In Sydney’s Botanic Gardens there is a very special Norfolk Island pine known as The Wishing Tree.

Wishing Tree in the Sydney Botanic Gardens
The Wishing Tree
The tree in the 1970s (Trove)

It is a replacement of the original, which was planted in the early days of the colony. A sign explains its history, and its association with Governor  Lachlan Macquarie’s wife, Elizabeth.

Sign by the Wishing Tree in Sydney's Botaic Gardens

Note the circumspect wording, ‘planted around 1816′.   It is hardly surprising that after more than 200 years there is some doubt about the exact date, and even who actually planted it at Elizabeth Macquarie’s direction.

One theory is that it was  Major Henry Antill, aide-de-camp to Governor Lachlan Macquarie. To me it seems a bit unlikely that an officer would actually pick up a shovel to plant what at that stage was simply  a small pine, special only because it had been transported (with others) from Norfolk Island as a seedling.  It was only much later that the tradition of circling the tree and making a wish began.  (Yes, I have done it myself.  It’s not easy, especially the  walking backwards part, but I have to say that in my case it really did work).

A far more likely candidate is the man employed as a government house  gardener during the Macquarie era; the convict  John Matthew Richardson. He was a nurseryman from Sussex, transported for seven years  in 1816 for the crime of larceny.  By a stroke of luck we have his own  claim to the honour  in writing;

The following letter appeared in the Illustrated Sydney News on May 11 1872.  It was sent from the New South Wales town of Singleton, where he was living at the time;

My attention having been drawn to an article in your paper relative to the large “Norfolk Island Pine” in the Botanic Gardens, in which you state that it is not known when the said tree was planted, I beg to inform you that I planted it in the year 1818, at which time I was employed in the garden. It had previously been planted in the Lower Garden, near the watercourse, and had been washed out during some heavy rains that occurred about that time. It was lying half buried in sand for almost six months, when it was removed and planted by me in its present situation in the year above stated. Mrs Macquarie was present on the occasion, and handed me the tree to place in the ground. It was then about 2ft 6in in height –  Your obedient servant, John Richardson.

The detail in Richardson’s letter certainly adds credibility to his story.

John Richardson was fully pardoned by Lachlan Macquarie. He returned to England aboard The Dromedary  in 1821, carrying with him plants and seeds ‘for the king’.  Also on board were the Macquaries themselves. They were returning  home to the Isle of Mull after Commissioner Bigge’s  adverse report spelled the end of Macquarie’s governorship.

Unfortunately it wasn’t  long before Richardson transgressed again. Found guilty of housebreaking, he  was transported for a second time a year later …..for life! Following  the intervention of botanist Charles Fraser  he returned to work at the botanic gardens. Subsequently he became  a member of several plant collecting expeditions. There is a native plant named in his honour; Hibiscus Richardsonii. It was cultivated from seed collected by him.  John Richardson died in 1882, aged 85.

Hibiscus richardsonii
A lovely memorial.

The original Wishing Tree eventually died, and was cut down in 1945.

R.A. Anderson insecting the dead Wishing tree in the Sydney Botanic Gardens, 1945
R.A. Anderson, Chief Botanist at the Gardens, inspects the dead tree. (Trove)

Some  specimen pieces of wood were retained, but there were  also souvenirs made. Convalescent soldiers  at Yaralla Military Hospital (now Concord Repatriation Hospital) fashioned  items such as biscuit barrels and cups in their carpentery classes. They were sold to raise funds for returning servicemen.

There must still be some of these souvenirs in existence. According to a newspaper article in 1992 a man called Peter Euston, a descendant of John Richardson, possessed one at the time the piece was written. It was inherited from his grandmother.

UPDATE JULY 1 2020 – I was recently contacted by Leanne and Neil Richardson. Neil is also descended from John. The couple  tell me there are egg cups made from the wood in the Herbarium at Sydney’s Botanic Gardens. It may be a while before I can investigate as the Herbarium is about to be relocated. Click here details.

The current Wishing Tree does not appear to be as popular as the original. However, here is proof that people still circle it thrice forward and thrice backwards. YOUTUBE


  1. Thank you for sharing such an interesting part of our history. By chance at a recent book fair I picked up a book about Elizabeth Macquarie by Lysbeth Cohen. One of the pictures in the book is of the wishing tree! The photo was taken around 1900 and there are a clutch of women and children gathered at the base of the tree. I’ll need to visit the botanic gardens and pay my respects to the replacement tree. And nice to read that your wish came true!

    • Pauline

      Thanks for taking the trouble to leave a message, Jane. The Cohen book is one of very few on Elizabeth. I have been researching and writing about the Macquarie family for many years. In fact the research led (in a roundabout way) to my first book The Water Doctor’s Daughters.

  2. Great Blog. I love the Norfolk Island Pine Tree. It is magical. On a windy day the arms of the tree seem to be welcoming everyone in for a swaying hug. One of the limbs off a tree in my yard is now rerooting in my toilet as it was the biggest deepest indoor body of water in my house. This is not the first toilet tree regaining it’s strength a la commode
    Thanks for another special blog from my friend, Pauline.
    Lollipop aka Judy

    • Pauline

      Thanks Judy. I hope you don’t get trapped in your toilet by a tree!

  3. I am writting to you regards to the wishing tree that was planted in 1818.My husband
    Neil Richardson is a descendant of John Richards.We have information on John’s life and there has there have egg cups and a peice of wood held at the herbarium in the Sydney botanical gardens.If you wish to contact me by email that would be great
    Leanne & Neil Richardson

    • Pauline

      Thanks Leanne, how interesting. I will certainly email you.

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