With the festive season over, decorations have almost disappeared from shop windows and front gardens. Suburban frontyard light displays have been packed away, and the dry, dead remains of Christmas trees protrude from green waste bins. The decorations that are still up seem stubborn or stale, behind the times, which have churned on into an already stressful new year.
Driving through North Sydney, I’m not yet thinking about Christmas decorations or anything much except making sure I’m in the right lane for the Arthur Street turnoff. Berry Street splits in two like ram’s horns, left to go north, right to the bridge. Choose wisely, for the Warringah Expressway awaits below. There’s an intensity to this intersection, perched as it is at the edge of the North Sydney high-rises. Here the view opens up towards the sky and the harbour and the far shore of the eastern suburbs. Below is fifteen lanes of surging motorway traffic although this is, from this high vantage point, out of sight.
I turn into the lane closest to the edge, which is hemmed in by a barrier and a railing. Beside the lane is a narrow strip of concrete, which runs the length of the road. Something glittery catches my eye. A short way along the roadside, from a crack in the concrete, against the odds, a tree is growing. It is a casuarina tree, about two metres high, roughly the shape and size of a Christmas tree. Evidently someone had noticed this, as its lower branches had been decorated with glittery plastic ribbons. What a tenacious little tree, there amid the concrete and the traffic, thriving where no tree is meant to grow.
I might have noticed the tree and keep going on my way, but instead I change lanes and travel back around the block. I park the car in a laneway between two rows of office buildings, where the mood is concrete, security cameras, and garage doors with ads for Magic Button (featuring the cheerful mascot of a magician figure in a tuxedo with a button for a head, pressing down on the top of it to release a shower of sparks).
No one much is around, a combination of it being the first week of the year and the recent huge upsurge in Covid infections. This means there’s less traffic, too, which is helpful as I dash across the road, to the siding just before the strip of pavement with the tree. Here it’s wide enough to stand to take a photo, though I feel conspicuous as the cars go past. Like the tree, here by the precipice of the motorway, I stand in an unlikely place. For a moment I take in the view of the lanes of traffic below and then the harbour, before dashing back across to safety.
Later, I look up the slices of time captured by Google Street View to follow the tree’s growth. It’s not there in November 2017, but then by the next image, October 2018, it’s a small, sturdy sapling. By November 2019 it’s up above the railing. I watch it get taller over 2020, then 2021, until the last capture in May, in which it looks much like it does now in its decorated form. I think of it growing these last four years, nourished by the sunlight and the rain, as the skies filled with bushfire smoke for months, and then the traffic dwindled as the city went through lockdowns. Maybe it was during lockdown that the person who decorated it had noticed it, in that time when local details were our comfort.
I walk the long way back to the car, deciding to look around North Sydney a little bit. My mental map of it is outdated by decades: going past on the expressway I still look up expecting to see the clock/temperature that used to be up on the side of the Konica Minolta building (then the Sunsuper building). I had a childhood association with it, where it represented for me both the high rise world of business and something closer to home: the orange numerals resembled a bedside alarm clock. A few years ago the view of it disappeared when a new gleaming glass office tower was built in front of it, but I could see it was still there, a black box high up in the top corner, visible in the gap between the buildings.
All was quiet around the offices buildings, apart from a few construction sites and removalist vans. The smokers’ courtyards were empty, and few people waited to cross at the street corners. I watched my reflection move across mirrored glass that sealed off the views into office windows. Only real estate signs gave a sense of what might be inside them.
The trees are a clue, visible from Clarence Street above the two entrances to the underground parking garage. The trees’ tall, wintery shapes seem to hover, like the buildings around them are dreaming of a forest. Behind them is a wall with peeling paint and sash windows, seven storeys high. The tallest tree reaches almost to its roof.
The entrance to the arcade on this side of the building is a narrow doorway, easily passed by. So too is the entrance to the garden, which has the look of a service corridor, branching off the arcade and its row of typical city small businesses: a barber, a sandwich shop, a newsagency. But if you pass through the doors you are delivered into a courtyard with trees and palms, and a pond into which a stream of water pours.
