Halfway through our tour of the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, we will stop for a closer look at the tallest tree in the gardens, a Queensland Kauri. Agathis robustagrown from seed collected around Maryborough in 1849. Its smooth, mottled, almost rocky trunk rises tall and straight into a brilliant blue Sydney sky, taking our spirits with it.
Every morning at 10:30 am, a volunteer guide leads a tour of the gardens. All tours are different depending on the guide’s personal interests. Susan Armstrong is our guide this morning and her passion is Australian plants. Armstrong’s introduction to guides has been interrupted by COVID and this is only her second tour, but she is clearly a natural – warm, knowledgeable and armed with great stories.
To get the kauri seed, she tells us, plant collector John Bidwill had the mighty tree cut down. Maryborough mayor recently joked that Maryborough residents want their tree back. The gardens have tried to comply, but the sulfur-crested cockatoos have so far sabotaged the plan by breaking down the cones before they ripen and the seed can be collected.
The Volunteer Guide Program at The Gardens began in 1982. Flora Deverall was one of the first guides. At the time, she was a 40-year-old mother of three and part-time teacher, with a background in botany, pursuing her passion for plants. “They’re fascinating,” she says, “they split the sun’s energy into water and food for God’s sake!”
Forty years later, she no longer conducts morning tours, but is still involved in mentoring new guides, lecturing volunteers in basic plant biology and identification, and generally enthusing and educating at the Information Booth.
The Gardens volunteers donate time and skills across 30 programs, resulting in a value of $1.3 million in kind. They work in horticulture, science, visitor engagement and information services, shrub regeneration, wildlife monitoring, asset recovery and herbarium specimen mounting, and also distribute and sell plants and organize events and exhibitions for the Foundation and Friends of the Botanic Gardens.
Next week is Volunteer Week, May 16-22, so it’s the perfect time to decide to do more with gardens beyond your own backyard or balcony.
Of course, The Gardens isn’t the only way to contribute. Municipalities rely on volunteers for forest restoration groups and for gardening groups to help older residents stay in their homes. Some gardens that open regularly, such as Eryldene and Lindsay, also rely on volunteers to maintain them.