Blue Mountains Botanic Garden

Continuing a botanical legacy: Blue Mountains Botanic Garden.

Nine years before Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson made their historic trek across the Blue Mountains in 1813, a naturalist named George Caley – curator of the colony’s first botanic gardens at Parramatta – forged a route along the northern rim of the Grose Valley, the first European to penetrate the mountains west of Sydney.

His mission was to collect botanical specimens; and on November 10, 1804, Caley reached a place of great beauty, a summit cloaked in magnificent tree ferns known to the Darug people as Tomah. Several days later, however, Caley’s party aborted their mission at nearby Mount Banks, thwarted by the rugged, seemingly impenetrable terrain.

More than 200 years later, the lush rainforest-clad slopes of Mount Tomah that so captivated Caley continue his legacy, with the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden playing an important role in the conservation of endemic botanical species.

Located on the Bells Line of Road – the quieter, ‘road less travelled’ route from Sydney to the Upper Mountains via Richmond - the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden is, at an altitude of 1000 metres, not only the highest botanic garden in Australia but also the only one in the world located within a World Heritage-listed area. Specialising in cool climate plants from Australia and around the world, it features more than 6,000 species spread across 28 hectares of cultivated land as well as an additional 244 hectares of wilderness.

Visiting the garden For road-trippers wanting to explore the Blue Mountains in all its glory, the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden offers a comprehensive “one stop shop” experience, with every broad attraction of the region covered. There are incredible views, both of the escarpment and sweeping vistas towards Sydney; cool, fresh, clean air; magnificent Australian wildlife, including more than 150 native bird species; and glorious seasonal colour, from spring blossoms to the changing foliage in autumn.

The gardens are a lovely place to picnic, whatever the season, with tables, shelters, barbecues and lawns where children can run amok; while for foodies, the Potager Restaurant is considered one of the region’s leading gourmet offerings, featuring local produce served on a wisteria-covered deck overlooking the Grose Valley. Tours and specialty walks are available for those who want a more in-depth experience or wish to learn about horticulture, birdlife or art; and there is also a 20-minute Shuttle Tour visiting garden highlights, ideal for those who are time-poor or mobility challenged.

For visitors who’d like to linger a little longer, accommodation is available within the grounds, with two self-contained houses – the four-bedroom Jungle Lodge, accommodating up to 10 guests in an exclusive private area of the garden; and the newly-renovated Camellia Cottage, which, as the name suggests, looks out over the spectacular camellia reserve.

With free entry, the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden warrants frequent visits, with special events and seasonal displays an added lure. During spring, for instance, a blooming carpet of around 35,000 yellow bulbs heralds a Daffodil Festival; while the signature Waratah Festival in October celebrates NSW’s official floral emblem over nine days. Throughout summer until late April, dozens of varieties of dahlias create a spectacular floral rainbow in the Formal Garden. During this time, visitors are encouraged to cast their vote for their favourite bloom, with the striking red Bishop of Llandaff, a heritage cultivar dating back to the early 20th century, a perennial favourite.

Forest trails From the terraces of the Formal Garden, a tranquil trail called the Plant Explorers Walk winds through a dappled forest of exotic maples, rhododendrons and camellias, with plaques dedicated to 14 intrepid explorers who risked their lives in remote corners of Asia to bring these now household names to the New World. It’s a fascinating journey through a little-known history, and a reminder of the important work still being undertaken by the Botanic Gardens in preserving rare species.

For instance, on the Gondwana Walk – featuring plants dating back 60-80 million years when the southern super-continent was still intact – a pocket of rare Wollemi Pines illustrates the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden’s important role in one of the most important botanical discoveries of the past century. Rediscovered in a rugged canyon in the Wollemi National Park in 1994, seedlings collected from the few remaining Wollemi Pine strands in the wild were brought to Mount Tomah, where a successful propagation program resulted in the species being brought back from the brink.

Not only are there around 100 mature Wollemi Pines now scattered throughout the Botanic Garden, but in December, it’s hoping that some of the 3000 seedlings currently growing in the nursery will be offered for sale to the public.

“This is an exciting development for us,” says Greg Bourke, Curator Manager of the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, as he leads one of the behind-the-scenes seasonal Curator Tours. “At our plant shop, we offer species you’re unlikely to find in your local garden centre. That way people can get ‘the Tomah look’, taking home the best of our gardens.”

Another endangered species for sale in the Garden Shop is the Dwarf Mountain Pine, a 200 million-year-old miniature pine that’s only found near waterfalls between Katoomba and Wentworth Falls.

“With only around 700 in the wild, offering these rare plants for sale is an important part of our conservation work,” says Greg Bourke. “In fact, we gave one to Katoomba Public School, as a way of getting the kids passionately involved in the protection of the environment. They are the ones who will make the real change, so they are our target audience.”

With his extensive horticultural experience, including six years at the helm of the Blue Mountains gardening team, a tour with Greg is truly an enlightening experience as he shares his passion working with threatened and unusual species, including his own particular field of expertise, carnivorous plants. The Curator Tours, held eight times a year, include a customised walk through the gardens, followed by a bulb potting workshop and culminating in a casual lunch at the Potager restaurant.

For visitors who love gardening and have a thirst for botanical knowledge, this tour is an unmissable experience, one that showcases the best of this very special corner of the Blue Mountains.

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