Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens was established in 1846 by Lieutenant Governor Charles La Trobe. Over the next 60 years this swampy site was transformed into the world-famous landscape we know today. In 1958, Queen Elizabeth II bestowed the ‘Royal’ prefix on the Gardens.
Ferdinand von Mueller was appointed Director of the Gardens in 1857. He built on the work of Curators John Arthur (1846-49) and John Dallachy (1849-57). Mueller’s achievements included a plantation of conifers to demonstrate their usefulness to Victoria, a fountain in the middle of the lagoon, and a formal garden to show the relationships between families of plants. In 1867 the Giant Waterlily, one of the great horticultural wonders of the time, flowered for the first time in Melbourne.
Entertainment in the Gardens in Mueller’s time included concerts and horticultural shows. Mueller was also appointed Victoria’s first Government Botanist in 1853, establishing the National Herbarium of Victoria the same year. From then until his retirement in 1896, he built the foundations of what is today one of Australia’s most important dried plant, algae and fungi collections - the State Botanical Collection: historically and botanically significant, it comprises a majority of Australian material but includes a significant component of foreign-collected material.
In 1873 Mueller was succeeded by William Guilfoyle, who is often described as ‘the master of landscaping’. It is his vision that shaped the gardens. By carefully planting trees and placing garden beds he developed the scenic panoramas and sweeping lawns that are characteristic of Melbourne Gardens today. He was inspired by sub-tropical plants and used many of them in his landscapes, including flaxes and cordylines from New Zealand, palms, and other foliage plants. Among his creations are the recently restored Fern Gully, rockeries, picturesque shelters, the Temple of the Winds (a memorial to La Trobe) and the Ornamental Lake. His volcano has been restored as an important part of Melbourne Gardens’ water management program. Guilfoyle retired in 1909. The next 80 years were a period of maintenance and consolidation.
Successive directors often had to struggle with reduced budgets, but in the 1960s, management of the then Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne recognised the need for a garden to promote the cultivation of Australian plants. With the assistance of the Maud Gibson Trust, land was purchased south-east of Melbourne, and Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne (now Cranbourne Gardens) was established in 1970. Additional land has since been purchased and Cranbourne Gardens now covers 363 hectares in Melbourne’s outer south-east.
In the 1980s a Government inquiry recommended the establishment of a Board to manage the Gardens for the people of Victoria: the Royal Botanic Gardens Board Victoria was subsequently established as a statutory authority under the Royal Botanic Gardens Act 1991. The intervening years have seen a number of new developments under the leadership of former Director and Chief Executive, Dr Philip Moors (1992-2012): the creation of ARCUE (1998); The Ian Potter Foundation Children’s Garden (2004); the Australian Garden (Stage 1 - 2006; Stage 2 - 2012); Guilfoyle’s Volcano (2010) and Working Wetlands (2012).
Professor Timothy Entwisle became the 13th head of the Royal Botanic Gardens, when he took up the role of Director and Chief Executive in March 2013. This period also generated considerable community support for the Royal Botanic Gardens: the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne was established in 1982, and the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne was established in 1991. Both groups assist the Gardens with many projects.
Today, the Gardens is a much expanded organisation to the one first founded in 1846 on its inner-city Melbourne site and incorporates a number of distinct locations and functions. In June 2015, the Gardens embarked on another chapter of this rich history and sought to bring together the elements of this much expanded organisation under one name: it is now known as Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, incorporating Melbourne Gardens, Cranbourne Gardens, the National Herbarium of Victoria and the Australian Research Centre for Urban Ecology (ARCUE).
Ellender, I. (1998). The Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne: an archaeological survey for Aboriginal sites in the Australian Garden. Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne, Cranbourne (Vic.).
Howson, P. (1996). The Cranbourne Botanic Gardens and the Maud Gibson Trust. Victorian Historical Magazine 67, 160–66.
Lemon, A. (ed.) (1996). Melbourne’s pride and glory: 150 years at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne. Victorian historical magazine 67, 1–176.
Pescott, R. T. M. (1982). The Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne: a history from 1845 to 1970. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.