Stranglers, Temu And Big Num Nums: Trees And Plants Of Cultural Significance At Ormiston House

Moreton Bay fig, Ficus macrophylla subsp. macrophylla

Moreton Bay fig, Ficus macrophylla subsp. macrophylla (now removed)

‘Stranglers, Temu and Big Num Nums: Ormiston House, A Guided Tour of the Trees and Plants of Cultural Significance’
Notes prepared for a tour by The Australian Garden History Society (Queensland branch), 2nd draft, May 2007

An Unexplored Pioneer Garden

Ormiston House is of great cultural significance. An estate in the grand British manner, it is a complex and inadequately studied site which sits by Empire Point (looking across Raby Bay) within South East Queensland’s Moreton Bay.

This is a very fine example of a colonial garden with a dual purpose of ornament and agriculture, primarily recognised for the acclimatisation and testing of commercial crops, owned and initiated by an aristocratic family before Queensland gained statehood status.

As to be expected, it is sited on good agricultural land. Soil and a location in a favourable, humid, sub-coastal subtropical climate are Ormiston’s primary assets. These conditions have determined which plants can thrive there for millennia.

Redlands soil

Redlands soil

The topsoil is a reddish clayey loam, locally known as Redlands soil. A soil map published by the CSIRO (1985) places Ormiston on low hills of deeply weathered (laterised) basalt and clay – confirming the soil as ‘Redlands soil’. However another soil map, published by the Natural Heritage Trust in 2002 clearly indicates that Ormiston lies on land which also contains an acid sulphate layer, somewhere within 5 metres of the surface. Acid sulphate soils are highly acidic and can be problematic when poorly managed. They are formed in association with mangrove communities and can either be contemporary, or ancient and formed before the last ice age.

The villa faces east and, even today, has views of relatively unspoiled Moreton Bay coastland which in itself is of significance in a region of dramatic and continuing population growth and urbanisation. The original land that formed Ormiston occupied several distinctive and merging ecosystems: coastal dunes, tidal wetlands, patches of Wallum Heath (a dwindling ecosystem threatened by coastal development) and dry Eucalypt forest. These still exist on undeveloped land surrounding Ormiston presenting an attractive mosaic of biodiversity.

View across Moreton Bay from Empire Point

View across Moreton Bay from Empire Point

Ormiston lies on land which is part of the Northeast region – land around the Brisbane River, Moreton and North Stradbroke Islands – where the Yuggera (or Jagera) people thrived. For millennia they were the stewards of this region. The Yuggera were cosmopolitan folk, travelling north and south to Bunya gatherings, initiations, battles. Their land was well visited by travellers.

Yuggera houses, fishing nets and singing impressed explorer Matthew Flinders. Flinders believed that the reason they built substantial houses was because of the plentiful seafood. Their fishing nets were described as being large and heavy, requiring a community effort to fish, unlike the more usual spearing of fish which could be a solitary occupation.

Thomas Pamphlett (ex-convict and cedar cutter) was also impressed by their hospitality when they cared for him and his shipwrecked companions. They spent eight months subsisting on fish and fern root (dingowa, Blechnum sp.) mostly provided for them.

Pamphlett said that their “behaviour to me and my companions had been so invariably kind and generous, that, notwithstanding the delight I felt at the idea of once more returning to my home, I did not leave them without sincere regret“.

Captain Louis Hope transformed Ormiston into a productive property and residence. The eight hundred orange trees which were planted would require considerable irrigation. It is said that, apart from being provided with natural wells, Hope had Queensland’s first piped irrigation system installed there. The pipes were likely to have been made of timber and, like his beloved azaleas, little evidence of them is likely to remain. No traces have been unearthed.

Ormiston House

Ormiston House

Most of the plant notes apply to the southern section of the grounds at Ormiston, the parts which can be accessed by the public on open days. In 2014 I was given permission to enter the private grounds (under supervision) which provide living space for the monastery. Within lie one of the first Turpentine trees, Syncarpia glomulifera, to be planted in the State of Queensland along with one of the oldest and finest specimens of Chinese Elm, Ulmus parvifolia (this desirable tree is commonly confused by amateur gardeners with the much coarser Celtis sinensis, an invasive weed tree). The Moreton Bay fig, Ficus macrophylla subsp. macrophylla, was until very recently one of the finest specimens I have seen in Australia. It was far healthier than most of the oldest plantings as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. Those are the finest public fig trees in the country. I was told it was planted near a spring, or upwelling of sub-soil water. Throughout the worst ever recorded drought to affect SE Qld (2005 – 2010), this massive tree thrived, maintaining a large lush canopy. It was felled in 2012, and the stump was left in the ground to save money.

