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Gang-gang: O Canberra Of Ours!

Even before the home matches of the keenly anticipated Australian Ice Hockey League season commence (counting the sleeps, we have our CBR Brave season tickets in our sweaty palms), there is already vastly too much to do in Canberra on Saturdays. If you are tired of Canberra on Saturdays, you are tired of life. 

This Saturday's brimming beaker of occasions includes the only-in-Canberra phenomenon of the horde-attracting Australian Native Plants Society's plant sale (of a horde of 10,000 plants). Then there is a typically novelty-riddled concert by Tobias Cole's Canberra Choral Society.

Behold, I tell you a mystery peculiar to these post-gardening times. Fewer and fewer Canberrans are gardeners (in the newer suburbs, gardenless new homes are the melancholy norm) and yet you can bet your McMansion that this Saturday's annual autumn native plant sale at the Australian National Botanic Gardens will, as usual, teem with plant buyers.

The event, which involves a little stampeding and sometimes even a little jostling, is worth attending just as a social anthropologist, a student of Canberra and Canberrans.

The sale is organised by – and all its plants cultivated by – the Australian Native Plants Society. The ANPS's An Van den Borre has organised and attended many of them.

"It's like a David Jones [Boxing Day] sale," she enthuses.


She says that the open-air "store" in a capacious ANBG car park opens for business at 8.30am but from about 7.30am the toey plant shoppers arrive at the ANBG's locked gates, lots of them brandishing the bags and boxes in which they're going to carry away their botanical booty. Some bring trolleys.

There are usually up to 12,000 plants for sale (all raised and labelled by natives' boffins with a responsible sense of what plants will work in Canberra's challenging climate and soils).

The shoppers' onslaught is so intense that, in her experience, "by 11am, three-quarters of the plants are gone".

But who are these zealots and where are their gardens?

At an ANPS occasion last Sunday, I delivered a melancholy census of the absence of native plants in the gardens of my streets.

Fellow natives zealots told me sadly of similar situations in their own neighbourhoods.

There were heady days in the 1970s when our cause (getting Australians to use the exciting flora of their chosen continent in their gardens) appeared to be getting a wriggle on. But now that "wriggle-on" has, like a weary worm, lost a lot of its "wrigglery".

Van den Borre shares the sadness at gardening's – and especially native plants gardening's – apparent general decline but thinks she knows why the sale is so teemingly attended.

"Canberra is huge now, so that even if only 1 per cent of Canberrans are growing native plants, that's a lot of people and perhaps those coming to the sale are that 1 per cent."

My stickybeaking, notebook-in-hand survey of what I could see of the gardens in my own suburban street (how curtains twitched as I passed by!) revealed that 60 per cent of them didn't seem to contain a single, visible native plant. Most other gardens seemed to have between one and three, posed among and overwhelmed by exotic cousins with which they had nothing in common. The accursed, bird-repelling variegated pittosporums (one of Bunnings' runaway best sellers) were everywhere. My own eccentric, predominantly native garden may contain 98 per cent of all the native plants in my "pittosporumy", "oleandery" street. 

And so on to Saturday's Canberra Choral Society Birthdays At BAC (Belconnen Arts Centre) concert. It is to be interrupted by an interval hailed in the program as "an excuse to buy cake"!

It will be birthday cake because the theme for the concert is that every composer with a work performed has a significant birthday this year. So, for example, there is on either side of the cake-eating orgy of the interval a singalong of the Hallelujah Chorus by Handel (for it was his birthday just weeks ago). Then, apres-cake, there will be a singalong of the "hymn" from Jean Sibelius' Finlandia.

It is the 150th anniversary of Sibelius' birth and as much reported here, cosmopolitan, cultured Canberra is joining in with gusto with some Sibelian occasions.

On Monday, there was a soul-shakingly fine chamber music concert given at the Finnish embassy by the touring Finnish prodigies of the Sibelius 150 Trio. After it, so unhappy with Abbott's foul Australia, I pleaded with embassy staff to grant me political asylum pending my escape to Sibelius' Finland. But they ushered me out into the night and away to my waiting Toyota.

Some singalongers going to Birthdays At BAC will imagine they don't know the tune for the Finlandia hymn, but they'll find that they do. The tune, recommended by the great Stokowski as the only tune possible to use when a world anthem is written, is one of the most recorded, most hummed melodies of all time.

On Saturday, quirkily (but correctly and respectfully), choir and audience (standing) will sing an all-about-Finland translation in English of the Finnish verses Sibelius grumpily approved for a sung Finlandia. How refreshingly odd this will be! Canberrans (few of whom will be able to point confidently to Finland on a map) will be warbling "Finland, behold, thy daylight now is dawning . . . Thy morning's come, O Finland of ours!"  

It is for cosmopolitan quirkiness like this, including the ice hockey, that some of us live in smart and effervescent cities; cities like this Canberra of ours!

Birthdays at BAC is at 5pm this Saturday at the Belconnen Arts Centre. Tickets at