Lofty Dreams

Originally published in SA Gardens magazine

It’s 1977. An intergalactic epic called Star Wars hits cinema screens, one-piece swimsuits and sideburns are de rigueur and music is changed forever with the release of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Here in the sleepy Adelaide Hills, a botanic garden is unveiled to the world.

More than 1,000 people attended Mount Lofty Botanic Garden’s official opening on November 5 that year, but the idea for a botanic garden in the Hills had been around since the 1940s.

Then Adelaide Botanic Garden Director Noel Lothian saw the need to diversify the Garden’s living collections beyond what could be grown in the Adelaide Plains’ mediterranean landscape, and in 1948 he proposed the Board begin investigating the establishment of a cool-climate botanic garden in the Hills. In 1952, when the Piccadilly Valley estate of Adelaide stockbroker Thomas Backhouse was listed for public auction, the state government purchased the garden’s first allotments.

Before European settlement much of the Mount Lofty Ranges was home to the Peramangk Aboriginal people, with the land to the west inhabited by the Kaurna people. European settlement brought private homesteads, market gardens, orchards and silver-lead mines.

The potential of the site for a botanic garden – aside from the breathtaking panoramas from the upper slopes – was clear. As garden supervisor Rob Hatcher says, “The garden sits in a very unique part of the state geographically that provides the opportunity to grow a wide range of temperate plants. Higher rainfall, cooler conditions, higher altitude and more acidic soils make it much easier for these cool temperate plant species to grow and thrive.”

More land acquisitions and 25 years of planning, clearing, planting and construction ensued before the successful opening. Then, just six years later, half the garden was devastated by the Ash Wednesday bushfire, and the design and planting strategy had to be revisited.

By the late 1980s visitor numbers were skyrocketing. From July 1987 to July 1989 there was a 59 per cent increase in vehicles arriving at the garden, from 18,802 to 28,957. By 1991/92, this number had risen to 43,000, representing about 170,000 visitors.

The following decades – as the earlier plantings matured – saw Mount Lofty cement its reputation as one of the country’s most intriguing botanic gardens. Now spanning 97 hectares, the Garden is filled with highlights during all four seasons.

“In winter the creeks are naturally flowing and there’s a mystical feel with fog and mist shrouded through the garden,” says garden supervisor Mark Oborn. “A lot of plants go into a dormancy period during this time, but it’s always surprising to find hidden gems that flower such as Chimonanthus praecox (wintersweet) and our species Camellia collection.

“Spring brings mass flowering and colour and there’s no better place to enjoy this in the garden than our Rhododendron collection.”

Indeed, Rhododendron Gully – which features some of the garden’s 1960s foundation plantings – is now regarded as one of Australia’s best rhododendron collections, and is one of Lofty’s most photographed sights when flowering from August to October.

Competing for camera clicks is Magnolia Gully, which features some rare species and is a sea of pink and white in August and September. The gully was planted in the late ’70s through a generous gift from John Nicholls in memory of his late wife Edite – their love had blossomed at the spot years before.

In summer the garden is a green oasis with lush deciduous trees and with Mount Lofty generally a few degrees cooler than Adelaide, the gullies offer a much-needed respite from the harsh sun.

The temperate rainforest of Fern Gully, which hosts one of Australia’s richest fern collections, in particular can transport you from the extreme South Australian summer to Tasmania or the Otway Ranges in Victoria.

But it’s the autumn leaves – a mesmerising panorama of scarlets, bronzes and yellows – that have become synonymous with the Adelaide Hills and ensured the garden’s popularity continues reaching new heights.

Last year an album of autumn visitor images went viral on social media, reaching more than 220,000 people and encouraging even more visitors.

The increased visitation figures capped off a historic year for the garden, which also hit global headlines after its nursery played host to South Australia’s first ever Corpse Flower (Amorphophallus titanum) bloom in December 2015.

The increased exposure has helped spread awareness about the nursery’s wider conservation role. As well as being the place where all the plants for the Botanic Gardens of SA are propagated, the nursery works closely with the SA Seed Conservation Centre to grow the state’s threatened native plants – such as the critically-endangered Yundi Guinea-flower (Hibbertia tenuis) – so they can be used in restoration projects.

The garden itself includes a haven for the native flora that dominated the region prior to European settlement. The Nature Trail features a canopy of mature Stringybark eucalypts (Eucalyptus obliqua) that shelters a complex understorey filled with native wildflowers, shrubs and climbers.

Botanic Gardens Director Dr Lucy Sutherland is excited by the prospects of the next 40 years at Mount Lofty Botanic Garden.

“Nature-based tourism is growing in the Hills so there’s an opportunity for the garden to be at the centre of engaging visitors with unique South Australian nature experiences in the region,” she says.

“To do this it’s increasingly important we grow our collection and provide facilities and activities that enhance the visitor experience in the garden and landscape.”

The Garden will celebrate its 40th anniversary on Sunday November 5, with a free public event featuring live music, food and children’s activities.