An outbreak of Brown Root Rot fungus, Phellinus noxious, an aggressive soil-borne pathogen has since developed in the stump, which it is digesting. This fungus can function as a passive digester of dead wood to an active invader of vulnerable living plant tissue. In 2013, in a telephone conversation with one of the nuns, it appears this disease has spread through the dead fig’s root system and is now invading and attacking some of the significant old Camellias nearby. I have recommended the stump be ground out and to dispose all arisings off site to reduce the amount of food fuelling this fungus.

Chance and luck

Mango, Mangifera indica

Mango, Mangifera indica

Much has been said of Hope being the founder of the Queensland sugar industry, but chance and luck also played a role. Hope also had an opportunity to found the macadamia and mango industry. It is clear that Hope enthusiastically created a garden for acclimatisation of both native and exotic plants, implementing the British vision of productive and wealthy colonies. The acclimatisation movement did the work of building the British Empire, involving a global network of plant explorers (and plant thieves), nurserymen, scientists and botanic gardens under the watchful eye of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Ormiston’s surviving tree collection appears to be coping with Queensland’s worst recorded drought (2005 – 2010).

The Victorian Era and its Passion for Plants

In the 19th century Europe experienced a period of unequalled passion for horticulture. Nineteenth century plant explorers fuelled the fervour for growing new, rare and exotic plants. Crazes for ferns, palms, orchids, tropical and oriental plants swept in waves across Europe and North America. During the 19th century the range of cultivated biodiversity – in the form of new cultivars and hybrids – peaked and natural biodiversity – in the form of wild species – remained largely intact and unaltered by development. Never before or since have gardeners had such varied plant riches at their disposal.

One small irony of this era is the limited range of culinary herbs grown by English gardeners. In many food gardens it was unusual to see more than parsley, mint, sage, thyme, bay, rosemary and chives growing. While interest in cultivating herbs was conservative, early Australian settlers often experimented with native edible and medicinal plants. Many of these cross cultural experiences were driven by hardship, or the limited availability of herbs normally accessible in Europe. Some were a result of genuine interest in plants native to their new homeland.

During the late Victorian era, Joseph Henry Maiden, Government Botanist and Director of the Sydney Botanic Gardens (1896 – 1924), documented many of the indigenous and settler uses for native plants in his first book ‘The Useful Native Plants of Australia’ (1889). This work recorded traditional uses at a time when these practices were waning. Much information was gained from Baron Sir Ferdinand J.H. von Mueller, Government Botanist for Victoria from 1853, then Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne (1857 – 1873).

Technology greatly boosted global access to, and the distribution of, interesting and useful plants. The invention of the Wardian Case (1829) made it possible for the first time for most live plant consignments to survive the long sea voyages around the globe. A Wardian Case was a fancy bottle garden, a sealed, glazed container for growing plants using little or no extra water. Prior to the Wardian Case, plant collections were stowed in the open on the decks of sailing ships. Losses were heavy because plants were exposed to salt spray, surf, sunshine and wind. If drinking water was in short supply, plants were the first to suffer.

Chilean myrtle, Luma apiculata

Chilean myrtle, Luma apiculata

In 1844, just fifteen years after the Wardian Case was invented, the Temu, Luma apiculata, from South America, was introduced by William Lobb into England. Temu is a member of the Myrtaceae family, an ancient plant family with Gondwanan connections. Temu grows in the temperate forests of Chile and Argentina, slowly growing into a tree up to 20 metres tall. It is prized for its hard, dense timber.

The Temu growing at Ormiston is notable for two reasons. First, this cool temperate species has survived so long with little assistance in the humid subtropics. Second, it was introduced to Ormiston via England and propagating material found its way to Ormiston just twenty years after its discovery. The presence of this tree indicates how active international botanical exchanges were in an age reliant on wind-driven sea travel.

Landscape design

John Claudius Loudon (1783 – 1843) was a Scottish botanist, garden and cemetery designer and garden magazine editor. In 1832 Loudon established thegardenesque landscape design theory which were applied to Ormiston’s grounds. In gardenesque landscapes attention was given to the individual plant and its placement in the best conditions for them to grow to their full potential. 19th century landscape philosophy believed that gardens should not mimic nature, so the gardenesque style offered a solution by introducing exotics and natives into gardens and basing layouts on abstract shapes.

Ormiston, Aerial View 2002

Ormiston, Aerial View 2002

Gardenesque layouts gradually reveal the individual garden and landscape elements – such as views, vistas, paths, plants and statuary. Although the Macartney era ushered in change to the landscape, the original garden at Ormiston appears to have been influenced by views of Raby Bay and laid out in the gardenesque style: a curved carriageway, the bunya avenue, the placement of palms, statues, fountains, borders and flower beds.

