The circle of elms in Edinburgh Gardens

January 12, 2017 Ethnobiology, History 2 Comments

There’s a circle of thirteen elms in Fitzroy’s Edinburgh Gardens, my favourite park in Melbourne.

You could walk through that park for years without noticing them – and if you did, you might not attach any particular importance to them. However thirteen is the number of lunar months in the year, and in European folklore, elms mark the entrance to the fairy kingdom. So to local pagans, if there are any, this has to be a circle of significance, an appropriate place for full moon and solstice celebrations. Given the number of elm trees in Melbourne, this city has very many  entrances to the fairy kingdom.

Fitzroy was Melbourne’s first suburb, with working class origins which can be hard to recognise in the face of its more recent gentrification. The park itself is sizeable – 26 hectares, and was established in part to provide sporting facilities for the locals. It was home to the Fitzroy Football Club, one of the original Australian Rules footy clubs. which alone makes it significant in Melbourne’s history. In addition, these are Dutch elms (Ulmus x hollandica). Dutch elm disease devastated most of the northern hemisphere’s mature elms, but did not reach Australia and consequently we now have some of the most significant stands of mature elms in the world.

What are the origins of this circle? Clearly the trees were not planted in the 1970s by a group of hippie moon-worshippers – these are trees that were planted in the mid-1890s. That’s over 120 years ago (elms can live for 300 years). Who decided to plant them? And why a circle of thirteen, why not twelve or fifteen? Did this pattern of tree-planting have any significance in late 19th century Melbourne? More specifically, was the folklore around lunar cycles popular here at that time? I don’t have answers to these questions. The Conservation Management Plan prepared for the local council in 2004 offers few clues. It dates the planting as around 1894-5, and describes the circle as ‘unusual’ and suggests that the trees may have been planted around a flower garden, now long gone.

For now, the trees provide welcome shade, a place to muse and a place to dream on a hot summer’s day.