OUR HISTORY …

Illawarra Rhododendron and Rainforest Gardens

When Donald Stanton was told, “You can’t grow rhododendrons in Wollongong,” he was determined to prove the sceptics wrong.

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Don and his son David Stanton

Date unknown
(Photo courtesy David Stanton)

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Don Stanton, 1959

(Photo courtesy David Stanton)

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Don Stanton, 1970's

(Photo courtesy David Stanton)

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Having seen magnificent displays of rhododendrons during his travels to the United Kingdom and also experiencing some success in cultivating azaleas and a few rhododendrons in his own backyard, Don was fuelled by the desire to showcase the beauty of these plants in his own region.

genus rhododendron

Genus ‘Rhododendron
(Photos courtesy Lile Judickas)

Although Don lacked expertise in horticulture, he found an ally in his close friend William (Bill) F. Mearns. Bill shared Don’s passion for the Rhododendron genus. Bill also happened to be the Curator of the Wollongong Botanic Gardens and possessed invaluable knowledge in the field. Together, they embarked on a mission to create a Park dedicated to growing plants from the Rhododendron genus, nestled within a rainforest-like environment.

 

bill mearns wcl
pg 10 2 bill mearns garry ford
pg 28 3 bill mearns by azaleas

Bill Mearns had a passion for plants. His dedication and love for Australian flora and fauna gave Wollongongan island of green that future generations will cherish. Seen here at the Rhododendron Gardens at Mt Pleasant. 11 September, 1987.  (Courtesy Illawarra Mercury Image Collection, Wollongong City Library)

Bill Mearns 1970’s – 1980’s
(Colour Photos courtesy David Stanton)

On the 19th of June 1968, the inaugural gathering of the Australian Rhododendron Society (Illawarra Branch) took place. Don, Bill and twenty-one other rhododendron enthusiasts attended. This momentous occasion marked the beginning of a collective effort to establish a flourishing rhododendron park.

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Kembla News article ‘Beauty in the Bush’
(Clipping courtesy David Stanton)
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After extensive searching, the ideal location for the park was discovered in a serene valley situated 229 to 274 metres above sea level. This was just north of Wollongong in Mount Pleasant. The land was owned by Australian Iron and Steel (AIS), and had been the location of the original Mount Pleasant coal mine! Don’s vision for The Rhododendron Park received strong support from the AIS General Manager, Mr. A. A. Parrish, and with the necessary permissions granted, documents signed and unwavering enthusiasm, the project was set in motion.

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Aerial view of proposed ‘Rhododendron Park’ area near Parrish Ave. 1961
(Source: Spatial Services 2016)

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Entering the ‘Rhododendron Park’ 1970’s
(Photo courtesy David Stanton)

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Original road before development
(Photo courtesy David Stanton)

The early days of the Park presented a formidable challenge. Much of the allocated land was devoid of trees and covered in dense thickets of blackberry bushes and lantana.

Original land before development
(Photo courtesy David Stanton)

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A central swamp presented an additional hurdle to overcome. As the land ascended, it transitioned into a steep native rainforest area that extended up to the magnificent escarpment.

The Illawarra Branch of the ARS secured a lease for an initial 6 hectares (14 acres) of land to establish their Park. This area was expanded to a sprawling 24 hectares (60 acres) by 1970.

In that year, a service road was built to link the lower ‘exotics’ garden and the upper rainforest area. This road underwent further development in 1986 when it was sealed through a grant provided by the Government Commonwealth Employment Project.

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pg 14 4 rhododendrons
pg 18 6 top spring area rain forest

Original land before development
(Photo courtesy David Stanton)

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First plantings of Rhododendrons in shade
(Photo courtesy David Stanton)

At that time, the belief was that rhododendrons required shade to thrive, prompting the planting of numerous large trees in the lower gardens and the planting of rhododendrons, vireyas and camellias in the rainforest and on the southern side of the lower gardens. Only five of these original plantings survive today in the rainforest area.

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Development of new gardens
(Photo courtesy David Stanton)
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In 1980, the Camellia Society approached the volunteers with a proposal to establish a Camellia Garden within The Rhododendron Park. Over the years, both Societies have developed and maintained the Gardens that exist here today.

Throughout the 1970s, Donald Stanton spent much of his time cultivating vireyas, a unique collection of tropical rhododendrons that Don, himself, collected during his journeys to Papua New Guinea.

With great care and devotion, he hybridised these vireyas in his backyard. Before Don died in August 1977, he bequeathed responsibility for his vireyas to his son David Stanton.

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pg 26 7 vireya aurig park
Don Stanton’s vireyas
(Photo courtesy David Stanton)
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In 1986, The Illawarra Rhododendron Gardens underwent a significant transformation when it was incorporated into the Illawarra State Recreation Area, overseen by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. This led to a reduction in area, ultimately to its present-day expanse of just under 14 hectares (32 acres).

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Creating the Patrick Lahiff Lake
(Photo courtesy David Stanton)
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pg 23 8 looking great
pg 08 7 duck swims with waterlilies

In 1987, the Patrick Lahiff Lake was created. This serene body of water emerged from a once-swampy area and now provides a tranquil haven for various bird species.

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Patrick Lahiff Lake through time
(Photo courtesy David Stanton)
2018 dec view 3 pregola lake from steps

Faced with increasing numbers of feral deer destroying large parts of the Lower Gardens, the management committee built a fence in 2011 to keep them out. Unfortunately, funds were limited and they could only fence approximately one third of the Gardens. The fence was successful in protecting the Lower Gardens, but deer remain a huge threat and a continuous challenge to the rainforest, today.

area 1 approx. ocean view lookout & bench 1
Upper Gardens Native Rainforest
(Photo courtesy IRRG volunteers)
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Recognising the significance and ecological value of the endangered Illawarra native rainforest in the Upper Gardens and through our commitment to protecting it, in 2022 we changed our name from the Illawarra Rhododendron Gardens to the Illawarra Rhododendron and Rainforest Gardens and established a dedicated bush regeneration group for the rainforest.

Despite the challenges faced along the way, the Illawarra Rhododendron and Rainforest Garden has persevered and evolved. Its journey from a treeless and overgrown landscape to a vibrant horticultural and rainforest haven stands as a testament to the dedication, passion and vision of all who have worked over the years to create the Illawarra Rhododendron and Rainforest Gardens..

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Upper Gardens Native Rainforest
(Photo courtesy IRRG volunteers)
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illawarra rhododendron and rainforest gardens history don stanton05

Recognising the significance and ecological value of the endangered Illawarra native rainforest in the Upper Gardens and through our commitment to protecting it, in 2022 we changed our name from the Illawarra Rhododendron Gardens to the Illawarra Rhododendron and Rainforest Gardens and established a dedicated bush regeneration group for the rainforest.

Despite the challenges faced along the way, the Illawarra Rhododendron and Rainforest Garden has persevered and evolved. Its journey from a treeless and overgrown landscape to a vibrant horticultural and rainforest haven stands as a testament to the dedication, passion and vision of all who have worked over the years to create the Illawarra Rhododendron and Rainforest Gardens..