To me, the most interesting thing about the National Arboretum Canberra is its origin. Bushfires raged through the ACT, Australian Capital Territory, in 2001 and 2003. The latter occurred during a super-hot-and-dry January and was especially devastating with 435 injuries, 4 deaths, 500 homes destroyed, etc. Miraculously, the NAC has risen from the ashes like a Phoenix with plants and trees seeded in the former burn area. The Bunya pine, which has fire resistant characteristics, has been widely planted as a monument to the dedication of firefighters who fought the inferno. The young trees flourish in Forest 71, just part of this 618 acre, 5 compass attraction.
Arboretum planning began in 2005. The Village Centre, an architectural delight with a restaurant, gift shop, exhibits, etc. has risen atop a hill. Nearby is a eucalyptus forest including 16 species to represent the natives that covered this land before the fire. There are 700 species of eucalypts in Australia, most of them both indigenous and fire hazards since their oil is highly flammable and their burning creates crown fires and fiery projectiles.
For me, the National Arboretum Canberra, which officially opened in February, 2013, already has 3 distinctive lures–a playground, sculptures, and bonsai. The playground is adjacent to the Village Centre and delightfully active with parents and children enjoying the oversized, forward-thinking equipment together. Great sculptures are scattered about the property, many on hilltops with stunning views of Canberra in the distance. While I chose Dorothea’s McKellar’s “wide brown land” (Australia) to represent the Arboretum above, John and I spent far more time studying and delighting in Richard Moffat’s Nest III, a collection of old farm implements cleverly shaped into a nest with an alert wedge-tailed eagle on its rim.
The bonsai trees merit a separate paragraph. The National Bonsai and Penjing Collection of Australia clearly displays the 2 basic concepts common to this type of miniature tree cultivation, respect for age and for anyone, trees included, who has struggled during life and survived with dignity. Up to 80 bonsai will be on display at all times at NAC with Australian natives, like Banksias, about 30 percent of the collection. One thing I learned is that a bonsai can live indefinitely due to the constant regeneration of its roots. If you get to see this exceptional collection, have your camera ready.
The most curious tree, though, is also the rarest, the franklinia alatamaha. Originating along the banks of the Alatamaha River in Georgia, the one in the United States, it has not been seen in the wild since 1803. Journeys to rediscover it have failed even though it remains a popular garden plant. Its extinction is attributed to “over-collection by nurserymen” according to documentation in the National Arboretum Canberra where, for now, newly planted twigs climb slopes next to more mature trees like children on a stroll with older siblings. For now, roads twisting up and down through the arboretum are still visible, but, unless there’s another major natural disaster, they will soon be made invisible by the abundant growth that sprang from survivors’ hope.