Wonder: 175 Years of Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (Hardie Grant Books Richmond, Melbourne, 2021)

As a Melbournian, it was a pleasure to review this amazing book, Wonder 175 Years of Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria by Sophie Cunningham AM and journalist Peter Wilmoth. Two authors could be problematic; however, Cunningham and Wilmoth write together seamlessly and their words are backed up with stunning photographs by one of Australia’s leading photographers, Leigh Henningham.

This book celebrates 175 years of a beloved institution, the Royal Botanic Gardens of Melbourne (RBG). It traces the history of the Melbourne and Cranbourne gardens through an eclectic mixture of stories about the designers and gardeners, the patrons, volunteers, scientists and visitors like you and me, who have visited or worked in the gardens over the last two centuries. These stories add to our understanding of how the RBG Melbourne and Cranbourne began, what Aboriginal connections there were and are today, and what the scientists who work at the gardens discover that adds to our knowledge of this continent, Australia.

Nothing can beat the excitement of touching and discovering the pictures and words on each page of a new book, especially one on gardening. The style and content of this publication is not the ordinary vacuous coffee table book. Rather the approach is innovative, imaginative and engaging. The authors enlighten the reader about how the people they talk to are connected to the gardens. They also discuss many of the gardens’ activities, including involvement in bush fire recovery for endangered species, the restoration of The Melbourne Observatory, the visionaries who created the children’s garden, Long Island, and the horticultural curation and maintenance of the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne.

We are taken behind the scenes into the utilitarian areas of the gardens. I particularly like the stories about the employees,  not often included in celebratory books. These are the dedicated people who have often worked in the gardens for years and who contribute much expertise. Maggie McNamara, for example, is the RBG signage officer, a fascinating job, as is demonstrated both in her story and in the pictures of the older signs.  I would have enjoyed reading more about the workers and the areas of the gardens they look after and perhaps a little less about the sentinels and the story tellers.

Nevertheless, the book contains many names that will be familiar to readers: from one of the garden guides who loves camellias, to a Melbourne footy legend, to an Australian singer/song writer. This makes the appeal of the book broader, even to readers who live in other states of Australia.

One of the disappointing aspects of this book is the title Wonder. For such an illuminating book, I think a better title could have been thought of – one that evoked the sophisticated history and scientific discoveries it presents. The second disappointment is the absence of a picture of the RBG Cranbourne Staff. This highlights how RBG Melbourne-centric the book is, notwithstanding that Cranbourne celebrated 50 years since its inception in 2020. I also feel the section on climate change would have had more impact if it had been placed at the beginning of the book. Finally, while coronavirus has been a significant event that affected everybody’s lives, I am not sure it needed to be included, especially if that was at the expense of more discussion about the objects and specimens in the National Herbarium of Victoria and the work of the RBG Librarian and how all three institutions work together.

The current Director and Chief Executive of the RBG Victoria, Tim Entwisle, sums up what a botanic garden in the 21st century means to him:

For me, gardens are the most diverse places around, places in which the realms of nature, culture and science naturally coexist, weaving narratives of the past, present and future in unique ways. There is nowhere else in our cities, or on Earth, where this can happen so well as in a botanic garden (Entwisle, 2021, p. xii).

Wonder: 175 Years of Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria conveys that diversity. It is a delight to read as it engages the reader and fires the imagination. I recommend the book to all who love our botanic gardens.

Reviewer: Sandra Pullman