In January 2010, I presented a television tour of Ormiston’s gardenesque landscape for ABC TV’s ‘Gardening Australia’ programme where I interpreted the planting of gardenesque trees near the gatekeeper’s lodge: a Queensland Kauri, Agathis robusta, a Bunya,  Araucaria bidwillii, and the Queensland Lacebark, Brachychiton discolor.

Ormiston House

In 1853 Captain Louis Hope built a slab hut overlooking Raby Bay, which he named Ormiston after his family estate in Scotland. This was six years before the state of Queensland was created. The 1,700 acre property had just under 323 hectares (800 acres) fenced and it included wells and waterholes. There was an overseers house, gatekeepers lodge and accommodation for workers, a barn, stockyards, a lock up for indentured labour, and milking yards.

The garden, according to the diary of Claudius Whish, now held in the Oxley Library, refers to the existence of a beautiful house and grounds with oranges, grapes, bananas and arrowroot.

Initially, cotton was farmed, soon followed by sugarcane. In June 1861 a hectare of white Bourbon sugarcane was planted. With the help of an engineer with experience of the Jamaican sugar industry, the first cane was processed in 1863 to produce a sample.

In 1862, the first part of the plantation villa was constructed. In 1865 a drawing room, dining room, butler’s pantry and nursery were added. The villa’s exterior had white Doric columns of local cedar and cedar shutters and was surrounded by a garden with fountains, banks of flowering plants: camellias, roses, magnolias and azaleas.

Hope imported £2,000 worth of azaleas, many of which were later stolen. Around that time a gardener at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney earned seven shillings a day, so this loss could be said to be one of the greatest plant thefts in 19th century Queensland.

Hope communicated with and acquired plants from Walter Hill, the first superintendent of Brisbane Botanic Gardens. Brisbane Botanic Gardens officially opened in 1855 and Hill was busily initiating acclimatisation projects: trial plantings of economic crops and plants from around the world to determine their suitability for subtropical agriculture, medicine and forestry.

Plants trialled at the botanic gardens were readily exchanged with significant landholders and entrepreneurs. New crops planted at Ormiston included mango, macadamia, pineapple, grape and sugar cane. The healthy old mangoes growing at Ormiston are very important for several reasons: historically as some of the oldest living examples of their type in Queensland, as living examples of colonial acclimatisation projects, collectively as a landscape feature and genetically as examples of heritage mango cultivars.

It is very likely that the pineapples grown at Ormiston were the cultivar ‘Smooth Cayenne’. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (England) shaped economic botany across the British Empire, selecting, improving and distributing commercial plants for acclimatisation projects initiated by botanic gardens. Also known as ‘Kew’ or ‘Sarawak‘, the ‘Smooth Cayenne’ pineapple was obtained from Cayenne in French Guyana in 1820 and shipped to Kew Gardens. Grown outside a tropical climate, ‘Smooth Cayenne’ is susceptible to fungi, winter fruits develop brown pits, fruit can be unpleasantly acidic, and it bruises during shipment. However, being almost spineless and producing succulent fruits of up to 4.5kg, with a little trialling and selecting the Kew-improved ‘Smooth Cayenne’ founded the Queensland pineapple industry.

The 'Quadrangulata', Elaeodendron quadrangulatum (Celastraceae)

The ‘Quadrangulata’, Maytenus quadrangulata (syn. Elaeodendron quadrangulatum, Celastraceae)

Hill gave Hope a specimen of the rarely grown exotic ‘quadrangulata’ tree, Maytenus quadrangulata (syn. Elaeodendron quadrangulatum, Celastraceae). It is believed that there are only two mature specimens growing in Queensland, possibly in all Australia. The Ormiston specimen is of high cultural significance and information about this tree in the wild and in cultivation is scarce. The tree remains in very good health but has not been known to reproduce by seed until I germinated two on 1.1.15 (sown on 10.12.14).

The macadamia at Ormiston, Macadamia integrifolia, also of high cultural significance, is likely to have come from the first batch acquired by Brisbane Botanic Gardens. They were first collected from Mount Bauple, near Gympie where they were known locally as Bauple Nuts. Hill planted the first macadamia in the botanic gardens in 1858.

Araucariaceae at Ormiston

This noble genus includes the handsomest trees of the world, which thrive well anywhere in the colonies; they are suitable for lawns, avenues or parks, and should hold a prominent position in every garden where space will allow.
J. Scott & Son, Nurserymen and Florists (catalogue, Melbourne, 1853) promoting the genus Araucaria

Nineteen species of Araucaria have survived the age of dinosaurs. With thirteen species of Araucaria still living in New Caledonia, that small tropical island is a global centre of biological diversity.

