From the Algerian oaks at Retford Park to a Japanese umbrella pine at Everglades House & Gardens, there's no shortage of special, historic trees that call National Trust gardens home. Our team of head gardeners and property managers share their favourites.
BY LIZ HARFULL
A famous poem by American author Joyce Kilmer begins with the line: ‘I think that I will never see, a poem lovely as a tree’. Written more than a century ago, the poem praises the beauty of trees while highlighting the improbability of mankind ever creating a work of art that could match it.
After years of research by around 150 scientists from around the world, it was calculated only last year that there are around 73,000 different tree species on the planet. Some of the rarest and most unusual have found their way into historic gardens in New South Wales, where they are admired for their beauty by visitors, and nurtured by National Trust gardeners and volunteers.
The living fossil
Amongst the most unusual is a Japanese umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata) found at the acclaimed Everglades House & Gardens at Leura in the Blue Mountains, on the lands of the Dharug and Gundungurra people. Established in the 1930s, the mountain retreat was built for Belgian-born merchant and textile manufacturer Henri van de Velde.
The Moderne-style garden was designed by Danish-born horticulturalist and landscape designer, Paul Sorensen, who is widely admired for his work between the two world wars, with Everglades House & Gardens today considered the finest garden from the inter-war period in Australia. “He loved his trees and he used them really, really well,” says head gardener Simon Cooper.
No records remain to explain exactly where the umbrella pine was sourced, but its size indicates that it is at least 80 years old so it was likely amongst the original plantings. The tree fascinates Simon because it’s a living fossil – the sole surviving member of the Sciadopityaceae family. The oldest known fossils of the species date from the late Cretaceous period, meaning it has changed little in around 100 million years.
One of relatively few documented Japanese umbrella trees in Australia, the Everglades House & Gardens specimen is tucked away in the upper Alpine terrace off the main path, where it enjoys morning sun while being protected from the afternoon heat. “Not many people know about it, but if people ask whether we have any special trees, it’s one of the first that I tell them about,” says Simon. “Compared with the other conifers in the garden you would think that it is only young because of its height. Ours is probably about 12 or 14 metres tall, but they only grow about 15 centimetres a year.”
Simon is also drawn to a striking example of the endangered giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). Around 30 metres tall, it is a relative sapling for the species which can live for thousands of years, and average 85 metres in height with a six to eight-metre diameter, leading to it often being described as the most massive tree on earth. Unlike the common redwood, there are fewer than 80,000 left in the world, a precarious situation made worse after major wildfires swept through its native habitat in California.
Planted on the Conifer Terrace, the tree is one of the first things visitors notice when they enter the property. “It is directly behind our display beds, which you see as soon as you start walking down the driveway. You cannot miss it,” Simon says.
Like the umbrella pine, the tree is healthy and requires very little attention. Agapanthus have been removed to keep the ground around its base clear, but it doesn’t need additional water or fertiliser, especially given that it sends out feeder roots to the nearby tulip beds, which are richly fed.
A marker in time
When it comes to dramatic first impressions, it’s hard to go past another ancient conifer species that graces the grounds of Retford Park near Bowral in the Southern Highlands. Averaging up to 35 metres tall with a distinctive dome-shaped crown, the bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii) was often planted by pastoralists as a marker to help guide people to their homesteads.
The magnificent specimen at Retford Park most likely dates to 1887, when the gracious Italianate-style residence was built on the land of the Gundungurra people by merchant and stockbreeder, Samuel Hordern and his wife, Jane. The Hordern family established the major Sydney department store, Anthony Hordern & Sons.
“I think what takes people by surprise when they first approach is how wide it is. We measured it quite recently and it’s 5.7 metres in circumference. I often see people just standing there and admiring it,” says head gardener Keith Hunter.
Despite suffering a little damage during storms last year, the tree is healthy. “One of the neighbouring pin oaks trees had a significant snap-out which damaged the bunya slightly, but it has opened up a lot more light and we are already starting to see new growth on that side.”
An important task at Retford Park is collecting the pine’s enormous cones before they fall. The species is native to Queensland and Indigenous Australians have eaten the nuts for millennia, but the cones grow up to 35 centimetres in diameter and weigh up to 10 kilograms, making them a serious hazard should they fall on anyone’s head.
