How did Red Hill in Canberra get its famous name and red flowering plants?
Red Hill is one of the most prominent peaks and nature reserves in Canberra. But do you know how it got its name?
The site has been nominated for an ACT heritage listing for the red flowering plants which were established in the area 100 years ago in 1917, by horticulturalist Charles Weston, under instruction from Walter Burley Griffin.
One of the Red Hill Regenerators volunteers Michael Mulvaney told ABC Radio Canberra breakfast host Dan Bourchier on 18 May 2017 about how Red Hill got its name and its famous plants.
Red Hill lies within the lands of the Ngunawal (some more information about the custodians of this country can be found here). Aboriginals would have made many uses of the Kurrajong tree (Brachychiton populneum), which has a round even trunk, with fleshy leaves that are sometimes three-lobed. Seeds, removed of their outer coatings, were eaten raw or roasted. The yam-like tuberous roots of young plants were also eaten. The inner bark provided fibre for dilly bags and fishing lines.
Very little evidence has been found of aboriginal occupation on Red Hill, although a basalt stone tool was collected in 2012 by a geologist within the Red Hill reserve behind his house in Flanagan Street Garran, within the slashed asset protection zone on the lower slope of Red Hill Nature Reserve. Professor John Mulvaney (author of “Prehistory of Australia‘) thinks it is an Aboriginal artefact which could have functioned as a knife.
The tool is basalt which does not naturally occur on Red Hill. It was located on the surface of a rocky bench, mainly covered with leaf litter and some grass. There is a good view from the site looking down the Woden valley. It is small (about twice the size of a fifty cent piece), pitted and seems to have a worked serrated edge, and a more deeply pitted end.
While several artefact scatters and a scarred tree have been recorded nearby at East O’Malley, there are no other known artefact scatter sites on Red Hill.
There are a scattering of eucalyptus which predate European occupation. Some are significant for women and some contain scars where bark was removed to make tools. It is likely that Ngunawal people would have traversed Red Hill, but camping sites in the valleys and along the Molonglo river would have been preferred.
Ngunawal custodian Wally Bell points to a scar where bark has been removed to make a coolamon
Two pre European occupation eucalyptus trees which have significance to women.
Men should avoid this area.
Red Hill Camp
Down the hill from the scar trees is a small creek (known as Black Spring or Black Creek) which flows alongside the current Flinders Way, through Telopea Park and into the Molonglo River (now Lake Burley Griffin). A camping site (known as Red Hill Camp and located on the corner of Finders Way and Durville Crescent) was used up until the 1940s by stockmen and local indigenous people. This camp has been listed in the ACT Heritage Register, and can be seen in the context of the wider cultural landscape of Ngunnawal Country. It is representative of the broader network of campsites and pathways that local aboriginal families used to live and for on their Country up to the present day. More…
Early explorers and visitors to the Canberra region such as Currie and Evans and the Government botanist Allan Cunningham were impressed by the richness of its woodland environment. European settlement though saw major inroads being made into this woodland environment with the introduction of foreign grasses and other plants at the expense of native vegetation. Early photographs and maps of Red Hill show it was not exempt with large areas cleared of trees for grazing.
Detail of 1910 panorama across ‘Narrabundah Paddock’ towards Red Hill. The buildings in the middle ground are Narrabundah school. Source: http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-140778810/view. Click on image to download.
It was unusual that the stony ridge was cleared of trees while the lower slopes were left with more vegetation. Dr Mulvaney undertook research in 2015 and came to an interesting finding, which has been published in The Scribbly Gum, Spring 2015.
At the time of Canberra’s selection as the nation’s capital Red Hill formed a part of the “Duntroon” property. Historic plans showing property boundaries between 1830 and 1930 can be found here. It was subsequently acquired by the fledgling Commonwealth. Walter Burley Griffin’s vision for Canberra included the regeneration of native vegetation on its denuded hills. In 1917 he called for grazing to cease on Red Hill so that natural revegetation accompanied by planting could occur. However, agistment grazing continued on Red Hill up until 1997.
The historic Callistemon plantation
From 1917 to the early 1920s, following Walter Burley Griffin’s plan to have red flowering plants on Red Hill, Charles Weston directed the planting of almost 4,000 Callistemon citrinus (Crimson Bottlebrush) and also Grevillea rosmarinifolia (Rosemary Grevillea) shrubs near the summit roads. It is also possible that he planted the pink flowered Darling Pea (Swainsona galegifolia)in the same area. Many of these plants have survived and multiplied. A census taken in 2017 indicated that 723 Callistemon plants and 1700 Grevillea plants remain. A large number of Rosemary Grevillea can be found at the intersection of the Red Hill Summit Road and the Golf Course access road and along the east side of the summit road from this intersection almost to the summit. Three Darling Pea plants can be found near the mobile phone tower on the Red Hill summit.
Historic 1917 callistemon citrinus plantings near the summit cafe.
Two different colour flowers were selected
Research in 2015 by Roy McDowall into the digitised Yarralumla Nursery records has uncovered some of the original cards used by Charles Weston to record species propagated and some planting locations (click on any card to enlarge). The planting records for the historic Callistemon area show that two species were planted, in 1917 and 1920. Weston sourced Callistemon Lanceolatus seed from Woy Woy (1916) and the Sydney Botanic Gardens (1918), which were then planted on Red Hill on 23-25 October 1917 (2,280 plants) and 22 September 1920 (747 plants).
On 5 May 1921, Weston noted on the species card “In full bloom. A very beautiful shrub and should prove of great ornamental value at Canberra”. There is some doubt as to the date because Callistemon generally flower in October, not May.
