Albion Monitor /Features

A Blunder from Down Under

by Simone Wilson

It grew faster than almost any other tree in the world

Eucalyptus trees have given Australia the richest source of hardwoods in the world, so it's one of history's ironies that, with 600 species to choose from, timber-hungry Californians chose the Blue Gum, one of the least workable eucalypts -- as their miracle tree.

Miners returning to California from the Australia Gold Rush of 1851 probably brought home seeds of the Tasmanian Blue Gum (eucalyptus globulus) and other eucalypts, reckoning the trees would grow just as well in California's semi-arid soil as it did in the dry Australian climate. By the mid-1850's nurseries were stocking them. R.W. Washburn, owner of Alameda's Shell Mound nursery, was the first nurseryman to offer eucalypts for sale in his one-page 1856 catalogue.

San Francisco nurseryman William C. Walker was the first to list individual eucalypt species for sale; the 1858-59 catalogue of his Golden Gate Nursery at Fourth and Folsom lists several kinds, imported from M. Guilfoyle's Doubleday Exotic Nurseries near Sydney. Another early promoter was Steven Nolan, who operated the Bellevue Nursery on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland from 1860 to about 1877. His 1871 catalog lists 34 varieties for sale, including e tereticornis, the variety favored 40 years later by novelist Jack London.

The trees thrived in their new habitat. Tasmanian Blue Gums grew faster than almost any other tree in the world -- about 20 feet a year. Early plantings were mostly as ornamentals. A row of eucalyptus was planted along Telegraph Avenue in 1862, probably with seedlings from Nolan's nearby nursery, and a grove of Blue Gums was planted on the U.C. Berkeley campus in 1877.

Health claims for eucalyptus ranged from the down-to-earth to the fantastical

In 1871 the fledgling California Academy of Sciences published "On the Economic Value of Certain Australian Forest Trees and Their Cultivation in California," urging mass planting of Australian acacias and fasting-growing Blue Gums as the answer to future wood shortages. Author Robert E.C. Stearns got carried away and claimed Blue Gums grow to 400 feet in Tasmania (about twice the true height). But Stearns had two points right: The Blue Gum is "easily cultivated...and of extremely rapid growth," even in California's parched climate.

Ellwood Cooper published Forest Culture and Eucalyptus Trees in 1876. A retired diplomat with ties to the U.S. consulate in Melbourne, Cooper had planted 50,000 Blue Gums on his Dos Pueblos Ranch near Santa Barbara; he reported a tree that grew from seed to 40 feet in three years. By 1880, the University of California was growing and distributing eucalyptus seedlings, and Californians were planting Blue Gums all over coastal terraces and low-land valleys for windbreaks and firewood.

The Blue Gum became the tree of choice for windbreaks for citrus groves of Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. Up and down the state farmers and householders planted the fast-growing trees along roads and driveways and the edges of fields as windbreaks and as decoration. Highway 101, for instance, is still lined with eucalyptus in many places, including the stretch near San Juan Bautista that Alfred Hitchcock used for atmospheric effect in his thriller Vertigo.

By the 1870's, Californians had adopted the eucalyptus -- especially the Blue Gum -- as a miracle tree with the ability to prevent fires and cure what ails you. Health claims for eucalyptus ranged from the down-to-earth (that eucalyptus fumes eased bronchial problems) to the fantastical (that eucalyptus trees planted around a homestead would prevent cholera and absorb malarial poisons). Even more bizarre, members of the Academy of Science fellows touted eucalyptus wood as fireproof, a claim clearly at odds with its reputation as good cordwood. Dr. Albert Kellogg told fellow academy members in1877 that eucalyptus roofs in Australia were impervious to fire. The truth was just the opposite: The resinous eucalyptus is among the most flammable trees in the world.

The Blue Gum lumber boom and bust

Then in 1904, a rumor spread that east coast lumber resources would be depleted by 1920. Californians reckoned the Panama Canal would be open within a decade, providing sea lanes to the east coast and overseas market for California lumber.

Fifty nurseries in California began growing eucalyptus seedlings and advertising eucalyptus as a sure way to make a fortune in building materials. Veteran farmers ripped up regular crops and planted eucalyptus seedlings. Author Jack London planted over 60,000 trees on his ranch in Sonoma's County's Valley of the Moon and encouraged friends and readers to do the same. Land speculators planted vast eucaluptus groves and sold land at the then whopping price of $250 an acre.

The Santa Fe Railroad, facing a shortage of railroad ties, bought the 8,000-acre Rancho San Diguelito (now Rancho Santa Fe) and planted it in Blue Gums -- a miscalculation, because the southern California tract got even less rainfall than Tasmania, and the trees languished.

Even worse, Californians finally realized hardwood from Blue Gums was not good for lumber. The wood split so badly railroad crews complained there wasn't enough solid wood between the cracks to hold a spike. (The railroad recouped its losses in the 1920's, selling some acres for citrus and avocado groves and others for trendy hilltop estates shaded by vigorous, fast-growing Blue Gums.) When Californians realized the miracle tree wasn't what it was cracked up to be, eucs as a whole fell into disfavor, although some eucalypt species do produce decent lumber.

Blue Gums did make a good windbreaks, protecting coastal fields and citrus orchards from buffeting winds. California fields and highways are still lined with the tall shaggy trees. But as a timber tree, the Blue Gum was a boom and then a bust.

Albion Monitor September 16, 1995 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Back to Eucalyptus