My mixed feelings about the Eucalyptus

By July 17, 2019Other

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.

Join the discussion 15 Comments

  • spangled drongo says:

    Thanks Don, a very pertinent subject and problem.

    Where I live at some altitude in S E Queensland, rainforest trees grow quite happily and the temperature range here is similar to say Melbourne. I was under the impression that the south east of Australia was reasonably covered with rainforest in the early days of Aboriginal occupation but because, being naked, they couldn’t live in rainforest because of ticks, leeches etc., they eradicated it by burning thus letting eucalypts take over which made it much easier to hunt with spears and boomerangs and also attracted more kangaroos.

    The desire for aboriginals to burn rainforest was legendary as many early settlers and explorers pointed out.

    Just as they often pointed out and deplored the scrub tick in the early days which probably doesn’t exist there any more.

    I would have thought that many rainforest trees from this area, which are used as street trees in nearby cities and towns and seem to grow in a wide range of temperatures and conditions, would grow in Canberra.

    One native tree from this area, the Bunya Pine, seems to succeed over a broad range of the country.

    I certainly try to reproduce the original rainforest growth and eliminate the eucalypts here to prevent bushfires.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Don, I can understand your love of those northern hemisphere trees that shed their leaves in winter and provide dense shade in summer in an area like Canberra which does get pretty cold in winter and warm in summer.

    I plant them here too but they are not as bushfire suppressant as native rainforest trees.

    Do you have many native rainforest trees growing around Canberra?

  • Hasbeen says:

    I bought a 20 acre turf farm for the kids horses, not a tree to be seen, except on the river bank. I planted a couple of hundred trees, but few have done well.

    Here in SE Queensland we don’t really need the deciduous trees to let the sun in in winter, but do need the shade. There are the strangler fig, & the Morton bay fig, which are brilliant & huge shade trees, although not for a suburban block perhaps. Add in the brilliant Silky oak, not so much for shade, but the brilliant spire of gold in in flower in spring is a sight not to be easily forgotten.

    The silky oak was a favoured furniture timber in the early days, & was cut almost out. I planted 3 in the house paddock 27 years ago, & they have done well. With the help of the birds I now have a dozen around the paddock old enough to flower, & another 50 saplings.

    Jacarandas & Poinciana exotics need a lot of help help to establish, but their shade is welcome, & their colour mixed with the silky oaks is really brilliant.

    In this day I can see no reason not to select the best & most desirable, regardless of origan, & eliminate the dangerous.

    • dlb says:

      In SEQ the jacaranda and silky oaks flower at exactly the same time (October) and often the native flame trees as well. I think that these trees are almost devoid of leaves when they flower, so you can have quite an amazing blaze of purple, gold and red if they are planted together.

      I have noticed jacarandas self seeding in native bush around Brisbane, but not so the well behaved Poinciana. The Poinciana is a great tree, deciduous in Brisbane’s winters and producing a large umbrella of shade in summer when it is needed, and of course the brilliant red flowers in December. The seeds are quite heavy and do not travel far from the parent tree, which may be part of the reason it is endangered in its native Madagascar.

      I collected some Poinciana seeds 50 years ago as a kid and recently planted them out getting a strike rate around 50%. I have seen Poincianas planted in other tropical countries, but for some reason they lack the spreading umbrella which the trees around Brisbane have.

  • dlb says:

    Ahh! the law of unintended consequences. I grew up in Brisbane in the 1960s when neither a eucalypt or native plant was to be seen in suburban gardens. About the only tree most people had in their backyard was a mango tree. But what we did have was bird diversity, and plenty of small ones such as silver eyes, willy wagtails and the ubiquitous sparrow. But sadly all these small birds have disappeared, the reason being the native noisy minor. This aggressive bird is at home with scattered eucalypts and nectar rich plants such as grevilleas, which are now common in our cities. Go to a country town with no noisy miners and you see the small birds including sparrows.

    The following link is to a light weight ABC article about the disappearances of sparrows from Brisbane, the “expert” in the article is blaming stress. Stress my a***! Sparrows just love the busy urban environment where food scraps abound, unfortunately large natives such as the crow and the bin chicken (ibis) are taking over the scavenger role.

    Another minus for eucalypts is that with their straight trunks they are downright dangerous for kids to climb on. The gums are like slippery flag poles, and the stringy-barks give you rashes. I have fond memories of many hours spent in mango and loquat trees which are quite kid friendly.

    • spangled drongo says:

      The bloke who mentioned architecture got it right, dlb.

      Except he was crediting the wrong part.

      It’s not the lack of eaves or the lack of iron roofs, it’s the fact that builders now use very effective sparrow and vermin proofing in all their roofing systems.

