Olive Pink Botanic Garden: Celebrating Central Australia’s arid zone flora

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A rock formation at the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens.

A rock formation at the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens. Image: Peter Smith.

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The Todd River in flood across the causeway that leads to Olive Pink Botanic Garden.

The Todd River in flood across the causeway that leads to Olive Pink Botanic Garden. Image: Anne Cochrane

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There are many places for sitting throughout the garden.

There are many places for sitting throughout the garden. Image: Anne Cochrane

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Entrance to the Olive Pink Botanic Garden, Alice Springs, 2016.

Entrance to the Olive Pink Botanic Garden, Alice Springs, 2016. Image: Anne Cochrane

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Sculptures in the garden.

Sculptures in the garden. Image: Anne Cochrane

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There are many places for sitting throughout the garden.

There are many places for sitting throughout the garden. Image: Anne Cochrane

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Sculptures in the garden.

Sculptures in the garden. Image: Anne Cochrane

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The Northern Territory garden bearing her name is named after Olive Muriel Pink, born in Hobart in 1884. Olive Pink was a skilled botanical artist and an anthropologist. The development of the garden came about as a result of her lobbying for a flora reserve in Alice Springs. The Arid Regions Native Flora Reserve was gazetted in 1956, and Ms Pink was appointed as its first honorary curator. The reserve, renamed the Olive Pink Botanic Garden in 1996, was the first arid zone gardens in the southern hemisphere.

Olive Pink studied anthropology at Sydney University in the 1930s. She was a frequent visitor to Alice Springs and worked in remote communities with the Warlpiri and Arrernte people. She was considered a colourful character who championed the rights of Indigenous people at a time when few other people did. In 1940, at the age of 56, Olive moved permanently to central Australia, living in the Tanami Desert for several years.

She died on 6 July 1975 in Alice Springs, and was buried there. It was not until 1985 that the Olive Pink Flora Reserve opened to the public. The garden now grows more than 600 central Australian plants including bush tucker plants, medicinal plants, threatened species, and water‑wise garden plants.

On my visit in June 2106, it seemed that the garden looked a bit tired, but my walking companion advised me that a recent spate of locust activity had caused extensive damage to vegetation around Alice Springs. In addition, the area had endured a hailstorm a week earlier, the likes of which had not been seen for the past 20 years. More than 60 mm of rain had fallen on the town, leaving the Todd River in flood and powerlines down, trees blown over and considerable damage to houses and facilities. No wonder the gardens looked a little the worse for wear!

Sculptures in the garden. Image:  Anne Cochrane

The locusts and hail didn’t mar the splendid views of Alice Springs, the Todd River and the landscape of the surrounding MacDonnell Ranges from Annie Myers Hill (or Tharrarltneme), the highest point in the garden. This is not too strenuous a walk but care needs to be taken with the rocky steps and path if you aren’t too steady on your feet.

A good network of short walking trails has been set up in the garden. Visitors can take a self-guided walk using a small booklet ($5 by donation). The walks mainly introduce visitors to local eucalypts and wattles, though there are emu bushes (Eremophila), bush oranges (Capparis sp.) and a large range of other plants as well. Little was in flower on my visit but I am sure at other times of the year the garden would be more colourful. There are plenty of signs, unfortunately some illegible and badly in need of replacement. The marvellous thing is that there are shelters and ample seating provided along the trails for tired legs and for picnics. There are also a number of interesting sculptures in evidence.

The Bean Tree Cafe in the garden provides a shady setting for breakfast, lunch or simply coffee and cake. We enjoyed watching the antics of the avian visitors in the garden. A spotted bower bird and a group of grey-crowned babblers were the highlights of my birdwatching.

Olive Pink Botanic Garden is a nice place to stroll through, to relax, to watch birds and to learn something about the flora of Central Australia’s arid zone. Since its creation, other similar botanic gardens or arid-zone areas within gardens have been created.

Some of these gardens – like the Olive Pink Botanic Garden – feature Australian native arid‑zone plants: the Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden at Port Augusta (South Australia), and the Red Centre garden of the Australian National Botanic Gardens in Canberra. Others such as the Arid Zone and Cactus House at Mt Coot-ha in Brisbane have central America and African arid‑zone plants.

The Garden, a not-for-profit community organisation, relies on Friends and supporters to help fund its running. It is generally open 7 days a week from 8am to 4pm. It is easily accessible from the centre of Alice Springs, virtually on the banks of the Todd River and just up the road from some of the major hotels, and has a comprehensive website with information on Ms Pink herself, the garden plants, and the walking trails.

This article was originally published in Australian Garden History, volume 28 no 4, April 2017.


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