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Jean Galbraith (1906–1999)

by Meredith Fletcher

This article was published online in 2023

Jean Galbraith, by Edna Walling, 1950s-60s

Jean Galbraith, by Edna Walling, 1950s-60s

National Gallery of Victoria, PH10-1983

Jean Galbraith (1906–1999), writer, botanist, gardener, and conservationist, was born on 28 March 1906 at Tyers in Gippsland, Victoria, eldest child of Matthew Galbraith, dairy farmer, and his wife Amy, née Ladson. The Galbraiths were devout Christadelphians and Jean’s faith became the mainstay of her life. With her three younger brothers she grew up surrounded by extended family, exploring the nearby bush and developing a passion for wildflowers. A shy child who battled with asthma, eczema, and bronchitis, she attended Tyers State School until grade eight. From an early age she was an avid reader and nature writer, contributing to the Melbourne Leader’s children’s pages.

Galbraith’s botanical education began in 1922 when she attended the Field Naturalists’ Club of Victoria’s annual wildflower show, an extravaganza held in the Melbourne Town Hall. She met the noted botanist H. B. Williamson who offered to become her teacher, the lessons to be delivered via a correspondence characterised by the sharing of specimens, notes, and readings. Through the wildflower show Galbraith gained an entrée to a community of nature writers and botanists who mentored her, including figures such as Charles Barrett, Edith Coleman, Edward Pescott, and Donald Macdonald.

After meeting the editor of a new magazine, the Garden Lover (later the Australian Garden Lover), at the wildflower show in 1925, Galbraith was commissioned to write articles on growing Australian plants. She was nineteen when her first piece appeared under the pen name ‘Correa,’ her favourite local wildflower. Her garden writing soon evolved into nature writing and she used story and lyricism to evoke local flora in articles without illustrations. From the 1930s a strong conservation theme began permeating her work: in tandem with her own efforts to protect native plants, she wrote about the destruction of local landscapes. She also wrote articles on Australian flora for English and American gardening magazines.

In the 1930s Galbraith began a series in the Australian Garden Lover called ‘Garden in a Valley,’ the story of how she and her parents created their garden. A selection of these articles was published as her first book, sharing the same title, in 1939. In its preface she wrote that the garden was ‘rarely … orderly’ but that she and her parents ‘love it as it is and learn much from it, and we think that perhaps others might love it and learn from it too’ (Galbraith 1985 [1939], 13).

Galbraith continued living at the family home, ‘Dunedin,’ after her parents’ deaths in the 1940s and well into her own old age, living simply and frugally with no television or car. Inspiration for her writing continued to be the changing landscapes around her. Though she never had any of her own, Galbraith had a natural affinity with children. She wrote nature stories for the School Paper in Victoria, the New South Wales School Magazine, and the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s ‘Kindergarten of the Air,’ notably her famous Grandma Honeypot stories. Many of her nature articles appeared in Walkabout and Wild Life and she contributed to the Victorian Naturalist. She wrote for the Australian Garden Lover for fifty years and also for new postwar gardening magazines.

When Galbraith was commissioned to write a popular field guide to Victorian wildflowers in 1949, she began some of her most influential work. Wildflowers of Victoria was published in 1950, followed by two more editions. It became known among naturalists as a ‘glove box bible’ (Fletcher 2009, 11). The field guides led to her being awarded the Australian Natural History medallion in 1970. In 1965 the publisher Collins commissioned her to write a book on Australian wildflowers for its international series of pocket field guides. She restricted the book to plants growing in Australia’s eastern temperate region. Finally published in 1977, A Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of South-East Australia gained accolades for its vital contribution to knowledge of Australian flora and for the accessibility of Galbraith’s writing.

Widespread recognition came to Galbraith as she approached her eighties, when the long-forgotten Garden in a Valley was republished in a beautifully illustrated hardback in 1985. It sold out in several months and was immediately reprinted. Visitors flocked to her garden at Dunedin and found a magical place. Now stooped, usually wearing green and brown and sensible shoes, with a plait wound around her head, she warmly welcomed visitors. With a new readership, she began contributing to the Age’s gardening pages and continued publishing more books, until old age and failing eyesight left her unable to continue her beloved gardening and writing. Several new plant species were named in her honour: Boronia galbraithiae, Prostanthera galbraithiae, and the Jean Galbraith rose.

Galbraith died on 2 January 1999 at a Christadelphian nursing home at Ringwood, Melbourne, and was buried in Traralgon cemetery. She had put her vision of nature into words, turned botanical writing into a literary art, and inspired generations of gardeners and naturalists. From her home in Gippsland, she helped readers of all ages to see their landscapes in new ways.

Research edited by Michelle Staff

Select Bibliography

  • Fletcher, Meredith. ‘Becoming “Correa”: Jean Galbraith and “Australian Native Flowers.”’ La Trobe Journal, no. 84 (December 2009): 11–22
  • Fletcher, Meredith. Jean Galbraith: Writer in a Valley. Clayton, Vic.: Monash University Publishing, 2014
  • Galbraith, Jean. Garden in a Valley. Hawthorn, Vic.: Five Mile Press, 1985
  • Hyndman, Ian. Andrew and Sarah Galbraith and Family: Pioneers of Beechworth and Tyers. Beechworth, Vic.: Bethel Publications, 1997
  • Latreille, Anne. Kindred Spirits: A Botanical Correspondence, Letters by Jean Galbraith, Drawings by Joan Law-Smith. South Yarra, Vic.: Australian Garden History Society, 1999
  • National Museum of Australia. Jean Galbraith Collection
  • State Library of Victoria. MS 12637, Papers of Jean Galbraith, 1900–1990

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Meredith Fletcher, 'Galbraith, Jean (1906–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/galbraith-jean-32401/text40166, published online 2023, accessed online 22 February 2024.

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