ABR Dahl Trust Fellowship: 'Seeing the wood for the trees' by Danielle Clode

Many years ago, after working for a while in Europe, we returned to Australia via America. We picked up a car in Atlanta and drove through sprawling cities, alarming slums, and abandoned downtowns. Across Mississippi and the broad, reassuring openness of Texas, to Arizona and the Grand Canyon, we passed through the alien electrics of Las Vegas, down into Death Valley, and up over the Sierra Nevada to the west coast and San Francisco.

We emerged from the mountains into open countryside and found ourselves unexpectedly transported home. Familiar paddocks patchworked the vineyards and olive groves, interspersed with golden grass and dotted with the unmistakable blue-green canopy of eucalypts. A pastoral idyll to my drought-adapted Australian eyes, worthy of a Heysen canvas. We stopped beneath a tree at the side of the road – a Southern Blue Gum Eucalyptus globulus – our feet crunching in a tinder-dry accumulation of bark and gumnuts. Long, slender leaves shimmered overhead, their silhouettes lightly shading but never obscuring the sky above. We leaned against the smooth trunk, running our hands along the gnarled grooves and curves. Hard green leaves cracked in our hands. The crisp sharp breath of eucalyptus purged the last damp remnants of Europe from our lungs. Like the disenchanted Australian in Henry Lawson’s ‘His Country – After All’, the characteristic sight and scent of the eucalypts ‘brought a wave of memories with it’, inspiring an unexpected rush of patriotic nostalgia for erstwhile exiles.

Eucalypts are so ubiquitous there that they are frequently regarded as ‘quintessentially Californian’. The Australian trees that now define the landscape may well have arrived as seeds in the pockets of goldrush immigrants, bringing with them the mythic legends of these trees which, in their own land, grew faster, taller, and harder than any other tree in the world.

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We think of eucalypts as being entirely our own – quintessentially Australian – and there is no doubt that Australasia is the eucalypt heartland. These remarkable trees had for forty million years evolved in isolation on the Australasian landmass – Australia, New Guinea, and the south-east Asian islands interconnected by the Sahul continental shelf. When the seas rose, a handful of eucalypts remained stranded on the islands to our north, but the vast bulk of the 700 or more species – Corymbia, Eucalyptus, Angophora – are native only to the Australian continent. Australia is their point of origin, centre of diversity, and their symbolic homeland.

Despite their ready identification with the eucalypt archetype, eucalypts seem to wilfully defy classification and order. Through taxonomic revisions, disputed identities, and hybridisation, eucalypt diversity and taxonomy shimmer and shift in form and allegiance. The ability to identify every species of a eucalypt arboretum may well be a fictional fantasy after all.

For most of us, the folk taxonomy of the ropily insulated stringybarks and boxes, the smooth-trunked gum trees, and the black ‘Doric columns’ of the ironbarks is as far as we get in telling apart a multitude of diverse and individually variable species. We might only distinguish a handful of species – perhaps the River Red Gums, the inland Ghost Gum, or the aromatic Lemon-scented Gum. Even the famous Blue Gum depends on your state of origin – Eucalyptus saligna for the Sydney Blue Gum on the east coast, Eucalyptus leucoxylon in South Australia, Eucalyptus globulus for the Southern or Tasmanian Blue Gum.

As the cradle of eucalypt evolution, Australia has provided the perfect conditions for this hardy family: tolerant of – thriving on – poor soil, heat, drought, and fire. Like the marsupials, the eucalypts have proliferated on this continent. They have hybridised, diversified, and speciated in their uncontested isolation. But unlike many marsupials, this isolation may well have limited, rather than protected, eucalypt distribution.

Snowgum by Steve MathewsSnow gum (Eucalyptus pauciflora ssp.pauciflora) at Hinnomunjie Victoria (photograph by Steve Mathews, Mullum Trust)

In the few hundred years that Australia has been exposed to European contact, eucalypts have spread through all the warmer latitudes of the world. They are one of the most widespread cultivated trees, with plantations covering more than twenty million hectares of the Earth’s surface, or an area almost the size of Victoria. And one of the most successful of these exports has been the Southern Blue Gum, Eucalyptus globulus, known once as the ‘Prince of Eucalypts’. Prized for timber and for oil, for its capacity to drain swamps and survive drought, for curing malaria and changing climates – the Blue Gum was a saviour for all seasons. A reverse coloniser, it has now become an environmental weed: an ironic export from a country accustomed to seeing itself as a victim of colonial environmental destruction.

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It may well have been some non-Australian eucalypts that first escaped their naturally constrained distribution. The White Gums, Eucalyptus alba and Eucalyptus urophylla, have long grown in Brazil, perhaps taken by the Portuguese from their outposts in Timor to their new colonies in Brazil, perhaps as early as the sixteenth century. It is hard to tell. The trees are old. And they keep their secrets – much like the Portuguese.

