Every year between mid-October and the end of November, suburban streets and city parks across Sydney blush a gorgeous hue of lilac. As bare branches bud with their first post-winter shoots, breathtaking canopies of purple flowers burst to life, welcoming back bluer skies and balmier days.
The annual spectacle of the blooming jacaranda trees is a herald of the warmer months that Sydneysiders just can’t get enough of. So much so, in fact, that many assume that these glorious blossoming boughs are native to the city. In truth, there are many leafy interlopers from far-flung climes rooted in Sydney’s soils – and the jacaranda is one of them, originally hailing from South America.
The planting of non-Australian trees in our major cities isn't unusual, but the sheer number of jacarandas found all over metropolitan Sydney stands them apart from many of the other imported species lining our streets. So how did these Brazilian beauties come to be so plentiful throughout the city?
Photograph: Destination NSW
One popular myth is that a midwife in North Sydney gifted jacaranda saplings to new mothers, encouraging them to plant the trees in public spaces so that they could watch them grow alongside their children. And this charming story could be true, except for the fact there isn’t a shred of proof to back it up. None of these green-thumbed mothers have ever come forward to claim responsibility for Sydney’s jacaranda bonanza, and no specific hospital records, official or anecdotal, make any claim to the legend. Not to mention that, given the number of mature jacarandas found throughout the city, the midwife in question would have needed access to a fairly huge quantity of trees of the same age, somehow, and from somewhere.
Unfortunately we'll have to nip the romantic tale of the generous matron and her hordes of tree-planting mothers in the bud. As discovered through the busting of many a myth, the neatest explanation isn't always the truthful one. In reality, we owe our city’s beloved blossoms to a far more complex chain of events, dating back to the early 1800s.
The story begins with a roving British botanist, with an excess of wanderlust and a penchant for rare and exotic plants. Allan Cunningham was so transfixed by the stunning jacarandas when he first saw them in bloom in Rio de Janeiro sometime in 1818, that he brought a specimen back to London, for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. The harsh Northern Hemisphere winters meant that jacarandas could only survive within hothouses. A far milder climate, closer to its Brazilian home, was what this delicate tree really craved. So, when Cunningham was briefly appointed the colonial botanist of NSW, it’s believed he was the first person to successfully plant a jacaranda in Sydney.
A twist of botanical reproduction also plays its part in the story of how these trees earned such a deep and abiding place in Sydney’s heart. Cunningham, along with many European plant-experts familiar with the jacaranda, had believed the plant to be especially difficult to grow. Cuttings would rarely flourish and more attempts to propagate the tree failed than succeeded. Gardeners would go to extraordinary lengths to get jacarandas to thrive – one of the most trusted methods, devised in 1886 by noted landscape designer Michael Guilfoyle, required elaborate rigs of bell jars, specially constructed ‘cold pits’ and baths of precisely warmed water. For these reasons, the handful that did manage to mature were considered the most precious and rare of trees. The Sydney Morning Herald noted in 1868 that the jacaranda planted in the Royal Botanic Gardens (which you can still visit today) “is well worth a journey of 50 miles or more to see. Its beautiful, rich lavender blossoms and its light, feathery foliage render it the gem of the season.”
Photograph: Destination NSW
However, like many species of Bignonia, while the jacaranda is incredibly difficult to grow from a cutting, it propagates with ease when its freshly released seeds find just the right conditions – such as those found across Sydney in the spring. Being a Southern Hemisphere city on nearly the same latitude as Rio, the first jacarandas to grow in Sydney felt right at home, and the descendants of that handful of original trees – once considered so rare and fickle – now flourish throughout Greater Sydney in their hundreds. By the 1930s, the trees were so plentiful, people happily accepted that these beautiful blooms must have always been here, dusting the ground with petals, filling the spring air with scent.
It's this local embrace that is perhaps the most touching part of the jacarandas' story. Sydney has always been a city of immigrants, a place where people have brought distant cultures and woven them so inseparably into the fabric of our society, that to lose them would be to diminish the identity of everyone who calls this city home. Sticklers might insist that jacarandas are not Australian, but they’re still Sydneysiders, through and through.