Over the last few years, an even worse problem has arisen: Apparently, the eucalyptus trees are quite capable of killing people.
  • Over the last few years, an even worse problem has arisen: Apparently, the eucalyptus trees are quite capable of killing people.
  • Image by Davis McCardle/iStock/Thinkstock
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They began arriving in California from the other side of the world during the latter part of the 19th Century — first a handful of them, then en masse, once the idea got around that they might prove useful in helping to build the railroads. Hardy, resilient, and fecund, they multiplied and spread till they became a significant component of the state’s predominantly immigrant culture. Admired for their grace, resourcefulness, utility, they were established in ever-growing permanent settlements. But not everyone was happy with them, and as time went on, an increasing groundswell of opinion held that they were too fecund, too resourceful, that they were greedy and unruly and incorrigible. And dangerous. Certain individuals were held responsible for violent deaths and summarily dispatched. Today, these immigrants are to be found in multitudes all over San Diego County. With increasing ire, their critics deride them as foreign, or at least non-native — a true charge, but one that comes from people who themselves arrived on the scene very late.

This controversial population is the state’s ubiquitous eucalyptus trees. Eucalyptus (meaning “hidden”) is a genus of tree whose name derives from its flower buds, which are capped by a pulpy lid. Botanists have identified more than 500 species of eucalyptus worldwide, many of which are evergreen and some of which are among the tallest trees in the world. A mature Eucalyptus regnans, for instance, can reach 300 feet. The trees are ideal for drought-prone areas, since they make efficient use of whatever water is at hand; the seeds, bark, and leaves are rich in oil, used for cold remedies and disinfectants; and they are exploitable for lumber and firewood and grow rapidly. The young trees of one common species of eucalyptus grows 10 feet a year. While oaks take several human generations to reach adult size, eucalyptus seedlings will become a towering grove in just a few years.

In 1787, when a fleet of ships laden with English criminals and their keepers arrived in Australia’s Botany Bay for purposes of colonization, these newcomers were unprepared for the environment they found. Australian life had evolved for millions of years in isolation from the flora and fauna of the American, European, Asian, and African land masses. This was as true of the Australian gum, or eucalyptus tree, as it was of the kangaroo — both species for which no close cousins could be found on the shores of the West. Historian and art critic John Hughes, in his book on the colonization of Australia, The Fatal Shore, says that “it took at least two decades for colonial watercolorists to get the gum trees right, so that they did not look like English oaks or elms.”

Australia’s aborigines had lived with the eucalyptus as with the kangaroo and the wallaby and the dingo for millennia — indeed, eucalyptus composed (and today still composes) three-quarters of all Australian forest. The trees were indispensable to the natives; rickety canoes were fashioned from the bark; and during the frequent droughts, stores of life-sustaining water were squeezed from the roots. The English, unfamiliar with this lore, sometimes died of thirst on ground in which water-rich eucalyptus roots abounded.

If the Australian aborigines were never to extend beyond their homeland in a great migrant flood, the eucalyptus tree had a different fate in store. It was to be transplanted to regions all over the globe — from Ethiopia and Madagascar to Spain, Israel, Kenya, Brazil, and California. A United Nations study from the 1950s holds that eucalyptus is an exceedingly valuable tree for purposes of reforestation and industry and advocated its liberal use in developing areas.

In 1858, William C. Walker — owner of the Golden Gate Nursery in San Francisco — published a handwritten catalogue in which he advertised three species of eucalyptus for sale at five to ten dollars each. An article in the 1902 issue of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Bureau of Forestry Bulletin” provides additional history of the eucalyptus in California.

  • [Eucalyptus was] introduced into California in 1856 by Mr. Walker, of San Francisco, and in that year 14 species were planted. In 1860 Mr. Stephen Nolan, a pioneer nurseryman of Oakland, being greatly impressed with the rapid growth of these first trees, and also with their evident adaptability to the climate, commissioned a sea captain sailing for Australian ports to secure any Eucalyptus seed he could, at the same time furnishing money with which to make the purchase. A large supply of seed of several species…was received from this source and sown in 1861. Mr. Nolan continued to import seed in quantity for several years, distributing the seedlings widely through the state.

Walker, Nolan, and others ballyhooed the trees’ excellent ornamental qualities and outstanding rate of growth. During the next ten years, the trees were transplanted to Southern California, a region that was nothing more than coastal desert characterized by thousands of square miles of nearly treeless, brush-covered mesa and flatland. On August 11, 1872, the San Diego Daily World newspaper reported, under the headline “The Eucalyptus in San Diego”:

  • It is well known here that this tree, better known as the Australian gum, grows vigorously in this city, but few realize how vigorously it grows. Three years ago Mr. E.W. Morse planted a eucalyptus seed in his garden, and from that seed has sprung up a tree which is now more than eighteen inches in circumference two feet from the ground, and not less than twenty-five feet high! Several other trees in the garden, the same age, have done nearly as well. The wood of this tree is very hard and tough.

Only a few months later, on November 16, 1872, the Daily World reprinted an article from a publication called Science and Industry:

  • In this plant (eucalyptus] we may have a very important addition to our material resources, its great merit consists primarily in its adaptability to regions otherwise unsuitable for the growth of forest vegetation, in the extreme rapidity of its growth, and in the great value of the wood for economical purposes. When planted in marshy land it has a very decided effect in draining the soil and freeing it from a malarious tendency, while it is said to thrive where the annual rainfall is scarcely sufficient to keep ordinary trees in proper vigor. As is well known, trees having this rapid growth are generally soft and spongy and of comparatively little value for timber; but the gum is quite the reverse, the wood being very heavy and hard, resisting the action of air and water, as well as of most kinds of insects. In general properties it resembles the wood of the oak, and it is employed very largely for ship timber in Australia. The growing plants disseminate an aromatic fragrance, which is supposed to be conducive to health. This is due to the volatile essence of the oil, which can be readily collected and is known as eucalyptol. The leaves furnish two and one-half percent of their weight of this substance, which has come into use already as a solvent of resins…and it is warmly recommended for the manufacture of varnish.… [In] Spain and the south of France it has been made to replace quinine with decided advantage. Paper prepared from its bark answers for packing.

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