Giant trees have been a source of fascination to Victorians since settlers first penetrated the dense rainforests of Southern Victoria in the early nineteenth century. The trees which inspired awe were the Mountain Ash, (Eucalyptus regnans) the tallest hardwood in the world. The home of the giants are the wet forests of the Otways, West and South Gippsland and the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne.
During the 1860s and 1870s, timber workers and naturalists emerged from the forests with stories of massive trees towering to immense heights and as wide as houses. Government botanist Ferdinand von Mueller recounted the existence of a tree as high as the Egyptian Pyramids at 480 ft (144m) and another fallen tree in the Dandenong Ranges over 400 ft (120m). A giant was sighted in the Otways with a girth of 64 ft (19m).
As more of the forest was destroyed by clearing, logging and fire during the late nineteenth century the myths surrounding the giant trees grew. Rumours became more outlandish: somewhere near the headwaters of the LaTrobe river were believed to exist trees approaching 500ft (150m). The search for the tallest tree became an obsession - capturing Victorians' imagination.
The Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition of 1888 prompted a special search for Victoria's tallest trees. A reward of £20 was offered for anyone who could locate a tree of 400 ft (120m). No tree of such height was ever found. The tallest tree then located was 326 ft (98m) on Mt Baw Baw. The Centennial Exhibition competition resulted in the production of a book: The Giant Trees of Victoria. The book contains large photographic plates of the eight biggest trees in Victoria. Each plate is accompanied by a description of the height, width and location of the tree. The photographer was J. Duncan Pierce and the surveyor who took the measurements was C.R. Cunningham. Five of the plates are reproduced in this Virtual Exhibition.
Although tall trees still exist, the largest and most ancient examples were destroyed in the nineteenth century. Many huge trees were carefully measured then promptly cut down. Mountain Ash was popular with splitters for making palings and shingles and many giant trees ended up cladding the roofs of Victorian homes. However, the specimens that survived were often highly valued and became places of pilgrimage for tourists and naturalists alike. They were measured, photographed, studied and named: "The Baron" in the Dandenongs, "Uncle Sam" on Black Spur and "King Edward VII" in the Cumberland Valley. Big trees are still a source of fascination for Victorians. In the forest north east of Powelltown is "The Ada Tree" which has its own friends group who have constructed a walking track and protective boardwalk. "Mr Jessop" in Melbourne's water catchment (over 88 metres high with a 8.5m girth) is thought to be one of the tallest living trees in Victoria today.
View the Giant trees photo collection.