Eastern Spinebill and grevillea. both so common in the Aussie bush
Eastern Spinebill in Grevillea

The spectre of climate change and periods of prolonged drought have created  an upsurge of interest in the growing of  Australian native plants. However, we have been  slow to embrace them. I suspect  this would surprise and disappoint  women  pioneers such as Elizabeth Macarthur, who began cataloguing  and cultivating the  colony’s unique flora soon after her arrival in Sydney in 1790.

Ezliabeth MacArthur
Pioneering gardener, Elizabeth Macarthur.
Elizabeth Farm
Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta

While it is true that Mrs Macarthur   grew the familiar plants of ‘home’ at Elizabeth Farm, she also experimented with indigenous plants and   was highly  appreciative of her natural surroundings. Describing her flourishing garden at Parramatta to friends in England she observed ,  ‘The native shrubs are also in flower & the  whole country gives a grateful perfume.’

Thirty years later, in 1822, the Hawkins family (Elizabeth, her husband Thomas, her mother and her eight children)  became the first  free European family  to cross the Blue Mountains.  Early in the  journey the Hawkins’ spent an intolerable night at Springwood,  tormented  by bed bugs and  disturbed by drunken soldiers. Next morning Elizabeth gathered her mother and  her daughters  and the three generations of women restored their spirits by walking ahead of the bullock wagons to pick wildflowers.  Elizabeth   later wrote; ‘It was such a relief to get away from that place that I never enjoyed a walk more. We gathered most delicate nosegays from the flowering shrubs that grew amongst the trees.’ .

In the winter of 1841 Sophia Stanger also made the arduous trip from Sydney to Bathurst, accompanied by  her husband and  five  children. In a long  account sent to her mother  she noted;  ‘Our road hitherto ( before Lapstone Hill)  had borne the appearance of a shrubbery or pleasure ground, lying through beautiful evergreens, thickly interspersed with flowers of different hues, and many of them quite equal to those dear Aunt brings from Wandsworth. The pretty heath, called acacia, and sold in London in pots, grows here in abundance, and, I think, must be the same;  but as we were strangers in this really lovely land, we could only guess at the names.’     These words not only reveal  Stanger’s sensitivity and powers of observation, but her open mind. Many newcomers  dismissed  the Australian landscape as  alien and inhospitable.


Living on the other side of the continent at this time was Georgiana Molloy, a woman from a privileged English background who settled in  Western Australia in 1830. Her appreciation of the landscape extended to gathering an extensive range of native seeds and plants, which she  forwarded to  collectors  in London with detailed botanical descriptions.

Georgiana Molloy, known as Madonna of the Bush.
Georgiana,  Madonna of the Bush

Molloy was dubbed  ‘The Tragic Madonna of the Bush’; tragic because  the first of her seven children was born in a leaking tent and died in her arms shortly afterwards. Her third child, a little boy, drowned at nineteen months after falling into a well. Despite such heartbreak Molloy  would later compare her  Australian surroundings to the garden of Eden before Eve was expelled from paradise.  Her surviving children accompanied her on plant gathering trips, proving valuable assistants, ‘Their eyes being so much closer to the ground they have been able to detect many minute specimens.’  When  Molloy’s already delicate health deteriorated following the birth of her last daughter it was the children who continued their mother’s botanical work, assisted by local aboriginal women.    After her death in 1843   historian Manning Clarke wrote; ‘She sang to the end a hymn of praise to all the beauty she had discovered in that part of God’s world.’

The beautiful wreath flower pictured below is a fitting tribute to Georgiana. I must thank my sister for this photo.  She has  recently been enjoying the wildflowers in WA. Both Robbie  and I have inherited a love of native flora from our mother.

Western Australian wreath flower.
The extraordinary wreath flower of Western Australia. (photo by Robyn McConachy)

Like Georgiana Molloy, most  women began life in the outback at the height of their childbearing years, at a time when families were large and the infant mortality rate high.  Perhaps it was  these very issues that forged their strong connection with nature.    Unlike the gentle seasonal changes of the English countryside, renewal in  the Australian bush often results from  the scarifying experience of fire, which has its parallel in the pain and danger of childbirth.

Molloy was referred to as  ‘Madonna’  in a  tribute  to her nurturing of the native flora. It is fitting  that  she  found consolation and peace in the quiet beauty of  the bush, and   joy in exploring it with her children.


Henry Lawson, in  perhaps  his  best known  short story,  The Drover’s Wife,  describes the  bush around the family’s outback  shanty  as unremittingly monotonous. He makes the comment that its  surroundings were not favorable to the development of the  “womanly” or sentimental side of nature’.   Yet Lawson also writes that  the drover’s wife  would dress herself and her children in their best clothes each Sunday for an outing  along a lonely bush track. It is difficult to believe  the walk was monotonous.  Mothers, especially those  in isolated areas, experience  life through their offspring and the bush is never boring to a child.  In  young Tommy’s  hands a branch from one of Lawson’s  ‘rotten native apples’ could become a fine edged sword with the potential to  slay a giant.  It is also unlikely that the woman herself returned home empty handed.  A handful of native  grasses in a jam jar was beautiful long before we were told so by the editors of designer magazines.

During  her husband’s absences  the drover’s wife fought fire and flood,  shot a mad bullock, and killed a five foot snake, but that Sunday walk was the greatest expression of her  spirit. I suspect it was  also her salvation.

Of course the  most enduring image of the drover’s wife is  her lonely  vigil by a dying fire, watching for the snake to reappear as her young family sleeps.   The   reverence of the scene reminds me of lines from Women of the West  by  Queensland poet George Essex Evans (1863-1909). Evans was no stranger to the trials of rural life, having farmed (and failed)  on the Darling Downs.  Describing the quiet  courage of pioneer women he wrote;

 For them no  trumpet sounds the call, no poet plies his art –

They only hear the beating of their gallant, loving hearts.