Ormiston has one specimen of the Cook Island pine, also known as the Klinki pine, Araucaria columnaris from New Caledonia. In the wild the Cook Island pine only occurs on the Isle des Pins, where they reach 80 metres tall. As this species matures it develops a distinctive northwards lean. The placement of this tree appears to take advantage of the silhouette of this species when looking from the villa across the open lawn, a gardenesque touch that Ormiston shares with the Klinki pines planted at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. The Ormiston specimen is small and thin, an indication that it’s growing on shallow soil overlaying rock. Nevertheless, this is a significant tree and well worth conserving.

Bunya pine, Araucaria bidwillii

Bunya pine, Araucaria bidwillii

An avenue of mature Bunya pines, Araucaria bidwillii, line the curved carriageway to the villa which was originally described as a “broad avenue of palms and one of Bunya Pines”. Early settlers recorded many name variations used by aborigines, including Banza-tunza, Banua-tunya, boonya, bunyi, bahnua, bon-yi, banya bunya, bunnia, bunya-bunya, and bonyi-bonyi. Bunya nuts were also known as yenggee or jenggi.

The Bunya was first collected in the Bunya Mountains and described by John Carne Bidwill in 1843. There Bunyas grow to 50 metres tall. Clearly Hope employed these conifers to create a magnificent avenue to impress arriving visitors in a similar way that Hill used them in the landscape of Brisbane Botanic Gardens.

The Bunya pine is the most ancient of all extant Araucaria, a genus with Gondwanan ancestry. Fossil evidence suggests Bunya pine have existed for 100 million years.  The closest relatives discovered so far are fossil species like A. mirabilis from Jurassic Patagonia.

Bunya pines have a mast year once every three or four years and, prior to settlement, great gatherings were held in Bunya forest. These gatherings were celebrations combining feasting, dancing, music and political diplomacy (such as negotiating marriages and settlements to grievances). February 2015 was a Bunya mast year, although the Ormiston Bunyas crop every year. Each year the monastery has two trailer loads of cones delivered to the Quandamooka people, the indigenous custodians of North Stradbroke Island, sustaining their ancient cultural connection with this incredibly ancient Queensland endemic tree.

Hoop Pine, Moreton Bay pine, Araucaria cunninghamii, was known to Brisbane’s Aborigines as ‘Cumbertu’. More than any other tree, the Hoop pine could be said to have built Brisbane. It is still an important plantation timber, mostly used for floor construction because the soft wood needs protection from alternating damp and dryness. These stately trees, which in the wild can reach 60 metres, were harvested for constructing ships spars around 30 metres tall. Large specimens yielded up to and around 280 cubic metres of timber. Hoop pines have been widely planted since their discovery for ornament. Resin exuded from the trunk is a traditional Aboriginal treatment for kidney complaints.

Hoop pine, Araucaria cunninghamiana

Hoop pine, Araucaria cunninghamiana

The Hoop pines growing at Ormiston are some of the finest in cultivation anywhere, and are of very high cultural significance.

Queensland Kauri, Agathis robusta (Araucariaceae) are, like their botanical relatives Araucaria, an ancient line of conifers. Several species have massive, erect trunks. There are 21 extant species in warm climates, three of which occur in Queensland.

The Queensland Kauri is a moderately fast growing species, one that has been thoroughly exploited for their soft, high quality, straight-grained timber for furniture making. There are a few remaining mature stands, mostly in conserved forest. At the time Hope planted his Queensland Kauri they were known as Dammara robusta and at three shillings and sixpence a plant, kauris were a relatively expensive purchase.

Foambark, Jagera pseudorhus (Sapindaceae), is a dry rainforest tree from north of Taree (NSW) to north east Queensland. The name is derived from this species’ production of a soap-like compound resembling saponin, present in the cell walls of secondary roots, branchlets, young shoots, cambium, walls of the fruit and from the mid-ribs of leaves.

Alcohol was a popular recreational drug of settlers, and many wild plants were used in brewing beer, including Foambark. During the First World War the saponin-like compound was used to make a foaming head on beer. Foambark is rarely grown outside collections even though it makes an elegant, hard-wooded, drought-tolerant shade tree. This original specimen is of high cultural significance.

Dwarf Palmetto, Sabal minor

Dwarf Palmetto, Sabal minor

Dwarf or Blue Palmetto, Sabal palmetto. The palm genus Sabal is widely grown for ornament. They are a genus of relatively slow-growing, compact, drought-tolerant, sun-hardy palms, suited to freely draining and sandy soils.
The Dwarf Palmetto originates from southeast USA and produces a subterranean trunk which, with age, develops into a short above-ground trunk. The Dwarf Palmettos at Ormiston, growing near the ‘Secret Garden’, are believed to be original plantings.

Sonoran Palmetto, Sabal uresana. This species originates from open forests in northern Mexico and is ideal for frost free, warm temperate to subtropical climates. Mature specimens are fire-tolerant and reach 10 – 20 metres high in good conditions. It is currently regarded as a threatened species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). There is one specimen at Ormiston, near the ‘Secret Garden’.

