One of the best things about living or working in Potts Point is its location.
We’re lucky enough to have the city and the harbour on our doorstep, but that doesn’t mean we’re lacking in green space. Many of the apartments in our area enjoy a tranquil view overlooking the Royal Botanic Garden and the Domain. They’re just a hop, skip and a jump away – the perfect place to get a nature fix whenever the urge strikes. We uncover some of the stories of this idyllic green oasis in the heart of the city.
The Botanic Garden sits on the traditional lands of the Cadigal people. Woccanmagully (Farm Cove) was a special hunting and ceremonial place for Cadigal women, who were renowned for their fishing skills, while Yurong (Mrs Macquarie’s Chair) is a sacred ceremonial place for Cadigal men.
Before the arrival of the First Fleet, the site of the Botanic Garden would have been lush with native flora, including eucalypts, cabbage tree palms, Port Jackson figs, acacias, native fuchsias, swamp oaks, and paperbarks, and offered an abundance of bush foods.
Food for the fledgling colony
The First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove in January 1788, and by July, Captain Arthur Phillip had had land cleared for the colony’s first farm. Exotic crops, including wheat, barley, coffee and corn, were planted on the site of what is today the Botanic Garden’s Cadi Jam Ora – First Encounters Garden. These plants were not well suited to the harbourside soil and climate, and the farm was later relocated to Parramatta.
In 1792, Phillip left Sydney, but not before ordering a ditch to be dug outlining the boundaries of what we now call the Domain and claiming it as crown land. Captain Philip King, who became the Governor of NSW in 1800, leased the land for private farming and enterprise. Kitchen garden-style farmlets sprung up across the area, growing spinach, parsley, celery, carrots, onions, potatoes, peas and beans, as well as rye, barley, wheat and oats. Nostalgia also saw the planting of traditional British trees such as apple trees, stone pines, and English oaks. The remnants of some of these farmlets have been found in today’s Botanic Garden. There were also buildings, including a bakehouse and a windmill, constructed on the site.
The Macquaries transform the Garden
Governor Bligh, who followed on from King in 1806, cancelled the private farming leases around Farm Cove, earmarking the land for the Governor’s Demesne (Domain). However private enterprise there continued until 1810, when Governor Lachlan Macquarie and his wife Elizabeth set about reclaiming the Governor’s Demesne. They treated the Domain as their private estate, demolishing buildings, enclosing it within sandstone walls and planting British Oaks, Swamp Mahogany and Blackbutts along its paths and boundaries. They designed the gardens in the Picturesque fashion, which was all the rage in Europe. Macquarie’s Wall, near Lion Gate Lodge, and Mrs Macquarie’s Chair (built for Elizabeth, who liked to bask in the sun at Yurong) date back to this time.
Macquarie also oversaw the construction of the road now known as Mrs Macquarie’s Road, leading to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair at Yurong. It was opened on Elizabeth’s birthday, 13 June 1816 – the date now known as the Garden’s Foundation Day. Shortly after the road was opened, Macquarie banned ‘idle and profligate persons’ from the area as he continued his mission to rid the Domain of people he considered undesirable. That decree was later overturned in 1829 by Governor Darling, who we have to thank for making the Domain open to the public and adding paths and infrastructure that made the area more accessible to all.
In 1818, at Elizabeth Macquarie’s request, a Norfolk Island Pine was planted in the Garden that eventually came to be known as the Wishing Tree. A charming ritual involving three laps of the tree was said to grant a wish. The tree died of old age in 1945, but it’s marked by the 1946 sculpture I Wish. In more recent years, a Wollemi pine has been planted in its place. Discovered in a rugged valley outside of Sydney in 1994, the Wollemi pine comes from an ancient evolutionary line long thought to be extinct and has been called one of the greatest botanical discoveries of our time. Today, the Wollemi pine is one of the most visited attractions in the Botanical Garden.
Becoming a Botanic Garden
Charles Fraser was a soldier who arrived in the colony in 1816. A keen gardener, he was appointed Colonial Botanist by Macquarie in 1817, becoming the Garden’s first Superintendent in 1821.
Since the days of the early settlers planting exotic crops like coffee and sugar cane, collected from stop-over ports on their journey from Europe to Sydney, the Garden has been used to propagate plant species from around the world. The collection, experimentation and distribution of plants from around the world have been guiding principles of the Garden since the 1820s.
Birthplace of Australian wine
Some of Australia’s oldest wine grapevines are thought to have originated in the Garden. In the 1830s, hundreds of cuttings from James Busby’s (the man known as the ‘father of Australian wine’) tour of France and Spain arrived in Sydney on the convict ship The Camden. After they were struck at the Botanic Garden, cuttings were sent to the Hunter Valley, and it’s believed some of the Hunter’s old-growth vines are descended from those cuttings.
The Sydney World Fair
The Southern Hemisphere’s first-ever World Fair was held in the Garden Palace, a grand building constructed in 1879 near where the Palace Rose Garden and Pavilion are today. It had a 64m high central dome that could be seen as far away as the North Shore. The International Exhibition, or World Fair, was a way for Sydney to show off its scientific, economic and cultural treasures and announce to the world Australia’s arrival as a nation. The Garden Palace didn’t last long after the Exhibition’s end, however, burning to the ground in a spectacular fire in 1882.
More unique architecture
Many Sydneysiders will have memories of the Botanic Garden’s Pyramid Glasshouse. Opened in 1976 and reminiscent of I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre, it was the first glasshouse of its kind in the world. Although it was originally built as a temporary structure, it became one of the Garden’s most visited attractions, and it wasn’t dismantled until 2015. In 2016 it was replaced by The Calyx, a gallery and event space home to the largest interior green wall in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Royal Botanic Garden today
The Royal Botanic Garden, which celebrated its Bicentenary in 2016, is Australia’s oldest scientific institution. Its world-leading research and collections, through PlantClinic and other initiatives, continue to advance knowledge of plants and drive effective conservation.
These days there’s also a focus on our local flora, so you can see the pink flannel flower, for instance, and amazing wildflower displays every spring. You can also visit its sister institutions, the Botanic Gardens in Mount Annan and Mount Tomah.
It also remains beloved of Sydneysiders as a verdant respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. It’s home to a wide range of animals – including some of the cockatoos that regularly visit Potts Point. People visit to attend events, learn more about science, plants and horticulture, or simply picnic and relax in the beautiful gardens. You can buy plants, volunteer, use the Garden’s free wi-fi or take part in a tour. There’s even a regular ‘Ghostly Garden’ tour if you want to come face-to-face with the many stories from its past.
A visitor in the 1840s described the Garden as ‘the most beautiful spot I ever saw. It was literally a walk through Paradise,’ and it’s easy to understand where he was coming from.
If you’re thinking about buying or selling in Potts Point, get in touch today.