Albion Monitor /Features

Jack London and Eucalyptus Fever

by Simone Wilson

One of the chief promoters of the eucalyptus craze

California rangers agree the eucalyptus isn't their favorite tree. Even so, they're sparing a two-acre grove from the axe at Jack London State Park as an living example of the author's historic experiment with the fast-growing trees.

At the turn of the century, Oakland-born Jack London was America's best-paid novelist, author of Call of the Wild and The Sea Wolf. After buying the Beauty Ranch in Sonoma's Valley of the Moon, in 1905, he and his new wife Charmian set off on a world cruise aboard the Snark. Money problems and Jack's ill health cut short the voyage, and he came home in 1909 to debts and a ranch run-down by previous owners.

London was casting about for a way to restore the ranch and solve his perpetual cash shortage when he saw ads in the 1909 issues of Sunset magazine for companies that sold shares in eucalyptus plantations. Since boyhood London had cast himself as a man of action: oyster pirate on San Francisco Bay, gold-rusher in the Klondike, correspondent in the 1904 Russo-Japanese War. He approved of bold ventures, especially if he did them himself. Instead of investing, London pulled out vineyards to plant his own tracts of eucalyptus.

By 1910 he was one of the chief promoters of the eucalyptus craze. In April 1910 he mentioned to book agent George Brett that he just planted 16,000 trees and was planning on another 25,000 the following year. "If I could get you out here and tell you the profits of eucalyptus-growing, you'd quit the publishing-business," London told Brett.

He intended to plant 50,000 trees a year

Speculators seized on the prominent author as a ready-made advertisement. The American Corporation for Investors secured his endorsement for its Eucalyptus Timber Corporation and paraded his name in their brochure, "Jack London and Eucalyptus."

Part of London's socialist vision was to restore the ranch as a sort of agrarian Eden. He cast himself in the role of technical pioneer, terracing the land as he had seen it done in Korea. He planting spineles cacti for cattle feed at the advice of his friend Luther Burbank, designed a cement silo and even built a "pig motel" for the orderly feeding of hogs.

He was just as systematic about eucalyptus. He intended to plant 50,000 trees a year for 10 years; after a decade, he could harvest the first batch for firewood. He ordered seedlings of e. tereticornis (Forest Red Gum) from W.A.T. Stratton's nursery in Petaluma and Grant Wallace's Eucalyptus Agency in Monterey. He may have planted as many as sixty or eighty thousand trees.

But London had a talent for exaggerating exploits and expenses, especially to cajole bigger advances from publishers for work in progress. He told his editor at Century magazine he needed a large advance on the memoir John Barleycorn because "I am planting eucalyptus trees, and at present moment have a hundred thousand trees in." Jack generally spent money before he made it -- one friend lamented that Jack had "mortgaged his brain" -- and visionary projects kept him perpetually in the red.

Tearing up Sonoma Valley vineyards in favor of eucalyptus wasn't as wild as it seems today. London predicted passage of Prohibition, which would devastate the wine industry in the 1920's. He had ploughed through forestry pamphlets on eucalyptus, and it wasn't his fault that botanical experts of the day were way off base in declaring eucalyptus was fire-resistant and perfect for lumber.

London didn't live to see eucalyptus fall out of favor. He died in 1916 of kidney disease aggravated by alcohol. (Jack's drinking, like his generosity and his talent, was on an epic scale.) Charmian lived on the ranch until 1955; her heir Irving Shepard sold 40 acres to State Parks in 1960 for the first California Historic Park. Today the park is 800 acres, and rangers are ridding it of eucalyptus, leaving a stand of two or three acres as a reminder of Jack's grand experiment with the trees.

Sonoma Valley today is one of the great wine regions of the world, its sunny slopes planted in world-class vineyards. Marla Hastings, resource ecologist for State Parks' Silverado District, thinks London would've realized his mistake and followed suit.

"If he had lived," says Hastings, "I think the eucalyptus would be gone, that he would've converted his acreage back to vineyards."

Albion Monitor September 16, 1995 (

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