The trees Melburnians could never leaf without
By Najma Sambul and Harper Hopkins
St Monica’s Primary School principal Nathan Owen and students underneath their ‘friendship tree’.Credit: Eddie Jim
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In the Royal Botanic Gardens, so many visitors wrapped their arms around the trunk of a 170-year-old cyprus that caretakers were forced to erect a security barrier to protect the roots.
Nearby, on Punt Road, a golden elm became Melbourne’s most emailed tree after a city council project gave people the chance to send love letters to their favourite specimens.
And on Bulla Road, the council was compelled to repaint a tree bright yellow after it became a much-beloved landmark for the local community.
Tim Entwisle, director and chief executive of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, says people love trees because “they live beyond our generation”.
“Trees compared to all other plants have this great sense of strength and longevity,” he says.
Whether it’s for their indigenous significance, photogenic glory or their sheer will to adapt and survive, Melburnians hold our trees in high regard. We asked some experts to name their favourites.
Credit: Jess Hood
Location: The corner of Punt Road and Alexandra Avenue, South Yarra
Type: Ulmus Glabra ‘Lutescens’
Sitting on the corner of busy Punt Road and Alexandra Avenue in South Yarra, this sprawling tree has received adoration and love from Melburnians and overseas visitors alike. It became Melbourne’s most emailed tree, with 3000 emails hitting its “inbox”, after the City of Melbourne launched the Urban Forest Visual website in 2013.
“Thousands of Melburnians pass by each and every day, so there’s no wonder this magnificent Golden Elm is the most loved and most emailed tree in Melbourne,” says Melbourne City councillor Rohan Leppert. “It’s like something out of a storybook.”
Credit: Jason South
2. Montezuma Bald Cypress
Location: End of Fern Gully, Royal Botanic Gardens
Type: Taxodium mucronatum
One of the tallest trees in the Royal Botanic Gardens, the 170-year-old cypress attracts adoring crowds of visitors all eager to embrace its huge trunk. However, its grandeur has been met with a little too much love, prompting the Gardens to build a walkway to protect the tree.
“It’s a very loveable tree,” says Entwisle.“It’s got this massive trunk and people often wrap their arms around it, so we built a walkway around it to protect the roots from the compression of soil.”
Credit: Wayne Taylor
3. The Ngargee tree
Location: Behind St Kilda’s Junction Oval
Type: River Red Gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis)
A 20-metre gnarly red gum believed to be up to 800 years old, this ceremony or Ngargee tree served as a meeting place for the Yaluk-ut Weelam clan of the Boon Wurrung peoples.
Last year, evidence of the tree’s rich cultural significance was heard as part of a preservation of evidence hearing in the ongoing Boon Wurrung Native Title claim.
“The tree has extensive cultural heritage value. It’s a very significant red gum,” Yaluk-ut Weelam and Boon Wurrung elder, Parbinata Dr Carolyn Briggs AM said at the time. “It’s significant as a ceremonial tree and also because it has survived. It’s also significant because whitefellas have mobilised to protect and keep it.” Parbinata is a title given to a Boon Wurrung leader.
Credit: Simon Schluter
4. Chinese Honey Locust
Location: 607 Bourke Street
Type: Gleditsia sinensis
Nobody really knows how this fascinating tree came to be, but it’s believed to have been planted by a Chinese herbalist during the gold rush in 1830. The tree is on the National Trust’s register of significant trees of Victoria and was once part of a larger garden on the site.
“The exotic Chinese Honey Locust towers over Bourke Street and is the only one of its kind in Victoria,” says Leppert.
Credit: Eddie Jim
5. Friendship tree
Location: St Monica’s Catholic Primary School, Footscray
Type: Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)
Surrounded by new apartment developments, this deciduous tree is at the heart of the 170-year-old St Monica’s Catholic Primary School in Footscray.
In the summer, its bright-green leaves are a shady sanctuary for the school community, which sits under it for outdoor assemblies.
“It’s the hidden gem of Footscray,” says principal Nathan Owen. “It’s also a friendship tree. Children know it’s a safe place to go to and have time with each other.”