But the means by which the eucalypts could begin a concerted campaign to colonise the world did not arrive until Europeans began to make their first tentative forays along the coastline of Australia. Here they encountered strange trees, noteworthy, not for food or for timber, but rather for the sticky, viscous resin oozing from their trunks. Gum trees. Over the years, the name has stuck. Abel Tasman took note of this fine-quality gum exuding from the trees foresting the shore. The red resinous sap of the west coast trees was one of the few features of Australia that William Dampier found attractive, as a potential new source of dragonsblood, prized for stemming irregular flows of the body – diarrhoea and menses – as well as for fixing loose teeth. By the time Cook and Banks arrived, the gum-producing trees had become simply ‘gum trees’ – distinctive and recognisable even when they ‘seemed not inclind to Yeild their gum’ (Banks, 30 May 1770).

It would be left to a Frenchman to provide a more systematic descriptor. A specimen of Tasmanian Messmate Stringybark (Eucalyptus obliqua) returned, without Cook, from his third and fatal Pacific voyage and caught the attention of Charles-Louis L’Héritier, a botanist who happened to be in London on a mission of complicated botanical intrigue. He was struck by the tight-fitting cap of the gumnut, a characteristic of most species in the group, and aptly dubbed the genus eu- ‘well’ and -calyptos ‘covered’. L’Héritier commissioned the up-and-coming botanical artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté to illustrate his description in exquisite detail.

Ultimately, it would be a very different type of artist and writer who would immortalise this type of gumnut cap for generations of Australians themselves – as May Gibbs’s haute couture for bush babies.

L’Héritier was not the only Frenchman interested in eucalypts. His friend Jacques-Julien Labillardière was of a similar applied and botanical bent. With L’Héritier’s descriptions of these ‘well-capped’ trees fresh in his mind, Labillardière embarked on a voyage ‘to make a grand collection’ in the uncharted southern realms. Labillardière deserves to be better known as a founder of Australian botany. Unlike Banks, whose own botanical interests were quickly diverted by an influential political career, the prickly and brusque Labillardière eschewed all politics in favour of the pragmatic clarity of plant taxonomy.

Labillardière published the very first systematic, two-volume, exquisitely illustrated account of Australian plants: Novae Hollandiae Plantarum Specimen, as well as a bestselling book of his travels. Among the hundreds of Australian plants he described from his voyage were seven eucalypts (of the myrtle family), including Tasmania’s floral emblem – the Southern Blue Gum. On seeing these great tangled forests of tall timbers for the first time, Labillardière wrote:

We were filled with admiration at the sight of these ancient forests, in which the sound of the axe had never been heard. The eye was astonished in contemplating the prodigious size of these trees, amongst which there were some myrtles more than 50 metres in height, whose tufted summits were crowned with an ever verdant foliage; others, loosened by age from their roots, were supported by the neighbouring trees, whilst, as they gradually decayed, they were incorporated piece after piece with the parent-earth. The most luxuriant vigour of vegetation is here contrasted with its final dissolution, and presents to the mind a striking picture of the operations of nature, who, left to herself, never destroys but that she may again create.

His commander described these same forests as having the quality of ‘always being old and always new’.

These forests may never have heard the sound of an axe (until the botanist cut one down to reach the flowers in the canopy), but they were by no means untouched. Labillardière the anthropologist also noted the large number of trees with burnt cavities at their bases, always on the leeside, sometimes extensive enough to have hollowed out the entire tree as a living chimney, providing some shelter for local inhabitants from the fierce winds. More pragmatically, the trees cut down by Labillardière were promptly used to raise the gunwales on the expedition’s rowboats, the value of these long straight timbers for shipbuilding being immediately apparent.

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With their constant demand for timber, sailors would undoubtedly have been the first Europeans to put Australian wood to work. Prior to the nineteenth century, forests were the iron ore of industry. Timber was essential for ships, which were essential for trade, war, and colonisation. For centuries, European powers had stripped their forests of timber to build the ships that expanded their empires, which gave them still greater access to timber. The demand was insatiable. Long, strong timbers made long, strong ships. The tall straight forests of Southern Blue Gum were manna from heaven.

At the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, the Tasmanians gave pride of place to a plank of their Blue Gum: 146 feet long, twenty inches wide, and six inches thick. As the press reported:

Experience has now fully established the character and qualities of the timber of the blue gum of Van Diemen’s Land as scarcely, if at all, inferior to the best oak of England for ship purposes; and it is a fact which ought to be widely made known, that sawn timber for keels, planks and stringers of ships can be produced two or three times the length of those yielded by the oak, and at a price, even at the great distance we are from England, with which the oak cannot compete.
(Cornwall Chronicle, 29 January 1851)

With a specific density greater than all known timbers at the time and a particular resistance to the devastating appetite of the Teredo shipworm, the Southern Blue Gum was in great demand. The tall timbers of Tasmania’s forests laid the foundations for the railways, they paved roads, formed the pylons of harbours and supported the tunnels of miners. Some four million feet of wharf piles were supplied to the British Admiralty, ‘….the longest and biggest and the most durable that had ever reached British shores’ (The Eucalypti Hardwood Timbers of Tasmania, 1906). Such is their durability that the grey bones of these fallen giants still stand today, supporting wharves and jetties, lining canals and even, in all probability, lying frozen beneath the rumbling carriages of the Trans-Siberian railway.

