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Art & Culture

The Queen, the High Court and the missing tree(s): a right royal mystery

Sally Hopman
Tree removal space

This is where the Queen planted the original tree in the forecourt of the High Court of Australia. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

OK, here’s the dirt. Monday, 26 May, 1980, was a big day for Canberra. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were in town to officially open Australia’s new $49 million High Court building on the banks of Lake Burley Griffin.

Her Majesty would plant a tree, the official agenda reported, with more than 1200 invited guests, including 80 judges from other countries, attending the special event.

Newspapers at the time reported she would do the opening honours at 2:30 pm and then plant a tree in the forecourt with the Chief Justice of the day, Sir Garfield Barwick, on hand.

All that went along swimmingly, according to the media – until three days later when reports came to light that the Queen’s tree had disappeared.

“Someone has pinched the Queen’s tree,” The Canberra Times blared on page three of its 30 May edition. (One would have thought it would at least make page one. Perhaps someone took offence at the design of the building, after all, its architectural style was described as Brutalist.)

Meanwhile, back to the story.


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The healthy sapling, Eucalyptus maculata to its friends, which was planted on the Monday, was gone by the Wednesday. But, oddly, the four-metre diagonal plot from whence it came was not left empty.

In place of the Queen’s tree, someone had planted something else that didn’t even look like a distant relative. Unlike the green royal tree, the new arrival had brown and yellow leaves and seemed to have dropped rather a lot of inches in height very quickly. When the gardeners arrived the next morning, they were met by this distant relative – a snowgum or Eucalyptus pauciflora.

Someone had snuck in, during the dark night – or it could have been the early hours but dark night sounds so much better – and nicked it. Clearly the thieves thought no-one would notice they’d replaced the Queen’s tree with something that looked nothing like it.

Police confirmed the theft later that day but didn’t muck about. The leafy interloper was quickly dug out and a sapling of the original variety, the Eucalyptus maculata, quickly dug in.

The end of the story. Or so you would think. But wait, there’s more. Over time, like most trees, the story has grown.

Quean Elizabeth at the High Court in 1980.

Queen Elizabeth with the official party after the opening of the High Court in 1980. Photo: National Archives of Australia.

The plot deepens. Forty-two years later, when people throughout the Commonwealth started practising taking a deep breath to blow out the 70 candles on the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee cake, the tree that replaced the other tree that replaced the original tree – are you confused yet – disappeared.

The eagle-eyed tour guide Sita Sargeant, from She Shapes History, told Region Media she was shocked to find her favourite tree in the Parliamentary Triangle missing. Yes, the one outside the High Court. She asked if we could get all the dirt on what happened to it.

Was there some sinister connection to this special anniversary week for the Queen? Are aliens stealing trees from outside the High Court at regular if not sporadic intervals? Do we need to get a life?

To root out the answer we went to the National Capital Authority (NCA) who sent us straight to the top – the High Court itself.

A spokesperson told us that, in fact, the tree that replaced the tree …. you know the rest of the story … was in fact dead and had to be replaced for safety reasons.


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He said on 19 January this year, the NCA gave approval for the removal of the “Queen’s Tree” in the forecourt of the High Court.

The condition of the tree, he said, had been deteriorating over time and in the last decade, the High Court “had sought professional arboreal advice on a number of occasions on mitigating and treating the causes of its deterioration. Although various steps were taken to save the tree, last month a final report indicated that the tree had expired and was removed”.

He said there were no plans to replace it, again.

The end. For now.

Original Article published by Sally Hopman on Riotact.

This entry was posted in Art & Culture and tagged Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, High Court of Australia, Platinum Jubilee.

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