Australian Cabbage palm, Livistona australis. The Australian Cabbage palm is a large, slow-growing fan palm widely used in landscaping. The species is widely distributed throughout lowland forests and swamps of eastern Australia from the tropics to temperate regions. The Australian Cabbage palm tolerates salt-laden winds, gales, full sun and mature specimens can survive bushfires.

Palm ‘cabbage’ refers to the edible part of the growing point and this cabbage was an important food eaten by Aborigines either raw or cooked in hot ashes. Harvesting the cabbage kills the palm, which produces a single trunk with a single growing point.

Captain Cook sampled palm cabbage at Endeavour River, and said that it tasted “exquisitely sweet”, while Leichhardt said “Several of my men suffered by eating too much of the Cabbage palm” (Leichhardt, Overland Expedition to Port Essington). First Fleet settlers at Farm Cove felled Cabbage palms, using their trunks to make slab huts, similar to the original slab hut at Ormiston. Other settler uses for their trunks included making walking sticks and hollowing them out to make pig troughs. Settlers, noticing that Aborigines used the fronds for basket-making, started boiling the new, unexpanded fronds in water, and after drying them, used them to make hats. The single Ormiston specimen is relatively short and slender for its age, indicating dry growing conditions.

Natal plum, Carissa grandifolia, prior to recent pruning

Natal plum, Carissa grandifolia, prior to recent pruning

Natal Plum or Big Num-Num, Carissa macrocarpa. At the eastern end of the Bunya avenue grows a single, gnarled specimen of Natal plum. This is a fast-growing, sweetly-scented, thorny, coastal shrub from South Africa to Mozambique. Generally Natal plums grow no more than 4 metres high and sometimes they are trained as a ground cover.

Natal plum is mostly grown as a stock-proof hedge, but sometimes the tart fruit are eaten raw or used to make preserves. The fruit are rich in Vitamin C, phosphorous and magnesium, minerals that were often needed by the urban poor and rural cottage gardeners in early colonial times.

It is hard to know if the sole specimen at Ormiston was planted for fruit or ornament. Possibly it once formed a part of a functional hedge growing so close to the current boundary fence at the edge of the steep slope that leads to Raby Bay. However this plant arrived it is a fine, old example of a Natal plum and worth conserving.

Burdekin Plum or Tulip Plum, Pleiogynium timorense. There are two specimens of Burdekin Plum growing at Ormiston House. One is believed to be an original planting, the other is much younger, possibly either a new planting or a self-sown seedling. Its natural distribution is Queensland northwards from Maryborough to the north east, New Guinea and The Philippines. Originally named P.  solandri after Dr Daniel Solander, the Swedish botanist accompanying Banks on Cooks’ ‘Endeavour’ voyage, it had been previously named by de Candolle from a Papuan specimen thought to have originated from Timor. The original species name takes precedence.

Burdekin Plum produces a hard, dark red and highly ornamental cabinet timber. Panicles of flowers are mostly male or female and flowers predominantly of one sex are often found on separate trees. This slow-growing evergreen rainforest tree with a broad canopy reaches 26 metres high. Edible fruit are purple, almost black, and suitable for jams and preserving in spirits. A good shade tree for frost-free, humid coastal regions south to Sydney where century old specimens still thrive. Crops can sometimes be heavy.

Lacebark or Scrub Bottle tree, Brachychiton discolor. A ‘Bottle tree’ is recorded as growing at Ormiston, although it isn’t possible to determine whether it was a Queensland Bottle tree, Brachychiton rupestris, or a Lacebark tree, B. discolor, because in the nineteenth century Lacebark was also commonly known as the Scrub Bottle tree.

Queensland lacebark, Brachychiton discolor

Queensland lacebark, Brachychiton discolor

A very fine example of B. discolor grows near the gatekeepers’ lodge. An emergent species of dry rainforest, the Lacebark forms a slender tree to 30 metres. Here at Ormiston the specimen has for a long time lacked competition for space and light by neighbouring trees until recently, and this extra light and space has allowed the Ormiston specimen to develop into a short, stout specimen. This healthy tree produces white flowers into autumn, instead of the typical reddish-pink flowers this species normally produces in summer. It is noteworthy because of this and is a genetically significant plant. The plates of rough, fissured bark testify to this being a veteran tree.

Lacebark was logged for its soft timber, which, although susceptible to borers, was used for toy making and packing boxes. It is a beautiful blossom tree, flowering when deciduous in spring, something that really caught the attention and imagination of European settlers used to seeing temperate deciduous trees, like cherry (Prunus spp.) , bloom whilst leafless in spring. Lacebark is a reliable, tough, drought-tolerant tree suitable for providing summer shade.

