BAG History Group / Wittunga
Image credit - State Library of South Australia, B 70984/25
In 2020 the focus of the Blackwood Action Group History Subcommittee’s regular articles will be on the reserves and parks of the Mitcham Hills district.
The development of Wittunga began in 1902 when Edwin Ashby, a real estate agent, settled on 21 acres of property in the Blackwood area. The name ‘Wittunga’ was based on an aboriginal word, ‘unga’ referring to water. Much of the area was natural vegetation, such as She-Oak, Peppermint Gum and Blue Gum. Some clearing took place in the 1880s during the construction of the railway line.
Ashby cleared enough land for a homestead built from local brick and stone, and a farm which included sheep and cattle. The local grass supported only low-density stocking, so the native vegetation was replaced with rye and clover. Encroaching housing brought dogs which maimed and killed the sheep, so the sheep were replaced by beef cattle, with horses kept for transport.
Edwin Ashby’s son, Keith, undertook an apprenticeship in fruit growing in Tasmania and on his return to Wittunga, set up a commercial apple and pear orchard. The orchard was laid out in a grid for the ease of maintenance during the labour intensive annual cycle of pruning, pest eradication, harvesting, ploughing. The fruit was put in storage at the Blackwood Co-operative Cold Store near the Blackwood Station, from where it was sold locally and overseas.
Surrounding the house was a formal garden, with roses, trellises, arbours and herbaceous borders, of the type commonly found in England during this period. A reservoir for the initial water supply was constructed close to the house. Excavation of the large reservoir was begun in 1914, and enlarged several times.
Edwin Ashby developed an interest in native plants and began propagating shrubs and trees from seeds and cuttings collected by the family from many parts of Australia. He experimented with various methods of providing water to his gardens. The Maluka Beds consisted of a series of raised beds with an overhead irrigation system. Water was pumped up from the large reservoir to an elevated storage tank, then by gravity through an extensive network of overhead irrigation pipes. In the 1930s, Ashby developed an area south of the Maluka Beds, known in the family as the ‘Never Never’, where the plants were grown in slight depressions that were filled with water every three to four weeks, which encouraged deeper root growth. Further south, he set aside another area known as the ‘Wild Part’ where the flora was retained in its natural state.
Edwin Ashby died in 1941, and following WW2, his children, Alison and Keith took on the garden, expanding it substantially from the late 1950s. Keith Ashby shared his father’s enthusiasm for gardening. When his younger daughter settled in the Transvaal, he became aware of the climatic and topographic similarities and acquired an extensive collection of South African shrubs, such as Erica, Leucodendron, Leucospermum and Protea. By 1964 Wittunga was primarily concerned with the propagation of shrubs and trees, housing over 1 000 Australian native species, 20 varieties of Protea and the largest collection of Erica species outside Africa.
Agricultural activities became uneconomic with increasing urbanisation and the Ashby family felt unable to maintain the extensive garden. After some discussion, the Adelaide Botanic Gardens accepted Keith’s wish to bequeath Wittunga to the Gardens for preservation.
On 15 October 1985, Wittunga was formally handed over to the Board of Governors of the Botanic Gardens. Ten years later, Sir Mark Oliphant officially opened Wittunga Botanic Garden to the public.
The residents, past and present, of the Mitcham Hills district and further afield owe much to the innovations and generosity of the Ashbys at Wittunga