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The magic and myth-making of Sydney’s jacarandas

So perfectly do jacarandas set off the blues of the harbour, the indigo skies of spring storms and the soft greens of the bush, that Sydneysiders of the early 20th century thought they must surely be as local as Sydney sandstone. OK, it wasn’t Sydneysiders in general, but a single real estate writer, never the most accurate source, who in the 1930s described a Wahroonga bungalow as being shaded by “English oaks and native jacarandas”.

We may scoff now, but something about the jacaranda inspires myth-making. Equally untrue, and more recent, is the tale of the 1970s North Shore hospital matron who gave seedling jacarandas to new mothers. This myth is so charming that it persists despite a total absence of evidence – as long as you don’t count as proof the lovely veil of lavender that cloaks the north shore about now.

Jacarandas are starting to bloom: McDougall street in Sydney’s Kirribilli.Credit:Edwina Pickles

Jacarandas are in fact native to Brazil, and weren’t available in Australia until the Double Bay nurseryman Michael Guilfoyle managed to propagate one from seed in 1868. Guilfoyle and others probably struggled so much to germinate Sydney’s first jac because by the time the seed had travelled by ship from Brazil to NSW it was a bit old and stale.

Jacarandas are actually very easy to grow from seed. Dan Pickles, son of Tim of Tim’s Garden Centre in Campbelltown, propagates hundreds every year. “When Dan was about 10 he became infatuated with jacaranda seedlings,” explains Tim. “We’d see them popping up under the jacarandas in the park on the way to school, lift them out, put them in a plastic bag and then pot them up in the afternoon. We ended up with 120 at home, which was ridiculous, so I suggested we sell them in the nursery for $5.”

It didn’t take Dan long to realise it was much more effective to simply grow the jacarandas from seed collected from fallen seed pods, than transplant the seedlings. It also produced stronger plants. Ever since, Dan, who is now in Year 11, has been growing 3-500 jacaranda seedlings every year and selling them through Tim’s Garden Centre, still for $5 each. This year’s crop, after such a mild winter, is especially fine and strong. (Frost in the first year or two can result in multi-stemmed rather than single-stemmed trees.)

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Tim’s advice – “plant them in your street, they are great for shading your car.” Over the past two years he’s planted about 15 jacarandas in the streets of Campbelltown and Camden and says they are a good choice for guerilla gardening as they don’t need much care.

His planted progeny are already 2-3m tall and should start flowering in another few years, though I guess it might take another few decades before a story starts circulating about a mysterious matron at Campbelltown Hospital who gave out native jacaranda seedlings resulting in Sydney’s south being coloured purple through November.

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