The trees that were visible from the street below are planted to either side of the garden, and underneath them are benches and paths, enclosing this garden amid the city high-rises. They surround it, so on one side is the back of the office building on York Street, across the road is the concrete stripes of another parking garage, and above is the St Martins Office tower, the building of which the garden is part.
The tower was built in the early 1970s on the block bordered by York, Market and Clarence Streets. Being across from the Queen Victoria building, with its sandstone warmth and elaborate detail, the St Martins tower has a functional, anonymous presence within the contemporary city. At street level, it is easy to walk past it without noticing it as a place it is possible to enter.
When I did, and found the garden, there was no one else there. It was mid-afternoon, and I could hear the city all around, a roar only partially obscured by the rush of running water from the fountain. The traffic on the street below groaned past, and the air conditioning ducts on the side of the building churned in restless interruption. I walked up to the edge of the pond and the carp swum over towards me, hoping for crumbs. They kissed the water’s surface, their bright orange backs looming up.
The sun had slipped behind the buildings already, so the garden was in shadow, but I pulled my coat tight around me and sat for a while, under the trees, listening to the city as the carp clustered, ever-hopeful, in the shallow water below.
In the floral calendar of Sydney, after the pink of the crepe myrtles in late summer comes the velvet purple of the tibouchinas. Like the city’s most renowned non-native flowering tree, the jacaranda, the tibouchina also originated in Central and South America. Yet the tibouchina is still an unfamiliar name to many, even if their iridescent purple blooms are a recognisable marker of the change of season.
For most of the year the dark green leaves and slim branches of tibouchina trees seem unexceptional, camouflaged by other garden plantings. But in March and April, when in bloom, they flare into a mass of intense colour. Like jacarandas, they transform streets into constellations of purple. This purple is richer, darker, as befits the time of year when the days grow shorter, and there’s a briskness to the air, a colder wind. Pale mauve jacarandas flowers are light, airy spring; deep purple tibouchina flowers are the dark of the lengthening autumn nights.
A tibouchina – or as they are were then known, the Lasiandra – formed part of a Horticultural Society Exhibition in 1869; by 1887 they were being grown and sold in nurseries. By the 1920s the tibouchina was a familiar tree in suburban gardens along Australia’s east coast, and the beauty of their flowers was celebrated: “The head-piece of most of the shrubs is just covered with loveliness”, extols one 1928 article, “lasiandra is a gem thing”.
Today tibouchinas can be seen across city parks and gardens, usually in isolation, but in some areas such as in Ashfield and Summer Hill, they have been used as street trees, forming an autumn corridor of bright colour. It is a surprise to turn a corner and encounter such a street, as if colours have inverted, the greens changed to purple, as if they have pulled the last of the summer’s heat from the air, in order to glow so richly.
Summer in Sydney is bookended by flowers. When the warm weather starts in November the jacaranda trees bloom in clouds of pale mauve blossoms. The jacaranda is a celebrated tree, its flowering season our equivalent of a cherry blossom festival, as the jacaranda is the subject of tributes and it is debated in what areas of the city can be found the best blooms.
My favourite flowering tree is the one that marks summer’s end. It is less celebrated than the jacaranda, but no less striking. The peak of its flowering is in the last weeks of February, these weeks with a humid, dog days feeling about them, still clinging to a summer languor despite the year advancing rapidly into March.
These sentinels of summer’s end are the crepe myrtles, their clusters of frilly flowers daubing the streets pink. The crepe myrtle is a popular street tree, often planted along the roadside, and so when they are flowering they form a procession of pink blooms that you can follow like a trail throughout the suburbs.
With their clusters of small, ruffled flowers, the crepe myrtles are a joyful tree, with all the beautiful indeterminacy of the colour pink, a colour that can be both gentle and raucous. Some are crimson, others pale, others still are white or mauve. These different colours all arise from the “Indian Summer” strain of crepe myrtles, named for their East Asian origins and their late-summer flowering season. Crepe Myrtles vary in shape and size and colour, some neatly pruned, others unruly, sending out haphazard boughs of flowers.
