TIRADE #238: EUCALYPTUS 1992
Nearly a year ago we had the coldest winter in recorded history. For five days last December it was bitterly coldwater pipes broke, ponds froze over, cars wouldn’t start. I recall looking out my window and noticing that the leaves of all the Eucalyptus trees were a different color; they were severely burned by the cold. I rejoiced and leapt about the room singing… “Ding, dong the Eukes are dead, the wicked Eukes, the wicked Eukes…ding, dong the wicked Eukes are dead.”
I am prejudiced; I hate blue gum eucalyptus trees. There is nothing more depressing to me that a sprawling grove of those monstrous giants. I see them for what they are — gigantic, obnoxious, invading weeds. They create ecological deserts wherever they grow. The leaves are full of oils and acids that poison the soil so that nothing can thrive under the trees except other eukes or other invasive weeds. Few insects can feed on the pungent leaves so there are few birds that frequent the branches. In a native oak woodland songbirds prosper and the air is alive with their sounds but in a eucalyptus forest it’s depressingly quiet, only the sounds of rustling leaves, creaking branches and dripping fog. No life. I really do get melancholy in one of those forests.
In Australia and Tasmania where blue gums are native they are known as widow-makers because of the propensity for large branches to fall without warning. Indeed several years ago a falling branch killed a woman in Larkspur. Even though the tree itself is resistant to fire the accumulated litter under eucalyptus burns very hot. Fire departments also hate eukes.
To be fair there are a few (very few) redeeming features of the trees. Many of the monarch butterfly roosting sites in central California are in eucalyptus groves. Hummingbirds like the flowers and honeybees make good eucalyptus honey. The leaves make pleasant smelling but ineffective flea collars. They make great windbreaks and are occasionally used as nesting sites by red-tail hawks, great horned owls and turkey vultures. I generally have the same opinion about eucalyptus trees as I do attorneys —- there are entirely too many in California and they tend to crap up the environment, however there are a few scattered good ones.
It is now abundantly clear that my rejoicing about the fate of our eucalyptus weeds was premature. Except for some of the young trees they all survived the winter and are now doing fine. Many of the state and national parks have a mandate to try to restore native California vegetation. This is virtually an impossible task but a worthy one. Right now on Angel Island non-native Monterey pines and eucalyptus trees are being removed; they will be replaced with natives — oaks, bays and toyons. But before this project could get underway a group popped up called P.O.E.T, Preserve Our Eucalyptus Trees. They lobbied against the removal of the eucalyptus. These folks obviously came from the Joyce Kilmer school of thought…”I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” They believe that all trees are good. I appreciate that a field full of stumps is aesthetically displeasing and those eucalyptus trees did go to a lot of trouble to grow, but ultimately the environment is better served with a healthy native oak woodland than a desert of eucalyptus trees.
Recently the state has begun to remove some of the exotic trees at the Marconi Conference Center on the shores of Tomales Bay and well-meaning people are up in arms about it. Identify historic or important trees and remove the rest. We don’t need any more eucalyptus in this state. In 1895 a double row of 1000 eucalyptus trees was planted in Mendocino County; these trees and their descendants now cover 93 acres!
Years ago I attended a lecture given by a member of the Native Plant Society of Australia. The woman was showing wonderful views of their magnificent eucalyptus forests. In the final slide she showed members of her group hacking and pulling up Monterey pines. These trees, widely planted as a timber crop in the southern hemisphere, were invading their forests and displacing the native eucalyptus trees. Another good tree but in the wrong place.