In praise of plants from elsewhere (Plant Portrait II*)

[This post was run as an opinion piece in today's (7 June) The Age under the heading 'Exotic plants face a prickly reception on foreign soil'. I should stress that it's highly unlikely the person wielding a knife or axe in our Arid Garden had a thing about cacti or exotics. That would be too cerebral I suspect. My essay relates to a conversation thread that has popped up here and there over the last few days as people try to conceive a possible motive for that senseless vandalism.]

We don’t know who savaged the cacti collection at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens on Tuesday night, or why, but one motive postulated is a deep hatred for exotic plants (there are no cacti native to Australia). This in a now fairly typical week where Australians yet again had to examine their attitude towards Indigenous Australians and overseas asylum seekers. At the core of all these issues is a fundamental question about who can call Australia home and how we deal with that.

In one of his Encounter essays, Milan Kundera quotes Vera Linhartova, a Czech author who like himself moved to Paris and from there wrote in French, as saying ‘the writer is not a prisoner of any one language’. A great liberating sentence, says Kundera, and only the brevity of life keeps a writer from drawing all the conclusions from this invitation to freedom.

Lovely lines and part of a plea for writers in exile to be considered neither of their home or adopted country, but what he calls elsewhere.

It seems harder for plants to be from elsewhere. They grow either in their home habitat, mollycoddled in an adopted garden or invade another plant's home to become what we call naturalised. Kundera was writing about how difficult it can be, by some, to accept a writer from no particular place. Can we accept a plant under the same conditions?

Living in the UK for two years I came to realise that all plants there were from elsewhere. Some are more native than others but the immigrants have blended with the indigenous now and it doesn't make much sense to talk about natural and man-made landscapes.

Back in Australia, place of origin is of utmost importance, whether relating to Indigenous people, boat people or sports people. To Australians, it seems, it still matters.

That's not a bad thing when it comes to nature. We still have places we call wilderness and we still have vegetation that contains pretty much the same species as when Arthur Phillip arrived with the first European settlers in 1788.

Outside our more or less natural lands, in places where human impacts are stronger, the distinction becomes blurrier. It seems odd to build roads and paths, close-packed homes, parking lots – indeed 'pave paradise' – but then worry about whether a tree in our garden is from home or away.

I've bleated on about this in the past, but if a plant stays put (it doesn't spread into nearby bushland), doesn't need excessive water or nasty chemicals to survive, and is not harmful (and perhaps even attractive) to local wildlife (in the broadest sense)...plant it.

The Pepper Tree is a good example. There are some wonderful old specimens of Schinus molle in my neighbourhood. They conjure up vivid memories of my childhood in country Victoria, where they were the tree of choice around late nineteenth-century farmhouses, usually outliving the home itself.

The home of the Pepper Tree is South America, in deserts and dry lands of Chile, Argentina and Peru. It has had assisted passage to much of the Southern Hemisphere and in places it is a troublesome weed. In South Africa, for example, it is naturalised and causing widespread environmental damage.

In Australia the story is less clear. In some places it invades and displaces. In others it just persists, a reminder of past dreams and achievements in rural Australia, or here in the suburbs of Melbourne evidence of earlier planting fashions. In my mind, it comes from elsewhere, in time and place.

There are lots of other plants in the elsewhere category. Whether you chose to accept them or not will depend on personal whim and circumstance. I'd nominate oaks, elms, cedars, the Jacaranda, a few scrappy weeds in our paths and more controversially perhaps, Red Flowering Gum from Western Australia and Moreton Bay Fig from subtropical and tropical eastern Australia.

I’d also include cacti. I suspect the rampage in the botanic gardens was a random act of vandalism but should there be there any link to the origin and worthiness of these plants I would be bitterly disappointed. No plant should be the prisoner of a country or state.

Images: some fine specimens of the Pepper Tree from my neighbourhood.

*Plant Portrait is a partly ironic name for an ad hoc series of posts about things other than, but including at least passing reference to, plants. Often they will be inspired by a book or something else in my cultural life. The idea is borrowed (loosely and with extreme humbleness) from Milan Kundera's 'Novels, Existential Soundings', in his Encounters. These essays were as much, or more, about things other than the book being reviewed.


Libby Robin said…
Shocking vandalism. You are right to wonder about extreme nationalism at work here.
There is, perhaps,a particular hatred of desert plants at work here?

But very important to reflect on what botanic gardens represent as official plant museums in prominent cultural places.

Thanks for this
Libby Robin
Tim Entwisle said…
Agree! Botanic Gardens have lots of valuable roles - all very important. Thanks for feedback.