In addition to the Callistemon Lanceolatus, Weston sourced seed for Callistemon Rigidus on 20 December 1917 (Brunning Pty) and 2 January 1918 (Sydney Botanic Gardens). These were planted on Red Hill on 22 September 1920 in three batches (2, 21, 825).
From these records, it appears that Weston planted 3,875 Callistemon (3027 Lanceolatus, 848 Rigidus). Of course, more may have been planted for which no records remain. More information about the history of the Yarralumla Nursery, including a note (p24) that Allocasuarina verticillate (Drooping She Oak) were planted in 1920 on the Red Hill slopes as ‘fodder trees’. In addition, Argyle Apple trees (p25) were planted in 1918-20 on Red Hill near the crest of Hindmarsh Drive (it is not clear if any remain).
In addition to planting Callistemon Citrinus on Red Hill, Charles Weston also arranged for other red flowering plants to be planted, although there is no record on Yarralumla Nursery Plant Cards. A large number of Grevillea Rosmarinfolia can be seen along red Hill Drive between the summit lookout and the Gowrie Drive intersection.
Location of Grevillea Rosmarinfolia plants
Location of Smooth Darling Pea plants
It is also believed that Charles Weston arranged for Swainsona galegifolia (Smooth Darling Pea) to be planted near the summit lookout. There is currently a small group of these plants still flourishing.
Depiction of historic red flowering plants on ceramics
Canberra ceramicist Dr Cathy Franzi produced a series of ceramic pots which were decorated with depictions of the flowers which the Griffins planned to use to ‘paint’ the Canberra Hills. This included red flowering Callistemons which were planted on Red Hill in 1917. The pots were displayed in a 2013 exhibition in Canberra titled ‘Painting the Hills of Canberra’. This exhibition was subsequently acquired by the ACT Government and is now displayed in the ACT Legislative Assembly building. Dr Franzi’s work has been described in “An Australian Botanical Narrative: A Practice-Led Enquiry into Representations of Australian Flora on the Ceramic Vessel as an Expression of Environmental Culture”. Australian national University, April 2015.
The ceramic pots which Dr Franzi created to signify Red Hill are shown below (click to enlarge).
Paintings of historic red flowering plants
Local Canberra botanical artist Cheryl Hodges painted the Red Hill historic callistemons with the 1917 location map in the background. This painting was exhibited in February 2017 at the Yarralumla Gallery in Weston Park, close to the Yarralumla Nursery where Charles Weston propagated the callistemon seeds in 1917.
Poetry about the historic callistemons
Paul Williamson has written a poem about the historic callistemons titled ‘Crimson Anniversary‘, to commemorate the centenary of this planting.
Infrastructure development on Red Hill
Two large water reservoirs were built in 1939. They were to augment the water supply from Mt Stromlo reservoir to the suburb of Red Hill and southern Canberra.
Red Hill has seen the intrusion of roads, power lines, water reservoirs and has been the site of a quarry and rubbish tip while a considerable portion was excised for a golf course (Federal Golf Club).
The proximity to Parliament House was chosen in 2013 as the landing site for Dr Who’s Tardis. From its vantage point just below the Red Hill Lookout, occupants of the Tardis are able to observe and alter Australia’s political future.
The “Talking Toadstools”
In 1973, seven coin operated tourist information devices (known officially by the catchy title of ‘Toadstool Automatic Advisory Service) were installed at a number of hill summits. Two ‘Talking Toadstools’ were installed by the Dept of the Interior outside the Red Hill cafe, one overlooking the city and the other overlooking Woden. Their installation was initially opposed by the Tourist Bureau on the (somewhat luddite) grounds that they could limit employment opportunities in the tourism industry by reducing the need for tourist guide services. After some toing and frying within the Dept of the Interior, with opposition to installing them in Nature Reserves on the grounds that they could disturb the wildlife, and debate over the merits of charging 10c or 20c, permission then had to be sought from the National Capital Development Commission. The NCDC imposed its view about location and required consultation over the script to be broadcast to tourists. Eventually, seven, 20c “toadstools” were installed in April 1973, with Red Hill scoring two for itself. The Canberra Times breathlessly reported that a machine (called a ‘mushroom’ on Red Hill broke down after ‘operating normally for some hours’. Not a good omen! The Dept of the Interior could not bring itself to refer “toadstools” or ‘Mushrooms’ and in its official media release soberly referred to them as “automatic information machines”.
Within a month, there were complaints of malfunction, vandalism and poor location. Within two months vandals had succeeded in dislodging one of the Red Hill ‘toadstools’ completely, where it was photographed by the Canberra Times.
The Toadstools were used by tourists for a number of years until the Dept of the Interior contract expired, probably in 1980. The last of the Toadstools were unceremoniously removed from outside the Red Hill cafe in around 2016. You can read about Red Hill’s role in the history “Talking Toadstools” here, and read the tourist information script here and here.
Red Hill in the Urban Landscape
Red Hill’s location as a backdrop to Parliament House and the city has long been recognised as an important part of Canberra’s landscape as the nation’s capital. An essential component of this aspect of Red Hill has been its native vegetation, an aspect especially recognised since the 1960’s by Canberra’s planners.
This awareness by Canberra’s planners coincided with increasing community awareness in the 1960’s and ’70’s of environmental matters and the need to preserve, restore and regenerate Canberra’s native bushland. Since 1989, under the government’s ParkCare program, a community volunteer bush regeneration group, the Red Hill Regenerators, has been working to restore Red Hill’s critically endangered Yellow Box – Red Gum Grassy Woodland to its former glory.
Surveys of the vegetation quality on Red Hill which were undertaken in 1988 and again in 2011 show the impact of the work done by the Red Hill Regenerators.