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Strolling around Adelaide's Botanic Gardens

Home > Adelaide > Family | Free | Gardens | Places of Interest | Weekend Escapes | Lists
by Graeme Fanning (subscribe)
I'm a tour guide who is passionate about South Australia and love to showcase to locals and visitors. Visit my facebook page at
Published April 16th 2022
Behold the Botanic Beauty of Adelaide's Botanic Gardens
One of my favourite places to visit at any time of the year is Adelaide's Botanic Gardens, filled with 50 hectares of glorious examples of Australian and exotic flora, set on the north-eastern edge of the CBD.

It's always amazing when you do visit at varying times of the year, how different the gardens are - they almost take on a personality of their own with bursts of colour and the entire gamut of green hues.

On a recent visit, I discovered many interesting places worthy of mention. Here are 9 of them.

Botanic Garden's Autumn Glory
Botanic Garden's Autumn Glory

1. Palm House

As soon as you come across the Palm House, you cannot be anything but overawed by its standout beauty and grandeur.

It dates back to 1875 when it was imported from Bremen in Germany and it is still believed to be the only Victorian glasshouse of its kind still in existence.

Its designer was German architect Gustav Runge, whose sophisticated engineering techniques used in its construction at that time were seen to be very advanced.

By 1986 the Palm House was in poor shape with ongoing corrosion of the iron glazing bars making it unsafe for public use and it was closed for a while so that repairs could take place.

Full restoration with public appeal monies as well as federal government donations saw a full restoration occur in 1991.

Salt damp and corrosion then caused further problems as of recent as 2018 and the Palm House was closed for a further 8 months. Finally, the heritage-listed building was re-opened again for all to enjoy.

The focus today within the structure is the interesting collection of plants from Madagascar, with these examples of flora requiring warm and dry growing conditions. These same conditions are believed to be a big factor in why the building has survived for so long.

The connection with Madagascar for Australia is that in ancient times ( some 150 million years ago) both landmasses were joined as part of the supercontinent Gondwana and therefore many common and similar species of flora, are seen to be the ancient ancestors of today's Australian native plants.

Many of the plants you will see inside the Palm House are at risk or endangered in their natural habitat, so it's great to be able to see them thriving within this structure.

The Palm House opens at 10 am every day and closes 1 hour before the Garden closes (from April to September 5.30 pm).

The Palm House Botanic Gardens
The Palm House, Botanic Gardens

2. Museum of Economic Botany

A rare find indeed is the Museum of Economic Botany which dates from 1881, the last museum of its kind in the world today.

The Museum's primary purpose is to display a permanent collection of plant materials highlighting practical, medicinal and economic uses.

The Greek Revival style facade is quite eye-catching, as is the elaborately decorated ceiling within the building, which was produced by a local South Australian artist, William Joseph Williams, who also produced the best example of an original handpainted ceiling in Australia - within Ayers House on North Terrace in what was the State Dining Room.

This museum was instigated and developed by one of the Botanic Garden's early Directors, Richard Schomburgk, who drew on his international network of like-minded botanists to gather a wealth of content, ranging from essential oils, gums and resins to fibre plants, dyes, food and beverage plants etc.

A venture inside will reveal some amazing exhibits, including life-like paper-mache models of numerous varieties of apples and pears grown in the Adelaide Hills. These models were originally made in Germany back in the 1800s and were used to educate farmers on establishing crops during the nineteenth century.

One of the volunteer guides, who was very passionate in both her knowledge and pride of the place, showed me several specimens relating to nature's way of dealing with predators. For example, on the underside of a lily pad were spiky structures designed to ward off fish and other creatures who may try to eat them.

Upon opening of the museum here in Adelaide back in 1881, Richard Schomburgk quoted that "when we consider that vegetable substances constitute nine-tenths of the whole commerce in raw products, and that they furnish us with the bulk of our food and clothes, our medicine, and our building material...... but have no idea of the plants from which they are derived, it is the more essential to direct attention to the vast importance of a museum of botanic economy".

One of the other interesting exhibits related to an incredible array of fungi, all shapes, sizes and colours, including blues and yellows, all grown in the Adelaide Hills. From the indigenous to Pacific Islanders to white immigration, the whole course of history and development of economic botanic specimens are on display. A place well worthy of a visit.

The Museum is open every Wednesday to Sunday 10 am to 4 pm.

Museum of Economic Botany
Museum of Economic Botany

3. Bicentennial Conservatory

One of the well-known landmarks within the Botanic Gardens in Adelaide is the Bicentennial Conservatory, looming in a curvilinear shape at 100 metres long, 47 metres wide and 27 metres high. Its designer was South Australian architect, Guy Maron. It is believed to be the largest single-span conservatory in the Southern Hemisphere.

The conservatory was built to commemorate Australia's bicentennial in 1988 and originally housed tropical rainforest trees and other plants.

Some years ago it was transformed into more of a lush display of lowland rainforest plants from northern Australia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and the nearby Pacific Islands. Many of the plants within are at risk or endangered in their natural habitats.

