Genesis 1 verse11 states: "Then God said, "Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds." And it was so."
But our public gardens go beyond a basic 'showing off' of God's creations, and provide much more for the casual visitor to admire. They show that our public gardens are contributing to the scientific knowledge and its practical implications to help make our society a better place for all.
Organisation of the Botanic Gardens in Sydney
There are three components to what used to be the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, now entitled the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust, which is "responsible for the management and stewardship of the Royal Botanic Garden (Sydney) and the Domain, the Australian Botanic Garden, Mount Annan, and the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Mount Tomah". (www.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/about_us)
Mount Annan is to the south-west near Campbelltown about 60 km from the city; and Mount Tomah is to the west on the northern section of the Blue Mountains (Bells Line of Road) a little over 100 km from the city.
The Australian PlantBank at the Australian Botanic Garden, Mount Annan
The Australian Plantbank, now housed in a new facility, incorporates the seed collection of Australian plants built up over many years, as well as living plant collections, the herbarium and science laboratories. The scientists work on a number of different projects and collaborate with other researchers and conservation agencies towards the aim of preserving and conserving our native plant species and all types of horticultural knowledge about each one.
Formerly, the seeds were stored in a temporary building called the NSW Seedbank. But the new facility is much, much more than this, hence the name change. Designed along energy conservation principles, it was opened in September and visitors are encouraged to visit and see the displays, educational facilities and views of the laboratories.
Plantbank has established relationships with most universities in the Sydney area, the Australian Seed Bank Partnership (a network for conservation of Australian seeds) and has a long association with the Royal Botanic Gardens (UK) Kew's Millennium Seed Bank where the Australian seeds are 'backed up'. (www.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/welcome/annan/Australian_plantbank;
Water storage and fire control: Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens, Mount Tomh
I contacted Greg Bourke, Acting Curator Manager at these Gardens, after hearing an interview on ABC Radio National where he explained the importance of the gardens at Mount Tomah in helping manage the recent fires.
He explained that at Mount Tomah they have a 15 megalitre (million litre) dam in the basalt, fed by a natural spring. From this, they store 300,000 litres of water in tanks at the highest point of the gardens. This water is important for the maintenance of the plant collection, and also in fire management. Also, because the gardens are a high point, being 1000m above sea level, they can be used by fire fighters and staff to survey the progress of fires in the area.
From the tanks, there is a constructed ring of pipes, through which water can be sprayed under pressure in several zones (either separately or more than one at a time) in order to slow the progress of any approaching fire into the cultivated areas, enabling the RFS (Rural Fire Service) crews to protect people and property – and also provide a safe place for them when fighting any fire on the perimeter.
The dam can be used to supply water to RFS vehicles and to helicopters, and there are hydrants on the property that the fire trucks can also access.
This system worked so well during the October uncontrolled State Mine Fire that the Mount Tomah property was used as a refuge for a skeleton staff and the RFS crews. However, Mr Bourke noted that "The site does provide an important refuge for residents who are unable to leave, particularly if fire approaches the area with little warning. We will however always rely on the advice of the RFS for what to do and when. We certainly can not assure the public that we would be open as a refuge in any fire; if the RFS advise to evacuate, we will."
Mr Bourke has learnt a lot about the current fire management system through this harrowing experience. Now working with the RFS personnel, the staff at Mount Tomah are using the information about what worked well and what might be improved, in order to review and modify their Critical Incident Plans so as to be better prepared for the future. This method of appraising and improving procedures follows sound scientific principles. Although we hope there are not too many more 'experimental situations' involving a tragic bushfire, we do hope that the process will lead to better protection of people and the gardens resources if it does happen again. (www.bluemts.com.au/profile.asp?id=697;
It is worth having a day out
There are many reasons to visit botanic gardens: for a relaxing day out; perhaps as a different venue for a family picnic; to get ideas about what flowers and trees look like for your own garden; to learn about plants you hadn't heard of before; to sit under a tree and read a book; for an alternative walk through a familiar town; and more. But if you look beyond the pretty flowers on the face of the garden, you will gain more knowledge, pleasure and satisfaction when you realise the scientific work being done in the background, on practical problems relevant to that particular situation.
If you want to find a botanic garden somewhere in particular, there is a directory here: www.anbg.gov.au. Most of them will have some speciality or point of historical or scientific interest that may not be obvious to the casual visitor. Just ask the staff when you get there.
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at