While analyzing a tree inventory for one of our park projects, I became interested in the complicated relationship between the eucalyptus tree and the Southern California landscape. Our arborist reported, “We are typically critical of the use of shamel ash and eucalyptus due to their propensity for branch breakage, but believe these to be excellent choices for this particular park setting. Furthermore, these trees have not been “topped,” a non-industry standard pruning practice that can lead to branch failures.” The fate of about 50 trees just on this particular site is all wrapped up in chance, faith, understanding, and maintenance, perhaps not unlike any long term relationship.
How did the Southern California landscape and this alien tree meet up to begin with? Nineteenth century Californians saw the grassland hills with occasional oak and sycamore groves to be largely barren. The aesthetics of the 1870s intertwined with a demand for timber, enabling the fast growing eucalyptus – a tree that prior to the 1850s could not be found in the state – to be planted in mass. A romance was born.
“Planters believed variously that the exotic trees would provide fuel, improve the weather, boost farm productivity, defeat malaria, preserve watersheds, and thwart a looming timber famine. First and foremost, settlers propagated them to domesticate and beautify the land, to give it more greenery.” – Trees in Paradise, Jared Farmer
In 1924 it was estimated that California contained 40,000 to 50,000 acres of solid eucalyptus. Fast forward to the 1980s and there were about 198,000 acres of blue gum eucalyptus growing in California according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. In 1927, the Los Angeles Times declared that eucalyptus “seems more essentially California than many a native plant; so completely has it adopted California, and so entirely has California adopted it, that without its sheltering beneficence our groves and vineyards would be like Home without a Mother.’”
It seemed that eucalyptus had graduated in the hearts of Californians from a youthful crush to the unwavering affection of a mother.
Tobacco heir Abbot Kinney’s feverish love for the tree translated into a landscape-altering affair. Known today as the developer of Venice, Kinney served as state forester from 1886 to 1888. During this time he promoted eucalyptus and even distributed free seeds across the region. Eucalyptus at the time was valued for its use as an ornamental, a windbreak, for its oils with antiseptic and anti-malarial properties, and was seen as the answer to the shortage of Appalachian hardwood in the early 1900’s. Myths of 500-foot trees were born and people dreamed of the profits one could glean from such a tree. In 1913 a U.S. Department of Agriculture report confirmed that eucalyptus wood was unsuitable for most timber uses once dried. Trouble in paradise.
Regardless, up until the 1960’s love for the eucalyptus could still be found in abundance. Harold Gilliam, a nature writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote that “’The eucalyptus seems an indispensable element of this State’s landscapes, as indigenously Californian as the redwoods, the poppy fields, the long white coastal beaches, the gleaming granite of the High Sierra,’”.
In the early 1970’s growing obsessions with “native” plants shifted plant affinities, and managers of public land began to adopt policies requiring the removal of non-native species. In 1982, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), managed by the National Park Service, took on a policy of destroying all blue gum eucalyptus on 600 acres of park property in Marin County. This announcement poetically arrived on Arbor Day in 1986. Over 350 petitions, many from county supervisors, opposed the plans. The State Parks Department adopted the same policy to remove all blue gum eucalyptus from State parks around the same time.
The State Parks Department did a complete Environmental Impact Report in response to public demands. Soon hundreds of acres of eucalyptus were eradicated. In 1991 a fire in the Berkeley-Oakland hills damaged the reputation of the eucalyptus further, and native plant enthusiasts jumped at the opportunity to continue the removal of the tree. A FEMA technical report states that homes destroyed by the fire were the biggest fuel source, not the eucalyptus.
Jared Farmer in his book Trees of Paradise notes that insect infestations in eucalyptus might be the result of conspiracy. Allegedly, insect predators of eucalyptus might have been imported from Australia by native plant advocates for the purpose of killing the trees. Many of the claims put forth by native plant enthusiast are simply up for debate. Some native animals flourish in eucalyptus forests. Some Monarch butterflies use eucalyptus trees as overwintering sites, slender salamanders live in eucalyptus forest floors, and both native and imported bees harvest the trees’ nectar.
Eucalyptus isn’t entirely innocent though. The trees can radically alter a landscape’s natural fire cycles. The trees’ shredded bark and oily dead leaves can give fuel to wildfires, and the tree re-sprouts in abundance after a fire. This past weekend a fallen eucalyptus tree killed one and injured five people at a wedding in Whittier’s Penn Park.
In 2011 a 29-year old woman was killed by a fallen eucalyptus tree which fell on the victim’s vehicle. Soon after contractors removed about 100 eucalyptus trees from the surrounding site. The tree that fell from the median near 17th Street in Costa Mesa might have compromised others in its row. Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff said “It’s a heartbreaking decision”. Residents found the decision to remove the trees without a public forum as “disgusting”, although officials did say they would reach out to decide a suitable species to replace the trees. After the accident an article in Audubon Magazine called eucalyptus “an incendiary tree”, likening the species to an arsonist.
The blue gum eucalyptus has a long history in Southern California, but if we want the relationship to last, and we may not, we need to recognize what the tree does provide, and how maturing trees will need to be maintained in order to create healthy and safe landscapes.