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Celebrating Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens

By Lawrie Smith AM, Brisbane

After 20 years, a small group are celebrating the establishment of the Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens.

SGAP (Australian Native Plants Society) Mackay has a vision!

A dedicated local community group – SGAP Mackay – has been heavily involved with the development of these botanic gardens. SGAP Mackay are members of Native Plants Queensland. Without their determination and willing assistance, the Gardens would never have been commenced. It is obvious that their efforts will continue to be of immeasurable value to Council and to the community.

The group continues to develop the Botanic Gardens. Their aim is the preservation of the bioregional vegetation by collection, propagation, research, interpretation and demonstration!

My contribution to Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens

Of all my projects over the past five decades this one stands out as the most successful. This is due primarily to the foresight of a small local group of native plant enthusiasts. They were led by Irene Champion and Meryl Ritchie, all sharing the same common vision. Inspired, they commenced in 1985 to take every opportunity to promote the value of a botanic garden to the city. And finally the Council agreed.

Planning and design commenced in 1999, and the first stage was opened on May 24, 2003. In the ensuing years, Council support and community involvement has established a significant botanic garden. It is a repository and educational facility for the unique Central Queensland Coast bioregional flora.

The following photographs offer a quick overview of the Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens in May 2023 – they capture the essence of the bioregion, and also opportunities for using the local flora in landscape and amenity horticulture. It provides an opportunity to celebrate Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens.

Regional network of botanic gardens

Australia now has numerous botanic gardens in the various bioregions of the continent. This was not the case in 1984. A group of botanic garden curators and managers, with members of native plant societies and others, met in Coffs Harbour.  Their focus was to review a report on the status of native flora collections in botanic gardens in Australia. The Royal Australian Institute of Parks and Recreation had prepared the report. It found that there were huge regional areas of the continent without a suitably representative botanic garden. This was apart from the capital city botanic gardens and several regional parks. The report defined locations for the establishment of a network of new regional botanic gardens throughout Australia. Now thirty-nine years later most of these have been established.

As a young landscape architect, I valued botanic gardens to inform my professional expertise. I attended this conference as I had just been commissioned to design a new botanic garden ‘Tondoon’ in Gladstone. I agreed to promote the planning, design and establishment of these new botanic gardens throughout Queensland.

We aimed to create a network of at least 12 new gardens, from south to north and inland. The locations were Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Hervey Bay, Bundaberg, Gladstone, Mackay, Whitsunday, Townsville, Cairns, Emerald, Longreach, Goondiwindi, and others. This promotion in the regions always included local members of SGAP who shared similar visions.

Mackay RBG timeline of planning & development

A significant bioregion

One of the more significant Regional Botanic Gardens of this period is located in Mackay. It sits within the Central Queensland Coastal Bioregion. The local branch of SGAP commenced the promotion for establishing a botanic garden in 1985. They started with a feasibility study funded by the SGAP Queensland. Despite additional financial support offered by the Bicentenary Authority, there was no other support and the project lapsed.

Promoting the vision of Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens

Undeterred, the local SGAP members continued to promote the vision. In 1995 the Council offered a small section of land beside a large lagoon for them to ‘have a go’! The team created a representative garden of bioregional forest species. By 1999 it was demonstrating that a botanic garden could be a viable use for the balance of the site.

My company, Landplan landscape architects, carried out the master planning and design. For me this offered a much appreciated and continuing personal association with the garden. With the local community, we established the Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens.

The ‘fossil’ textured Coal Garden path interprets the transformation of foliage into coal over millennia

‘Rawson’s Hollow’ an 1800’s Heritage Homestead Garden was reconstructed from reference to old photos

celebrating mackay regional botanic gardens

The Rainforest Liana Arbour provides an avenue of shade beside the Timber Trees Forest

We celebrated the 20th anniversary of the opening of stage one of the Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens on May 27, 2023. 

Looking back, it is actually thirty-eight years since SGAP members started promoting the establishment of a botanic garden. The first plantings of the Regional Forests led to the creation of today’s nationally significant Botanic Garden. We have now almost completed the first two stages with the third stage already planned and designed. It is just waiting to happen.

This will complete the establishment of a comprehensive and dynamic garden that preserves, researches and demonstrates the botanic and horticultural value of the bioregional flora. The gardens integrate the environmental context, regional history, cultural heritage, and the agricultural and industrial influences. Together these components make an amazing diverse and expansive environment to explore and to appreciate. It is worth celebrating Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens.

Kind words from Costa to celebrate the garden

The Ambassador for the Botanic Gardens of Australia and New Zealand, Costa Georgiades was guest of honour as we were celebrating 20 years of the Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens establishment. Costa shared the following sincere and complimentary comments:

celebrating mackay regional botanic gardens

“It is really important to recognise the importance of our Regional Botanic Gardens. They do an incredible and priceless task preserving and educating about the plants and plant communities that make up our bioregions.

“It is really important to recognise the importance of our Regional Botanic Gardens. They do an incredible and priceless task preserving and educating about the plants and plant communities that make up our bioregions.  Volunteers play a massive role in botanic gardens all around the country and none more so than in the regional and smaller botanic gardens – they bring so much passion, time and above all else commitment in keeping our Botanic Gardens thriving.

“Five years before we opened the Mackay gardens in 2003, landscape architect Lawrie Smith began the design process. He worked tirelessly from day one with local specialists from the SGAP Mackay Branch, in order to ensure the best possible plans.  The staging for the gardens over the past 20 years has enabled the design to be achieved. And it is thriving. We can see the skills, understanding and ownership everywhere you look.

“Big thanks to everyone in Mackay for a wonderful welcome from the moment I arrived – what an awesome twentieth birthday celebration! You really do have a Botanic Garden of national significance – a priceless asset to our generation and all those who follow.”                                     Costa

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