At least some of this timber set sail from Australian shores on ships built from the forests themselves. The ‘blue-gum clipper fleet’ sailed from the northern ports of Tasmania – home-grown, home-built with fine lines, raked stem and a full head of sail to fly in the teeth of the roaring forties. Highly regarded by Lloyds of London, these ships bore their Australian heritage in more than just their fast strong hulls: with names like Acacia and Eucalyptus, or the Tasman with its kangaroo figurehead, there was no mistaking their origins. They plied their trade on the intercolonial and coastal routes as well as to America, perhaps even carrying the seeds of their own dispersal – packets of Blue Gum seeds destined to populate the bare plains of the world.

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By the early 1800s, eucalypts had truly begun their global spread. Ease of germination and rapid growth made them popular in the gardens of Europe, from Kew Gardens in London to the Empress Josephine’s garden in Paris. While the settlers from the First Fleet struggled to clear the trees for their settlement, European nurserymen demanded seeds to grow them at home. Over the course of the century, Blue Gums sprouted in Chile, South Africa, Portugal, Italy, India, New Zealand, Spain, California, Uruguay, Algeria, Tunisia, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, China, Ethiopia, and Bolivia. The founder of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens, Ferdinand von Mueller, prophesied that one day, ‘Australian vegetation would spread over dry sun-baked deserts and mitigate the effects of drought.’ Blue Gums have graced the streets of Kyoto, carefully cropped to maintain their attractive juvenile foliage. They are flung across Greek islands in the Mediterranean. They shelter historic Californian homesteads and scatter their leaves in monastic courtyards in Italy. They decorate in gardens of London and shade the sands of Algeria. They even founded a city: Addis Ababa, or ‘new flower’, was founded on the plantations of eucalypts that provide its residents with fuel and still decorate its streets today.

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The growth of Blue Gums in California illustrates their rapid rise to worldwide fame. They began their spread in 1865 when William Wolfskill planted five around his home in southern California as part of an agricultural experiment. Timber was in short supply on California’s largely treeless plains. The fast-growing eucalypts promised a rapid cure for this deficit.

The eucalypts were enthusiastically adopted, with thousands of trees being planted by the 1870s for windbreaks and firewood. By the 1880s, eucalypt seeds were being freely distributed. These Australian trees grew even more rapidly in California than they did in their homeland – up to sixty feet in just six years. The Californian landscape was transformed:

The introduction of this tree has done more to change radically the appearance of wide ranges of country in California than any other one thing. In the reclamation of many arid plains of the central and southern parts of California the blue gum has worked almost like magic. It modifies the winds, breaks the lines of view all so quickly that one can scarcely realize that a valley of clustered woods and lines of trees was but a year or two before a brown parched expanse of shadeless summer dust.
(Abbot Kinney, Eucalyptus, 1895)

The eucalypts even inspired their own school of art; California’s plein-air artists formed the ‘Eucalyptus School’, so named for their favourite subjects. In parallel with the Heidelberg School on the other side of the world, these Impressionist-inspired artists brought what lay outside, inside – framed, signed, and sold – giving value to the beauty of the Australian bush that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

So popular have the Blue Gums become, so much a part of other people’s landscapes, that they have taken on new names. In America they are California Blue Gums; in China they are Canton Blue Gums. Of a highly successful family this species stands out, astonishing in its colonising prowess in temperate climes – its speed, size, and survival.

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The proverbial acorn to oak tree seems laughable compared to the transformative powers of these Blue Gums. In summer the warty caps of the gumnuts are lifted by an expansion of delicate filamentous stamens, which flower anemone-like into fragrant, nectar-rich blooms. Parrots descend in noisy crowds, bottlebrush tongues dipping into syrupy sweetness, dusting their feathers in golden pollen. Insects cloud the canopy, humming as they fulfil their pollination duties.

Fertilised, the fruits swell and harden into woody nuts. As they dry through summer, the crossed slit on their base slowly expands to pepper the forest floor with the flecks of future offspring. Each gumnut contains masses of tiny seeds, each smaller than a pinhead, each with the potential to grow into a sixty-metre giant.

No smoke or mirrors are required for these gums to begin their germinal journey. Unlike other Australian natives, which must be enticed from their intergenerational stasis, Blue Gums do not need to be eaten, abraded, burnt, smoked, or boiled. Just add water. Blue Gums are profligate spreaders of seed, requiring only the dampness of winter to germinate. But for all that, the vast majority of the seeds fail. Many are infertile, many are eaten by ants. Most fall into darkness beneath their parent’s shade and fail to germinate, supressed by shadow, dry leaf litter, and the chemicals produced in the leaves of the mature tree.

Every now and again, a lucky seed chances to fall in a clearing, perhaps blown askew on its drifting journey downwards by a stray gust of wind. Others lie dormant for years on the forest floor, awaiting some fortuitous calamity to open the canopy above and let light and rain reach them. Under the right conditions, on open land with moist soil, the seeds transform.

