Valley botanical treasure

THE Salmon Ponds is a place of many things, a number of them contradictory. Historically significant as the genesis of Tasmania’s trout fishery, it is at the same time a place of old-fashioned botanical beauty. As both fish farm and much-loved visitor attraction, it is a rarity.

Even the name, Salmon Ponds – for a hatchery that actually raises trout – is a quirk from a time long gone. The 140-year history of this garden-hatchery, just minutes from New Norfolk, is a curious confluence of the scientific and the fashionable, a story of how England’s explorations of the wide world manifested themselves in tiny Tasmania.

The beginnings of mini-botanical gardens such as these draw from the Kew Gardens, established in the mid-18th century on the Thames in London. As Kew’s 300 acres of plantings reflected growing interest in the collection and classification of plants from around the world, local horticultural societies were formed and new public gardens began to spring up across England.

This attention to the natural realm quickly took root with the first English settlers to Australia. In Tasmania, that passion for things botanical manifested itself as the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens (1818) and then Salmon Ponds in 1861. Their creators envisaged parks and gardens as places of education as well as relaxation. By the middle of the nineteenth century, acclimatising plants to this new soil became both scientific and fashionable pursuit.

And it’s evident around Tasmania today: many of our grand old homes are identifiable and complemented by similarly grand trees, themselves dating from the time the building’s first stones were laid. The Salmon Ponds, then, represents 19th century public parks in an English style. Of its 100-plus natives, introduced evergreens and exotics, a significant number date from the 1860s.

The ponds’ layout suggests its visitors take a walk, be soothed by the sounds of flowing water (and the occasional fish-splash) and rewarded with under-canopy cool in an otherwise hot summer landscape. Then there’s the changing colour of the deciduous trees in the autumn, and an ambience that always suggests romance. This place was made possible by Robert Cartwright Read of Redlands, the adjacent rural estate which itself is home to magnificent gardens. Read leased a portion of his land to form the Ponds; the waters today are still gravity-fed from Redlands.

While the entranceway to the ponds is lined by dozens of Lombardy poplars, it’s also noteworthy that Salmon Ponds’ entire perimeter is hedged with common hawthorn (crataegus monogyna). Once a much-used hedgerow species in Tasmania, some 3,000 kilometres, largely on roadsides, exist today. Salmon Ponds is a pristine spot for a picnic, or a meal in the enclosed restaurant, the venue for a pleasant walk, beside the ponds or the Plenty River, and most of all, a place to admire some magnificent trees. Here’s some suggestions, drawn from a 2022 arborist’s report.

The plantings are dominated by large conifers, common at the time of European settlement, which were complemented by broadleaf trees like horse chestnut, elm and oak. ashes, Japanese cedar, incense cedar, Douglas fir and elm. Important among the local species is the iconic Huon Pine (lagarostrobos franklinii). Salmon Ponds offers a rare opportunity to see this type of tree, as finding them in the wild is not easy.

A young Fagus tree is a recent addition. Fagus (nothofagus gunnii) also known as a deciduous beech, is Tasmania’s only winter deciduous species, and one of only a handful of deciduous species in Australia. Another native is the oak (acacia melanoxylon), one a variety of the type including the Cork Oak. Multiple specimens from the cypress family of cryptomeria form the backbone of Salmon Ponds’ garden. One, a large Macrocarpa, is among the oldest and largest in the state.

The arborist commented that the sheer size of its trunk makes it interesting exhibit. Cotoneaster (cotoneaster glaucophyllus) is now a common shrub, even considered a weed, but at the time of the establishment of Salmon Ponds was a much-loved ornamental. Among those varieties often included in early European gardens were rhododendron and magnolias, and those in the Ponds are beautiful mature specimens.

Those who know their trees will point to varieties of sequoia, the Giant Redwood (sequoiadendron giganteum) as well as the Coast Redwood (sequoia sempervirens). Both were planted frequently at the time of the Ponds’ establishment, but are now considered exotic and rare. The Dawn Redwood (metasequoia glyptostroboides) is a more recent addition at the Ponds, but considered complementary to the style of the older plantings. Finally, look out for some long-time favourites including the Copper Beech (fagus sylvatica) Japanese Cedar (cryptomeria japonica) and the Horse Chestnut (aesculus hippocastanum).

Note: Next week in the Derwent Valley Gazette, we’ll find out why this place is called Salmon Ponds but grows trout, and how that 140-year-old fish-farming enterprise has changed to meet the world of the 21st Century.