The Botanical Gardens

1. Overview

The Benalla Botanical Gardens, on the shores of Lake Benalla, were designed and developed in 1886-7 by Alfred Sangwell. The gardens are listed on the Register of the National Estate.

The Rose Garden, first established in 1959, is an icon in Benalla. Rose enthusiasts will find a notable collection of modern varieties, including Australian roses seldom found in public gardens.

Extensive lawns sweep down to Lake Benalla, creating an open parkland beneath the trees.

A double row of elm and place trees surround what is commonly described as the most picturesque cricket oval in the country.

Wide curving pathways meander through beds of shrubs and perennial plantings.

Rotunda in the Benalla Botanical Gardens Shady trees in the Benalla Botanical Gardens Person reading on a bench in the Benalla Botanical Gardens Person cycling in the Benalla Botanical Gardens The Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop memorial in the Benalla Botanical Gardens

2. History of the Benalla Botanical Gardens

In In 1838, as the north east of Victoria was surveyed for European settlement, Benalla was described as ‘The Crossing Place’ of the Broken River. The Crossing Place remains the heart of the town, encompassing the Botanical Gardens, Art Gallery, Lake Benalla and surrounding riverine landscape.

The name ‘Broken River’ comes from the appearance of the river during dry periods, when it became a series of water holes. Local aboriginal people called the river the ‘Marangan’ – big water hole. It was a source of livelihood for thousands of years.

In 1972, Broken River was dammed to form Lake Benalla.

From as early as 1859, two years before Benalla was proclaimed a town, land was set aside for public recreation where the gardens now stand. The gardens were commissioned by the then Shire Council during the 1880s. The noted Melbourne landscape designer, Mr Alfred Sangwell, completed the gardens in 1887. Besides the unusual combination of a large oval and ornamental garden, Sangwell installed gracefully curved walking paths to sweep through plantings of trees and shrubs in keeping with the typical 19th century ‘Gardenesque’ trend for public gardens.

Historically, botanical gardens provided space for plants to be grown for scientific study and public display. Plants of the same family were grouped together for these displays. The rose collections within the Benalla Botanical Gardens demonstrate this traditional practice. Remnants of the era are also demonstrated in the Asteraceae bed located opposite the Art Gallery and the nearby Theaceae bed featuring beautiful Camellias.

3. Gardens of Change

The gardens have changed dramatically over the past century. One of the major changes occurred with the completion of the ‘Crossing Place’ project. The project concept was developed in 2001 by a committee of community members. The group linked management plans with conservation plans and a heritage walk to create one comprehensive plan for the whole area. The Crossing Place Project aimed to develop and conserve Benalla’s remarkable heritage and environment, create economic growth and promote community development.

The Tomorrow Today Foundation worked with the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal (FRRR) and the Crossing Place Committee to help deliver cost efficiencies. Dame Elisabeth Murdoch was patron and strong supporter of fundraising for the Benalla Rose Garden component of the Crossing Place Project. Just over $1m was spent over almost three years to see the Project completed in 2005.


4. Features of the Gardens

Benalla Art Gallery   

The Benalla Art Gallery was constructed in 1975. A generous donation by a local benefactor, Mr Laurie Ledger, of 25 percent of the construction costs and his collection of fine Australian art, was rewarded with his choice of gallery site and architect.

Weary Dunlop Statue    

Colonel Sir Ernest Edward "Weary" Dunlop, AC, CMG, OBE (12 July 1907 – 2 July 1993) was a local surgeon renowned for his leadership while being held prisoner by the Japanese during World War II.  The 1996 bronze sculpture was created by Mr Louis Laumen and represents Dunlop tending a sick POW in Changi prison during World War II. You can read more about Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop on the Australian War Memorial website’s biography page.

