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Conference paper
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Aesthetic choices made historically by urban gardeners shape Australia’s environment today. In this new project we are using a history of urban garden tastes to understand the emerging phenomenon of environmental weeds. Principally we focus on garden plants that threaten the ecological functioning of Australian bushland, but we are putting this in the context of the changing history of garden aesthetics more generally, since a gardener’s wider environmental sensibilities may be at odds with choices made when selecting plants for a private garden. Because Australia is a highly urbanised place, the vast majority of gardens are in cities and reflect the taste, values and objectives of city-dwellers. George Seddon has commented that gardeners are ‘one of the most important groups of land managers in this country, … [managing] more than 50 per cent of all urban land in Australia’. (Seddon 1997: 183)

The impact of urban gardens can be felt well beyond city limits. Those hardy plants that enliven the urban landscape have often been chosen as ‘survivors’. It is just such survivors that can become invasive weeds in the Australian bush. Because they have been identified as hardy, they are welcomed as successful by gardeners, but over the fence, in the Australian bush they seriously limit the opportunities for other plants, and ultimately compromise biodiversity in the bush. Plants chosen for gardens now account for 69% of agricultural weeds and 72% of environmental weeds. A staggering 94% of the plants that are deliberately brought into Australia are for gardens (Virtue et al. 2004). 

A weed is usually defined as a ‘plant out of place’. In this project we are extending the notion of weeds beyond the spatial, to consider their history, both social and evolutionary. The central focus is, however, the ‘culture’: the definition of place that makes the plant a problem. We are particularly interested in how changing cultural aesthetics in different eras created the opportunities for particular garden plants to escape into the bush.

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