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Melbourne's trees are widely regarded as one of its greatest assets, and the city is internationally recognised for its historic tree-lined boulevards, parks and gardens.

From the 1830s, eucalypts, the dominant native flora of inner Melbourne, were felled to make way for housing, roads, commercial development and other infrastructure. While blue gums (Eucalyptus globulus) were planted as windbreaks and as fast-growing ornamental trees in the early streetscapes and parks, from the 1850s the city's parks and gardens were planted with conifers and broad-leaved trees, reflecting English tastes.

Radiating from the central axis of surveyor Robert Hoddle's north-south street grid, a number of major arterial routes were planted with what have become highly significant street-tree avenues, the majority of which survive intact. Of particular note are the mature boulevards and elm-lined avenues of Victoria Parade, Flemington Road, Alexandra Avenue and Royal Parade. The decimation of the Northern Hemisphere's elms by Dutch elm disease now means that the City of Melbourne has one of the largest populations of mature elms in the world.

At some locations in early Melbourne, trees from many parts of the world were trialled for their adaptability to Melbourne's harsh summers and for their economic potential, in particular by Ferdinand von Mueller at the Royal Botanic Gardens and to a lesser extent by William Sangster at Como House. The trend in the mid- and late 19th century of planting conifers in the city's parks and botanic gardens is still evident, with many mature native Bunya Bunya, Norfolk Island and Hoop pines (Araucaria species), as well as introduced cypress (Cupressus species), cedars (Cedrus species) and pines (Pinus species), still a dominant element in the city's public parks and gardens. Other Australian subtropical trees - particularly the Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus macrophylla) - were widely planted in avenues and as specimen trees throughout the city's large inner parks and in the Kings Domain in South Yarra. From the 1880s to the end of the Edwardian era, palms were particlarly favoured by park authorities and suburban gardeners. The Canary Island Palm (Phoenix canariensis) was especially popular and adapted well to Melbourne's soils and climate. While many mature specimens can be seen growing in inner-city and suburban parks and gardens, its ability to withstand coastal conditions made it a favourite in bayside suburbs.

A number of ancient indigenous eucalypts still grow in Royal Park, Yarra Park and many of Melbourne's suburban parks. Melbourne's most famous river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) - the Separation Tree - still stands in the Royal Botanic Gardens. Under this tree on 15 November 1851, Melbourne's citizens celebrated Victoria's official separation from New South Wales.

In 1980 the National Trust and Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens established a Register of Significant Trees in Victoria. Many of the 19 400 trees on the Register are in the Melbourne metropolitan area. The register is evidence of the strong sentiment aroused in Melburnians by their invaluable natural heritage. Historic trees listed on the Victorian Heritage Register include the Federal Oak (Quercus canariensis), planted in Parliament House Gardens by New South Wales premier Sir Henry Parkes in 1890 to celebrate the Australasian federal Convention.

Carmel Mcphee

Spencer, R., 'Colonial plants: the Separation Tree', Australian Garden History, vol. 7, no. 5, March/April 1996, pp. 4-5. Details