Moisture seeps beneath the seed’s skin, activating the metabolic processes. A tiny white tip of embryonic root pokes tentatively into the soil. It stretches a long pale finger deep into the earth, burrowing downwards, developing fine laterals and gripping the soil in firm handfuls. As it extends, the sprout nearer the seed arches upward, defying gravity and emerging in a loop before abandoning its protective seed coat, and opening upwards towards the sun. Two pale green leaves feel the sudden pop and crackle of energy sparking within them. With water from below and sunlight from above, growth increases exponentially.

The juvenile leaves emerge in rounded blue-grey pairs, their bases wrapped firmly around the stems. It is the attractive colouring of this juvenile leaf form that gives all the blue gums their common name, and ensures their popularity with florists and home decorators. It is a form to which the Blue Gum will often revert in adulthood, if cut or damaged.

Southern Blue Gums are one of the fastest-growing eucalypts. Within a year a sapling might stand over two metres high. Within three years the precocious infant may be fourteen metres high and have acquired the long dark-green, sickle-shaped leaves of adulthood, even maturing to produce seeds. Trees reach thirty metres in height after just eight years. A twenty-five-year-old Blue Gum might be more than fifty metres high, its trunk too thick for two grown men to join hands around.

Nor is the growth restricted to the visible part of the tree. Voracious for water, Blue Gum roots extend thirteen metres below the surface. And the vital lateral roots spread over a circumference of 100 metres from the trunk. Adapted for Australia’s unreliable rainfall, Blue Gums begin from their very first year to stockpile their resources for an unrainy day. Two swellings appear at the base of the infant sapling, fusing and forming an ever-expanding larder of food reserves, the lignotuber, which buries itself in the ground as it grows. This lignotuber provides the eucalypts with their legendary resilience, enabling the tree – notwithstanding fires, drought, or axe, –to reshoot from these hidden resources. These reserves fuel regrowth from an extensive network of epicormic buds beneath the bark, allowing the tree to reshoot almost immediately. All but a handful of eucalypts have this remarkable capacity for regeneration.

The hard oil-laden leaves of the eucalypts are also a careful adaptation to drought. Tough – immune to the drying efforts of wind and sun. Botanists call it sclerophylly: an adaptation common to the Mediterranean climates of the world.

Here, then, lies the secret of eucalypt success. As Australia’s climate dried, the eucalypts’ capacity to withstand drought gave them a significant advantage over the rainforest trees of both the tropical and cool temperate kind. The rainforests shrank into the mountains as the range of the eucalypts expanded. The very same attributes that have proven so valuable in drought proved even more valuable when Australia’s climate set up its next environmental challenge – increasing incidence of fire.

With their secret reserves safely hidden below ground and their epicormic buds protected beneath thick insulating bark, most of the eucalypts were unfazed by fire. A quick cool ground fire only serves to clear out the competing undergrowth for mature eucalypts. Ground fires lick across the continuously accumulating carpet of dried leaves, sticks, and bark, at a eucalypt feast made especially for them. The gums seem to dangle bark enticements, or offer wicks for the fires to climb. They drift their attention languidly up the tall trunks, as if craving the canopy of leaves above. But combustion requires heat, as well as fuel and air, and few fires are hot enough to leave the ground.

Just once in a while though, once in a hundred years: once in a heatwave, after a drought, on the back of hot drying winds, superheated from the vast inland deserts, then it is hot enough. Hot enough to burn through the thick layers of leaf litter back to the bare mineral earth. Hot enough to incinerate every blade of grass, bush, shrub, and sapling. Hot enough to ignite the volatile oils of the eucalypt leaves. Hot enough to kill the canopy of the trees, even to burn them back to blackened stags. Hot enough to kill many of them outright.

But not all of them.

The recuperative power of the eucalypts after fire is legendary. From beneath the scarred bark, the epicormic buds burst with new life, drawing on their stores beneath the ground, regenerating magically from tragedy.

Such fires are just the spectacular sideshow in eucalypt evolution. It is water, not fire, that has made the trees what they are. Their oily leaves may seem to encourage fire, but the oils evolved to resist evaporation – and mastication. They are a toxin for herbivores both large and small, part of a million-year-old arms race between the plants and animals, and some eucalypt leaves are more toxic than others. It was this toxicity that gave the young Southern Blue Gums their most striking advantage. Not only did they grow tall and fast, but, while they were small, nothing would eat them. The Indians noted with delight that neither goat nor sheep would graze on the young seedlings. In Ethiopia, they did not bother fencing the Blue Gum plantations. In Australia, even kangaroos will avoid eucalypts or things planted near eucalypts, a significant advantage in a country now dominated by sheep and kangaroos.

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But one creature’s toxin is another one’s tonic. Eucalyptol, the chemical that protects the eucalypts from its browsers, offers other benefits to humans. Eucalypts have long been used by indigenous Australians as a poultice for wounds and bruises, to treat diseases of the eyes, toothache, ringworm, rheumatism, headaches, fevers, even, on occasion, snakebite. Europeans soon noticed the camphorous similarity of eucalyptus oil to cajeput oil, a widely used medicinal oil from the south-east Asian Melaleuca leucadendra. Like tea tree oil today (derived from a different Melaleuca), cajeput oil was used as a disinfectant in fevers and was even used to treat cholera.

