The model for a typical arboretum is a showcase of singular trees; example after example of what each species can accomplish, if grown with enough space and the right conditions. The Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, for instance, have a section reserved for the many varieties of oak tree found across the world – a gentle lawn dotted with lush mature specimens, conveniently demonstrating quirks of leaf and bark and acorn.
On the north-eastern side of Mt Dandenong, a different sort of arboretum has been slowly establishing. During the 1960s, attention was given to a section of the Woori Yallock State Forest that had slowly deteriorated with the fire outbreaks of the early 20th Century. The loss of mature forest and overall habitat integrity meant that in the ‘40s and ‘50s the land was reallocated, to be used for pine plantations. Unfortunately, a pattern followed and these timbers were also destroyed by fire in the heavy blazes of the 1962 summer. It was at this point that the state government took notice, and Victoria’s program of transformation into The Garden State gained a new asset.
The RJ Hamer Forest Arboretum – named for the Victorian Premier who presided over its creation – uses densely repeated plantings to create mesocosms of woodlands from Europe, America and Asia. The main aim of the park was the planting of less flammable trees, as part of the fire plan to protect the nearby townships on the mountain. It currently holds approximately 200 species of plants and trees, a large number of them exotic and deciduous trees. A report in 2004 credited the forest park with a design unique amongst Victoria’s gardens.
The main entry to the park is not inviting; in fact, its lack of promise is almost an initiation test. A single unsealed track, sidling down off the Olinda-Monbulk Road amid overflowing verges, is marked by no more than a brief sign: “To arboretum.” Creeping between property fences and roadside trees, dust and the fear of potholes exaggerate the quite short distance to the park (in all honesty, the road itself is actually rather mild too).
Mature woodland extends all the way to the Chalet Road carpark, keeping hidden the first reward given to those who pass initiation – an astonishing view of the landscape, falling away in folds and curves across the Yarra Valley and sweeping up to the first foothills of the Great Dividing Range. The forested valley in the foreground is framed by an avenue of trees that echoes the formal plantings of grand estates. In the blue distance, mountains hide their peaks among cloud on all but the brightest days.
The place is an actual wonderland, in a very Lewis Carroll kind of way. The collection falls across the sheltered valley in a haphazard quilt of treescapes, native and exotic patches mixed together with the foremost concern being merely how best to allow each species to grow unimpeded. Only a satellite view fully conveys the abruptly artificial arrangement.
From wandering among the ferny darkness and vertiginous columns of a Eucalyptus regnans forest – and with the mature individuals here, you can easily believe this species is the tallest flowering plant in the world – a single turn of the path takes you to mellow woodlands of birch, a displaced outpost of the lowland forests of Europe and America. Further on, a sunlit stand of European ash turns golden in the summer heat. Up in the higher reaches of the valley, stands of 40 year-old Sequoiadendron giganteum give a teasing hint of the heights they’ll reach in their second and third centuries – the species, the tallest of all plants and specimens of which rank as the largest single organisms on the planet, is labelled with hilarious accuracy as “Big Tree.” Less obvious to the unaware, a stand of Pseudotsuga menziesii is simply given its common name of Douglas Fir – no indication that this planting of American conifers has created a miniature forest of the classic American Christmas tree. Down near the picnic ground toward the valley floor, a patch of Liquidambar formosana bides its time until autumn brings out a dazzling bonfire of colours. Estimates from the Parks Victoria management team place each habitat at around a half-hectare in area, giving a visitor the chance to bury themselves completely in an environment before darting on to the next.
The profusion of plants from the Northern Hemisphere might seem a potential concern for the nearby native forests, as the surrounding hills bear numerous cases of garden escapes and weedy colonisers. Even in the park itself, a sharp-eyed walker might spot amongst the undergrowth carpets of wild strawberries, long-leafed plantain, and the jolly purple spikes of Prunella vulgaris. Elsewhere is the less welcome purple of scotch thistle flowers, inescapable anywhere with an agricultural past.
But a scan of the management plan for the arboretum shows just the opposite problem – thriving natives are invading the exotic patches, disrupting intentions to the extent that they need to be removed. The park poses no real threat to Mt Dandenong’s iconic mountain ash forests, and brightens the area with its incongruous collection.
While our slogans have moved with the times, Victoria is still very much a garden state. These parks and forests are a central part of our identity, and our safeguard against forgetting our place in the environment. For Melbourne, the RJ Hamer Arboretum with its woodlands is a particular treasure.
Paul works in science education and has been a teaching member of Monash University's Department of Biology since 2010. He is interested in community engagement and sustainable urban development.