The gentle breeze billows through her floaty long red dress as she runs to get in place. With her long dark hair falling down her back the young woman turns around and stands ready. An older woman, perhaps her mother, clicks away on the camera setup on a tripod on the side of the road. The two of them are surrounded by the magnificent purple of the Jacaranda trees overhead. All the while the locals drive past on their regular journey into town, bemused by all the attention. But their hearts swell with a secret pride. A proud heritage town and all its purple magic.
It’s Jacaranda time in my hometown of Grafton in northern New South Wales. Running from late October to early November, the Jacaranda Festival in Grafton is the oldest floral festival in Australia. It is said that in 1879 a seed merchant named Henry Volkers planted the first Jacaranda trees in this town. Well over a hundred years later these trees of South American origin are celebrated in festival style each year as the springtime heat brings out the purple blossoms all over this heritage town.
As I walk past the glamorous young woman in the red dress and her companion, I stop and ask politely if can take a photograph. They look up at me without responding and it takes me a moment to realise they are trying to understand what I have just said. I gesture and play charades and the woman in the red dress gives me a shy nod and smile. While we might not speak the same language, we both understand the language of the Jacarandas and what draws people here.
It is the beauty of these trees that sees visitors from afar driving across the Grafton bridge for the first time to wander the streets and capture the majestic display of colour. Reminiscent of the cherry blossoms of Japan, tourists mill around the trees in the parks like bees to flowers. Visitors who have made the drive up from Sydney just for a weekend take photos of each other in front of the tree-lined streets. Glamorous young Instagramers strike a pose in all their finery. They marvel with delight at this show of nature’s brilliance, while the locals in the two-story pub across the road are not sure what to make of all the fuss.
After all, to the locals the Jacarandas are as much a part of this place as the mighty Clarence River that weaves its way through town and shapes the stories of so many. As much a part of this town as the grand old timber barn in the showground as the doors are opened to kick off the Jacaranda Festival season in true yesteryear style with the Jacaranda Ball. For locals this stunning display of nature in all her glory is as constant every year as the giant festival crown which is placed on top of the old clocktower in the main street to light up the evening.
If you ask my friends and family about their favourite memories of Jacaranda time, they will tell you stories of eating purple ice cream with friends down the street and mum bringing home purple bread from Hank’s bakery. Because that’s normal for Grafton kids. They will tell you about watching the Jacaranda float parade down Prince Street. The drummer’s float was always my favourite and I can still hear the sounds of it in my mind as the truck moved slowly up the street past the Saraton Theatre.
Even those who haven’t been back to the Clarence Valley for many years will smile with fond memories of Jacaranda Thursday and meeting up with friends at the Venetian Carnival down by the river in the twilight. Walking on a purple carpet made of flowers with lilac snowflakes falling from the skies.
They will tell you about the surreal atmosphere in Market Square as the Jacaranda crown is placed ever so carefully on the newly appointed Jacaranda Queen under an umbrella of lilac blossoms all lit up at night. And some ladies will tell you that as young girls they thought the Jacaranda Queen was an actual real Queen. Because when you grow up in a fairytale town where the trees turn purple like magic why wouldn’t that be the case?
Every year there’s talk around town about whether the Jacarandas will bloom in time for the festival. And every year they do. While times might change and life moves on, there are some things that will never change. The magic of a country town and its lifelong love affair. The Jacarandas of Grafton.
The Jacaranda Festival runs from Saturday 29 October to Sunday 6 November in Grafton NSW. For more information and dates of festival events visit the Jacaranda Festival website.
The best streets to view the Jacarandas are:
- Jacaranda Avenue, Pound Street
- Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria & Duke Street
- See Park, Cnr of Pound & Turf Street
- Turf Street
- Prince Street
- Mary Street
- Kent Street
- Bacon Street
- North Street
- Cranworth Street
- Ryan Street
You can also check out the Grafton Jacaranda Map showing “Jacaranda Drive” – a circuit of some of Grafton’s most delightful Jacaranda-lined streets. For accommodation options visit the Clarence Valley tourism website.
Photo: Lisa Salter from Stitch Two Together