This is a short video by Stuart Macpherson showing the Sydney Living Museums Gardens team pruning the substantial prickly pear hedge on the northern boundary of the kitchen garden at Vaucluse House.
Prickly pear (Opuntia ficus – indica), also known as the Indian Fig, was first brought to Australia by the British in the late 18th century in response to the Spanish and Portuguese monopoly of the cochineal dye industry. Sydney was seen as the ideal place to grow the plant and it was often used as an agricultural hedge to keep stock at bay. Other examples of plants used for stock hedges in the early 19th century are Quince and Rough Bush Lemon. The latter can be seen on the other three sides of the kitchen garden at Vaucluse House. Later in the 19th century, McCartney Roses and Osage Oranges were used for the same purpose. Hawthorn hedges were used in Britain to enclose fields in the same way, but Hawthorn does not grow so readily in many parts of Australia. However, you may see it being used in this way at Throsby Park in Moss Vale. All of these hedging plants have vicious thorns which would hopefully deter any cattle from eating the produce that they are designed to protect (although, ironically, in times of drought the newly formed paddles - 'nopals' - are often eaten by stock as they contain a great deal of water).
This particular variety of prickly pear is not the very invasive kind (Opuntia stricta) but it is often mistaken for it. In the 1920s the New South Wales (NSW) state government enacted a law decreeing that Opuntia stricta specimens found growing on private land must be destroyed, as the species had already covered several thousand hectares in Northern NSW and Queensland.
The fruits of our hedge at Vaucluse House are edible but must be eaten with care as the thorns can fester very easily in your skin or mouth. In Mexico, an alcoholic drink known as 'colonche' is made from fermenting the fruit and in Sicily, a liqueur called 'ficodi' is made in a similar fashion.
Two London Plane trees in the Vaucluse House garden were recently identified by our tree management program as being too dangerous to remain on site and unfortunately had to be removed. The process of tree removal is quite long as relevant documents need to be lodged with local councils after rigorous inspections have taken place by qualified tree surgeons. This small video shows the demolition of one of these trees.
Video by Steve Halliday, Gardener and information from Dave Gray, Head Gardener, Heritage Team, Sydney Living Museums.
It's not often that the Gardens team is required to get the chainsaws out to cut a flower, but in the case of Mauritius Hemp it is a very necessary piece of equipment. Botanically known as Furcraea foetida, this large leaved plant is from South America and the Caribbean. The flowers are almost like ships' masts and produce hundreds of newly formed plantlets that drop from the flower spike and form a new plant. Furcraea plants are monocarpic, meaning that once the flower spike is produced the plant dies. It can be seen at a number of our properties including in the front garden beds at The Mint. The leaves can be used to produce a fibre similar to Sisal (Flax). The dying flowers' stems weaken gradually, so they need to be removed before they become a safety hazard.