Generations of Australian children since have been soothed by the eucalypt scented rubbings of Vicks VapoRub on their chests. Many will recall leaning over a basin of steaming scented water, the heat trapped beneath a towel, before emerging red-faced, eyes and nose streaming and gasping for cool air. The pungent volatiles magically seemed to seep into every cavity and airway, expanding them with their crisp clinical chemicals. Scientifically, these chemicals are effective at reducing mucus production, inflammation and pain, and even have potential for use against leukaemia.

Makeshift stills on the Australian goldfields originally steamed the oil from hand-cut branches. But other countries too were quick to realise the economic benefits of oil production from their young plantations, and the process was rapidly industrialised, mechanised, and commercialised. In 1852, Joseph Bosisto opened his distillery at Dandenong Creek, soon expanding into the hinterland and ultimately exporting a pharmacopeia of products to the world, from asthma cigarettes to ‘Syrup of Red Gum’ for soothing bowel complaints.

The health benefits of the eucalypts were not always so direct, however. Young Blue Gums rapidly eradicated malarial fevers in districts of Algeria plagued by the disease. But it was not the powerful antiseptic oils in the leaves which achieved this success; rather it was the power of their roots. The young Blue Gums, with their insatiable appetite for water, rapidly drained the marshy swamps which bred the mosquito vectors of the disease.

Tre Fontane Abbey near Rome was infamous for malaria; the average lifespan of a resident monk was a mere three years. The monks planted Blue Gums to drain the Pontine Marshes. The success of the trees was so astonishing that it prompted the Italian government to distribute 5000 Blue Gum seedlings to another malarial site, and the monks celebrated with a pungent eucalyptus liqueur, Eucalittino delle Tre Fontane, still sold today.

With the precise mechanisms of malaria not then known, the combination of the eucalypts, undoubtedly antiseptic oils, pungent scent, and swamp-draining growth habits made it a global cure-all. It was claimed to cure cancer and gonorrhoea. Its health-giving leaves were so popular that the Italian forests had to be protected from the sick. Branches were placed under hospital beds for their antiseptic, sedative, and hypnotic properties. They were thought to purify the air through the production of ozone (which is, in fact, how the oil achieves its disinfectant properties). And as Dampier and Tasman had once predicted, the ‘red gum’ or kino of some species was found to be an effective astringent for diarrhoea. Until the 1950s, ‘Botany Bay Kino’, derived largely from Grey Ironbarks and River Red Gums, was a popular export for the treatment of dysentery, haemorrhages, and coughs.

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People often say that Europeans did not appreciate the beauty of the Australian eucalypt forests. D.H. Lawrence described Australia as having a strange, invisible beauty, which lay ‘just beyond the range of our white vision’. European artists, it is claimed, were incapable of drawing our strange and unfamiliar plants and animals, failing to capture the colour and form. But for every malcontented settler, longing for the leafy summer shade of their homeland or the dreary deadness of a European winter, there was another who waxed lyrical over these remarkable ‘nevergreen’ trees. While some saw a drab uniformity, others noted an endless shifting tonal range of greens, blues and greys, whites, ochres, and browns. Artistic talent may have been patchy in colonial times, but professional (botanical or landscape) artists rarely struggled to depict these new forms, for all their Romantic influences. There are few images of gum trees finer – or indeed more popular – than the mid to late nineteenth-century works of Louis Buvelot, Eugene von Guérard, or H.J. Johnstone. Some people clearly got their eye in faster than others.

Eugene von Guerard Mount William 1857Mount William from Mount Dryden by Eugene von Guérard, 1867 (Art Gallery of Western Australia)

The passion for acclimatising European plants and animals in Australia is often explained by some homesick nostalgia or lack of aesthetic appreciation for native plants. But acclimatisation was much more than just homesickness and certainly much more than aesthetics. Acclimatisation was not about superior European plants, or some deficit in the appearance of the indigenous landscape. It was driven by pragmatism and economic good sense. Europeans scoured the globe for new resources to exploit, particularly plants. When they found them they brought them home and cultivated them, and in return they often left ‘useful’ plants and animals of their own for the benefit of native populations. Progress was a universal goal – everywhere could be improved. And the introduction of new trees, in particular, not only provided a valuable resource, but also was thought to improve the climate, to moderate temperature, and to increase rainfall.

Trees were seen as a cure for all climatic ills. Terraforming new lands was a step on the path for continual human progress, and plant explorers like Ferdinand von Mueller travelled the world in search of the strongest and the best, in order to share their bounty with everyone else. An ardent acclimatiser – introducing alien plants to Australia and Australian plants to the world – von Mueller had a particular passion for eucalypts. ‘Baron Blue Gum’, as he was also known, studied them, classified them, described them, grew them, popularised them, and distributed them. His writings were republished around the world, and he kept up a prodigious correspondence from overseas, all too often replying with a precious packet of tiny seeds for further dissemination.

