Sydney Trees

Sydney’s first wishing tree was a Norfolk Island Pine, planted in 1818 in what was to become the Royal Botanic Gardens. By 1905 it was 30 metres tall, and the most popular tree in the gardens. People would begin the spell by walking around it three times forwards, then walking three times backwards, before making their wish.

Wishing Tree nla.pic-vn4653804-v

In the 1930s, the wishing tree was found to be dying from old age and decay, and a replacement tree was bought with funds raised by the Farmer’s Childrens’ Radio Birthday Club and planted nearby. By 1945 the original tree was removed and its wood turned into souvenirs, sold to aid returned servicemen from World War 2.

Yet the new wishing tree failed to attract the wishing public as its predecessor had done. It was much smaller, with a kink in its trunk and lacked the magic of the original, which had come in a tub from Norfolk Island in the early 19th century, and had its planting overseen by Elizabeth Macquarie.

On the site of the original wishing tree now is another tree with magical properties, the Wollemi Pine. Once known only through fossils and thought to be extinct, it was discovered in 1994 growing in bushland in the Wollemi National Park. Knowing its ancient status, it is easy to envisage the Wollemi pine as part of another time, with its dark, shiny foliage nibbled upon by dinosaurs.

wollemi pine royal botanic gardens

The Wollemi Pine, where once the original Wishing Tree grew.

People stare at the Wollemi Pine and imagine dinosaurs, as they once stood in the same spot and made wishes. Further down towards the Harbour the replacement wishing tree grows. The plaque at its trunk apologetically states: “The tree in this bed will never attain the same grandeur, because soon after it was planted its crown was damaged in a violent storm”. The photograph of the original tall, straight wishing tree is printed as a comparison.

Wishing Tree 2

Wishing Tree sign

No one stops at this wishing tree, but I wonder if this means its power is especially strong from rarely being called upon. I conjure up a wish and start walking around it. No one pays me much attention until I finish the three times forwards and start on the three times backwards. It’s hard to walk backwards and I keep colliding with edge of the concrete ring around the base of the tree. What’s more I feel terribly self conscious. A mother with a stroller pauses at the Macquarie gates and stares at me on my backwards walk, a man with a serious camera waits politely for me to lope out of the way so he can take a photo of a nearby tibouchina, which is flowering with bright purple blooms.

I’m ready to explain what I am doing, but of course no one asks, they just stare from afar. In the Wishing Tree’s heyday in the late 19th and early 20th century people must have had a more jolly attitude towards such antics as walking backwards. Walking feats were once regarded as good entertainment. In the 1840s one of Sydney’s most well known characters was The Flying Pieman, famous for his feats of “pedestrianism”, in which he would embark upon increasingly eccentric walking challenges, such as walking from Sydney to Parramatta carrying a live goat. Though people are no longer impressed by pedestrianism, they are still fond of wishing. Sydney’s centre of wishes has been relocated to Macquarie Street, and the dripping bronze snout of Il Porcellino.

I finish my backwards circuit around the tree and make a wish, holding onto one of the tree’s fronds. Norfolk Island pines are often found near beaches and as children my sister and I called them “monkey tail trees”, and search for the longest and most impressive of their tails. Having wished I go in search of the Swamp Oaks on the nearby lawn, which have grown from the roots of the Swamp Oaks that grew in the area before British settlement. They have long, green-grey leaves, thin as needles, and furrowed bark covered in pale green lichen.

swamp oaks royal botanic gardens

The silvery grey swamp oaks.

Trees connect to a different kind of past to that of the built environment. The Botanic Gardens is as constructed as any other city structure, but there is a looseness of time in the gardens. No one besides the joggers is rushing. Girls sit writing postcards on the grass, eating through a packet of raspberry tartlets, a man in a suit lies under a tree, flat on his back with his palms facing up. A family pat the fat branches of the Queensland Bottle Tree.

Walking out of the gardens and back into the city, I ignore the buildings and look only at the trees. There are more of them than I have previously realised, although I do have favourites I always look for, like the row of plane trees along the sandstone wall of the viaduct on Elizabeth street. While plane trees are maligned by some for causing allergies, I appreciate their toughness, growing tall on city streets where it seems trees would not be able to grow.

When the British arrived in Sydney Cove in 1788 they immediately set about clearing the land and making it suitable for settlement and agriculture: although their early attempts to at farming were for the most part a failure. On the map of “hitherto explored country” published in Watkin Tench’s A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, published in 1793, areas of land in the Sydney region are marked according to their perceived qualities: “bad country”, “swampy and barren”, “nothing but rocks”, “wretched and brushy”, with the occasional “patch of good land” here and there. It is a map of disappointment, although in many ways Watkin Tench was a curious and sympathetic observer of the Sydney landscape.


King st near George st in 1888 – hardly a tree lined oasis today, but this photo is typical of the mood of the photographs I describe.

It takes some imagination to envisage the wetlands, scrubland and forests, the good and bad country, almost all of which was cleared to make way for what we now know as Sydney. In nineteenth century photographs of the city streets there are very few trees. The city is a cluttered, sepia place, defiantly man made. After all the clearing of land the new city would have wanted to celebrate its structures, rather than the natural world that so much effort had been put into erasing.