 The Rose Garden        

The red rose garden is the central feature of the rose collection. It begins at Bridge Street and spans into the gardens. The modern rose garden overlays the original 1886 Sangwell-designed path layout. The central bed is shaped like an island in a ‘billabong’ of lawn, representing the original floodplain on which Benalla Rural City was built. The roses have been grouped into plantings of individual species of David Austin, Australian, Modern Bush and Shrubs, Tea and Hybrid Musk Roses. The bed also features the dedicated ‘City of Benalla’ rose. Coloured roses from the same ‘modern’ era (1920s onwards) are planted in species-groups, flanking the central red collection.

 Heritage Rose Garden 

This bed, designed by local landscape designer Robyn Saunders, was planted in 2009 to celebrate 50 years since the first plantings of roses in the gardens in 1959 by the Benalla Apex Club. The roses originate from 1830 to 1920, which was a period that hadn’t previously been represented in the collection. The roses are of various colours and countries of origin, but each of them has been specifically selected for their significant scent. A central feature bed of succulents and ornamental grass connects the Heritage Rose Bed with the adjacent Mediterranean plantings.

 Dr Nicholson’s Walk    

This four-kilometre trail winds its way around Benalla Lake in honour of Dr John Nicholson, local physician and magistrate of Benalla. The path marks the walk around the river that Dr Nicholson used to reach his horse paddock. Dr Nicholson is famous for being sent by special train to Glenrowan to tend to Ned Kelly’s wounds after his capture. Dr Nicholson successfully saved the infamous bushranger in order for him to meet his fate at the gallows. The trail passes through the gardens, under magnificent River Red Gums and by the Benalla Aboriginal Community Garden.

 The Cricket Oval

Before the Botanical Gardens were laid out during the 1880s, the area was thickly wooded. A cricket ground was established in the 1860s and was host to a match between Australia and England.  Unfortunately the magnificent, original grandstand was demolished during the 1970s. The oval is fringed by a wonderful ring of elm trees.


The Rotunda was built in 1911 to celebrate the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary. During this era, the Botanical Gardens were a focal point for social gatherings in Benalla.  Private gardens were often dusty and usually didn’t have lawn, so the communal gardens provided a green oasis for people to socialise or take a stroll. Today, the rotunda is used for musical performances and weddings.

 Mediterranean Border

Running adjacent to the Bowls Club is a mass border of species from mostly Mediterranean and similarly dry-climate origins. A significant number of plants for this border were sourced as cuttings from gardens owned by members of the Friends of the Botanical Gardens. Near the border are beds featuring several species of salvia, including donated varieties from the Geelong Botanical Gardens.

 Perennial Border

The perennial border encircles the carriageway. The feature was funded and planted by the Friends of the Benalla Botanical Gardens in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne. The bed has a unique combination of exotic and native plants which flourish in Benalla’s variable climate. 

 The New Zealand Bed

This bed was planted in 2002 and was designed to complement the modernist architecture of the gallery. The bed features plants native to New Zealand.

 National significance

The gardens were listed on the Register of National Estate in 1995. Many rare, mature plants thrive in the Benalla Botanical Gardens. Among these are three Ulmus viminalis, which are the only known elm trees of this species in Australia. These trees are listed on the National Trust’s Register of Significant Trees. Also on the register is a Flindersia australis (Crow’s Ash) which is a large, evergreen rainforest tree naturally occurring in New South Wales and Queensland. Two magnificent specimens of Eucalyptus leucoxylon (Yellow Gum) join these species on the National Register. The Conifers and palms are dominant features of the gardens, which contrast the many deciduous varieties of oak, elm and plane trees.

Work carried out as part of the Crossing Place Project:

  • Reinstatement of the 1886 Botanic Gardens path design
  • Improvements to the gardens frontage and entrances
  • Construction of the Rotary picnic shelter
  • Design and construction of an innovative new rose garden
  • Gardens and foreshore lighting
  • Completion of the walking track around Lake Benalla
  • A new boardwalk near the ceramic mural
  • An ‘Elm Walk’ in front of the showgrounds