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archive-flag-2003CANBR History Document, prepared for a temporary display in 2003

CSIRO Plant Industry

Australian National Botanic Gardens
– a long association

Genesis of a Garden

photo: B.T.DicksonIn July 1933 there was a recommendation to the Minister of the Interior from the Federal Territory Advisory Council

"that a start be made with laying out portion of the site set apart for the Botanical Gardens and of planting same with native and exotic trees, shrubs and plants of economic value as distinct from those grown for ornamental purposes only."

It was Dr Bertram Dickson, Head of the Division of Plant Industry at the newly established Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR now CSIRO) who was co-opted to examine the proposal and report on its feasibility.

Australian Flora

Dickson promoted the use of native plants, which, considering his recent arrival as an immigrant from Canada in 1927, was quite innovative for the 1930s. He was already referring to 'our' flora:

"Many of our native plants are eminently suited to garden and landscape treatment and this is well recognised abroad for one may read in catalogues of highly prized plants originally obtained from the Australian flora "All plants and trees of the Australian flora which are found to be hardy should be grown"

Choosing a site

For more than a year Dickson, assisted by Colin Barnard, also of CSIR Plant Industry, gathered information about botanic gardens around the world. On 4 September 1935 Dickson submitted his report to the Advisory Council. It was accompanied by a set of photos taken by Barnard.

Dickson went back to Walter Burley Griffin's plans for Canberra's gardens and endorsed some elements of them. He selected the present site on the lower slopes of Black Mountain, although his proposal envisaged an area three times the size of the present Gardens. He also located it adjacent to both the proposed University and the research laboratories of the CSIR, for he certainly saw a scientific role for the Gardens:

"The authorities would be well advised to plan the proposed gardens at Canberra so that they are developed with a balance between the scientific and the aesthetic, and certainly not to the neglect of the scientific phase."

Hand-tinted photo by Colin Barnard of proposed site for Botanic Gardens on lower slopes of Black Mountain, with proposed Lake Burley Griffin painted in. Prepared for Dickson Report.

Dr Colin Barnard (1904-1974) above.


Parallel Development

Dr Dickson at the opening of the Botanic Gardens in 1970, with Curator John Wrigley and wife Marcia.

Planting commenced immediately after the Second World War, and the Gardens celebrated its official establishment at a tree-planting ceremony with Prime Minister Chifley in 1949 – the year CSIR became CSIRO under the Chairmanship of Ian Clunies Ross.

Following Dickson's suggestion, the Gardens did develop along scientific lines, vouchering all its plantings and setting up an herbarium and later a research unit. However, a short distance down the road CSIRO was also establishing not just one, but several herbaria.

For the next 40 years the Botanic Gardens existed alongside CSIRO with few scientific links, certainly not the synergy that Dickson had envisaged in his original Report.

It is interesting to note that Dr Dickson, then aged 84 and having retired from CSIRO in 1951 was a special guest at the official opening of the Gardens by Prime Minister Gorton in 1970.

An amphitheatre was built at the Gardens in 1980 as a memorial to Dr Nancy Burbidge, head of the CSIRO Plant Industry Herbarium from 1946 until 1973.

Colin Barnard (1904-1974), a prominent researcher with CSIRO Plant Industry, is commemorated by a plaque in the Gardens, not far from the Burbidge Amphitheatre.

Dr Nancy Burbidge

Burbidge Memorial Amphitheatre

Barnard Plaque near Burbidge Amphitheatre

Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research

After years of parallel development, negotiations started in 1990 to amalgamate the CSIRO and ANBG herbaria (the several CSIRO herbaria having been amalgamated over the previous decade).

In 1993 this resulted in the establishment of the Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research, incorporating the Australian National Herbarium – now the largest single herbarium in Australia with about 1.4 million specimens.

Those aspects of the Botanic Gardens dealing with scientific research and the major programs of CSIRO Plant Industry dealing with Australian native plants and natural ecosystems are now undertaken within one institution – an outcome that would surely have pleased Dr Dickson.


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