Credit: Eddie Jim
6. The Yellow Tree
Location: Bulla Road, Bulla
Type: Gum Tree (Eucalypteae)
Sitting on Bulla Road, Bulla, is a peculiar yellow gum tree. Rumours have swirled for years about how this tree got its sunny hue, with suggestions it was a muck-up day prank, a school art project, or even part of a Howard government scheme for Landcare.
The City of Hume has now put the rumours to rest, confirming that the tree was painted yellow to promote the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“The painted yellow tree in Bulla has become somewhat of an urban legend for our community, with varying stories as to its origin and with many wanting to stake their claim as the creators of this simple yet eye-catching art,” says Hume City Mayor Joseph Haweil.
The council even repainted the tree after its original coat faded because it became such a “site of interest”.
“We hope it remains part of our community for years to come,” Haweil says.
Credit: Eddie Jim
7. The Horizontal Tree
Location: Footscray Park, Footscray
While the western suburbs may have the lowest canopy cover in Melbourne, Footscray Park is home to a selection of fascinating trees, none more so than the ‘horizontal tree’.
Laying on a pathway towards the middle of garden, this old melaleuca tree decided to grow horizontally across the path.
“It most likely fell and started growing that way over time,” says Footscray local Warren Penna.
Penna, a former horticulturist, has also written to the City of Maribyrnong to protect the tree during the park’s annual New Year’s Eve celebrations.
“There’s so much traffic around that time and I’d hate to see anything bad happen to it,” he says. “It’s old and eccentric, almost resembling a large bonsai. I love it.”
Credit: Paul Rovere
8. Bacchus Marsh Avenue of Honour
Location: Avenue of Honour, Bacchus Marsh
Type: Dutch elms Ulmus X hollandica and Huntington elms Ulmus X hollandica ‘Vegeta’
If you’ve ever driven into Bacchus Marsh, you’ll be sure to remember the magnificent arch of elm trees that line over two kilometres of road. The trees stand to commemorate fallen soldiers and locals who served in the First World War.
“All over Victoria we see these Avenues of Honour that represent soldiers who signed up for the war or died in the war,” says Neil Sharkey from the Shrine of Remembrance. “The Avenues of Honour symbolise both participation and loss.”
Credit: Jason South
9. Date Palm
Location: Princes Lawn, Royal Botanic Gardens
Type: Phoenix dactylifera
The oldest surviving cultivated plant in the Royal Botanic Gardens, and perhaps Melbourne, this towering palm is another fan favourite. But despite it being one of Entwisle’s top picks, it’s technically not even a tree.
“Palms are very tall grasses,” he says. “This palm was grown in Dr Godfrey Howitt’s private garden in the city around 1839 and moved to the botanic gardens later on.”
Despite its name, this almost-200-year-old date palm has yet to produce any dates.
Credit: Justin McManus
10. The Separation Tree
Location: Abbotsford Convent, Abbotsford.
Type: English Oak (Quercus robur)
In recent times it’s been a sought-after backdrop for couples on their special day, but this 173-year-old English Oak was originally planted to celebrate the separation of Victoria from NSW in 1850, hence the nickname ‘Separation Tree’.
“It’s almost perfect symmetry and great size makes this tree one of the finest in Victoria,” says Abbotsford Convent CEO Collette Brennan.
However, the tree is not unique in its symbolism or name. The original Separation Tree was a Red River Gum that lived in the Royal Botanic Gardens and was where the citizens of Victoria first gathered to celebrate the news of the separation.
The 25-metre tall native tree pre-dated European colonisation and lived to 400 years before it died in 2015.
Credit: Jason South
11. White Oak
Location: The Oak Lawn, Royal Botanic Gardens
Type: Quercus alba hybrid
Even though this once popular 150-year-old oak tree died in late 2019, the Royal Botanic Gardens decided to give it new life by fashioning its limbs into carefully crafted seats for visitors.
In response, the tree has helped support the growth of new oaks recently planted in the park.
“It seems the underground fungal community associated with the White Oak is helping the three new oaks to grow faster than any oak we’ve ever planted in the botanic gardens,” says Entwisle. “In some ways, that old oak is giving life to the new oaks.”
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