In the cheerfully nostalgic “Sydney Looks Back” by Isadore Brodsky, published in 1957 and recently withdrawn from the Sydney College of the Arts Library (where I came across it on the free books table) there is a chapter named
“Only a Tree is Left”, which views the changes to Railway Square from the perspective of a Moreton Bay Fig tree.



According to “ruddy faced Walter Rodd”, the tree (although the one pointed out in the pre-station photograph looks much larger) remained on the site, while the bones of the dead buried in the Devonshire Street cemetery were exhumed and conveyed to land within Sydney university, and the new station was built. According to more verified sources, these exhumed remains were actually transported by tram to a cemetery at Botany, on the Botany Cemetery line constructed specifically for that purpose.

Whether or not the Railway Square tree was indeed the same, the idea of a tree being a witness to events happening around it is an irresistable one when confronted with a tree of great age. The tree itself is no witness, but through the tree people are able to imagine time on a scale that exceeds their lifetimes. In the redwood forests of California, where trees can live for thousands of years, sometimes the rings of a fallen tree will be marked with historical events to accentuate the great age of the tree and the seeming insignificance of human time. Centuries go past in only a few centimetres of the tree’s trunk.


There are no thousand year old trees in Sydney, but Sydney’s oldest trees provoke a similar sense of reflection on time. Of the great turpentine and ironbark forest that once extended across what is now the inner west of Sydney, only one tree is thought to remain, a twin-trunked ironbark tree in the grounds of St Johns Church in Glebe. From this one tree I can grow a forest. I imagine ironbark trees covering the park on the corner, replacing the roads and the buildings which are so familiar to me, the pie shop with the mural of the blackbirds and bats circling around a pie, the takeaway where my housemates and I would drive late at night to buy potato cakes in the 1990s, the corner post office that the Glebe community rallied to save to no avail. All of what I know and have known was once forest.


When considering trees, it is those at the extremes which catch our attention. The wishing tree and its magical powers, the one ‘witness’ tree that’s left, or trees of great age. According to the National Register of Big Trees, established in 2009, Sydney’s largest tree outside of the Botanic Gardens or Centennial Park can be found over the Harbour Bridge, in the region most known by the adjective “leafy”. Here on the north shore there is a higher concentration of trees than anywhere else in Sydney. On satellite images the north side of the harbour is much greener than the brown and grey lands to the south, and it was in the midst of this area, in 1930, that the Tree Lover’s Civic League planted a lemon-scented eucalypt near Gordon station. This tree has grown to be the largest Sydney suburban tree recorded on the register. Tree size is measured by a calculation of height, width, and spread, so while the Gordon tree does not look particularly tall, it spreads out wide over the surrounding streets.

Gordon Tree

Lemon Scented Eucalypt Gordon Trunk

In Gordon the author provides a sense of scale for a very large trunk.

Sydney’s second largest tree is in Killara, on a residential street which curves down towards a creek. It is a blackbutt tree of around 50 metres tall, with rough bark on its lower trunk and white, limblike branches stretching out above. Walking around the tree’s trunk, I step over its roots and the down the bank towards the creek. It is cool down here and water trickles over the mossy rocks. Through the gaps in the trees I can see the houses across the street, comfortable brick homes surrounded by gardens. On the other side of the creek the back fences of another row of houses is visible: bedsheets hung out to dry; a net enclosing a trampoline. Between the rows of houses the cool, damp atmosphere of the creek feels peaceful and secret.

tiny person big tree

In Killara the author provides a sense of scale for a very tall trunk.

killara treetop

I grew up around such pockets of suburban bushland, but it had been a long time since this secret feeling has come over me. The bushland near the house where I lived as a teenager was crisscrossed by paths but I rarely came across anyone else when I went on sulky walks through the eucalypts. I would walk until the path ended in a cliff and sit on the big rock there, imagining I was lost and would stay out there forever, while knowing that home wasn’t very far away.

There is plenty of tree lore in Sydney that is less to do with history and more to do with neighbourhood dynamics. Disputes about trees blocking harbour views, protests to save fig trees when they are scheduled for removal, tree poisonings, spite hedges.

This Tree Has Been Poisoned

This tree has been poisoned…

Trees divide allegiances and stir passions. As living things, they are somewhat out of human control, a fact which, as well as causing urban discord at times, gives us another way to imagine time and place. Trees have their own life that is very different to ours.


My favourite suburban tree is in a back lane in Annandale. It’s a camphor laurel, a introduced species of tree once planted widely but now classed as a weed. Camphor Laurels grow to a great size and were once planted readily in parks and gardens for shade. Knowing it is a weed doesn’t make me like it any less, and in some ways it is the perfect suburban tree, planted to beautify the cleared land. With the piecemeal corrugated iron fence below it, and few indicators of the present day besides the street signs and cars, I like to imagine that the tree is the key to another time. The tree is at the beginning of a network of irregular lanes and pathways that snake down through Annandale, following Whites Creek and ending at the harbour. Though the creek is now a concrete-lined channel, in the strips of parkland and the waterways there is a sense of how the land once might have been long before the houses and streets were built.

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City of Sydney Register of Significant Trees

Inner West Community Tree Watch

Map of pre-settlement forest areas south of Sydney Harbour