      I built a quick and rough cottage for my mother-in-law not so long back and didn’t do too good a job on roofing-proofing and in an area that had never had sparrows, we got ’em quick. Living in the roof.

      I like sparrows so I didn’t mind a bit. But they are natural roof dwellers.

      Getting back to eucalypts, the Sydney Blue Gums grow here like crazy and since we stopped farming here 25-30 years ago they have done so well that you can have a Jackson Pollock experience every day very cheap.

      You can’t see the forest for the blue poles.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Don, just thinking about a suitable, deciduous native street tree for Canberra and I wonder if the Australian Red Cedar [Toona ciliata australis] would work there?

    They originally grew almost as far south as Canberra but nearer the coast. They have a beautiful tessellated bark that attracts epiphytes which adds to their attraction.

    They can cope with frosts and provided the soil doesn’t dry out to a fair depth too much, while they mightn’t grow as big as in the rainforest [that’s not what you want anyway] they would probably be quite functional.

    I have grown the White Cedar in very dry country around Longreach quite successfully.

    This bloke grows them in southern Victoria:

    • I’ve been trialing rainforest trees on my property in North East Victoria. While the trees and shrubs grow slowly they don’t require supplementary watering. One of the best places to see cultivated rainforest trees is in the Melbourne Botanic Gardens where they’ve been established for 150 years, but the Canberra environment is appreciably harsher and the same species are stunted.

      • spangled drongo says:

        Yes, that’s what I would have thought, too, MB. Many councils go to no end of trouble to find and/or develop small rainforest trees for street trees.

        If they survived well, to have small, AWA famous Australian, deciduous native trees would be the best of all situations for Canberra.

    • dlb says:

      I have seen white cedars planted quite successfully in Alice Springs. In fact there was a caravan park in the city that was called “winter sun” because of these deciduous trees. Towns in the western Darling Downs of Qld are now planting the rainforest tree tulip wood (Harpullia pendulla), this surprised me, apparently they must be able to tolerate dryer conditions.

      Further afield I have seen brush box (Lophostemon) as a street tree in Hong Kong and lilly-pillies in southern California. I even saw a bunya pine in the Vatican gardens. I wonder if this had something to do with the Australian Catholic Priest, geologist, and naturalist Julian Tenison-Woods.

      The beautiful Norfolk Island hibiscus was planted widely as a street tree around Australia and overseas but has somewhat fallen out of favour due to the irritating hairs around its seeds. I think pittosporum from our eastern rainforests was planted as a street tree in Adelaide, but is now a declared weed in S.A.

      Tree of heaven (Ailanthus) originally from China is a handsome tree that thrives in cities. So much so I think it is a declared weed in southern Australia. In southern Europe and USA these trees will sprout from a crack in the pavement.

      • The white Cedars are certainly native to Australia but have a wide distribution elsewhere. I heard somewhere that the ones which are cultivated in Australia and accepted as natives are in fact from Iraq
        There is a winter deciduous beech tree from the highlands of Tasmania. Nothofagus gunnii. it’s never seen in cultivation, the only place I’ve heard of it successfully established is in the Glasnevin Gardens in Dublin and they’re quite proud of it

  • Hasbeen says:

    When I was a kid in Townsville the sparrows were a curse. They nested under the tin roofs, & infested the houses with their lice. Removing the nests was a big job.

    There were specialists who would remove the nests. & bird proof the under tin area with bird wire. I remember dad complaining about the high price of the job, but lifting the tin around the edge of the roof to remove the nests, on the high set Queenslanders in the area, was not a job to tackle without suitable scaffolding.

  • Boambee John says:

    Ah, the Jacarandas. In the 1960s, as a student at the University of Queensland, their dread flowering was the clear sign of exam season. Some sadist planted avenues of them on the road to the St Lucia campus.

  • Choice of plants runs in fashions like everything else. About 30 years ago roads were lined with Melaleuca armillaris, M incana and Eucalyptus spathulata, rarely used now. Spotted gums, the E maculata are charismatic trees once popular with urban councils. They proved to be too large for street trees but suitable for large parks and estate gardens.
    Because our flora is unique compared to the rest of the world it has attracted the kind of nationalistic focus Don describes, but as he observes that uncompromising environment hasn’t always forged good street trees. An extension of the Australian only is the selection of plants endemic to the location. That does lend the practical advantage of plants guaranteed to grow but at the cost of artistic expression because only certain areas are favored with showy natives.
    It is hard to select a street tree that ticks all the boxes. Now they face a challenge from solar panels, but people shouldn’t expect a right to sunlight for those things.

  • Gerry says:

    I noted several references to Gum Trees in California as Petrol or Gas Trees.

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