Vintage landscape: bush-houses in Australia

Bush- or shade-house at Toowoomba residence, Roslyn, ca. 1900.

I recently came across these photos of an Australian vernacular garden structure:  the bush-house.

Fernery at ‘The Hollow,’ Mackay, ca. 1877, by Edmund Rawson.

Bush-houses (also called shade-houses or ferneries) were built to protect tropical plants from the sun.  By the late 1800s, many Australian gardeners were as enthusiastic about amassing and displaying these plants as Victorian hothouse collectors in Great Britain and North America.

Florence Reid
Florence Reid in a bamboo bush-house at Bainagowan Station, ca. 1900.

The bush-house was modeled on the English glassed-in greenhouse or conservatory, but built with less costly, local materials.

Aloe Villa
Gardening at the front of Aloe Villa, Toowoomba, ca. 1900. There is a bush-house on the right (and a massive agave on the left).

In a 2003 article for Queensland Review, “Tropicalia: Gardens with Tropical Attitude,” Jeannie Sim wrote that, by the end of the 19th century, a number of international exhibitions in Australia were showing off “high-quality examples of tropicalian gardening” in bush-houses.

Bowen Park
Fern-filled conservatory at Bowen Park, Brisbane, ca. 1890, by P.C. Poulsen.
Merthyr Hse, Brisbane
Shade-house in the garden at Merthyr House, Brisbane, ca. 1908.

“The most extraordinary of these kinds of structures,” she wrote,  “[was] arguably the one built in 1897 for the Queensland Colonial and Indian Exhibition in Brisbane. . . . Covering the walls and pillars of the bush-house were more than 3000 staghorn, bird’s nest and elkhorn ferns collected from the Blackall Range . . . . The exhibition guide [noted that] . . . Queenslanders ‘could gain a more vivid idea than ever before of the unequalled luxuriance of their scrubs.’  These horticultural displays marked both local pride and individuality, and promoted the use of native plants and bush-houses in gardens.”

Townsville Botanical Gardens
Bush-house at the Townsville Botanical Gardens, ca. 1900.

According to Sim, many of the plants cared for and protected in the bush-houses were also displayed in popular verandah gardening.  “The verandah was the public showcase for the gardener’s bush-house skills.”

Milton residence, Holly Dean on River Road, Milton, ca. 1900. While it’s hard to see any plants, there is an interesting lath structure on the left side of the porch.

Judging from these photos, bush-houses seem to have been frequently constructed of panels of wood or bamboo lath set at decorative angles.

Greenmount Station
Bush-house at Greenmount Station, ca. 1927.

It also appears that many bush- or shade-houses were used as cool(er) places to entertain and relax.

Clayfield residence
Fernery in the Clayfield residence, Elderslie, in the Brisbane suburb of Clayfield, ca. 1900.

All of these photos are via the Commons Flickr photostream of the State Library of Queensland, Australia.

St. Helena
Garden of the old prison superintendent house, St. Helena, 1928. There is a small lath summer house in the center of the path and trellis around the perimeter of the home behind it — perhaps enclosing a verandah around interior rooms?

To scroll through larger versions of the pictures, click on ‘Continue reading’ below and then on any of the thumbnails in the gallery.

7 thoughts on “Vintage landscape: bush-houses in Australia

  1. I just love these photographs! I used to work at an arboretum where there was a shade house for the young rhododendrons, but it was nowhere as beautiful as these. I love ferns, too, and the obsession that the Victorians had with them. It would have been wonderful to spend a few hours in one of those ferneries.

    Thanks so much for sharing these pieces of botanical past!

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