My mixed feelings about the Eucalypt
A few days ago some Canberra citizens in newly planned suburbs asked the ACT Government not to plant eucalypts as street trees. My sympathies were entirely with them. I don’t dislike the trees at all, but I think they have no place in streets or backyards. In a bushfire the oil in their leaves becomes volatile, catches fire easily, and a strong wind behind the flames can send fire travelling at frightening speed. In the great Canberra bushfire of 2003 hundreds of houses were lost because of this tendency. More, eucalypts are territorial, and a grown tree soon has little understory, let alone lawn. Canberra gardeners know all this to their cost.
Canberra is a dryish place year round, but after Perth it has the highest number of sunny days of the capital cities. In summer we need shade, and in winter we need sun. The eucalypt provides neither. Worse, it has a tendency to drop branches, apparently good, live branches, without any warning at all. Cars and people can be wrecked thereby. Why do we go on planting them in our cities? Something happened. Burley Griffin tried out all sorts of trees and shrubs, found what he thought would work in this strange bare environment for the capital city, and set up a nursery to grow them. This was the early 1920s. Most of the trees were from the northern hemisphere. New arrivals were offered free trees and shrubs for their plots, and Canberra grew and flourished.
You can see the virtues today: there are drives around the city that people take in Autumn just to admire the colour. Likewise in Spring. But these are the older suburbs, and in parts of them there is a great contrast between the old prewar and postwar sections. The prewar are lush and green, the leaves having provided mulch for the grass or shrubs beneath; the postwar are bare, the eucalypts having prevented any growth on the nature strips.
Some time in the 1970s there came a change in sentiment. The new view was to embrace native genera. Away with those weak and distant northern hemisphere trees and shrubs! Welcome the eucalypt, the grevillea, the wattle and the rest! The natives were cheaper, too, and needed less looking after in the early years. And Australia was growing quickly, and searching for a new identity that would include ‘New Australians’ as well as those earlier settlers, though not quite yet the earliest settlers of all. Painters followed suit, as did writers: Australia was special, different, and the trees showed it.
It took some time before the costs of the eucalypt became apparent. We had several on the block of our first shack at the South Coast, all down the side of our house and a metre or so from our neighbours as well as ourselves. The developer of the site had plainly just cut out what had to be cut out in order to build houses. First one of our trees (I think they were all on our block) blew over in a gale and smashed the neighbours’ portico. We got rid of that one. Then in a later gale, from the other direction, another of our trees blew over onto our house, fortunately without any damage, prevented by the concrete path down the side, which caused the tree to gently rest on the roof.
Ah, but bushwalking in the eucalypt forests of New South Wales, a bit in Victoria and Tasmania — that’s a different thing altogether. The smell of the bush, the filtered light, the feeling of being at one with nature — all that has been part of my life, and a most enjoyable part, too. I think it started in the army, but I never lost it. Once the kids were big enough they would go on these walks, and they too enjoyed them. I did some big ones around the Budawang and Morton national parks, and another on Barrington Tops. My son and I camped at the Big Hole, which provided us with the coldest water I have ever swum in, finding a grassy spot for the tents. A couple of weeks later a woman and her son parked their camper van under a big tree at the same spot, and were killed when a large branch crushed the van and the people. You have to be careful even when bushwalking.
The eucalypt has colonised Australia, and if you add in the Angophoras there are about 800 different versions. I used to love the change in colour from the pink, blue and grey palette of the tablelands eucalypts to the much greener trees on the coastal range. It was such a marked contrast, and told you a lot about rainfall and the environment. Eucalypts have been exported all over the world, and I noticed them first in California, originally to provide hardwood sleepers for the Californian railroad system. I’ve seen them in Libya, in China, and even in France. They have great assets where the land is dry, and they can also lower water tables. Of course they produce a medicinal oil as well as gum and resin and excellent hardwood.
As I understand it, just about everything that grew in Southern Australia was wiped out in one or other of the ice ages, through cold and aridity. The successful survivor was the eucalypt, whose seeds were protected (hence the name, from the Greek: eu— well, and kaluptos— covered), and opened with heat and fire, the ash providing fuel for the new plants. Commercially they are used in paper-making, and of course, in our country, as hardwood. Alas, we have no useful, widespread native softwood, and grow Monterey pines to provide that resource.
Back to the beginning of my mixed feelings. I arrived at the University of Canberra on the second day of January 1991. The campus was attractive, but I could not help noticing that the off-white colour of the teaching buildings was blinding, and that all the trees were eucalypts, which offered little shade. It was explained to me that the founders had decided on four design rules to guide architects and later university councils. Two of these rules were the off-white colour, and the entirely native vegetation. The university was created as the Commonwealth’s only CAE in the 1960s, when the growing nationalism saw native vegetation as essential. I wondered whether I could change that design rule, and quickly gave up. I had more important things to do in founding a new university.
But I persist with the view that the eucalypt and the human being are not ideal mates, especially in urban settings. I sympathise with the people who want real shade in summer and real sunlight in winter. They won’t get them from the eucalypt, whose nickname in the logging industry in the 19thcentury was ‘the widow-maker’. Yes, they are the world’s largest flowering shrub, and some of their flowers are delightful. But I wouldn’t grow one in my backyard. They are intended for the forest, and even there they provide hazards in bushfires, which we simply don’t deal with properly.