes.

Flying foxes are threatened species. They pollinate forest trees, and sow their seed. These nocturnal ‘flying gardeners’ sustain koala forest: they provide koalas with board and lodging.

Another lesson I learned is not to leave your laundry out overnight when flying foxes have mulberries for dinner.

I am a Director of the Seed Savers’ Network, a community conservation society with 100 local groups countrywide. In my garden grows heritage ‘First Fleet‘ lettuce. It’s a simple, easy to grow ‘Cos’ type lettuce (pronounced ‘koz’), but this variety, introduced to Australia in 1788, has since become extinct in Britain. But thanks to Australian gardeners who have been saving its seed every year since the First Farm, this lettuce has survived to the 21st century. It is being distributed by the Seed Savers Network.

In 2011, I heard that Queen Elizabeth was visiting Queensland. I decided to alert her to this endangered English vegetable. I contacted Martin Latter, Executive Chef at Brisbane’s Convention Centre. Martin was to prepare and serve the Queen’s lunch, so I briefed him about the lettuce.

On the day, I brought some from my garden, and Martin made sure HRH tasted some. He explained that HRH might well be the first monarch since King George III to have tasted this heritage English lettuce. If she liked it, Martin had a packet of seed to give to her.

The Queen tried it, she liked it, and took the seed. I was later advised by Royal Household staff that ‘First Fleet’ lettuce is now growing in the kitchen garden at Balmoral Castle. I have repatriated an extinct lettuce to its point of origin, and in doing so I have encouraged our monarch to eat convict lettuce. I have done my duty as a seed saver of heritage crops.

Now before you all fall asleep with all this gripping gardening news from Wynnum, the reason I am here today is to help welcome new Australian citizens into our community, and to award some of the contributions made by existing Australians from the Scenic Rim Regional Council towards creating a better community.

This gathering is a celebration of new skills and of different perspectives. So this Australia Day Ambassador will close by asking you all to remember next time you see a flying fox, remember to bring your laundry in, and remember that you’re looking at a flying gardener, a grower and a sower of our uniquely Australian forest.

Long may Australia’s batty forests remain koala-friendly!

Jerry Coleby-Williams
Speech delivered at the Australia Day celebrations at The Centre, Beaudesert, 24.1.14.
Published 25th January 2014