As I have journeyed around Sydney these past few weeks I’ve had my eye out for the crepe myrtles. Crepe-myrtle spotting is a game with constant rewards. They’re everywhere, all different colours and sizes and in different combinations, changing familiar territory into a pink landscape. I often travel around Sydney in this way, picking one detail out of the many and transforming the city, temporarily, into a place dominated by that one element.
The city of the crepe myrtles is one of suburban streets and late summer gardens, with the oleanders and frangipanis trees their companion blooms. It’s a city of decorations and embellishments, iron lace and garden gates with patterns of hearts and rising suns. It’s a city in which even the most utilitarian places are surrounded by trees and flowers, belonging to everyone who cares to notice them.
The Wattle Street Island is a triangle of land with two wide fig trees, broad enough to keep the island in permanent shade. In the centre is a structure with the unmistakable aesthetics of a public toilet block. Yet all entrances are sealed, no doors, no windows, a giant pale yellow casket. The walls have the patchwork look of endless partial repaintings, covering the tags it must be so tempting to inscribe upon its surface.
On one side of the island is an orderly road crossing with traffic lights, on the other is a perilous corner where pedestrians nervously wait for a gap in traffic. People gather on the western edge of the island watching the cars driving up Broadway and turning into Wattle Street. It’s a take-your-chance corner, and while there have been surprisingly few pedestrian accidents here, it’s an odd feeling to know that the cars don’t have to stop. At busy times of the day it sometimes feels impossible to leave the edge of the island. Then, when the group reaches critical mass and spills over onto the street, you feel a momentary rush of collective power as the cars are forced to stop to let you across.
Besides the people waiting at the edge few people linger on the island. There’s little to see: a garden bed of patchy ivy, a drinking fountain, a square metal hatch which must surely lead to the underground. The trunks of the fig trees are scarred and scratched at street level. Further up their branches spread out into a tangle which would be good to climb if ever you could get away with it. Posted on the side of the casket the list of rules suggest further illicit possibilities: there is no camping or staying overnight, no lighting fires, and no roller-skating allowed.
I walk around the casket, sure that I’ll find a doorway if I go around enough times, but it stays resolutely sealed. Although the interior will be, at best, a disused public toilet, there’s something enigmatic about buildings that have no obvious entrance. While it is obviously disused and closed up tight, it’s not uncared for. Graffiti is painted over and the ivy garden is kept clear of trash.
There have been plans to remove the island to improve pedestrian safety. But for now it remains. Like the fake ruins and decorative towers of 19th century follies, the casket is there for us to puzzle over, to contemplate purposelessness. It’s a monument to anxiety in the city, at the corner where the cars might never stop, and the road might never be crossed.
Notable trees aside, the vast majority of Sydney trees are in suburban gardens or planted along suburban streets, and are as much a part of the suburban scenery as everything else that comprises it: the houses, apartment buildings, fences, lawns, letterboxes, powerlines, cars, garages and street signs. New suburbs, in which the trees have not yet been planted or not yet grown, have a stark look to them. Photographs of newly built houses in the 1950s look marooned on their blocks of land like cakes on plates.
Once the trees grow the streets look softer, more lived in. Once they grow tall enough to reach the powerlines, they are pruned into fantastic shapes by council tree surgeons, the most common of which is a giant wishbone.
Of all suburban trees, conifers have the greatest personalities, often a reflection of the person who trims them, into shapes regular and irregular. Some are tall and thin, others short and squat, some are geometrically perfect while others are wild and shaggy.
Suburban gardeners plant trees to commemorate the birth of children and the death of pets, to hide their windows from neighbours, or to attract birds, or for many other secret reasons those passing by could never guess. Houses are characterised by their trees: a front garden with one giant palm, or a garden with a tall avocado tree, the fruit too high to pick. The gardens with frangipani trees that drop flowers onto the footpath below, or lemon trees that grow over the back lane, from which lemons can be stolen.
Suburban trees remind us of elsewheres, tropical islands in the middle of roundabouts, hedge mazes.
On some street corners are the remains of urban gardening interventions. Here only one branch of the enlarged potplant survives, as the cars stream constantly past.