Forest Red gum (in NSW), Blue Gum (in QLD), Eucalyptus tereticornis was called ‘mungarra’ or ‘mungara’ by aborigines in northern NSW and SE Queensland. The extremely durable and very hard wood of Forest Red gum was widely used to make plough beams, shafts for carts, ship building, poles, fencing and for firewood. Today the timber is still used for power poles and railway sleepers in Australia. In China, it is plantation grown  for the extraction of its volatile, aromatic oils.

In south east Queensland, Forest Red Gum is (with the paperbark, Melaleuca leucadendronone of the two most ecologically important trees. The healthy specimen growing by the street entrance is an example of pre-settlement vegetation. Forest Red Gum provides an important environmental service, its flowers provide food for honeybees in late winter, a time when other sources can be scarce. European honeybees are important pollinators of almost half the crops grown. Being of wild source, seed from the Ormiston specimen could be used for local revegetation projects. Having survived clearing, and the many potential uses it could have been put to on a working farm, is of exceptionally high cultural significance.

Missing elements

A large part of the original estate has been lost over the years to development well before the Carmelite Nuns, the current owners, purchased the remaining property and land.

Today the large ornamental fountain on the lawn near the drawing room and statuary that decorated the estate are gone, as have the original azaleas, most of the fruit trees, the flower beds, borders, bamboo and other landscape features, such as an avenue of Bangalow palms, Archontophoenix cunninghamiana.

Apart from the villa itself, the remaining collection of trees is the most notable surviving feature of the estate. Trees are a perishable asset and extreme weather events such as storms and drought continue to take their toll on tree health. For example, the original Turpentine, Syncarpia glomulifera, a central feature of the ‘Secret Garden’ has been recently lost. The stump needs removing and a replacement acquired.

Bulbs were also planted at Ormiston, although which types isn’t recorded. Bulbs were very popular in colonial gardens. While many species and cultivars have the potential to survive and thrive with minimal care, like Hippeastrum (a reliable, robust bulb, widely grown in SE Qld) I deduce their absence relates to neglect and the kind of grounds maintenance they have received. Camden Park (NSW) remains famous for its bulb collection, however it too has lost many simply because the turf in which they were – or became – naturalised in has been too frequently cut by machine for the bulbs to survive.


Originally, scarlet-flowered Hibiscus were planted in an arc to shade waiting carriages. Apparently they “looked good at 100 years old”. While these no longer exist, there are two extremely old specimens close to the villa on the eastern side. These are believed to be early plantings. Hibiscus are not usually long lived shrubs, and wet summer soils and termite attack can weaken and kill many woody plants. Decay fungi normally digest root systems and old wood at the collar, the point where Hibiscus (and other ornamentals, like Magnolia figo, syn. Michelia figo) emerge from the soil.

The two remaining specimens are particularly old and the long, dry season in the subtropical winter and spring may have helped them survive longer than normal. Small-flowered, old-fashioned hibiscus cultivars are also less susceptible to Erinose mite damage, a recently introduced pest of hibiscus, and this resistance is a bonus for the survivors.


Roses were grown at Ormiston, but there’s no evidence of the cultivars grown. Evidently at one time there was a sunken rose garden. It’s interesting to speculate that a gentleman gardener such as Hope might have grown roses with Chinese origins, such as Tea, Noisette and China roses. These groups were fashionable, climatically appropriate and available from prestigious nurseries owned and run by Hope’s peers, such as the Macarthurs’ at Camden Park, NSW.

Macarthurs’ ‘Catalogue of Plants cultivated at Camden Park’ (1857) offered: Rosa bracteata, nine cultivars of R. indica (now R. chinensis), two of R. multiflora, R. sinica (now R. laevigata), three of R. banksia, ‘de Meaux’, ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’, ‘Sidoni’, ‘Annie Vibert’, ‘Cramoisi Superieure’ and ‘Fortune’s Yellow’.

Hope’s Lepidozamia, Lepidozamia hopei

Cycads were widely grown and displayed in middle and upper class Victorian era homes and gardens although there is no evidence of any being grown at Ormiston.

This particular native cycad is the tallest growing species of cycad in the world, slowly reaching 20m high. It is unique to the humid, tropical coast of far northern Queensland from Ingham to Cooktown. The genus Lepidozamia consists of four known species, two of which are extant. Lepidozamia peroffskyana occurs naturally in coastal districts of northern NSW and south east Queensland.

Hope's cycad, Lepidozamia hopei

Hope’s cycad, Lepidozamia hopei (centre)

Lepidozamia hopei was described in 1876 from a specimen growing in Europe and named in honour of Louis Hope. Two mature specimens with trunks around 3m high, grow at Parronella Park near Innisfail. (It is said they were transplanted from the local bush). When recording the television segment for ‘Gardening Australia’, I planted a specimen close to the villa in acknowledgement of the cultural association between the person, the place and the plant.


