Purple Reign

It’s jacaranda time and Sydneysiders have been in rhapsody over the lavender flowered trees as they blossomed. The trees have become a part of Sydney’s heritage and many consider them an Australian tree.  But they actually come from Central and South America and their colonisation of Australia is linked to the British colonisation of Australia. They also have a special place in the story of our area.

Jacarandas became known to Britons when seeds collected in Brazil by botanist Allan Cunningham were sent to Kew Gardens, London around 1816. Cunningham had been recommended for the expedition by Sir Joseph Banks. 

After Brazil, Cunningham came to Australia and spent years scouring the coast and country, including several circumnavigations of the continent, looking for botanical specimens to send back to Kew Gardens. In fact, he covered so much of the country that he is often remembered as an explorer. 

Alan Cunningham has his own statue on the Lands Department building, Bent Street, Sydney.
Photo: Rod Aanensen

Cunningham died in Sydney in 1839 and doesn’t seem to have planted any jacaranda seeds during his time here. They didn’t arrive in Sydney until the 1850s when seeds were planted in the Royal Botanic Gardens. The tree that grew was a sensation and each year its blossoming was heralded in the newspapers just as jacarandas are today. 

At this time very few jacaranda trees existed in Sydney as they grew from fresh seed, making germination difficult.  It wasn’t until a grafting technique was perfected in the gardens of Thomas Mort by his gardener George Mortimer and nurseryman Michael Guilfoyle that they became more freely available to the general population. 

Guilfoyle owned the ‘Exotic Nursery’ near Ocean Street in Double Bay, not far from Mort’s property ‘Green Oaks’, and was very well known as a landscape gardener and nurseryman. Just down the road from Guilfoyle was the nursery of John and William Gelding, soon to be residents of what is now Dulwich Hill but then was still known as Petersham.

When the Geldings moved to Dulwich Hill in 1869, they arrived in a rural area with no roads excepting the old Canterbury (mud) Road, an area of dairy farms, piggeries, and brickyards (see note). The brothers established the ‘Victoria Nursery’ on Canterbury Road and eventually built a large house for each brother at the corners of the nursery. The Geldings sold plants and trees of all descriptions, including the jacaranda.

They had arrived at a time when the entire area was expanding. Marrickville, Stanmore, and Petersham may have been on the outer limits of Sydney but population increase and transportation links were quickly drawing them into the urban environment. This period also saw the establishment of two other nurseries in the area and, besides the location, these three nurseries were to be linked for nearly half a century.

Gelding’s Victoria Nursery, Old Canterbury Road, Dulwich Hill. John’s house ‘Myannville’ on the left and William’s “Finchley’ on the right of the glasshouses. Both still stand but ‘Finchley’ is much altered. The line to left of John’s house is now Hampstead Street. The angled line on the right of William’s house is now Maddock Street.
Image : Illustrated Sydney News, September 1, 1883.

Joseph Graham arrived in Marrickville in late 1867, established his ‘Lilydale’ nursery on  the corner of Marrickville and Livingstone roads, and also began selling jacarandas. This land is now occupied by the new Marrickville library complex, the fire station and the old Marrickville town hall. 

As with the Geldings, the Searls ran a family business. Frederick Searl began the flower business and sons, Fred and John, managed the shop and nursery respectively. John Searl moved to Petersham in 1871 and established the  ‘Blair Athol’ nursery in the area north of the railway line near the station.

While in competition with each other Gelding, Graham and Searl had very similar experiences in their business lives and their social or civic lives. Not surprisingly, they were all involved in the Horticultural Society of NSW – Gelding as secretary and Graham as treasurer – and the promotion of plant species introduced into the colony.  They all operated stands in the Sydney Market buildings on the land now occupied by the Queen Victoria Building. In fact, Searl and Graham traded beside each other while Gelding was just across the passage (see illustration below).

The Sydney Markets, George Street. Frederick Searl and Joseph Graham stands on the left, John and William Gelding on the right. Image : Illustrated Sydney News, 16 September 1876.
Below : Diagram of the markets showing the nursery sites surrounded by poultry and bacon!
Image: Plans of Sydney (Doves) 1880. City of Sydney website.

The nurserymen had all bought land and then sold off portions of it as the suburban expansion increased and railway lines meant there was a demand for housing along the rail corridor. Just as today, people wished to live close to transport links and the Sydenham-Bankstown line meant Graham had good land to sell, as did Searl who was very close to the Petersham railway station. The Geldings were not close to the railway but the Canterbury Road was becoming a major roadway and John lobbied for the tramway to be extended from Marrickville to Dulwich Hill.  As the expansion continued they all bought land further out; Searl in Ashfield, and Graham in Auburn. 

The three men also got involved in their local councils. Frederick Searl served on the Petersham Council as an alderman, as did John Gelding. However, Gelding was on the council for 12 years and he spent two of those as mayor. Graham was on the Marrickville Council for over 20 years and was mayor for eight of them.  Graham was invited to enter NSW politics on a number of occasions but always declined, and contented himself with other organisations instead.

The beginning of the 20th century was also the beginning of the end for the nurseries. Joseph Graham died in 1894 and his ‘Lilydale’ nursery land was sold off. John Gelding died in 1900 and the ‘Victoria Nursery’ land was also sold. Searl and Sons survived and was the official florist to the governor-general. Their King Street shop window became something of a Sydney institution until the 1930s when they went into liquidation.

Today there is little evidence of the nurseries and the families that ran them. They are all long gone and street names are all that remain in the area to remind us of this period of our history.

The Geldings do have the two houses on old Canterbury Road to go with the Gelding Street and Gelding Lane behind them. The Searls have a street name in the area their nursery stood and Graham has a street named for him and one for his nursery, ‘Lilydale’.

But there is one thing that remains as a living reminder of this past, and that thing is a jacaranda tree.

This tree is on Gelding Street, land that was once part of the Gelding nursery estate. It is believed to be at least 110 years old. Jacarandas are thought to live for about 200 years when well tended, and the owners of this property are very protective of their tree, so it is in very good health.

Is this Sydney’s oldest jacaranda? Believed to have been planted between 1900-1910 in the last days of the Gelding’s ‘Victoria Nursery’.

This jacaranda is unique in a number of ways. It has a dual trunk, which is unusual, and as you can see from the photo above it has an almost horizontal branch coming from low down on the trunk.

It is almost as old as the nation of Australia. A reminder of the time when our area was an agricultural hub, both feeding Sydney and providing flowers and trees for Sydney to decorate itself.

The tree is destined to die at some point in the future but until then long may she reign.

Rod Aanensen


See a fascinating memoir by John Gelding’s son Alfred at https://reflectivegardener.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-reminiscences-of-alfred-gelding.html

And an excellent history of the Gelding’s Victoria Nursery by the reflective gardener, Silas Clifford-Smith, in Marrickville Heritage Society’s journal ‘Heritage’ No. 12, 2004 and at https://reflectivegardener.blogspot.com/2012/08/geldings-victoria-nursery.html

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