But they have sung with silent lives the song all songs above –

The holiness of sacrifice, the dignity of love.


The restorative power of nature in the outback  was addressed  by  Jessie Ackerman, an early  American feminist who visited Australia on four occasions between 1889 and the early 1890’s. In 1913 she  published a book called  ‘Australia From a Woman’s Point of View’.   Ackerman was well aware of the challenges facing rural  women,  but had also witnessed the glory of wildflowers carpeting a desert. I doubt if anyone has described the connection between nature and  women  so eloquently;

‘Soul meets soul in the battle – a battle in which women would go to the wall did not the hand of Nature restore a balance at her very feet in those kindly voices which compel a forgetfulness of woe-swept senses. Morning always comes after a night of storm. The pale dawn seems to stretch out arms of light, offering a compensating embrace of gladness that banishes all gloom. Ten thousand sand-flowers, dripping with the jeweled glory of dewdrops, lift their heads in morning salutation. Miles of yellow and pink and purple loveliness, born not to bloom on dinner tables in remote cities, shed their beauty where faint hearts may be renewed by this near touch of the Divine.’

Western Australian wildflowers in the bush.
Western Australian wildflowers to lift the heart.

In 1981 American writer Eleanor Perényi also canvassed the female connection with nature in her book ‘Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden ‘.  She pointed out that it was women who first ventured into the forest to collect wild plants,  and who later domesticated them while their men were out hunting.  Perényi noted; ‘Women were the first gardeners; but when men retired from the hunting field and decided in favour of agriculture instead, women steadily lost control.’

This was especially true during the 19th century. The increasingly industrialized lower classes had neither  space, funds nor leisure to create ornamental  gardens.  Women of the middle and upper classes were in the firm control of gentleman property owners and their  male head gardeners. Landscape artists were almost exclusively male. As Perényi pointed out, it was not until the 20th century that women played a significant  role in garden design.

Women such as Sophia Stanger, Georgiana Molloy  and Elizabeth Hawkins recognized  the light of freedom and equality in the Australian bush; their gathering of wildflowers arousing a  primitive instinct.  As Jessie Ackerman concluded;  ‘To settle on the land in Australia means something – in every respect. But for all that it is a place where woman ‘ has come into her kingdom’,  Eve’s paradise re-discovered.’

Balm to the heart...fragrant brown Boronia.
Balm to the heart…fragrant brown Boronia.


It  must be remembered that the husbands of pioneering women were necessarily preoccupied with imposing their authority on the landscape in order to feed their  families.  Sheep and cattle cannot survive on wildflowers, and  virgin bush was cleared and cultivated for pasture.  The situation was little different when I was growing up on a farm in Tasmania in the nineteen fifties. My sister and I would  present  our mother with bunches of heath and erica from the  bush, and ‘basket fern’ bouquets. She had  made  the bouquets  during her own  country childhood, and passed on the tradition.

Fern posy from my bush garden.
A ‘basket’ fern posy
Australian native fern.
Native fern, perfect for bouquets.

Meanwhile, the  posies my father brought home were of  sweet smelling  clover, sown as fodder for our dairy herd.

Post of clover
Posy of pride.

As Australian society became  more urbanized, women’s connection to the bush decreased and gardens became almost exclusively exotic. Virtually every backyard featured  the ubiquitous  petunia, set out  row by row in narrow beds beside concrete paths.  However, in 1938  Thistle Harris did much to promote indigenous flora by  publishing her significant  ‘Wild Flowers of Australia’. Around the same time  garden designer Edna Walling began to advocate the  use of native trees and shrubs in horticulture.   Walling  slowly phased out  her trademark plantings of silver birches in favour of  paperbarks and on December 14th 1945  she told readers of her Letter to Garden Lovers;

‘How very necessary it is to train ourselves to observe the natural beauty around us so that in the exuberance of our beautification schemes we shall not do things that disturb and eventually destroys the landscape. Starting out in life as one of those ardent tree lovers I was responsible for some of the most ill-advised planting; now I’m terrified to do a thing, knowing that seldom, if ever, do we achieve the quiet perfection of Nature’s planting.’ 

Edna Walling, pioneer Australian gardener.
Edna Walling, champion of Australia’s indigenous plants.

So widespread was the ‘ill-advised planting’  mentioned by Walling that volunteer bush care groups will be busy for years to come removing garden escapees such as willow, agapanthus, lantana, holly and cotoneaster.




  1. Australian history about our women is filled with amazing stories of perseverance. In spite of hardships the women found beauty in their surroundings. Even when her child died in poor circumstances that we would barely tolerate today, Georgiana Molloy made the most of her life. She appreciated the beauty and health giving properties in the plant life around her.
    I remember my father saying there were botanical specimens that could assist in the healing of most common illnesses of the day. With nothing else to use, the pioneer women had to learn by trial and word of mouth. I love reading about the early days and how women shaped the history of Australia. Thank you for your observations.

    • Pauline

      Thanks so much for you comments Heather. It is always great to hear from readers of my blogs. I have always loved Lawson’s story of The Drover’s Wife; seemed to sum up the spirit of those wonderful women. When my mother was first married she lived in the bush and used to decorate her home with wildflowers. She taught my siblings and I to appreciate them too.

  2. Such a beautifully put together piece of writing regarding Australian women and their relationship with nature. I wondered about the aboriginal women and their relationship with the flora about them . This would probably have been quite different, and related to their basic survival.

    • Pauline

      So glad you enjoyed the story Annabelle. Well of course aboriginal women had the closest possible relationship with nature, didn’t they? And flowers certainly feature in many of their beautiful dot paintings.



    Thank you, Chris

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