Louis Hope and his family lived at Ormiston for twenty years, until a legal dispute with a neighbour over crushing of cane resulted in a large financial loss. Hope resigned from Queensland’s parliament in 1882, returning with his family to settle in Derbyshire (England) in 1884. The house and much of its furniture was left in the care on an overseer when the Hope family returned to England. Louis Hope died 1894. In 1913 the trustees of the Hope estate sold Ormiston House to the John Arthur Macartney, and this family owned the property until 1959 when it was acquired by the Carmelite Nuns.

Macartney was an explorer and pioneer pastoralist in central Queensland and the NT.  Macartney died in 1917 and Ormiston was inherited by his daughter, Flora Macartney. Flora struggled to maintain the property and grounds. By the time Flora died in 1955, the shrubs, perennials and other short-lived ornamental plantings gradually disappeared or were removed to simplify maintenance. Other members of the Macartney family tried to make a living from Ormiston, but by 1959 they were fortunate to find the Carmelite Nuns as buyers.

What is a culturally significant tree?
The South Australian Government has a simple, clear definition of culturally significant trees.

Cultural: Trees play an important role in the elements of towns and cities such as approach roads, showgrounds, transport links, residential areas, important buildings, access roads, parks and nature strips. Trees help identify special places. They may have associations with individual people and communities or tell stories of other times and places.

The Bunya avenue along the carriageway are the primary example at Ormiston, as is the Chinese elm near the church entrance.

Historical: Trees are often associated with important eras, buildings, events or people. Trees may reflect specific epochs in garden design or landscape architecture.

The Temu tree, Klinki pine, and the Monterey pines are good examples.

Scientific. Trees could be rare, vulnerable, endangered or of a great age. Remnant trees from former natural ecological communities may retain valuable habitat and faunal corridors for other threatened or dependent species.

In my experience, individual remnant trees and plants may provide this function, such as supporting specific and sometimes interdependent fungi, lichen, mosses, epiphytes, or providing food or shelter for interdependent fauna. In 2003, I illustrated this point for a television segment on Gardening Australia, showing how a very old Macrozamia spiralis cycad specimen planted in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, supports a colony of lichen which was identified by botanist Elizabeth Brown, as a species new to science. (Only a fact sheet survives).

The pre-settlement Forest Red gum tree is a prime example and the Bribie Island pines, while they are not of pre-settlement age, are naturally regenerating and are important habitat trees for Eastern Bearded Dragons (and other lizards), various nesting birds and Titan Stick Insects (the largest species in Australia).

Macadamia is one of Australia’s most important contributions to global food production. Macadamia are threatened species and all wild locations where this tree has survived settlement are of scientific interest for the conservation and ongoing improvement of this economic crop, including the Macadamia Conservation Trust. The Ormiston macadamia is important at a genetic level, for its aesthetic value, its placement and for being the second specimen of its species to be planted.

Aesthetic. Trees are of aesthetic value if they reflect important features in townscapes. These trees often visually dominate a place by the size, scale and visual impact. The Turpentine in the Secret Garden and the Moreton Bay fig north of the villa are examples of significant aesthetic trees that have been removed in recent years. The Hoop pines planted close to the south east of the villa are living examples of high aesthetic significance.

Cultural, historical and aesthetic values are the principal values applied to cultural significant trees. However, more precise values may be included for specific specimens or situations, the the Dwarf Palmetto palms are examples.

Other plants grown or growing at Ormiston not mentioned in the text above include:

