July 5, 2024

A slice of paradise

Looking for a place to stretch your legs while enjoying time amongst big exotic trees, natural bushland and a babbling brook? Well, this Burnside hidden gem is just waiting to be discovered.

Nestled in a tranquil Stonyfell gully, surrounded by residential homes is Michael Perry Botanic Reserve, a 3.2-hectare slice of rejuvenated garden history. Named in honour of former City of Burnside councillor, alderman and mayor, Michael Perry, the reserve was originally part of a larger parcel of land called Clifton Estate.

Although land subdivisions in the 1970s reduced the reserve to its current size, it remains an extraordinary green retreat and visitors are today greeted with a landscape that has been restored to reflect its former horticultural glory.

Botanist and City of Burnside’s conservation and land management technical officer, Dr Mark Ellis, shares his vast knowledge and passion about Michael Perry Reserve.

Prior to colonial settlement, the area was an open woodland populated with grey box, South Australian blue gum and tussock grasses, while Second Creek – which runs through – was lined with river red and manna gums. A number of these majestic trees survive today and remain an integral connection to that past.

“I have been involved in the conservation and management of this State Heritage-listed reserve for more than a decade,” Mark says. “This is a garden of great botanic significance. We have a lot to thank the different owners of this property for over the years. Many of them were keen horticulturists and played a significant role in shaping the estate’s landscape.”

Two early owners in particular stand out for their preservation efforts: Nathaniel Alexander Cox who purchased Clifton Estate in 1872 and Dr Michael Schneider, who purchased it in 1934.

The large Bunya Pine nuts are a nutritious bush food.

Clifton Estate was a social hub in its heyday and Dr Schneider, who was passionate about land conservation and wildlife, even set up a native animal zoo on the grounds. But while no records of tree planting exist, the varying maturity of trees across the property align with Cox’s and Schneider’s occupancy.

Thanks to their efforts, visitors to Michael Perry Botanic Reserve can enjoy the marvel and spectacle of towering trees like the huge Hoop Pine; something you won’t find in a suburban backyard.

Mark describes the reserve as a “big tree” park.

“People are amazed at the size of our trees and they have such a commanding presence. We also have cultivars from across the globe reflecting the plant-collecting habits of the Victorian and later eras.”

Michael Perry Reserve features a 1.2-kilometre walking trail, which is easily accessible within the garden, and along it are botanical treasures to keep an eye out for. At the Willowbridge Grove starting point is the sentinel Cabbage Palm guarding the beginning of the trail and it is of a ripe old age. Coveted by Indigenous people and colonists alike, the crisp, white heart of its trunk as well as its tender tips made them a valuable food resource and it’s wonderful that this specimen has survived.

Further into the reserve and it’s impossible to miss another group of edible plants, the imposing Bunya and Stone pines.

Walking tracks meander through different landscapes including native bush.

The Bunya Pine is a northern Queensland native producing huge cones filled with large nuts. Mark often gives tours through the reserve – he has one coming up on May 28 as part of the History Festival – and if you are lucky enough to join it, make sure to taste one of his delicious Bunya Pine muffins.

Stone Pines are a Mediterranean coniferous evergreen tree, named because of their monolith-like bark and are famous for producing an essential pesto ingredient – pine nuts.

Most large exotic trees are located around the central garden, which also boasts an array of smaller growing local and afar species such as the Illawarra plum, lemon myrtle, and Chilean guava.

As you venture further, you’ll encounter a regenerated bush setting replicating the pre-colonial landscape. Closer to the Kurrajong Avenue entrance, new plantings of succulents are establishing themselves and filling the hillside garden beds.

Key to plant success in the early years was Second Creek, once the main water source for garden irrigation and domestic supply to Clifton House. This historic residence is still visible through the canopy sitting atop the eastern hillside. Though not needed for such practical purposes now, Second Creek is an essential visitor experience. Follow the path along the creek line, letting those burbles and splashes be the soundtrack of your walk.

Your chance for further enlightenment is growing nearby the Second Creek ornamental pond; the recently planted Bodhi tree is the same type as the one Buddha sat under more than 2500 years ago.

Dr Mark Ellis holding an enormous Bunya Pine cone.

Much hard work and planning has been undertaken to elevate Michael Perry Botanic Reserve to its current “must-visit” status. Gardens, no matter what size, need maintenance and this reserve is no different. Over the years, weeds such as olive, willow, German ivy, arum lily, and Tradescantia had slowly invaded many parts of the garden including the creek. Burnside’s 2014 “cyclone event” also damaged or killed some trees, especially on the eastern hillside.

In 2019, Burnside Council devised a plan to ensure the continuous protective care of this reserve by maintaining, preserving, restoring and reconstructing its integrity of plants, design and physical elements. Currently, the council is engaged with the local Kaurna people to provide an opportunity for their stories of connections with this land to be told.

“We have achieved an incredible amount in the past few years,” Mark says. “Thanks to the help of our dedicated staff and volunteers, including Conservation Volunteers Australia, weeds were removed, paths dug, stones re-laid, new areas developed and plantings undertaken. Anyone who hasn’t been here for five years or more will see a huge difference – for the better”.

By removing invasive types and introducing native species to many areas, natural regeneration has occurred. Emerging native daisies, grasses, herbs, and others are now naturally re-greening a sizeable portion of the space. A wonderful sign that essential ground flora of fungi and bacteria are in balance is the appearance of local orchids – including donkey, Helmut and fairy varieties – which have not been seen for many years. Keep an eye out for their tiny intricate blooms on your walks during winter and spring.

While native plants make up the majority of the garden’s new inclusions, Mark is also keen to maintain the exotic flavour.

“We have existing African and New Zealand species, so adding more from these locations helps retain that Gondwanan link,” he says.

The imposing Bunya Pine.

The next generation of planting is underway with several Kauri trees, capable of reaching 50 metres, slowly establishing and preparing to reach the lofty heights of their fellow neighbours over the coming decades.

But it’s not just about the plants. Michael Perry Botanic Reserve is teeming with wildlife, from the graceful white-faced heron and chattering lorikeets, to the myriad butterflies and insects; there is so much for the nature enthusiast or casual walker to enjoy. And despite its proximity to residential homes, the reserve still offers a sense of seclusion and tranquillity.

While parking is limited, around the Kurrajong Avenue and Willowbridge Grove entrances, if you are up for a little more walking, park along Hallett Road, and head up Andrew’s Walk – it’s framed by two brick columns, remnants of the original estate driveway.

Put on your walking shoes, pack a picnic rug and set out to discover this green oasis, tucked away in the heart of Stonyfell. The Michael Perry Botanic Reserve is open from 6am to 10pm daily.



This article first appeared in the May 2024 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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