Dendrobium speciosum
Rock lily

Elaine Musgrave, 2015. © The Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust.

Elizabeth Bay House seen from Arthur McElhone Reserve

The garden estate established from 1826 by Colonial Secretary Alexander Macleay was renowned as one of Sydney’s loveliest – a ‘botanist’s paradise’ blooming with plants introduced from around the world. Today traces of this once-famous garden can be found through the streets of Elizabeth Bay.

Photo © Leo Rocker for Sydney Living Museums.

Elizabeth Bay House from Darling Point
Conrad Martens, 1838, watercolour
Sydney Living Museums

Native ferns, shrubs and eucalypts frame this idealised view of Elizabeth Bay estate, emphasising its picturesque qualities. The picturesque style of landscape design was promoted in NSW by Thomas Shepherd, who praised Port Jackson’s ‘beautiful trees, flowering shrubs [and] rock lilies’.

Strathallan box, underside of lid
Unknown artist, c1820, oil painting on a wooden box with lid
Sydney Living Museums

Alexander Macleay’s appreciation of NSW’s indigenous flora was shared by many of the colony’s earliest botanists and artists. The Strathallan box, an early 19th-century decorative box, features paintings of native plants and fauna attributed to artist John Lewin (1770–1819). The underside of the lid, which may be a later addition based on earlier Lewin works, depicts a rock lily intertwined with a Gymea lily (Doryanthes excelsa).

See the Strathallan box in the Sydney Visionaries display on level 2 at the Museum of Sydney.

Acrostichum grande N S Wales (staghorn fern), Elizabeth Bay, NSW
Spittall (engraver) after Titian Ramsay Peale, 1839 

The American explorer Charles Wilkes described a ‘splendid specimen of the Acrostichum grande, or Staghorn [today Platycerium superbum], from Moreton Bay … seen suspended from a tree’ on his 1839 visit to Alexander Macleay’s garden at Elizabeth Bay. English nurseryman John Gould Veitch, who visited the estate in 1864, also commented on the striking effect of a fig tree covered in staghorn and epiphytic rock lilies.

From Charles Wilkes, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition during the years 1838 … 1842, Philadelphia, 1845. State Library of New South Wales Q84/52.

Rock lily

Dendrobium speciosum