“Bengal & other citrus”;
Magnolias, probably including Port Wine Magnolia, Michelia figo (growing in the Secret Garden);
Banyan, possibly Ficus virens, but much more likely to be Lord Howe Island Fig, Ficus macrophylla subsp. columnaris, a species endemic to Lord Howe Island. A perfect choice for a noble garden in that era. They were wild collected and distributed from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, under Director Charles Fraser, specimens survive in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. I propagate them;
Peepul tree or Sacred fig, Ficus religiosa, a spring-deciduous strangler fig, grown as a shade tree and spiritual tree. Considered sacred by the followers of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. There might be a cultural association at Ormiston with indentured labour. Young specimen grows in the grounds of the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane;
Japanese Maple, Acer japonicum;
South African Sunflower’ – possibly Tithonia mexicana from the Americas. This is now an invasive bushland weed;
Brazilian Cherry, Eugenia brasiliensis. Now an invasive bushland weed;
Candle Tree, probably Candle Nut Tree, Aleurites moluccana. Yields oil traditionally used to fuel oil lamps. Oily seed may sometimes contain enough oil for a match to set it alight;
Fig, probably Edible fig, Ficus carica;
Fig, possibly Ficus macrophylla ssp. macrophylla, also known as Banyan and Moreton Bay fig;
King Island Pine. Not King Billy Pine (Athrotaxis selaginoides). Possibly a reference to Araucaria heterophylla, also known as the Norfolk Island pine;
White Cedar, Melia azederach var. australasica;
‘Wheel of Fire’ or Fire-wheel Tree, Stenocarpus sinuatus;
Poinciana or Flamboyant, Delonix regia;
Bauhinia or Hong Kong Orchid Tree, Bauhinia x blakeana;
Jacaranda, Jacaranda mimosifolia;
Oleander, Nerium oleander;
Wisteria, Wisteria floribunda or W. sinensis;
Crepe Myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica;
Mock Orange, Murraya paniculata;
‘Cyprus’, possibly Bribie Island Pine (aka Cypress), Callitris columellaris ssp. columellaris, or Monterey Pine, (aka Monterey Cypress), Cupressus macrocarpa;
‘Umbrella’ or Umbrella Tree, Schefflera actinophylla. Now regarded an invasive weed;
Roses, Rosa, various spp. and cvs.;
Petrea, Sandpaper vine, Petrea volubilis. Good old specimen on eastern lawn near villa;
‘Vine’ probably Grape Vine, Vitis vinifera;
Chinese Elm, Ulmus parvifolia. One of the finest examples of its kind lives just inside the monastery, slightly south of the public entrance to the church;
St. James’ Pine…?
Orange trees, Citrus x sinensis;
Arrowroot or Queensland Arrowroot, Canna edulis. A once valuable starch staple crop in Queensland. Heritage crop still widely grown in food gardens;
Corn, Zea mays;
Cotton, possibly South American Cotton, Gossypium barbadense, possibly Mexican Cotton, G. hirsutum;
Banana, Musa x paradisiaca. Probably the original cultivars grown could have been ‘Dwarf Cavendish’, a dessert fruit popular with settlers, or a plantain cultivar of banana, eaten as a starch staple in Asian and South Pacific nations, which would have been food for indentured labourers, both could easily have been present, they are valuable and highly productive plants;
Norfolk Island Hibiscus, Cow Itch Tree, Lagunaria patersonii; endemic to Norfolk Island, Lord Howe Island and parts of Queensland, this tree was widely distributed as a decorative novelty, a flower for button holes. Suited to frost-free, humid, sub-coastal warm temperate to subtropical ornamental gardens. People and animals resting under the trees quickly discover how extremely itchy the sharp spines (which line the insides of seed pods) can be. Easily grown from seed, not weedy;


The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, Aboriginal Studies Press, ISBN 0-85575-234-3, 1994;

Brief History of Brisbane City in the 19th Century,,;

Acid sulphate soil map of Brisbane and SE Queensland, published by the Department of Natural Resources and Mines (2002);

The Soil Landscapes of Brisbane and south-eastern Environs, Queensland, CSIRO Division of Soils, Adelaide (1985);

Australian Plant Genera, James A. Baines, published by the Society for Growing Australian Plants, ISBNO 909830-18-15, 1981;

Australian Rain-forest Trees, W.D. Francis, Department of Natural Development, Forestry and Timber Bureau,
Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, ISBN 0-642-05643-9, 1981;

J. Scott & Sons Catalogue of Plants, Melbourne, 1853;

Catalogue of Plants cultivated at Camden Park, Camden, NSW, 1857;

Cycads of the World, David L. Jones, Reed Books, ISBN 0-7301-0338-2, 1993;

The Useful Native Plants of Australia, J.H. Maiden, Compendium Books, reprinted in 1975, first published in 1889;

Wild Food Plants of Australia, Tim Low, Angus & Robertson, ISBN 0-207-16930-6, 1991;

‘Ormiston House – birthplace of the Australian sugar industry’, Ormiston House Advisors & Friends Committee, Provincial Publishing, 2003;

Other sources of information include various undated and anonymous documents provided by the volunteer guides of Ormiston House;

Images used in the paper guide
Page 1: aerial view of Ormiston House, 2002;
Page 2: view of Ormiston House showing mixed borders; undated;
Page 9: Pleiogynium solandri (now P. timorense), ‘The Queensland Flora’, Part 1, 1899;
Page 10: Eucalyptus tereticornis, ‘A Critical Review of the Genus Eucalyptus’, J.H.Maiden, Vol. IV Part I, 1917;
Page 11: view of Ormiston grounds showing Bangalow palm avenue; undated;
Page 11: Ormiston House, ca.1871, Queensland State Library, Image Number 20275; showing flower beds

copyright Jerry Coleby-Williams RHS, Dip. Hort. (Kew), NEBSM, HMA
First published on the original Bellis website via iWeb, 19th May 2007