CHANGING COLOURS: The bewildered 40-year old, eight-metre tall palm tree recently brought to the Australian National Botanic Gardens. Photo: Graham Tidy
If you felt lost and alienated when you first arrived in strange Canberra (perhaps transferred here against your will) you'll have sympathy for the bewildered 40-year old, eight-metre tall palm tree recently brought to the Australian National Botanic Gardens.
So burly that it needed to be lugged to Canberra (from Queensland) aboard a semi-trailer and then put into place with a crane, it is an example of the red cabbage palm (Livistona mariae). It is the palm species enthralled tourists see growing naturally at Palm Valley in the Northern Territory. And so of course everything about Canberra is alien to it.
But if it ever asks itself ''What am I doing here?'' the answer is that it is a feature of the gardens' visionary Red Centre Garden, to be opened in October. Project manager Craig Cosgrove says it is to be a ''a small snippet of Central Australia here in Canberra'' with a ''representation'' of some red centre landscapes, and their plants. There will be a rocky outcrop theme, sand plains and dunes themes, a desert river theme and and a rocky escarpment theme.
Botanic Gardens nursery manager Joe McAuliffe with the recently planted palm tree. Photo: Graham Tidy
The plants of the garden will be fascinating enough but it won't surprise if the most lasting impression is made by the rocks the plants are growing among. The rocks are in place already and are strange and magnificent. On Wednesday and illuminated by a hot sun, they radiated great reddish-golden-pinkish central Australian-looking character. There are two sorts of rocks: great boulders of something called red jasperite (it occurs in the red centre but these have come in huge truckloads from a quarry in Queensland) and then there are boulders and lumps of a mysterious stone no one has been able to identify yet but which here we will call for the moment Crace pudding.
For the rocky escarpment landscape, the garden uses 20 truckloads of red jasperite rock from Stanthorpe quarry in Queensland. For the rocky outcrop landscape theme, there are 10 truckloads of Crace pudding.
The red jasperite, which from a distance looks quite pink but which up close is complex with clarety reds and grey-blacks and oranges, has been painstakingly arranged into a very natural-looking cliff. Across the other side of the garden the rocks are the aforementioned Crace pudding because, Cosgrove rejoiced, it was discovered that there is an iron-riddled and shockingly heavy stone at Crace here in the ACT that has a splendid Centralian-looking reddish-brownness about it. Here again the colour is very complex and the stone reminds one of a pudding because it seems to be made of so many geological ingredients. One boulder that has broken open, and that Cosgrove showed us with enthusiasm, seems like a kind of geological Christmas cake.
Cosgrove is understandably enthusiastic about these wonderful rocks (the developers of Crace have themselves been very enthusiastic about Crace pudding and have used so much of it in landscaping at Crace that Cosgrove wasn't able to get as much of it as he would have liked for the Red Centre Garden). He says that being among these rocks since they were delivered, he's noticed them undergoing subtle changes in colours as, dug up after millions of years of underground anonymity and exposed to light now, they oxidise. The red jasperite was a little too pink when it arrived but now it is darkening. He has begun to see the colour orange coming to it.
Thanks in large part to the super-appropriate rocks (with the ghost gums, desert oaks, grass trees, spinifex, emu bushes, and many conspicuously flowering plants like Sturt's desert rose growing among them) there will be bright, hot days, he enthuses, when people will visit the red centre garden and will forget they're in Canberra. They'll feel ''immersed'' in a Red Centre experience. ''We want to inspire a sense of place for people, we want to provide something that's an exciting representation of what our landscapes are in Central Australia.''
Back to the big, mature, red cabbage palm (soon to be joined by a dozen smaller ones) brought here, lying down, on its trailer. It's health has been giving some cause for concern.
The transplant shock has been quite shocking for it. It went ''quite pale'', Cosgrove says.
''I hope the thing survives,'' nursery manager Joe McAuliffe mused on Wednesday, walking up to the patient.
''But it's darkened up a bit,'' Cosgrove observed, remembering its earlier transplant-shocked complexion.
Although the garden will in one sense be finished by the end of June for October's official opening (for it is in a sense a centenary work), it will all remain quite ''challenging'', Cosgrove is sure. The muscular rocks will be OK but what of the plants? Canberra is usually much wetter and in winter far frostier than central Australia and so, with the plants, there is something quite finger-crossingly pioneering and experimental about the plantings.
But nothing is being left just to chance and so, for example, because not many central Australian plants will survive standing around up to their ankles in water, pains have been taken to impart to this garden the sort of quick, brilliant drainage installed at important sports grounds.
Meanwhile, all is looking auspiciously great as our city does yet another big, visionary thing. The red cabbage palm's hitherto pallid complexion is darkening, the red jasperite and the Crace pudding are oxidising gracefully and on Wednesday a Sturt's desert rose, as if endorsing its new habitat, was bursting into flower.