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As the popularity of the eucalypts steadily spread around the world, their distribution at home relentlessly declined. Just under a third of Australia was forested prior to European settlement, and these forests often coincided with areas suited to agriculture and settlement. The first task of the First Fleet was land clearance, an automatic European model of land occupation and ownership that has dominated our concepts of property rights and ‘improvement’ ever since. Our pioneer story begins with clearing land and taming wilderness: cultivating, civilising.

But Australian forests did not simply acquiesce to this invasion of their territory, any more than did the indigenous Australians. They resisted, quite literally, with every fibre of their being. Unlike the soft pliable timbers of Europe – the oak, spruce, fir, and larch – eucalypts are hardwoods. Seriously hard woods. They blunted the axes, snapped the saws, and chipped the chisels of the Englishmen who did battle with them. A softwood might be felled by one man in an hour; a hardwood might take four men a whole day. Those trees were so vast, steps had to be cut into them to get high enough up the trunk to cut them. The resulting massive stumps stayed wedded to the hard-baked Australian soils, resisting any attempt to burn or chop them out. The forests were cleared, but at great cost. The fallen giants resolutely resprouted in the next season from their great stumps with all the joyful enthusiasm of a new sapling. Where back-breaking sweat and tears had finally converted the forest into arable land, the paddocks would fill with a million tiny seedlings rising with astonishing haste to replace their fallen forebears. Turn your back for just a season or two, and the forest reappeared.

But even as Phillip and his First Fleet were complaining about the recalcitrant nature of Australian hardwoods, the technology for taming them was already being developed. Australian timber could not be subdued by hand. The development of a eucalypt timber industry depended on mechanisation. By 1826, circular saws made their way onto the market in Australia, and even the toughest of hardwoods proved valuable grist for the timber mills.

The south-eastern forests were initially the hardest hit. The open woodlands, the forested plains, the softer, more amenable rainforest timbers were cleared first. Attention turned later to Western Australia and Queensland. There were few voices to speak on behalf of the ancient trees that were being harvested, sometimes for their timber, sometimes for fuel, often just for getting in the way. Early foresters were among the first to speak up for this wasted resource, this loss of future wealth, this failure to protect and value an important commodity. Granted small patches of forest to protect and tend in denuded landscapes, foresters struggled against illegal logging, grazing, burning, and coppicing. Short-term needs outweighed the almost unforeseeable long-term vision needed in forestry.

‘Daunting and inspiring, these are not trees to be hugged’

Over time, though, attitudes started to shift. Some native forests were protected, rarely for their own value, sometimes for their environmental services – water purification or erosion control or recreation – mostly for later harvesting. But the level of protection was low. Australia’s highest rates of land clearance occurred not during early colonisation, but during the last half of the twentieth century. The range of the eucalypt forests continues to retract. We have now lost almost forty per cent of our original forest coverage, in a land with the least forested area of any inhabited continent. More than half of those surviving have already been logged, the majority degraded or modified by human intervention.

Still, the plantations kept growing. While the rest of the world was busy growing our gum trees, we were busy planting their pine trees. In the 1960s there were about 200,000 hectares of plantations in Australia, mostly Monterey Pine (Pinus radiata). Eucalyptus timber may well have been one of the first commercial exports from Australia, but demand outstripped supply. We have long been a net timber importer. After the shortages of the war years, self-sufficiency in agricultural production became the government catchcry. A national policy to increase our plantation estate saw massive increases in pine plantations, often grown on land cleared of native forests.

It is not that we didn’t appreciate the value of gum trees as a plantation timber. The 1950s and 1960s saw the mass export of gum tree ‘technology’ to the world. Australian forestry experts enthusiastically encouraged other countries to grow gum trees, particularly the Southern Blue Gum. Italy, France, India, Brazil, and Uruguay were keen participants in a global effort to promote and study the application of eucalypts in countries desperately in need of a tough, fast source of fuel or timber, or environmental remediation.

Maybe it is just a matter of not appreciating what is in your own backyard. We seem to have a peculiar unwillingness to domesticate our local fauna and flora. Maybe for us, gum trees are natives – wild things. They belong in the forest, not on the farm.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that Australia finally caught up with the rest of the world. Government subsidies, tax breaks, forecast guaranteed returns, all sparked a sudden interest in planting Blue Gums in particular. Over the course of the 1990s, our plantation forests had doubled, from one to two million hectares. And a quarter of that is Southern Blue Gum.

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At the local farm forest arboretum, the trees line up in neat little squares of six by six, side by side with labels, allowing direct comparison of their growth habits and attitudes. The Blue Gums look thin and spindly, stripped to their waist of lower foliage, preparing their future for long knot-free timbers. No undergrowth softens the upright lines, no gentle ferns nestle at their feet. This is a place for trees alone. Sheep keep the grasses trimmed, the fine-grained native grasses battling for turf with invasive winter grass and capeweed in the muddy patches stirred up by hard hooves.

