Plants of Ice & Fire

The Royal Tasmanian Botanical Garden

A few years ago I had no idea where Tasmania was.  I remembered the Looney Tunes ® cartoon character of the Tasmanian Devil, but beyond that I knew little else.  Until this year, when I found myself in the Tasmanian Royal Botanical Garden in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, over 8000 miles from my garden.

Macquarie Island Cabbage
Macquarie Island Cabbage

Botanical gardens are known for highlighting collections of plants from distant lands.  I regularly find the tropical plant collections in a glass conservatory in the cold winter areas, or an African collection in a desert garden of the southwest.  But in only one garden in the world is there a collection of plants that thrive in the icy temperatures of the  Subantarctic Macquarie Island, a tiny bit of land only 47 square miles, located 1/2 way between Tasmania & Antarctica.

In all the penguin movies and reports of explorations of the South Pole the image is always of snow, ice and rocky shores.  On Macquarie Island, seals, four varieties of penguins, and over 100,000 birds roost and breed.  A small area of the treeless island has hardy and important plants to support these animals.

The Special House
The Special House

In the Subantarctic Plant House, these grassy tussocks, ferns, mosses and lichens are on display.  The plant house imitates the conditions of the island with fog and soaking mists, and a temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit and below.  You can tour the entire display, all 46×20 feet, without donning a heavy coat. A sound track of bird calls, seals honking, penguins braying, howling winds and heavy mist adds to the experience.  A panoramic mural expands the sense of place with a view of the Southern Ocean.

Inside the plant house
Inside the plant house

Walking the boardwalk path in the plant house I was delighted to discover that there are red button blossoms on the silver leaf daisy (Pleurophyllum hookeri.)  There are six foot ferns and the Macquarie Island Cabbage (Stilbocarpa polaris) with its fuzzy green leaves once eaten by whalers to prevent scurvy.  Not currently on display here, the island also grows a Helmet orchid (Nematoceras dienemus).

Even here plants are essential for life! The Poa grass tussocks (clumping) provides transitory refuge for seal pups to hide out while they are adapting to seeking their own food sources. Birds use the plant areas for breeding and nesting.  Low growing mosses, lichens and Feldmark tufted grass holds on to thin volcanic soil.

Moss, Lichen, & Tufted Grass, (Feldmark)
Coastal planting of moss, lichen, & daisy rosettes,

The Subantarctic house opened in 2000 allowing a glimpse of plant life few travelers would ever see. Discovering plants from places where we don’t realize plants even grow illustrates the importance of biodiversity on our planet. No matter how far you travel there is always another place to discover just a bit further on. This display puts you there.

After we left the cold of Subantarctic  and returned to the spring sunshine in the rest of the garden we met a new flower, one that thrives after a fire.

Waratah Garden
Waratah Garden

The Tasmanian Waratah, (Telopea)  of the Proteaceae family, is native of Australia. It is a shrub that grows wild in the eucalyptus forests.  Waratah is an aboriginal word for beautiful and these are special flowers.  The single flowers on an upright stem are round and surrounded by what looks like petals.  The bloom is really a combination of florets which expand into squiggles (not a botanical term but look at the photo,:wouldn’t you agree? ) and stiff bracts.  Brilliant reds, deep pink, and white blooms attract the Crescent honeyeater bird and it sips the honey nectar pollinating the blooms as it moves from flower to flower.

Florets in open flower
Florets in the open flower

The plant blooms for only five weeks in the spring, yet the beauty and long life of the cut flowers has made them of great interest to the floriculture industry.  Cultivation progress has been made and some, the Sydney and the Gippsland Hybrid, are grown in home gardens of Australia, but these are true wildflowers of the forest.  When fire burns in the Eucalyptus bush the Waratah regenerates quickly and in two years a valley can be filled with brilliant red flowers. The shrubs grow in poor sandy soils with regular rainfall.

These are only two of the wonderful features of this garden. You have a chance to see plants which thrive in the extremes of ice and fire. The Royal Tasmanian Botanical Garden was established in 1818 as a resource for food plants to provide for the growing English population of Tasmania.  Fruit trees, hops, turnips, potatoes and cabbages were some of the important plants first grown. In 1968 the garden celebrated its 150th anniversary and the anniversary arch stands in tribute to that event.

Anniversary Arch
Anniversary Arch

Today their vision is to be internationally recognized as a center of excellence in Southern Hemisphere cool climate plants.”  It is a truly spectacular garden but it gets very little mention in travel or garden guides!  So if you find yourself curious about Tasmania, a little dot of an island south of the Australian continent, they have a wonderful botanical garden.

Post Script:  About that Macquarie Island Cabbage:  In an Archive Article from the National Botanical Garden,  they were exploring the use of the cabbage as a possible food for contemporary tastes.  Records say whalers “prepared the plants by scraping the stalks and roots, chopping them finely and making a cabbage flavoured stew.

One account (Sinclair – 1877-78) describes Christmas dinner on Macquarie Island as consisting of :

“corned beef and an herb that grows here which we call cabbage, potatoes, elephant (seal) tongue, curried parakeets, penguins’ tongues, hearts and livers, which are first rate, preserved meat, a roly-poly made of blackcurrant jam”.

Despite such an exotic Christmas experience by a crew of sailors more than 100 years ago, Dawson says at present the Macquarie cabbage is not commercially attractive.” New taste sensations from the ‘down-under’ islands by Jan Smith, Dec. 24 1998

This has to be the most amazing Christmas dinner menu I have ever seen.

Tasmanian Waratah

Published in Roots & Shoots, Maricopa Master Gardener Newsletter

4 thoughts on “Plants of Ice & Fire”

  1. Another great article, Linda. Now I am even more disappointed that we didn’t visit this garden when we were in Hobart. Not sure exactly why, but as you said, the garden doesn’t get played up enough in the travel brochures.

  2. Another fascinating article, augmented with stunning photographs. Thank you, Linda. And…difficult to fathom that you have visited 900 gardens! Congratulations.

  3. On this hot summer day in Indiana, it’s cooling to read about and think about the “Subantarctic”. But above all it was fascinating to read about a flower that was new to you and to think about such a Christmas dinner. Imagine! If only Shakespeare had known about “penguin tongue” the Weird Sisters would have included it in their cauldron along with “wool of bat . . . toe of frog . . .” etc.!

    Above all, that you for keeping us refreshed as we live through “this mess” (as my brother calls it).

    Take care,

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