As you wind around the walkways, you can gain a sense of the beauty and magnificence of the canopies of the evergreen lush rainforest and their importance. Both trees, as well as palms, grace the well-used space. The structure itself is the youngest building in South Australia to receive Heritage Listing (2004).

The walk which is on two levels also provides plenty of information about rainforests, their purpose, their importance, threats to their existence, what is found in them, and where you will find them.

The conservatory is open daily at 10 am and closes 1 hour before the closing time of the gardens.

Splash of Colour in Bicentennial Conservatory
Splash of Colour in Bicentennial Conservatory

4. Amazon Waterlily Pavilion

The imposing Amazon Waterlily Pavilion with its wide expanse of glass was built in 2007 to replace the one time standing Victoria House. One of the features of the original structure is the pond, which remains as the centrepiece of the new pavilion.

Its showcase Amazon Waterlily originates in the backwaters of the Amazon River in South America and flowers for a limited time and appears as a vivid white flower, with beetles drawn in by its sweet scent. The flower then shuts, trapping the beetles, where the beetle's transfer of pollen helps fertilisation take place.

On the second night, the flower re-opens with different colours appearing - pink/purple, with the beetles moving on to repeat the process, and the flower then closes up and sinks back underwater. This process all occurs over 48 hours, with the best time to witness it being between September and April of each year.

The Victoria Amazonica's flowers can grow up to 40 cm and its lily pads up to 2 metres in diameter. Some great interpretation exists around the pond with details of the Victoria Amazon Waterlily, its life cycle, remarkable biology and sex life including its cultural and symbolic significance.

Surrounding the main Victoria Amazon Waterlily are smaller Blue Nile Waterlilies, believed to have been sacred to ancient Egyptians. The Blue Nile lilies, in their belief, once opened revealed a young sun god sitting in its golden heart who banished the darkness and allowed life to begin.

Victoria Amazonica is Guyana's national flower - Guyana itself meaning "land of many waters".

Amazonian Lily Botanic Gardens Adelaide
Amazonian Lily Botanic Gardens Adelaide

5. International Rose Garden

Just east of the Bicentennial Conservatory lies the International Rose Garden, home to around 2,700 displays of roses as well as more than 350 rose cultivars.

The vibrant colours as well as fragrances wafting in the air really heighten the senses and makes you realise how fortunate we are here in South Australia to have the ideal climate for growing roses.

Each area of the overall garden is dedicated to themed and specific types of roses, including Australian bred roses, single roses, heritage roses, pillar roses and many more.

Experimentation is carried out in a big way via the National Rose Trial Garden, where roses not normally grown in Australia are trialled to ascertain their suitability and adaptability for our climate.

This sub-garden was initiated in 1996 and is the first garden of its kind in Australia. It is a joint venture between the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, the National Rose Society of Australia as well as the Rose industry generally.

Being able to determine which roses will succeed in Australian conditions offers a significant economic advantage for the Australian Rose industry.

The trial itself is carried out over two growing seasons with equal horticultural conditions, and then judged by a panel of 10 experienced rosarians who allocate points based upon things such as health, vigour, hardiness, pest and disease tolerance, fragrance, novelty and many other factors.

The best performing roses receive an award.

A team of dedicated volunteers keep the International Rose garden in tip top shape, along with experienced botanic garden staff. Some of the varieties of roses within the vast expanse of colour and fragrance include Australian bred, Climbing, Floribunda, Hybrid Tea, Landscape, Modern Shrub, Miniature, Old Fashioned and Heritage, Polyantha and Tea Roses.

The best time for roses is October- November, with an autumn flush now in April. If you want to capture the ultimate fragrance of many species of roses, the best time to experience that is first thing in the morning on a sunny day.

International Rose Garden Display
International Rose Garden Display

6. Dahlia Garden

Whilst we are on the subject of flowers, the Dahlia Garden is one of those places which grabs your attention mainly because of the vivid colours of the flowers.

The Dahlia Society of South Australia as well as Botanic Gardens Horticultural staff work together to prepare and maintain the magnficent Dahlia displays, usually coming to maturity from late Summer onwards. There are around 200 different varieties on display for all to admire and appreciate.

Dahlias are believed to have originally come from Central and South America and were seen to be important food and medicinal crops to the Aztec people of those regions. The 10 metre long stems of Dahlia Imperialis were at one time used as water pipes by the Aztecs to supply villages with water from mountain streams.

If you are a fan of Dahlias, and you wish to plant them at home, then generally, the best time is the first week of November. It is believed that the best spots to plant them are areas which provide morning sun as well as afternoon shade.

The Dahlia Society of South Australia has been in existence since 1888 and are well renowned for their high quality in breeding these beautiful flowers.

Once you decide you want to plant some dahlias, you would then need to identify which variety is your preference. An annual Tuber sale takes place in the Lecture theatre of the Goodman Building within the Botanic Gardens grounds and usually takes place in November of each year.

Dazzling Dahlias
Dazzling Dahlias

7. Garden of Health

Located in the western end of the Botanic Gardens next to the Ginkgo Gate, the Garden of Health truly demonstrates the use of plants to heal and promote health and well-being in western and non-western cultures.

Over 2.300 plants from 257 species show the diversity of plants that have assisted with healing the body, mind and soul for thousands of years.

