Botanic Gardens Conservation International
BGCI provides a global voice for all botanic gardens, championing and celebrating their inspiring work. We are the world's largest plant conservation network, open to all. Join us in helping to save the world's threatened plants.

Darwin ‘down under’

Volume 5 Number 2 - October 2008

Janelle Hatherly & Sophie Daniel

French title: Darwin aux antipodes

Spainish title: Darwin en las antípodas


Charles Darwin’s observations of Australian flora and fauna during his visit in 1836 formed a key part in the development of his theory of evolution through natural selection and his subsequent publishing of Origin of Species.

2009 is the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and his work will be the focus of celebrations throughout the year in Australia’s scientific and cultural sectors. Botanic gardens, with their scientific integrity and rich diversity of living plants and animals, are ideal places to introduce people to the man, his achievements and his legacy through interpretive programmes focusing on Darwin’s fascination with life, his keen eye for detail and his theory of evolution. Linked to national herbaria and horticultural research centres, botanic gardens encourage an exploration into modern methods of studying the origin of life and all its forms.

Botanic Gardens across Australia are exchanging ideas and discussing potential partnerships for a year-long programme of community events. Hopefully our collective legacy will be to inspire a passion and appreciation for nature that fosters budding naturalists and the next generation of scientists.

In 1836 Charles Darwin disembarked from HMS Beagle in Sydney Town, Australia. The arid landscape he observed was a stark contrast to the lush tropical forests of South America from where the Beagle had recently sailed, and equally removed from the misty green pastures and cultivated gardens of Darwin’s homeland, England. Between January and March of 1836, Darwin visited New South Wales, Tasmania and finally King George’s Sound in Western Australia. His impressions of the landscape were sometimes less than flattering and on leaving Australia, his parting words were:

‘…you are too great and ambitious for affection, yet not great enough for respect. I leave your shores without sorrow or regret.’ (Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, Modern Library, New York 2001 p 403).

While visiting Sydney Town, he strolled through the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain and looked favourably on our fledgling gardens, stating:

‘…there are no fine trees, but the walks wind about the Shrubberies & are to me infinitely more pleasing than the formal Alamedes of S. America’ (A.J Marshall, Darwin and Huxley in Australia, Hodder and Stoughton, Sydney 1970 pp 89-90)

On his arrival in Hobart, Tasmania, Darwin commented:

‘… The town stands at the base of Mount Wellington, a mountain 3100 ft, but of no picturesque beauty: from this it receives a good supply of water, a thing which is much wanted in Sydney.’ (F.W and J.M Nicholas, Charles Darwin in Australia, Cambridge University Press, 1989 p 84).

Darwin describes at length his attempts to climb Mount Wellington on the two days before his 27th birthday. Although a botanic garden was established in Hobart in 1818, we have not found direct reference to it in any accounts of Darwin’s visit. Darwin’s detailed observations about Australian flora and fauna documented in diaries, letters and books were part of the development of his theory of evolution through natural selection. As such, his work will be the focus of celebratory events throughout 2009 in Australia’s scientific and cultural sectors. Major exhibitions and scientific conferences on evolution and Darwin’s voyages are being held around the country and botanic gardens are already forging potential partnerships to showcase the contribution of plants to Darwin’s life-work.

Botanic garden educators across Australia are a particularly collaborative group and are sharing information and exchanging ideas for a year filled with Darwin-themed public programmes. Botanic gardens linked to herbaria and historic libraries will make historical material accessible to the public and interpret the challenges society faced in the light of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Highlights of contemporary scientific research related to Darwin’s work will also be interpreted.

Partnerships already budding between cultural institutions and botanic gardens in major cities include the Australian National Botanic Gardens in Canberra supplying plant material to the National Museum of Australia to complement its travelling ‘Darwin’ exhibition from New York’s American Museum of Natural History. Further south in Hobart, staff at the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens are exploring links to two planned exhibitions at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and a series of eight ‘Walks with Charles Darwin’ run by Tasmanian Adult Education.

Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne and Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne are participating in an Evolution Conference opening in Melbourne during February 2009. The conference embodies the concept of 'Melbourne as a thinking city' and will bring intellectuals and specialists to the city while encouraging a social and public programme to run alongside the specialist conference. A highlight of the conference will be the public Grand Evolutionary Dinner. Diners will be encouraged to ‘Eat your way up the tree of life, starting with primeval soup and finishing with a devastating meteorite impact surprise!’

In Sydney, the Botanic Gardens Trust (the Trust) is developing a year-long public programme at the Royal Botanic Gardens to celebrate Darwin’s ongoing legacy. Launched around Darwin’s 200th birthday on 12 February, the programme will involve the Australian Museum and other neighbouring cultural and scientific organisations. The Trust will also take part in events staged at other institutions, such as the two-day Darwin symposium to be held at the Australian National Maritime Museum in conjunction with its major exhibition ‘Charles Darwin – Voyages and Ideas that Shake the World’. A major exhibition in our Red Box Gallery will be launched during the National Science Week festival in August and this will remain open to the public until November, in recognition of the month of the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Highlights of this exhibition will be the display of rare specimens from the Trust’s Library: a first edition print inscribed copy of On the Origin of Species, correspondence between Darwin and the Garden’s Director at the time, Charles Moore, and a Linnaean Society Journal containing the joint papers of Darwin and Wallace outlining their theory of natural selection.

