The famed white oak in Melbourne’s botanic gardens is gone, but in its place is diverse new life and a fresh approach to planning for a hotter, drier future. By Ben Brooker and Jennifer Mills.

Botanic gardens plan for a drier future

The site of the white oak is becoming a focus for rest and contemplation.
The site of the white oak is becoming a focus for rest and contemplation.
Credit: Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria

In December 2019, as the Black Summer bushfires were engulfing much of eastern Australia, a giant white oak that had stood for more than 150 years at the Melbourne site of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (RBGV) split in half and collapsed. Director and chief executive Tim Entwisle returned from leave to find only “a serpentine tangle of ancient wood and still fresh green leaves”. He attributed the tree’s demise to its age, the Millennium drought, recent strong winds and climate change. For a short time, the tree’s major branches were left where they had fallen to give visitors a chance to say goodbye.

While shocking, the collapse wasn’t exactly unforeseen. A few years earlier, the RBGV had begun to seriously wrestle with the potential impacts of climate change. In 2016, they launched a landscape succession strategy. About three-quarters of the gardens’ living collections were tested for their ability to survive in Melbourne’s predicted 2090 climate – that is, drier and hotter, and more like present-day Sydney, Buenos Aires or Tijuana. The assessment found that more than a quarter of the gardens’ plant species were at high risk of becoming unviable.

In response, the RBGV embarked on an ambitious plan with a key aim of making 75 per cent of plant species in the gardens suited to the projected climate of 2090. Four further strategies addressed plant diversity, sustainable water use and the improvement of green and built infrastructure to better withstand climatic extremes. Underpinning all this is an “insurance policy”: a seed bank that stores the spores and seeds of hundreds of endemic and at-risk species. Following the creation of the strategy, the RBGV also formed the Climate Change Alliance of Botanic Gardens, an international knowledge- and strategy-sharing network that has more than 400 members.

One of the more contentious issues facing botanic gardens globally is fossil fuel sponsorship. In 2009, as part of a $6 million “community benefits package”, major oil and gas producer Santos announced it was giving $2 million to Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens and State Herbarium. Pocket change to Santos, the money nevertheless enabled the restoration of the Museum of Economic Botany, which had fallen into disrepair after years of state government neglect. Built in 1880, the museum houses a remarkable 130-year-old collection of artefacts from across the world, including plants, medicines and papier-mâché models of fruit and fungi. It is the last museum of its kind anywhere in the world. As part of the agreement, Santos received naming rights to the museum until 2029. But the incongruity of a fossil fuel company funding an organisation dedicated to the conservation of the natural world has not escaped the attention of climate activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion, and members of the Friends of the Botanic Gardens.

Among the latter is Bill Dowling, a retired preschool teacher and former Education Department bureaucrat who is also a volunteer guide at the gardens. According to Dowling, both Labor and Liberal governments have been defunding the Department for Environment and Water in general, and the botanic gardens in particular, for at least the past two decades. In such straitened circumstances, Dowling acknowledges that without Santos’s money the museum might not have been refurbished. “But,” he says, “if you sup with the devil, you should use a long spoon. By agreeing to Santos’s sponsorship, the board in this case, but ultimately the government, allows Santos to indulge in greenwashing to make itself appear a lot more environmentally conscious and useful than it really is.”

A spokesperson from the Botanic Gardens and State Herbarium, which is a member of the Climate Change Alliance, tells The Saturday Paper that the institution “values the financial support that Santos provided between 2009 and 2017 to restore the Museum of Economic Botany and support the work of both the SA Seed Conservation Centre, and some of our education programs”. Santos did not respond to a request for comment.

Entwisle tells The Saturday Paper that the Royal Botanic Gardens Foundation, a non-profit organisation that provides financial support to the Victorian botanic gardens, has divested from fossil fuel companies. The RBGV itself doesn’t currently have sponsorship arrangements with any – although this could change. “If somebody approached us then it would more than likely not be accepted, but we haven’t made a policy statement to not do it,” Entwisle says. Instead, any such offer would be assessed on criteria including whether a company was “doing the right thing” and on a “reasonable trajectory”, he says.

Meanwhile, the trajectory for the planet is clear: more extreme weather events, increasing ice loss and sea level rise, and global heating by as much as 4.4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. A 2019 study by UN Environment found that resource extraction is the cause of 80 per cent of biodiversity loss. In this context, a fossil fuel company sponsoring a botanic garden is like a tobacco company financing a hospital, with naming rights to the oncology ward. This isn’t simply a rhetorical flourish either: the earliest botanic gardens were physic gardens dedicated to plants used for healing the sick.

Modern botanic gardens exist, in part, to educate and engage the public in an appreciation of the natural world. This task now includes helping us face the realities and responsibilities of the climate crisis. “As botanic gardens we need to be more aggressive, more outgoing and less inward-looking when talking about climate change,” Entwisle says. “I don’t think we always have to go to the biodiversity end of things when we do this. We can actually talk about humans’ relationships with trees, whether that’s who’s growing a particular tree, or a very old tree in someone’s town. I’ve found the longevity of trees is probably our way in for a lot of people.”

Where the white oak once stood, three new oaks have been planted, each from a different region of the world: Mexico, California and south-eastern United States. These trees are better suited to what Melbourne’s climate will be like in the coming years, says Entwisle, who believes that their planting is a good example of the RBGV’s approach to climate change. “They’re in a collection called the oak lawn,” he continues, “so we’re putting oaks back in that will provide shade and will look as beautiful and have the same kind of shape and sort of sense of a tree, if you like, as the white oak.”

Visitors to the gardens can now ontemplate the stump of the white oak while seated on chairs made from the tree’s timber. Intended to be temporary, the seats are already decaying, teeming with fungi and breaking down with use. “You can sit on that log, the old white oak, and think about the tree that was there and why it died,” Entwisle says. “At the same time, you can see the new trees and think about what we’re going to have to do in our cities to adapt.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2022 as "Trees of life".

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