The design and planting of the Camden Park garden commenced in the early 1820’s, well before the construction of the house. An appreciation of the garden and surrounding landscape commences with four significant vistas which were created to be viewed from the house and provide an insight to the scale of vision and planning behind the creation of this garden.
Mount Annan to the North-East
Mount Gilead to the South-East
The Macarthur family cemetery to the West and
The vista to St John’s Camden, to the North-West
The garden is largely the legacy of William Macarthur, John’s fourth son. William, who was a keen botanist, planned the structure of the main and “Lower Garden”, built the hothouses and irrigation systems and created a collection of plants that were unique in their day. Highlights of the garden include the existing remnant structures, many mature specimen trees, a variety of bulbs and the magnificent wisteria which borders the eastern verandah of the house.
“...his real interest was in growing useful, unusual, exotic and beautiful plants for their own sake as well as for their utility. He established his first garden at Camden in 1820. More than 3,000 species, hybrids and cultivars were grown in the gardens up to 1861...”
In 1883 William produced the first of four periodic catalogues which detailed the extensive varieties of plants grown at Camden Park. Detailed information on plants historically grown at Camden Park is available at: www.hortuscamden.com/ This website was authored by the late Colin Mills who founded and lead the Camden Park Garden Volunteers for many years. The following paragraphs are extracts from Colin’s paper “A Brief History of the Camden Park Garden”
"...The Camden Park garden can fairly lay claim to being the best preserved colonial garden in Australia. It is also one of the oldest, having been started in 1820 by William. By 1824, ‘William’s Garden’, now known as the Lower Garden, was described by his brother Edward as ‘fast completing’, and the first vineyard was in production.
By 1830 the Lower Garden, of some five acres in extent, was in a finished state, with vegetables, fruit trees, ornamental trees and shrubs and flowers, laid out in a formal geometric pattern with raised gravelled walks.
While John Macarthur may well have sought to create a gentleman’s garden to showcase a successful family enterprise, his son William greatly expanded upon this goal. A keen botanist with eclectic tastes and an early member of the Linnaean Society, William collected plants from all over the world. He used trading vessels and sea passages to acquire plants native to ports of call such as Oratava in the Canary Islands and Cape Town in South Africa. Of the many specimens William introduced into Australia, some species remain rare, others have become common ornamentals and yet others naturalised weeds. In conjunction with plant collecting, William ran a commercial nursery from the garden, established viticulture in NSW and contributed to the botanic gardens in Sydney and Brisbane.
The mansion house was not completed until 1835, although the gardens surrounding it were commenced some time before this. The Austrian nobleman Baron von Hugel wrote in April 1834 “We first visited the new house, as yet uncompleted, which stands on a fine site ... Mr William Macarthur is devoting much trouble and labour to constructing a good road to his house and to laying out a park around it.”
William’s prowess as a gardener and horticulturalist was well known within Australia, and later in Britain and Europe. Baron von Hugel described the completed Lower Garden and commented on William’s abilities as a gardener:
"From here (the new house) we visited garden almost a mile away, which filled me with astonishment. Laid out as an orchard and kitchen garden without landscaping, it had splendid wide paths and magnificent plants. Although these are still growing in a plant nursery, their luxuriant growth is a delight and shows what a garden can be like here. Erica, Rhododendrons and Camellias flourish magnificently under the skilled care of their owner, and bulbs from the Cape are growing like veritable weeds. Mr W. Macarthur is the only man in the colony who is interested in horticulture and who has a large collection of rare and beautiful Australian flora. I can honestly say that I have not seen its equal since I left my own garden.”
... By the early 1840’s the colony of New South Wales was in deep recession. In 1844 William wrote ”In these hard times I am compelled to either make the garden pay for itself or to give it up” .Such was the reputation of William Macarthur that he received requests for plants from all over Australia. He published a catalogue of plants grown at Camden in 1843 and began what became an extensive and profitable wholesale and retail nursery business. In 1845 the nursery made 450 pounds, of which 150 pounds was clear profit. Other catalogues were published in 1845, 1850 and 1857.
... The Camden Park nursery helped to establish the wine industry and horticulture in all of the fledgling states of Australia ...
Although William’s great interest was in exotic flora he did not neglect Australian native plants and had a substantial collection ... He befriended the young German nobleman Ludwig Leichhardt, and when the latter embarked on his ill-fated second expedition he entrusted the bulk of the seeds collected on his first expedition to William, who succeeded in germinating seeds of many of the plants and raising seedlings to maturity. At least two of these, a native bauhinia, Lysiphyllum hookeri, and the Queensland Bottle tree, Brachychiton rupestris, are still growing in the garden today. Mature specimens of Araucaria bidwillii, A. Cunninghamii and the Queensland Kauri, Agathis robustus, were probably also raised from seed collected in the wild, this time by John Carne Bidwill.
William was also an accomplished plant breeder and hybridist, working closely with his friend, the skilled horticulturalist and botanist the aforementioned John Bidwill. Some of the Camden Park bred camellias are still grown today, with perhaps the best known being the beautiful “Aspasia”. William’s garden flourished and grew until his death in 1882 and only really began to decline after World War 1 due to changed economic circumstances.
The garden, though diminished its size and plant variety from its heyday in the late 19th Century remains important to Australia’s history and is greatly cherished by its current custodians and the many volunteers who assist in its preservation.