Redland Bay and Gold Coast battle it out for Australia’s oldest frangipani tree

If it were not for Edward Bunker’s grandmother, this enormous frangipani — probably Australia’s oldest — would not have lived to be 155 years old. 

“There were two of them here when my grandfather came to take over the property in 1907,” Mr Bunker said.

“One was taken out, but my grandmother stood in front of this one and she said, ‘No way, you’re not taking this one too!'”

The frangipani is believed to have been planted by the Queensland Acclimatisation Society in 1867.(ABC Gold Coast: Bern Young)

The plumeria, commonly known as the frangipani, is believed to have been planted in 1867 when the Redland Bay property was a farm for the Queensland Acclimatisation Society.

A very old framed photo of a bride and groom and the bride's bouquet is a flowing arrangement of frangipani flowers Edward Bunker’s mother, Gertrude used flowers from the frangipani tree for her wedding bouquet in 1936.(Supplied: Edward Bunker)

“They were bringing plants in from all over the world,” Mr Bunker said.

“The society was trying to find plants that would fit this climate.

“The frangipani became almost like a cubby area when we were little, my sister and I had a little place where we could be on our own.

“My mother and my aunt had wedding bouquets made from flowers of the frangipani in long trails that almost went to the ground.

“Right at the moment, there’s just this carpet of white flowers.

“It’s starting to show its age,” Mr Bunker laughed and admitted that at 84 years old, he might be too.

Sister trees but which is the eldest?

An hour’s drive south on the Gold Coast, 93-year-old Gene Rosser remembers climbing her frangipani as a little girl and thinking that its gnarly limbs were very old.

An elderly woman stands in the mottled shade of her garden with a very big frangipani trunk in the background Gene Rosser in the garden of her childhood home at Benowa.(ABC Gold Coast: Bern Young)

“It was a good thing to climb, I loved climbing,” Ms Rosser said.

“It still flowers beautifully and has a beautiful perfume.” 

The sun is shining through the limbs of an old gnarly tree with many branches and very few leaves This frangipani is believed to have been planted in the late 1860s on a Benowa cane farm.( ABC Gold Coast: Bern Young)

Horticulture consultant Kate Heffernan studied the history of the Rosser garden and discovered a connection with the famed curator of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, William Guilfoyle.

A woman with gray hair smiles while standing in front of a frangipani tree devoid of flowers and leaves Kate Heffernan has studied the Rosser Garden.(ABC Gold Coast: Bern Young)

Guilfoyle travelled to the South Sea Islands in 1868 collecting plants and then spent four years on a family sugar cane farm in the Tweed district of northern New South Wales.

He became friends with Benowa cane farmer Robert Muir, who was also an active member of the Queensland Acclimatisation Society in the 1860s.

The Rosser family later bought part of Muir’s farm, where the frangipani was already mature.

“So we think the frangipani dates from around the late 1860s because that’s when Guilfoyle would have been bringing plants here,” Ms Heffernan said.

black and white sketch of buildings and plants amid a cane farm with mountains in the background An etching of the Benowa garden in 1871 by William Guilfoyle, before he became curator of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens.(Supplied: Trove, Sydney Illustrated News)

“Guilfoyle also did an etching of this garden in 1871 and his father wrote an article that was in the Sydney Illustrated News and it describes the sugar cane farming and the trees.”

The first importation of frangipani cuttings to Australia was recorded in the mid to late 1830s coming from Kolkata’s Botanic Gardens.

close up of a frangipani flower with white and yellow petals, gnarly branches and very large green leaves Edward Bunker’s grandmother saved the frangipani from destruction in 1907, 40 years after it was planted.(ABC Gold Coast: Bern Young)

Frangipani future

The City of Gold Coast owns Ms Rosser’s home and garden and, upon her death, will integrate all of the plants with an earlier land donation by the family that helped create the city’s Regional Botanic Gardens.

Meanwhile Mr Bunker, who became an internationally recognised plant breeder and horticulturalist, has approached the National Trust to see if his tree could become the first frangipani to be added to the Significant Tree Register.

“I feel it’s all very important, certainly as part of this property.”

And who does Mr Bunker think will stand up to protect the frangipani, the way his grandmother once did?

“I’ll become a ghost and stand in front of it,” he said.

“I don’t know if I’m right or not, but I think these are all the one importation — the one that’s on the Gold Coast and the ones planted here,” Mr Bunker said.

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