There are pine trees in the next allotment. Nothing can match their serried ranks. They align with millimetre precision, even their foliage seems to have been trimmed and matched. The gums defy this uniformity, sloughing their bark in irregular strips to reveal individualised mottling. Tufts of blue-grey foliage sprout irrepressible from their cleaned trunks. Compared to the pines they are slightly shabby, almost wilfully defiant of their trimming – like a line of slouched private school boys in fractionally dishevelled uniforms barely neat enough to avoid a detention. Left to their own devices, the pines would keep their neat serried rows to the death. Left to their own devices, the gums will fill the gaps between their trunks with dropped branches and new seedlings rising in their midst, lose their footing, and tip sideways into one another, relentlessly reshooting from the diagonal, reshaping, reforming, and releasing themselves into their untrammelled, untamed state of always being old, yet always new.

On the way home from the plantation, we walk among some forest giants – these are not so much trees as plant-mountains. Their trunks break the wandering vista across the forest floor like cliffs abruptly jutting skyward, their roots swelling like small hills beneath the ground. Roads wind around them. Multiple pairs of stretched arms fail to encompass their girth. Looking up, it is impossible to gain any sense of their true height. Daunting and inspiring, these are not trees to be hugged.

The forest opens suddenly to a small clearing, home to a cluster of houses and buildings originally built to serve a thriving timber mill, now just another country town struggling to survive on unemployment benefits and a handful of passing tourists on their way somewhere else. Walls of timber rise up on either side of the insubstantial houses. Fibro, weatherboard, brick – flimsy and transient beneath the shadow of the encroaching trees. Leave them for a year or two and the weight of damp and humus would buckle their eaves; creepers and shrubs would push between the panelling, lifting, breaking, rotting, reclaiming. Some of the houses look halfway there already.

It is hard to appreciate the life span of a tree. They operate on a different time scale from us, cross-generational. Trees planted in one lifetime might only reach a useable size by someone else’s. An old tree, shading the streetscape of the inner suburbs, might have been a meeting place for local tribes or sheltered the tents of early settlers; it might have witnessed the disappearance of its shadowy companions, replaced with hard-edged timber squares; it might have felt the ground shift from mulch-covered leaf litter to an unbroken crust of concrete and asphalt.

My mother planted a tree in the garden of a rented fibro house we lived in when I was a baby. The yard was bare, half-heartedly covered in a yellowed prickly grass that scratched through clothes and proved shelter only for highways of marauding ants. A low cyclone mesh fence was the only demarcation between the yard and the unsurfaced footpath beyond. In a dusty scrape between two stakes, my mother carefully tended the small sapling, tipping my bathwater in the shallow bowl around its roots. As a teenager, the tree already overpowered the yard in which it grew, out of proportion for the small house behind it. ‘It’s got its roots into the drains,’ my grandfather commented dourly.

Today, the house, fence, and neighbourhood look exactly the same – same paint, same grass – but the yard is dominated by the elegant twenty-metre Blue Gum, long-limbed and flushed with new growth, casting delicate shade across the house and onto the neighbour’s yard. As I approach middle age, the tree I have shared my lifespan with still looks young, adolescent even. Its canopy is vigorous, but not yet at full stretch. With luck it will see out my mother, her children and grandchildren.

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The Southern Blue Gum is not widely used today for building purposes in Australia. The local timber merchant tells me it is useless. It splits and warps – only good for firewood. The plantations could never live up to the promise of their ancestors, grown over decades, centuries, in the forests of Tasmania and Victoria. Plantation timber just isn’t the same. Maybe we don’t have the patience to wait for it to mature. Maybe we harvest it too soon, before it has achieved those qualities that made it so legendary. Maybe we give it too much water, make life too easy for it, and it grows too fast and soft. Maybe we just don’t value what we’ve got. Plantation Blue Gum is still prized for building overseas, even for boat-building. We seem to have a habit of selling our own resources cheap only to have to import someone else’s.

The dominant use for plantation Blue Gum in Australia is paper. Hardwoods have a short fibre that provides a good surface for high quality paper products. If you are reading this in print, chances are you are looking at the end product of a Blue Gum tree. Most Australian paper comes from plantation sources. It seems a better option than pulping our few remaining native forests – or those of our neighbours.

The financial returns of farm forestry, so favoured in the 1990s, have faded with time. Small plantations stand, untended and unmaintained, their owners unsure if there will even be a market for them when they are ready to harvest. Neighbours and bushland managers look on askance, certain the trees have lowered the water table causing dieback in nearby native vegetation – declaring the Southern Blue Gum a weed. Other investors have tired of waiting, returning the land back to agricultural crops whose investment is less permanent and whose returns are more immediate.

‘We have now lost almost forty per cent of our original forest coverage, in a land with the least forested area of any inhabited continent’

In California, the naturalisation of eucalypts threatens the remnant native vegetation of the area. They don’t belong. They don’t make good habitat for native species. Their wood is too hard for the woodpeckers to peck, and they don’t rot and form cavities for local wildlife. Ironically, in their home countries eucalypts are infamous for their propensity to rot, form hollows, and drop branches. Elsewhere, in the absence of their native fungi and termites, the ‘widow-makers’ are condemned for their very resilience.