Exploring underneath another prominent species on the property poses no such risks – in fact it is encouraged. In the main parkland near the house is a collection of oaks. They reflect Hordern’s passion for the genus – a budding oak features in the family company’s coat of arms, with the motto “while I live I’ll grow”. The collection includes two sprawling deciduous Algerian oaks (Quercus canariensis). “They are really spectacular trees. They have a beautiful, broad, swooping canopy that reaches all the way down to the ground and spreads out over 30 metres,” Keith says.
Requiring little extra care, the trees benefit from the park’s automated irrigation system, and a drainage system that removes excess water. Spot checks are made after big storms to see if there are any damaged limbs or movement in the root plates. “We recently had a consulting arborist come through and assess all the trees on site, and the feedback was excellent. The trees are in good condition.”
The tree of life
The stand-out tree at Golden Vale homestead near Sutton Forest in the Southern Highlands is more of a mystery. As the National Trust’s General Manager for volunteer properties, Nick Corbett loves visiting the Cyprus that shelters the house from the afternoon sun, but no-one is exactly certain of the species.
“It can be quite difficult to distinguish between different species of Cyprus because they often share similar leaf structure. It was thought to be a Nookta cypress but based on the cones, we think it is more likely a Mediterranean species,” he says.
A two-storey Georgian sandstone homestead, Golden Vale was built by gentleman grazier Edward Carter in the late 1860s for his wife, Mary Ann, and their expanding family. It replaced a brick house built by emancipated convict Thomas Wilmott in 1841. In a beautiful setting at the foot of Mount Gingenbullen, a significant site for the Gundungurra people, Carter’s new residence originally overlooked an open Capability Brown-style landscape, dotted with large trees. The Cyprus was planted in a separate garden section bound by a picket fence, on the south-west side of the house, and was already a reasonable size in a photo taken in 1872.
In good health today despite losing a branch during a storm last year, the tree is now one of the oldest on the property. “We call it the Tree of Life because there are a number of peacocks and guinea fowl in the garden, and every night they fly up into its branches to nest in safety.”
An autumn showstopper
The showstopping tree at Saumarez Homestead near Armidale is a Ginkgo biloba, sometimes known as a maidenhair tree, which transforms in autumn from dark green to glorious gold. Planted in the front garden on the south side of the house around the turn of the twentieth century, it is thought to be one of the largest ginkgos in Australia.
Saumarez Homestead was the home of the White family for 110 years. The garden was planned to complement their grand Edwardian mansion, built between 1888 and 1906. While the design was based on English concepts, it incorporates many exotic trees and shrubs from around the world. Manager Jarrad Stevenson is particularly fascinated by the way some of the selections reflect exotic Chinoiserie influences in the house.
The Ginkgo species originates in China and is capable of living for a thousand years. Another living fossil, it is the sole surviving species from the Ginkgoales order which first appeared more than 290 million years ago. The species is dioecious, which means it has separate sexes. It was only recently confirmed that the main Saumarez specimen is male, although the property is lucky enough to have a smaller female tree too, which means seedlings can be nurtured for sale in the onsite shop.
Another favourite tree in the two-hectare garden is a Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia), which has provided the backdrop for many wedding ceremonies hosted at the property. “Incredibly, this tree has survived for well over a hundred years, despite its main trunk splitting in two during a major storm in the 1980s, and then again in 2010. One of Australia’s leading tree surgeons, Alex Bicknell, expertly managed to chain together the split main trunks, and the canopy was reduced to save this giant gem,” says Jarrad.
Caring for the trees at Saumarez Homestead has not always been easy, especially during the most recent drought when a local plumber saved the day, delivering 10,000 litres of water in his truck to help keep the garden alive. Thanks to donations from a 2021 drought appeal fund, the team also repaired and installed more water tanks on the grounds. “We have gone from one extreme to the other in the past couple of years but with this additional water the trees have coped well,” Jarrad says.
Autumn is a stunning time to explore National Trust gardens. Check opening times at each location and plan your next visit.
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