Visitors to the botanic gardens will investigate plant breeding and propagation through a self-guided trail ‘Mutants, Clones and Crossbreeds’ or discover extreme plant adaptations on a themed guided walk with our volunteer guides. Holiday programmes for families will encourage the exploration of ideas such as cooperation between plants and insects and feature displays and plant sales will be held in partnership with local plant societies. In addition, the NSW school curriculum lends itself well to incorporating a Darwin focus into our Australian Biota lessons, currently run in partnership with Taronga Zoo and the Australian Museum.

Following in the footsteps of the Trust’s ‘Big Answers to Big Questions’ (BABQ) programme in 2005, there will also be many opportunities for the public to gather information, exchange ideas and express their opinions freely at evening lectures, public seminars and a special ‘Darwin’s Birthday’ dinner debate. These BABQ events will engage people in discussion of contemporary issues such as Evolution vs. Intelligent Design, Natural vs. Unnatural Selection, and Taxonomy: is it as dead as the dodo?


There is much being planned to celebrate Darwin’s bicentenary ‘Down Under’ and Australian botanic gardens are key players. Our contribution will ensure that the important role plants played in Darwin’s life and work will be appropriately acknowledged and that botanic gardens will continue to be recognised as places of inspiration and education.


Les observations de Charles Darwin sur la flore et la faune d’Australie lors de sa visite en 1836 constituent un élément clé dans le développement de sa théorie de l’évolution par la sélection naturelle et la publication de « l’Origine des espèces » qui s’ensuivit.

2009 est le bicentenaire de la naissance de Charles Darwin, et son travail sera au cœur des célébrations tout au long de l’année dans le secteur scientifique et culturel en Australie. Les jardins botaniques, en raison de leur intégrité scientifique et la riche diversité de plantes et d’animaux vivants qu’ils possèdent, sont l’endroit idéal pour présenter au public l’homme de science, ses travaux et son héritage au travers de programmes d’interprétation ciblés sur la fascination qu’avait Darwin pour le monde vivant, son œil assidu pour les détails et sa théorie de l’évolution. En collaboration avec les herbiers et les centres de recherches horticole nationaux, les jardins botaniques invitent à explorer les méthodes modernes d’étude des origines de la vie et de toutes les formes vivantes.

A travers toute l’Australie, les jardins botaniques échangent des idées et discutent de partenariats potentiels concernant un programme annuel d’évènements publics. Nous avons bon espoir que notre patrimoine commun inspirera une passion et une appréciation de la nature qui favorisera l’émergence de naturalistes en herbe et de la prochaine génération de scientifiques.


Las observaciones de Charles Darwin de la flora y fauna Australiana durante su visita en 1836 fueron una parte clave en el desarrollo de su teoría de la evolución a través de la seleccion natural y su publicación subsecuente del Origin of Species.

2009 es el bicentenario del nacimiento de Charles Darwin y su trabajo será el foco de las celebraciones a través del año en los sectores científicos y culturales en Australia. Los Jardines botánicos con su integridad cientifica y rica diversidad de plantas y animales vivientes, son lugares ideales para introducir al público los logros del hombre, sus alcances y su legado a través de programas interpretativos enfocando sobre la fascinación de Darwin con su vida, su ojo apto para el detalle y su teoría de evolución ligado a los herbarios nacionales y sus centros de investigación hortícola, jardines botánicos que animan a explorar entre los métodos modernos de estudio del origen de la vida y todas sus formas.

Los jardines botánicos a traves de Australia estan intercambiando ideas y discutiendo socios potenciales para un largo año de eventos de la comunidad. Para nosotros nuestro legado colectivo sera inspirar pasión y apreciación por la naturaleza que adopta naturalistas budding y la próxima generación de científicos.

Janelle Hatherly
Manager Public Programs
Sophie Daniel
Community Programs Officer
Botanic Gardens Trust
Mrs Macquaries Road
Australia 2000

Professional development course for botanic gardens educators

With so much happening at Sydney’s botanic gardens during the Darwin celebrations, the Trust is taking this opportunity to run a professional development course for botanic gardens educators around September 2009.

Participants will take part in our school, community and outreach programmes and acquire hands-on experience in design, development and delivery of educational material. They can also visit other botanic gardens.

This course will be similar to BGCI/Kew’s International Diploma in Botanic Gardens Education in format, cost and duration. It is being developed collaboratively with BGCI/Kew and Australia’s botanic garden network: Botanic Gardens of Australia and New Zealand (BGANZ).

It will complement a similar initiative (a Diploma in Asia Pacific Botanic Gardens Management) being developed within the Asia-Pacific region.

Anyone interested in taking part in this course can find out more by emailing the authors on or