Plantations, in particular, are often bad for wildlife. Ecosystems rarely function as natural monocultures, and the complaint is often made that local animals can’t use these foreign plantations. We make the same claim for pine trees in Australia, even though the yellow-tailed black cockatoos have learnt to make good use of the tasty pine nuts, shrieking with delight as they shred the cones and branches in their hefty beaks. Navarro de Andrade, an ardent Brazilian promoter of eucalypts, disputed the claim that his gum tree forests were devoid of local animals. He created a museum full of specimens he had shot exclusively in the plantations, as proof.

The alien eucalypts can inspire a passionate hatred. Once renowned travel writer, Norman Douglas wrote:

Detesting as I do the whole tribe of gum trees, I never lose an opportunity of saying exactly what I think about this particularly odious representative of the brood, this eyesore, this grey-haired scarecrow, this reptile of a growth with which a pack of misguided enthusiasts has disfigured the whole Mediterranean basin. … No plant on earth rustles in such a horribly metallic fashion when the wind blows through the everlasting withered branches; the noise chills one to the marrow; it is like the sibilant chatterings of ghosts.

But even the most ardent detractor falls victim to their misplaced charms, concluding:

their foliage is here thickly tufted, it glows like burnished gold in the sunshine, like enamelled scales of green and gold. These eucalypti are unique in Italy. Gazing upon them my heart softened, and I almost forgave them their manifold iniquities, their diabolical thirst, their demoralizing aspect, precocious senility and vice, their peeling bark suggestive of unmentionable skin diseases, and that system of radication which is nothing but a scandal on this side of the globe.

All their good points are now bad. Their rapid growth and ease of germination make them a weed, outcompeting slower growing natives. Their resistance to rot and herbivores makes them toxic to native animals. Their legendary ability to drain swamps makes them water-guzzling thieves. Their adaptations to fire leave them accused of environmental arson. Even the grandest green achievements of biotech forestry – of genetically modified super-eucs capable of growing a sustainable source of fuel to replace fossil fuels for power generation – seems to others just an ever-expanding environmental nightmare.

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Our eucalypts have transcended continental boundaries to become one of the most widely planted trees in the world – simultaneously hailed as saviours of dryland forestry and salinity remediation and censured as environmental weeds and fire-prone water-guzzlers.

‘We seem to have a habit of selling our own resources cheap only to have to import someone else’s’

I want to be proud of these resilient pioneers, conquering new lands, drying the swamps, reclaiming the deserts, resisting erosion, fuelling industries, inspiring artists, comforting the sick, saving the planet: shading, sheltering, cooling, moderating the extremes of harsh environments. But they are weeds, invaders, colonisers: disruptions to Nature’s order. Weeds – a great plant growing too well in the wrong place. The line between weed and wonder plant is fine indeed. Right and wrong depends on your point of view.

We feel we should appreciate our native trees just for themselves – for their beauty, for their belongingness in the landscape, for their cohesion in an intact ecosystem – evidence of environmental good health. But we need them for so much more. They protect us from sun and wind, shelter our crops and livestock, frame our views, fuel our fires, build our homes and bind us in print. The value of these trees – of Southern Blue Gums, of eucalypts, of all trees – is always more than aesthetic or environmental. We can value them for themselves and their own ecological function, but they are always value-added – timber as well as trees.

And just how Australian are these Californian, Canton, Italian, Ethiopian Blue Gums anyway? Magically built from molecules of atmosphere and water, powered by sunlight requiring only minute trace elements to construct themselves from seemingly nothing. They are creatures of their own creation, of whatever place they find themselves, whatever soil they come to rest in, as much a part of their new world as their old. Products of both evolution and environment. They are not the same in these new countries as they were in the old. Not the same shape, form, or character. They have taken a different road, to become something of themselves, a path they will take with or without our intervention. Native or naturalised, endemic or invasive, they occupy an ambivalent space in our ecologies – a future space that they will define for themselves.

If only we could return to a pre-colonial ecology, free from the weeds, predators, and pests that have done so much damage to our environment. If only we could retract our own invaders back to their homeland. But that perfect world has never really existed, and we can only go forwards into a future we cannot predict, of unknown climatic variables, where northern pine trees populate southern forests, and Southern Blue Gums grow on every habitable continent on Earth. Sometimes we can fix, restore, protect, make amends. Sometimes we just have to make the best of what we have in front of us.

It is tempting to see ourselves reflected in the stories of the eucalypts – their diversity, resilience, idiosyncrasy, unwillingness to conform. We always like to put ourselves in the centre of the story. But in the end, the tree is a tree. Lungs of the earth, filter for our filth, primary producer, carbon sink, food and shelter, structural architect for countless biodiversity. No matter where it grows, no matter whether a prized specimen, valued crop, invasive weed, or indigenous survivor – a tree has value simply for being a tree. And sometimes, most times, any tree, even the wrong tree, is far better for the world than no tree at all.  

The ABR Fellowships, funded by private patrons and philanthropic foundations, are intended to generate fine, incisive writing. Each Fellowship is worth $5,000. This is the first ABR Dahl Trust Fellowship we have offered. We gratefully acknowledge the generous support of the Bjarne K. Dahl Trust.

Published in November 2014, no. 366

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