How John helped our arid lands

Research Trip: John travelled extensively around the globe, researching arid landscapes in 1978. Photo: Supplied.
Research Trip: John travelled extensively around the globe, researching arid landscapes in 1978. Photo: Supplied.

John Zwar did not know the impact a decision to take up a job with council would have on the Port Augusta community.

You may not know it, but his research work in the seventies set the motions of bringing a national botanic garden into town.

Mr Zwar's journey in horticulture has been a storied one.

He followed his interest of straight out of high school, studying a horticulture traineeship at the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide.

"We were the lowest paid trainees in South Australia at the time," he said.

"Work in horticulture is generally low paid but people do it because they have a passion for it."

After starting off his career in Leigh Creek and Papua New Guinea, Mr Zwar landed in Port Augusta establishing the Parks and Gardens Department for the council.

"Having worked at Leigh Creek with Arid Zone plants I felt I had good experience, so that job seemed right," he said.

"I could see enormous potential in its location, at the head of the gulf, and on the doorstep of the Flinders."

"I spoke to the mayor at the time asking if I could take on the role of voluntary tourism promotion officer.

"I set up and ran a number of courses at the TAFE college just on general gardening.

"I remember being told at the time it was the most popular general interest course ever run."

This interest lead to Mr Zwar establishing the Port Augusta Garden Club.

But his thirst for knowledge was not yet quenched, and in 1978 Mr Zwar was accepted into the prestigious Churchill Fellowship program.

"Mine was a study tour for five months, looking at arid zone horticulture in Chile, Peru, USA, Israel, Namibia and South Africa," he said

"That was a really amazing experience looking at what was being done in other countries.

"I got to go to the northern part of Chile where there has been no recorded rainfall for over 400 years.

"I came back and had lots of ideas.

"At an Institute of Parks and Recreation conference in 1981, I presented a paper on the work I was doing, and a proposal that we should establish an Arid Lands Botanic Garden, and that Port Augusta was the ideal location.

"Subsequently I went back, and suggested it to council, they allowed me to investigate the proposal but there was ultimately little interest from council.

"But I still called a public meeting, and at that meeting we decided to establish a friends support group.

"So we had a friends of a botanic garden that did not exist yet."

Unfortunately he moved on to another position in Roxby Downs before the botanic garden was established.

While his botanic garden dream was not fully realised while working for council, he still had a lot to be proud of.

"In my time at Port Augusta we planted approximately a 250,000 trees plants and shrubs in reserves, streets and public areas," he said.

"Every street was planted with trees by the time I left Port Augusta.

"After about 15 or 16 years I felt I had done a lot here, and it was time to move on."

Mr Zwar is still president of the Friends of the Arid Lands Botanic Gardens to this day, travelling out regularly to lend a hand.

"We meet four times a year, and our volunteers are very active group," he said.

"They do a terrific amount of work, I estimate that we have contributed quite a substantial amount in free labour."

Friends help the gardens by providing tours, propagating plants, placing flower vases on café tables, raise money for projects, promotion and general works.

Mr Zwar, now 70, has retired to Adelaide after years spent in regional South Australia.

Lifelong passion: John Zwar's love of horticulture has not dwindles over his decade spanning career.

Lifelong passion: John Zwar's love of horticulture has not dwindles over his decade spanning career.