As a keen gardener and landscaper living in tropical Malaysia, whenever I travel around the world, I like to visit botanic gardens in tropical countries to see mature species of plants that I may not have in my own garden. It helps me to understand how the growing conditions under which they are being cultivated those botanic gardens can be replicated in my own garden.
On previous trips to Australia, I have visited the Cairns and Darwin botanic gardens, which are the premier tropical gardens in Australia. There is one other botanic gardens of a similar size within the tropical region of northern Australia, and that is the Rockhampton Botanic Gardens.
I recently had the opportunity to travel to Rockhampton, so I made sure to include time in my itinerary to visit the city’s botanic gardens. I wasn’t expecting them to be as interesting as the Cairns and Darwin gardens because Rockhampton is much further south and only just within the tropics, so are much cooler in those months when southern Australia is experiencing winter weather.
However, being on the edge of the sub-tropics, I was hoping there would be some interesting species in the gardens with which I was not so familiar because all of my gardening experience has been in the wet tropics (Rockhampton has a much drier climate, especially compared to Cairns).
The Rockhampton Botanic Gardens are located on the eastern side of Murray Lagoon which is at the southern end of the north-south runway of Rockhampton airport. If you are a plane photographer as well as a plant photographer, you would probably get some nice shots from planes landing when the wind is blowing from the north.
I arrived at the gardens late morning and headed straight to the administration centre – which comprises an office and what looks like a souvenir shop – so I could get a map of the gardens. However, the centre was closed and there was no sign on the door to indicate why. It was a Saturday, so perhaps the administration centre is only open on weekdays.
There was a maintenance crew ripping out of large clump of bamboo not far from the administration centre, so I asked one of the crew members if there was anywhere else I could get a map of the gardens. He said he didn’t know but told me there was a map on a board near the gardens café, so I headed over there and photographed the map with my phone. I used that to navigate my way around the various sections of the gardens.
I spent about two hours walking through the gardens. The Rockhampton Zoo is located within the gardens, and there appeared to be more people in the zoo than in the actual gardens. The café was also a popular spot but aside from that I had most of the rest of the gardens to myself.
The gardens are well maintained and there are some fine examples of tropical trees and palms that are over 100 years old, but there was nothing unusual compared to the Cairns and Darwin gardens. In fact, I would guess that the number of species growing in the Rockhampton Botanic Gardens would be less than half the number growing in the Cairns and Darwin gardens.
I went looking for shade houses to see if there was anything interesting growing there by way of smaller species, but I couldn’t find any shade houses. I saw signs to a fern house, but there was nothing there in the direction that they were pointing. I asked three different workers in the gardens where the fern house was, but none of them knew.
(I subsequently determined where the fern house was located by checking Google Maps, but it was empty. Perhaps it was closed during the Covid pandemic or is being renovated).
I was particularly disappointed that there was no orchid house. Rockhampton’s climate means it can grow both tropical and sub-tropical orchids as evidenced by the excellent orchid shows that are held in Rockhampton twice a year, but this seems to be a missed opportunity by the administrators of the Rockhampton Botanic Gardens.
The gardens are an excellent spot to take a walk (but take insect repellent because there are mosquitoes in some of the shady areas of the gardens) and no doubt would be a popular picnic spot for local families during the cooler months of the year, but they are not a botanic garden to which you would make a special trip.
There are two small flying-fox colonies in the gardens. One of the large black flying-foxes and another of the smaller ‘little red’ flying-foxes. There are signs near the trees where they roost during the day.
So, to answer the question “Are the Rockhampton Botanic Gardens worth visiting?” I would say no to anyone who is visiting to see its horticultural attributes. The Cairns and Darwin botanic gardens are the only tropical gardens in Australia for which it is worth making a special trip.
However, if you are in Rockhampton for other purposes, then by all means add them to your itinerary if you are looking for somewhere quiet to relax for a few hours or take a stroll. It’s not really a lunch destination because the food at the gardens café is mostly of the ‘take-away’ type (unlike the Cairns and Darwin botanic gardens which have excellent cafés) and that’s probably because the number of visitors to the Rockhampton Botanic Gardens wouldn’t support anything more upmarket.
The Rockhampton Botanic Gardens have the potential to be something much more than they are at present. But it’s clear that they are being developed as a recreational facility for the local populace and not as a horticultural attraction for tourists interested in tropical plants. That may be because the local authorities don’t recognise that potential, or the decision makers involved don’t have any interest in tropical horticulture.
All images: © Russell Fox