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Canberra Bells help ring in centenary

Date

Ian Warden

Canberra Bells are wonderful native plants that grow well in gardens or roomy containers.

Canberra Bells are wonderful native plants that grow well in gardens or roomy containers.

Those of us who already have Canberra's dashing centenary shrub the correa ''Canberra Bells'' in our gardens and on our patios are noticing as we talk to it (imitating the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, who is known to talk to his estates' rhododendrons) that it has flower buds already. It has begun counting the sleeps to autumn when it becomes its most floriferous. It is the perfect thing with which to do a little green participating in the centenary and it will be in showy flower (bell-shaped flowers of red and cream) by the Canberra Day weekend (embracing March 12) when centenary sentiments will be especially feverish. It is on sale now in discerning Canberra nurseries.

Although conceived at Bywong Nursery near Canberra where Peter Ollerenshaw encouraged some promiscuous, blush-making hybridising among his existing correas that resulted in the especially colourful Canberra Bells, he tells Gang-Gang that it is nationally popular now. It's sold in several states and soon up to 30,000 of them may decorate the nation's gardens and patios. And every plant sold, he advises, comes with a legend explaining its Canberra centenary significance.

Had it worried him, we probed, given non-Canberrans reported, legendary dislike of Canberra (one of excitable Robyn Archer's recurring whinges), that emphasising the plant's Canberraness might hamper its sales in the wider world?

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''Yes, I did think about it. It was in the back of my mind. But in the end we just ran with it as part of the whole centenary thing. And [laughing] I like to assume that plant people are above that kind of thing.''

Everything about the plant is wonderful except for its dull, unimaginative name, which like almost everything dull and unimaginative in public life was chosen by popular vote (in this case from among 250 dull and unimaginative suggested names). It was a perfect opportunity, missed, to celebrate Australian native plant enthusiast and Canberra visionary Marion Mahony Griffin. Something like correa ''Marion Mahony Griffin'' would have been good and would have assisted the (probably futile) cause of getting people to spell the great woman's name properly. Correa ''Marion's Vision'' would, too, have had a little flair about it.

But what's in a name? And, too, it's typically progressive of us as a city to have chosen a native plant for our centenary. Lesser Australian cities and towns would have chosen a centenary nasturtium or gladdie.

This is what the Governor-General might have seen, from John Reps' book <i>Canberra 1912</i>.

This is what the Governor-General might have seen, from John Reps' book Canberra 1912.

Lots of Canberrans and other Australians don't have true gardens now and tens of thousands have only balconies and patios but correa ''Canberra Bells'' is perfectly at ease in a roomy container.

Vision of Canberra on mighty Molonglo

Anyone who has ever received a letter rejecting their best work (writers of all kinds are especially familiar with this heartbreak) will sympathise with all those entrants in the 1912 federal capital city design competition who didn't win the right to design Australia's capital city. They got a letter, but quite a kindly one, telling them they hadn't won. ArchivesACT has just unearthed carbon copies of the form letter, topped and tailed with specifics, sent to four of the losers. They are part of ArchivesACT's Find of the Month.

King O'Malley's timepiece.

King O'Malley's timepiece. Photo: Canberra Museum and Gallery

Nils Gellerstedt of Stockholm, Sweden, who with Ivan Lindgren and Hugo du Rietz had prepared what became Entry 81, received the following letter signed by David Miller, Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs:

''Melbourne 8 August 1912.

Sir, I am directed to inform you that the design forwarded by you in connection with the plan of the layout of the Federal City of the Commonwealth of Australia was duly submitted to the board appointed to report to the Minister for Home Affairs upon the merits of the competing designs … but was not one of those to which the three premiums were awarded … Appreciating the skill and trouble which you and your colleagues have devoted to the design now returned … Yours faithfully, David Miller, Secretary.''

Gellerstedt and his partners had come within a whiff of some success for theirs was the third choice of the minority judge. Their submission, sent with some exciting illustrations (now held by the National Archives of Australia) including A View of the Federal Capital from the Governor-General's Palace, envisioned some skyscrapers and gave considerable thought to sewage disposal (not a strength of Walter Burley Griffin's sewer-illiterate entry).

The design imagined not the standard weary old ornamental lake but instead a greatly improved Molonglo that would be kept babbling and bustling like a real river ''all the year round'' by a cunning use of dams and ''special regulating devices''.

''By this means,'' the visionary Swedes enthused, ''the Molonglo River will become one of the best regulated rivers in Australia, with its green shady banks, its pellucid surface in the centre of the city and its charming waterfalls at the dams.

''It will become a thing of pleasure and delight to the city and its inhabitants.''

Their enhanced Molonglo is a grand ingredient of the view the Governor-General might be enjoying today from her Palace if Entry 81 hadn't been rejected.

Great big tick for success

The busy program of events on March 12, 1913, (assorted coming and goings, the laying of foundation stones, the announcement of the federal city's name and then the speech-studded function in a grand marquee) ran like clockwork. How was this miracle of efficiency achieved?

Enormous credit must go to King O'Malley the flamboyant Minister for Home Affairs who as well as being MC for the day was the time keeper using ''the official timepiece'' of an Omega gold pocket watch.

That very treasure, loaned by its custodians the Reserve Bank of Australia, is a star exhibit in the But Once in a History display that opens at Parliament House on Monday.

The watch is inscribed on one side with the legend about how it had been the ''official timepiece'' used by O'Malley at the great occasion and on the other a beautifully ornate rendering of his KOM initials.

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