The Temple of Flora, that opened this Spring in the superb 1864 arts and crafts cottage at Heronswood, the historic house and garden overlooking Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay on the Mornington Peninsula, is a celebration of plant life and beauty, and, yes, sex. The three metre high resin sculpture by artist Kate Rohde that forms the Temple’s centrepiece explores the astonishing diversity of flowers, their purpose, and their strategies for pollination – a few of those illustrated include inviting flies to be pollinators with the stench of rotting flesh (-the renowned titan arum, Amorphophallus titanium), seducing exquisite long-billed hummingbirds as pollinators (- for the red-flowered Angel’s trumpet, Brugmansia sanguinea) and the simple strategy of harnessing wind power to disperse pollen (- tomatoes). The work might be called The sex life of plants although I’m not sure if it’s been formally named to date. Kate works with a colour pallete from the brightest and most luminous coral reefs and tropical fish to present a work that’s utterly beguiling – both surreal and botanically sound. Kate observes of her own work, I’d call my practice hyperactive, like an acid trip without the drugs. I’m compelled and repulsed in equal measure by the fantastical environments I make. My work is so excessive, with all the bling and mirrors; it’s shiny, loud, colourful and unashamedly decorative. If you saw her Ornament Crimes at last years’ Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art you have the idea.
An adjacent room shows a video installation by performance artists The Huxleys, who argue, with some justification, that The sex life of humans is very dull and boring compared to that of plants. The Age’s gardening writer Megan Backhouse describes Gallery Heronswood as a Temple to Pollination with the headline Botanical sex lives on flagrant display at Heronswood (you have been warned).
Clive Blazey, The Diggers Club founder, was inspired by Adelaide Botanic Garden’s Museum of Economic Botany (MEB) but wanted a gallery rather than a museum to highlight Flora’s art as well as science. A second room adjacent to Kate Rhode’s work presents models of 90 open-pollinated heirloom fruit and vegetables grown by the Diggers Club. While the MEB has a more extensive collection of models (in terms of biodiversity, history and construction) these models (- prepared by Peter Revelman from Paradoxx and painted by artist Karen Lloyd-Jones) tell both at a glance and in more detailed study, the untold story of the privatisation of plant genes. Seed – the Untold Story is shown alternately with The Huxleys. This American documentary, released in 2016, explores the globalisation of seed corporations and the shift in perceptions of seed that corporatisation drives. One reviewer observes the revelation of the poetry of farming and of farmers comparing seeds to jewels – for their appearance and for their value. During the twentieth century 94% of American vegetable seed varieties were lost (– the seed savers movement, and its champions such as The Diggers Club here and the Seed Savers Exchange in the US represent an important response to this crisis).
Gallery Heronswood illustrates the Diggers Garden and Environment Trust’s mission for conservation, preservation and education of heirloom seeds, historic buildings and gardens. Photographer Bill Henson (- a passionate gardener) and I had the privilege of opening the Gallery with Clive on 1 September 2017. The Gallery is a perfect gift – it’s one given by members to members and visitors. The Gallery’s medium and message are important nationally and internationally and sees the continuing growth of Diggers’ remarkable legacy. That this can be achieved by a gardening club is a testament to The Diggers Club – to Clive & Penny Blazey and to the Diggers team that encompasses passionate staff in partnership with passionate gardeners – the Club members.
Clive and Penny have achieved something remarkable in The Diggers Club – a membership of 75,000 for a business built on an unwavering commitment to gardening, to growing plant knowledge, to the environment and biodiversity conservation, and to fairness in access to plant genetic resources, while keeping its head above water, is an extraordinary achievement.
As a botanic garden director I had an easier time of it – I had access to public funds and the support of benefactors, sponsors and volunteers as well as ‘earned’ revenue. My challenges in the public sector pale in comparison with the challenges for Diggers’ achievements in the private sector.
Even more remarkable is Clive’s and Penny’s commitment to sharing this love and understanding of gardening and plants. In 2011 they established the Trust to conserve their historic gardens and buildings and to sustain Diggers’ gardening, conservation and education programs. Heronswood, and the Garden of St Erth at Blackwood in Victoria’s Central Highlands, grown by educator, gardener and writer, Tommy Garnett OAM, are now owned by the Trust. The family business, The Diggers Club, was also generously given to the Trust to ensure an independent income stream and the Trust’s long term sustainability.
The Diggers Club gardens are important and worth visiting for their beauty and outstanding horticultural practice, and to see what can be achieved in the private sector by a partnership between a Club and its members. I’d argue that the Club’s worth joining of course – but I also need to disclose that I’m a director of The Diggers Club and Diggers Garden and Environment Trust. For more information, or to join, go to https://www.diggers.com.au/ or visit The Diggers Shop in Adelaide Botanic Garden (and at Heronswood, the Garden of St Erth or Cloudehill in Victoria and at the Heritage Nursery in Yarralumla, Canberra). A visit to Gallery Heronswood is essential – https://www.diggers.com.au/our-gardens/heronswood/dget-gallery/ for more details.
© Stephen J. Forbes – originally published in The Adelaide Review, November 2017.