In October this year, Don and I visited Cooktown. We find Cooktown a great place to have a mini-holiday, so with some spare time on our hands we decided to pay a visit to the Cooktown Botanical Gardens.

The Cooktown Botanical Gardens has taken on a new look as a result of the Cook Shire Council having a full-time gardener. Freddie Toll is doing a very good job in maintaining the gardens. It was two years after the first European settlers arrived in Cooktown that a botanical garden was proposed.

By 1878, Queen's Park was a reality. Water was diverted, wells sunk, fountains and greenhouses were erected and formal gardens constructed. It was the pride and joy of Cooktown and the centre of dignified recreation.

However with the decline in wealth of the town came the demise of the gardens. By 1917 no-one bothered to maintain the finest garden in the North. Over 60 years, nature reasserted itself. Fire and cyclone ravaged the plantings. Many introduced species spread across the once stately lawns.

In 1979 the site was cleared for an arts festival. Evidence of the gardens past glory was revealed. Inspired by this discovery the Cook Shire Council began restoring and expanding the gardens. Tracks, originally stone pitched, were revealed between Finch Bay and Cherry Tree Bay. (Don's mother had walked these very tracks as a young girl as she was educated at the convent. She was born at Maytown.)

Some original 1886 plantings remain in the garden. A lot of native species were collected by Sir Joseph Banks. Some 200 species of his collection were featured in the garden. The Native Cherry or ORINGOIN, Exocarpus latifolius, family Santalaceae was collected by Banks. Cherry Tree Bay is so named because of the abundance of the Native Cherry in this area. The tree is erect and somewhat cypress-like. Old plants assume a drooping habit.

Like the mistletoe, Exocarpus is a parasite, but in this case it is parasitic on the roots of the host plant rather than the branches. The Exocarpus is also known as "the cherry with the stone on the outside". As the fruit matures, its stalk increases in size too, eventually becoming larger than the fruit. The stalk then forms a fleshy red, pear-shaped structure with a dull green true fruit seated on its apex. The fleshy stalk when yellow or orange is highly astringent, but when it is about to fall it goes a deep red. The ripe fruit is very sweet and palatable. Some can vary when ripe.

Don introduced me to this fruit when we first met. He called it a "doe-boy". To pick a ripe one, put your hand under the fruit and tap the branch with the other. The fruit will fall if it is ripe. Don was quite pleased to see these trees growing in Cooktown as the trees around Mossman have been bulldozed out.

Getting back to the Cooktown Botanical Gardens - it was during the 19th century that societies were established to acclimatise exotic plants to local conditions. Australia's agricultural wealth is due in part to the enthusiasm of these groups.

Many gardens like these in Cooktown were developed with help from the Acclimatisation Society. Plants were introduced for food and landscaping (although some of these turned out to be pests).

Some trees planted in the Cooktown Botanical Gardens in 1883 from a list by W. Watson include: Tamarind, Wampi, Nerium, Early Mango, Cinnamon, Tea (black), Kaffir Apple, Common Lemon, St Michael Orange, Tinnadock Apricot, Large Peach, Apricot Peach, Apricot Moorpark, Almond Jordan, Almond Brandon's.

This is only part of the list. Don and I walked around the garden and found an African Oil Palm, an original 1886 planting, and a large Tamarind.

Since the Cook Shire Council has funded the garden many new plantings of rare fruit trees have taken place. The trees are doing quite well. The gardens are now irrigated.

All I can say is if you are visiting Cooktown, the Botanical Gardens are worth the time. Very interesting and very historical.

Wild Food in Australia, AB and JW Cribb

Notes From The Botanical Gardens, Cooktown - Cook Shire Council

Christine Gray

DATE: MAY 1998

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *