Book brings to light forgotten botanist with roots in south-west

A GIANT tree near Melbourne and world-famous botanist Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller are strangely linked to a Warrnambool district family through an unsung horticultural pioneer.

When Pat Pretlove (nee Boyle) and her son Chris set about researching their family history they unearthed the fascinating story of David Boyle, who migrated from Scotland to Melbourne in 1841.

While the Baron gained multiple awards and accolades for his botanical work in Victoria, it was the wide-ranging expertise of Boyle which provided many of the specimens and research for him.

The talented Scot must have realised his skills were being taken advantage of by authorities, judging by a letter he wrote to the Lands Department in the 1860s: “I have aided botany in this colony more than any other man without pay and will do again for the advancement of science”.

The Boyle family line stretches back to the Norman conquest of England and its horticulture skills continue today in Australia.

Pat’s late father Clyde Boyle (the grandson of David) came to Warrnambool in 1929 and established a family nursery business which she continued with her late husband Brian Pretlove and sons until recently. Family members are still involved in horticulture elsewhere.

“No one in the family knew much about David, so I decided to write a book and give him the credit he was due,” Chris said.

“We called the book David Boyle’s Tree, The Baron. The baron gained recognition, but it was David who went into the bush and brought down ferns and other plants for him.

“By the 1850s his skills were recognised by the baron and he also met the famous William Guilfoyle (director of the Melbourne Royal Botanic Gardens).

“I’ve also featured some of David’s botanical drawings which he had aimed to collate in a book, but was prevented by failing eyesight .”

David Boyle is famously featured with his white hair and beard in an old photograph of a huge eucalypt he had discovered in dense bushland at Sassafras in the Dandenongs. He measured the tree at 159 metres tall and it was reputed to be the tallest tree in the world.

Boyle wrote in a letter to the Argus in 1889: “It is a great mistake that such large trees within 25 miles of Melbourne should be unknown to the public”.

Photographer N. J. Caire noted it was a “gigantic tree that had stood the shocks of time for probably 3500 years”. He described Boyle as a “very capable and learned botanist”.

The giant was named The Baron after von Mueller, who had earlier asked Mr Boyle to measure other huge trees in the Dandenongs. Others  in the Otways and Gippsland were also discovered.

Sadly, these giants of nature didn’t survive the progress of civilisation,  indiscriminate loggers and souvenir hunters.

The book describes the scene when David Boyle’s giant tree was felled: “Then suddenly a marvellous great shriek and ghastly groan and he fell head-long with such a crash as the forest had never heard before”.

Boyle would regularly embark on botanical excursions into the Dandenongs on horseback or dray at great danger to himself and his animals to obtain rare specimens.

One note in his diary says: “I found this fern where the sun never shone on the surface of that locality for at least 1000 years”.

Sometimes he would ride into bushland with von Mueller, whom he regarded as a friend.

 Boyle completed an estimated 500 or more watercolours and sketches of ferns, flowers, fruits, vegetables and fungi. Some were distributed among his family, others donated to the Melbourne Botanical Gardens.

He died in Mitcham in October 1900 as an unsung hero whose work lives on today in documented knowledge of Australian botany.

The baron had died three years earlier, leaving a sister and her son.

Von Mueller’s botanical influence extended to the south-west. He was behind the introduction of marram grass and maritime pines to stabilise shifting sands in the 1880s.

According to Pretlove’s book, Warrnambool and Port Fairy contested for the honour of having Australia’s first plantations of marram grass, also known as British bent grass. Port Fairy first received a supply of seed from the baron in 1883, while Warrnambool received its first seed from a Liverpool firm in 1877.

A Lands Department officer reported that von Mueller advised Warrnambool Town Council to exclude livestock from the plantings, which extended from the breakwater to the Hopkins River mouth and other dunes.

Scant natural herbage had been trodden out by the livestock of the early settlers and marram grass proved ideal in transforming barren drift sand into pasture or dense vegetation.

Warrnambool town and shire councils obtained government grants for plantings and the establishment of a nursery in Warrnambool.

The Sydney Morning Herald described the Warrnambool plantings as a success and The Western Australian Mail said plants from Warrnambool’s nursery had been sent interstate and overseas with “most gratifying results”.

Von Mueller also selected Aleppo pines, which were planted in Timor Street between Liebig and Kepler streets.

However, he was not so wise with his decision to sprinkle rampantly invasive blackberry seeds in the Dandenongs and give cuttings to interstate visitors.

At the time he was quoted as saying “generations to come will bless me for this”.

n David Boyle’s Tree, The Baron is printed by Spectrum Print Solutions, Warrnambool, and is available at Warrnambool Books in Fairy Street.


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