Visitors welcome: an Aussie adventure
On a perishing day at the end of February, I found myself, as courier no. 3 for a multi-million pound consignment of Persian manuscripts, in a bonded warehouse at Heathrow waiting for clearance to fly the cargo to Melbourne. Not being a city girl, the prospect of a three week stay in the centre of Melbourne had me thinking about places to see plants and some last minute online research yielded the Cactus & Succulent Society of Australia, based in Melbourne and with a meeting during my stay.
The website said ‘Visitors welcome’ so I e-mailed. Relying on public transport, my expectations of being able to reach the meeting were low but my new Australian friends assured me that their hall was just opposite a stop on the Glen Waverley metro line. How could I resist?
My first port of call, in a heatwave worthy of Death Valley was the new succulent garden on Guilfoyle’s Volcano at Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens. The ‘Volcano’ is a reservoir, recently restored and planted with almost 17,000 plants from 250 different species. Succulents tumble down the sides of the Volcano in xerophytic lava flows of blues, golds and reds, with further colour being supplied by over 150 tons of mulch made from crushed terracotta tiles and bricks.
Agave 'Blue Glow', Crassula falcata and Echinocactus grusonii at Guilfoyle's Volcano
Wearing a conspicuous cactus brooch, in the hope fellow cactophile might spot and rescue me if I got lost; the next adventure was down the Glen Waverley line. Finding the meeting hall proved just as easy as Vice-President Noelene and Secretary Barby had promised and I was given a warm welcome, a lovely card from members of the committee and some back issues of Spinette, the CSSA journal.
After 10 years of drought in the State of Victoria the interest in succulents has grown and the CSSA expects to see around 70 members at every meeting. The large turnout brought lots of tempting members’ sales plants and it was hard to look and not buy! The programme was rather different from the typical British meeting with the talk occupying only the second half of the evening. This left time for a specimen plant auction (all sellers are asked to donate an item for auction in lieu of paying a sales commission to Society); a Quick Fire session led by seasoned grower Victor on buying plants; and an introduction to ’Blue Plants’ by Andrew to help members vote in the Plant of the Month contest .With so many new members, the Plant of the Month is based on physical characteristics, such as colour and texture, to help encourage those who are not so sure about plant names. I was allowed to vote as well and couldn’t resist this venerable Leuchtenbergia principis. Lucky winners receive very handsome certificates, guaranteed to encourage those new to showing. By having a variety of activities in the first half of the evening members are encouraged to attend, even if the talk in the second half is covers an area of less interest or seems daunting to the novice. Having given talks at branches where X or Y hasn’t turned up because they don’t like the subject of the presentation, maybe there is something we can learn here from our Australian cousins.
The President of the CSSA, Attila, gave the talk of the evening. I had heard him speak at the American convention and so knew that I was in for a treat. His fascinating introduction to the Australian bottle trees left me obsessed with Brachychitons and, as committee member Diane kindly offered me a lift home, I was able to stay to the end without worrying about catching trains. While these amazing bottle trees are too big for greenhouse culture, removal of the growing tip at an early age can produce wonderful caudiciform bonsai and we were shown some lovely potted specimens. Perhaps they will reach Europe in time and we will be able to try them for ourselves.
In the interval Victor, the committee member who had led the lively Quick Fire session kindly offered to drive me out to some succulent sights, if I was at all interested. Interested? At this stage Victor did not know what a succulent -obsessed madwoman he was dealing with... Despite my changing work commitments and Victor’s own hectic schedule, he performed miracles. Some of my most treasured memories of Australia are of trips in Victor’s ‘Tour Bus’ sustained by sandwiches (eggs from the in-laws’ chooks) and food prepared by his lovely wife Cristina. Victor’s own garden is packed with cactus and succulent goodies along with carnivorous plants, orchids and garden treasures such as the Woolemi Pine.
He makes use of absolutely every available space and I was particularly taken with the succulent trays reached by ladder. I’ve since been looking at the roof of my garden shed and thinking...
Thanks to Victor and Cristina, I managed a trip to Geelong Botanic gardens to see my very own Brachichyton rupestris. By this time the British weather has followed me and it was raining all day every day but when did that ever put off a dedicated succulent sightseer?
Victor also managed to arrange a visit to Attila and Michele’s garden, which makes use of succulents as landscaping plants and is open to the public by appointment. Attila and his wife Michele were busy preparing for a big plant fair so it was very kind of them to spend some time showing me round and I felt very privileged to have a personal private tour. This garden put me in mind of Huntington in the way that the succulents work with the landscape, though it has completely Australian flavour with Brachychitons providing focal points amongst the more familiar Agaves and Aloes. It is a tremendous achievement considering it is the work of two people and, yes, that includes Attila and Michele heaving rocks around to make the boulder sculptures. One of the biggest thrills was to be able to see Calandrinia growing in a flat sandy area. Attila explained that they do not do particularly well as horticultural specimens but it was great to see plants that I had only encountered previously as photographs in his book on Australian succulents.
In an action packed day we also managed Cactus Corner. It seemed very strange to have a dedicated Cactus Garden Centre in an ordinary shopping complex but this is an indication of how, in a country where many succulents can be grown outside, they are much more integrated into mainstream gardening. I’d certainly like to have a Cactus Corner next door to my local Garden Centre, though it probably wouldn’t do much for my bank balance.
As a lover of caudiciforms, the final treat was a trip to Theo and Helga’s collection, set in temperate rainforests of the Dandenong . Theo built his beautiful house himself and also the wonderful greenhouse nestled amongst the many trees that he has grown from seed.
At the time I visited, Theo and Helga were considering selling their succulent paradise, which included forests of huge Dioscorea elephantipes, any one of which would cause a stir at our forthcoming National Show. The matching pair of giants on either side of their front door were taller than me and in superb condition. The trip ended with Theo and Helga giving me a bag of huge tomatoes of all different colours and tastes to take back and scoff in private in my hotel room.
When the Cactus & Succulent Society of Australia say ‘Visitors Welcome’ they really mean it and I can’t thank them enough for the warm reception and time they were prepared to spend on showing me around. While 10,000 miles is perhaps rather far to travel to drop in on a different style of meeting, if you are ever in Melbourne on holiday or business, look them up, as you can be assured they are an extremely Pom-friendly bunch.