As you wander around, there is really informative signage explaining the uses and origins of many interesting plant species which have relevant connection to our health.

The Garden of Health is divided into two sections - the Garden of Contemplation which focuses on well-being, encouraging contemplation and reflection, whilst the other section - the Garden of Healing is all about disease prevention and the treatment of illness.

Within the Garden of Contemplation some plants relate to edible plants for healthy diet, others are alleged to produce a positive psychological effect by assisting to stimulate, calm, relax and aid with sleep. There are also other plants relating to relieving the symptoms of stress.

On the other hand, the Garden of Healing shows more of the historical position re contribution of plants for over 60,000 years, as well as the importance of plants in pharmaceutical discovery and modern medicine.

One example is the Agave americana plant which was documented as an Aztec treatment for diarrhoea, comprising agave juice mixed with maize and bladderwort. Another plant is Aloysia Triphylla (or Lemon Verbena) used as a digestive aid and a sedative.

Fascinating insights in to the management of our health.

Garden of Health Botanic Gardens Adelaide
Garden of Health Botanic Gardens Adelaide

8. Mediterranean Garden

The SA Water Mediterranean Garden showcases plants from regions around the world that are said to experience a Mediterranean climate, including South-western Australia, South Africa, Central Chile, California as well as the Mediterranean basin.

Many of the plants in these environments grow and adapt really well, enabling them to conserve water during dry times as well as taking advantage of the rain when it does fall.

The focus of these gardens is on sustainability and adaptability, and living in the climate that we do, it makes sense to have gardens which lend themselves to this ethos.

Water is such a precious resource for us here in South Australia, being the driest state in the driest continent on Earth, so to have an attractive garden can use a lot of water. These sustainable and water-wise type of gardens can still look attractive but also save water as well as reduce your utility bills.

Nature is so amazing in how it can adapt the make-up of plants to fit in with the environment and thrive despite little water, for example.

To make the most of water, some of these plants have features which include waxy or hairy leaves, leaves which are tough with a thick coating, leaf orientation to minimise sun exposure, and even leaves paler in colour to reflect light and heat.

With our ever threat of bushfires, some plants are also able to withstand extreme temperatures and heat, and some are designed to produce seeds or seed pods which require intense heat to trigger seed dispersal or smoke to promote germination.

Other plants have the amazing knack of being able to re-sprout after fire, from having substantial roots buried deep or from dormant buds protected by thick bark.

Quite often upon a re-visit to a bushfire affected area, such as Kangaroo Island, within a reasonably short time, you will quite often see incredible re-growth and renewal starting to occur.

Interestingly some of our favourite herbs and spices are from the Mediterranean region, such as Agave, Aloe, Carob, Fennel, Lavender, Rosemary, Saffron, Sage and Thyme.

Over one third of Australian rare and threatened plants are from the Mediterranean zone. The five zones as described above occupy less than 5% of the earth's surface, however produce almost 20% of the world's total plant species.

Overall a really important type of garden that more and more people here in Australia are adopting.

SA Water Mediterranean Garden
SA Water Mediterranean Garden

9. First Creek Wetland

The importance of our wetland environments is demonstrated in the most positive way in amongst our Botanic Gardens.

Many school groups grace the area in their bid to understand how vital these eco-systems and waterways are to not only our health but to bio-diversity and the health of our waterways.

Located in the south-east corner of the gardens, the First Creek Wetland forms an important part of the water security plan and long term sustainability of the Botanic Gardens.

By the end of this year, it is hoped that the First Creek Wetland will be able to recover up to 100 ML of water a year from the underground aquifer, enough to irrigate the entire 50 hectares of the gardens.

Following rainfall, a small amount of stormwater - a maximum of 25 litres per second - is diverted from First Creek (which begins in Cleland Wildlife Park and merges into Adelaide's River Torrens) as it enters the garden, and then it is treated through the wetland via a series of purification processes. The captured water is then stored in and subsequently recovered from an underlying aquifer.

This whole area contains something like 20,000 plants, many of which are Australian Natives. Some are rare and endangered species from South Australia which have been grown from seeds collected by the garden's South Australian Seed Conservation Centre.

There are many interpretative and educational signs throughout the wetlands area,enabling all of us to learn more about the importance of sustainable wetland environments.

Of course, not only plants grow, but the water environments also attract a variety of bird species as well as frogs, insects and other creatures.

Our urban developments and lifestyles tend to encroach on the natural environment, hence why we need to understand and encourage these vital eco-systems for our very survival.

First Creek Wetland Botanic Gardens Adelaide
First Creek Wetland Botanic Gardens Adelaide

As you can see, not only do the Botanic Gardens provide an idyllic environment for us to enjoy the fresh air, and appreciate nature in all its glory, but also provide us with much needed education on the ongoing importance of our botanic beauty.

Can't wait to return in the not too distant future to witness the garden's ever changing displays.

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Why? An opportunity to experience an oasis of botany close to the CBD of Adelaide
When: Any time of the year
Phone: 08 82229311
Where: Botanic Gardens, Adelaide, South Australia
Cost: Free
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