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Plant Focus

Quercus macdougallii
A rare oak endemic to the Sierra Juárez in Oaxaca

The White Oak in Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria

Two days after Christmas 2019, one of the largest oaks on Oak Lawn, at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, fell over. It split in two, with the first tranche falling early in the day, the second, late afternoon. We are not sure why it fell but most likely a mix of old age (these trees live to 300 years or more in natural habitat of eastern and central North America, but in Melbourne oaks and elms grow almost twice as fast as in their natural home, due to our mild winters, and can senesce at a younger age), droughts (including the recent Millennial Drought), strong winds and the cumulative effects of climate change (we know some oaks will not tolerate higher temps and less rainfall modeled for Melbourne). When I returned to the Gardens from leave a few days later, the tree was a serpentine tangle of ancient wood and still fresh green leaves.

The white oak on the Oak Lawn, before it fell © Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria

The oak that fell was recorded as Quercus aff. alba (white oak) on our database, probably a hybrid and most likely (I think) with Q. robur (English or pedunculate oak). Quercus alba looks a bit like the better-known Q. robur but hails from eastern North America and has leaves attached by longer stalks, bluish underneath, and with 3–4 lobes on each side, each often a little further lobed. At a distance, though, it looked to many, including me, like the common Q. robur. No matter how you viewed it, this tree was one of the standout specimens among the 6,000 or so growing in Melbourne Gardens. Personally, I was not able or willing to put a date on the tree (and in any case, what would I know?).

The Gardens’ first Director (there were two “superintendents” before him, between 1846 and 1857), Ferdinand von Mueller, planted the first oak in what became the Melbourne Botanic Gardens, a cork oak (Q. suber), sometime after he took up that role in 1857. In 1862 he planted 30 more oaks, some in the area destined to become Oak Lawn and including one recorded white oak near the original lake, distant from today’s Oak Lawn.

The white oak, shortly after collapsing © Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria

We don’t know when this particular white oak was planted. But the possibilities are:

  • It was planted by Mueller (at some unknown time but possibly in the early 1860s) but not recorded in any of the records we have remaining today. It could be in its original location or transplanted. We have no evidence to refute or support this option.
  • It was a white oak that we know was planted by Mueller near our lake in 1862 or on our Princes Lawn before 1865, then moved at some later date (presumably by William Guilfoyle, Mueller’s successor as Director and rather fond of moving trees of all ages and species) to what became, or what was, Oak Lawn. We have no record of Guilfoyle moving this particular oak.
  • It was planted after 1865, during the tenure of Mueller or Guilfoyle.
  • It was planted after Guilfoyle left the role of Director in 1909

We have one tantalizing piece of information that suggests a mid- rather than late-nineteenth or twentieth century planting. In 1908, William Guilfoyle published a small booklet called Handbook, or, Descriptive guide to the Botanic Gardens, Melbourne with plans, views, etc. In there he names and circumscribes the “Oak Lawn” for the first time, and represents all trees growing in the Gardens with a black dot on his map. One of these dots is where our white oak once stood, and the first tree mentioned by Guilfoyle in his section on the Oak Lawn in the Descriptive tour through gardens section is what he describes as a “fine example of Quercus alba, the White Oak.” For that tree to be a fine example in 1908 suggests it was already of some stature and age.

Today in the Melbourne Gardens of Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, there are 127 oak trees, representing 71 species of oak. Forty-six of the oak trees are in Oak Lawn, including 38 of the oak species in the Gardens. While we lost one tree at the end of 2019, we plan to replace that Quercus aff. alba with Quercus lobata (valley oak), which our modeling tells us will cope better with Melbourne’s climate over the next century.

Further reading

"Amid the mourning, new life for one of Melbourne's most-loved trees," Brisbane Times, June 27, 2020

"How Climate Change Is Affecting the Plants We Grow," Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria website, January 21, 2020