9 surprising moments in the life of the Quad Jacaranda

10 November 2016
Remembering the jacaranda's colourful history

Hundreds of tributes have flowed in from students and alumni worldwide over the death of the University of Sydney's iconic jacaranda tree, which collapsed last month after standing sentry over the quadrangle for 88 years.

"The response to the jacaranda's demise has been so profound because everyone in the university community – students, staff, and alumni – feels a personal connection to it. From sitting in its shade to taking graduation photos, everyone felt it was their tree," said Dr Craig Barker from Sydney University Museums, who runs heritage tours of the campus.

"I personally remember drinking under it in the evening during Archaeology Society and Nicholson Museum functions as an undergrad in the 90s; I have graduation photos in front of it for both my degrees (and other family members' photos too), and as a staff member I found it inspirational when in full bloom."

1. 'The' jacaranda was 1 of 4 jacarandas in the Quad

A 1949 aerial view of the University of Sydney shows there were once four jacarandas in the Quadrangle. Image: Council of the City of Sydney's Archives.

Few realise that the jacaranda was one of four trees originally placed in the grounds of the quadrangle by Eben Gowrie (E.G.) Waterhouse, the Professor of German and Comparative Literature who planted the famous jacaranda in 1928.

"As well as 'the' jacaranda, a number of others were planted in the Quad by Professor Waterhouse in the late 20s – sadly archival photos show these did not survive," said Dr Barker.

"The jacaranda was planted in that corner to give the philosophers shade to think under, as traditionally this was where the Philosophy Department was located."

At the time of the jacaranda's planting there were also a series of olive trees planted on University Place just outside the Quad clocktower.

2. The tree was continuously uprooted in its early days

The much-loved jacaranda was not so revered in its early years, with students continually removing the tree despite E.G. Waterhouse's best efforts to beautify the campus.

"I planted a small jacaranda tree which students uprooted and decried in their publication. It became a 'stunt' to root out the tree," Professor Waterhouse wrote in a letter in 1976.

Professor Waterhouse took advantage of the University's 75th Anniversary appeal in 1927 to raise funds from the public to grass and pave the quadrangle in its present form. As an added measure, he planted a larger sized jacaranda tree "that could not easily be manhandled."

According to Dr Barker, it is more likely that members of staff at the time took seedlings for their own gardens, rather than rebellious students. 

3. It was the inspiration for the University's Mardi Gras float

To celebrate the University of Sydney's inaugural float in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade in 2016, hundreds of current students and staff pledged their personal messages of support on the leaves of a custom-made jacaranda tree.

Amidst a sea of rainbows, the University's float brought a purple hue to the festivities as 75 University representatives marched alongside the jacaranda float in the parade.

Ally Network chair and staff member Mark Smith also performed atop the float in his alter ego of 'Jacky Randa', a cheeky homage to the University's beloved tree. 

Jacky Randa speaks about the University of Sydney at Mardi Gras

University of Sydney representative, 'Jacky Randa', talks about what it means for the University to be involved in the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras for the first time.

4. It was the backdrop for thousands of graduation photos (even Cate Blanchett's)

Image: Alamy Stock Photo.

Over several decades the jacaranda has taken centre stages in many prominent photo-ops, playing host to celebrities, politicians and world leaders alike.

Famous faces who have admired its purple reign in recent years include Cate Blanchett, who received an honorary doctorate from the University of Sydney in 2012; US rapper Ice Cube; and Adrian Brody, who filmed the 2015 thriller Backtrack on campus.

Kung-fu superstar Jackie Chan is most likely the last celebrity to see the tree alive, when he shot the sci-fi thriller Bleeding Steel at the University of Sydney campus this July.

5. In 2005 the jacaranda was listed on the Historical Register

In 2005 the jacaranda was officially listed on the City of Sydney’s Significant Trees Register in recognition of its historic and environmental significance.

This exclusive list of more than 2,600 trees is reserved for plants with historic, botanic, ecological, social or commemorative value, with the trees nominated by their community and assessed by heritage experts.

Historical notes on the register state the tree "[stands] 12 metres high with a canopy spread of 18 metres", making it "one of Sydney's best known significant trees."

6. A chunk of the jacaranda was removed in an emergency surgery

A Sydney Morning Herald report on 17 November 1997 mentions emergency surgery on the jacaranda in 1994. Image:

The imposing stature of the jacaranda belied a checkered history. In a newspaper report in the Sydney Morning Herald, the University's then-chief gardener Mr Harry Rourke said the tree underwent emergency surgery in 1994. Students had carved names into the trunk, forcing specialist arborists to rescue the tree.

7. There are two clones of the jacaranda

A transverse section of the quad jacaranda's petioles, as seen under the microscope. Image: Dr Rosanne Quinnell.

Knowing full well the devastation that would be caused by the death of the jacaranda, the University of Sydney enlisted the help of specialist jacaranda growers in 2014 to take cuttings from the original tree. Grafted onto the base of other jacarandas, these cuttings have produced two clones of genetically identical stock. 

8. The jacaranda has a little-known 'cousin'

The folklore surrounding the jacaranda's bloom and the start of exam-time cramming will live on well beyond its fall. Yet a lesser-known – and more worrisome – myth exists around another jacaranda tree located in the Vice-Chancellor's courtyard. Legend has it that when this tree blooms, usually a little after the main jacaranda and once exams are already underway, it's a clear sign to students that it's too late to study.

9. E.G. Waterhouse had a brush with infamous dictators

Professor E.G. Waterhouse planted the original quad jacaranda. Image: University of Sydney Archives.

"EG Waterhouse was the only staff member of the university to have met both Hitler and Mussolini," said Dr Barker.

"He was a really fascinating guy: a famous camellia expert, art connoisseur, and an exceptional linguist who spoke French, German, Italian and took up Japanese at the age of 80. 

"Archival records show Professor Waterhouse also planted the Vice-Chancellor's Garden, the camellias outside the front of the main facade on both sides of the Clock Tower and in the gardens facing Science Road." 

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