Floral clock strikes 50

Few places are as much-loved in our garden city than the floral clock. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Melbourne’s blooming timepiece in Queen Victoria Gardens.

Expert gardeners change the design twice a year in spring and autumn, ensuring a variety of florals and perennials catch the eye of all who wander in the gardens year-round. The floral clock and wing beds bloom with a mix of 7000 to 10,000 perennial, flowering and annual bedding plants.

With today’s clock mechanism fully computerised, flowers and foliage must be no taller than 20cm to ensure the clock’s hands aren’t impeded.

In 1966 it was the Swiss who presented Melbourne with the gift of a floral clock. The consul Curt Malning made the presentation and the clock was donated by the watchmakers of Switzerland. The feature was established two years before the National Gallery of Victoria opened opposite, and amid early planning for the Arts Centre precinct.

Melbourne-born Gary McPherson feels part of the clock’s history. He says his father Ian McPherson helped install the clock. Ian was employed by the Melbourne City Council after he returned from World War Two, in which he worked as an electrician in the air force.

‘I have fond memories of going to work at the MCCESD [Melbourne City Council Electricity Supply Department] with my father, who was depot’ed at Spencer and Lonsdale streets where the big chimney was.

‘When they were building the clock he used to work an extra day some weekends – paid of course – and do some of the cabling. I can recall him doing the floral clock maintenance as well.’

Horticulturist and art historian Silas Clifford-Smith has traced the earliest known examples of a floral clock to the Trocadéro gardens in Paris in 1892 and others in Detroit parkland, an Edinburgh garden and in Sydney’s Taronga Zoo in 1928.

‘Many of the locations of the early clocks were found in temperate climates with cold winters,’ he writes in the Australian Garden History Society’s journal. ‘Therefore the annual planting-out of the dial face only occurred in spring, after the end of the cold weather, as many of the plants were frost tender.’

Past designs have been tied to events such as the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006, while spring has always heralded a floral clock and wing beds in full bloom, resplendent with poppies, pansies and other colourful flowering favourites.