Examining the history of the stately, graceful eucalyptus

Ah yes, the stately, beautiful and graceful eucalyptus tree. Love them or hate them you can’t help yourself but to listen when it comes to the many different stories about our own Australian transplant the eucalyptus tree and why they eventually ended up here in San Diego.
Most of us locals know or think we know the original story about the Santa Fe, Atchison and Topeka railroads taking the plunge because of this “wonder tree,” purchasing six million seedlings and shipping them here from Australia back in 1906. (Somebody made some money).
The site chosen for this grand experiment was “Rancho San Dieguito.” At that time about 93 percent of Rancho Santa Fe (which means Holy Faith in Spanish) was under ownership of the railroad, but the balance of the acreage was vested in separate ownerships.
Approximately 3,000 acres were chosen to plant from a total of 9,000 acres newly purchased by the Rancho Santa Fe Railroad from San Diego’s first mayor Don Juan Maria Osuna.
Don Juan’s family, the Osunas, had been recipients of this land from a Mexican Land Grant while California was still under Mexican rule. On a three-room adobe ranch, he was able to propagate three million viable seedlings from the original six million. Now here is where the story bifurcates.
From the railroads point of view, the following happened. A drought rolled through the area in 1912, and in 1914 it was followed by a severe frost that killed 60 percent of the remaining trees and all the seedlings. A few more experiments were tried with trees at other locations, but the project was finally abandoned in 1915.
The railroad recouped its original investment in the land and the eucalyptus experiment by subdividing Rancho into hundreds of parcels for country estates.
Because of its political connections and beautiful surroundings, the region soon attracted many Hollywood celebrities such as Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Later, Bing Crosby, the darling of Del Mar, eventually purchased and lived in the old Osuna Rancho, which he bought in 1932.
The other way I have heard this story told is that the wood of the eucalyptus tree, especially when juvenile, is too hard to use and splits when spiked or is too soft and twists and checks, throwing the rails of the tracks out of alignment so crucial for rail transportation.
Being a tree guy for so many years, I’ve cut enough eucalyptus tress into firewood that it could fuel a locomotive back and forth across the continent. I know about this tree. First of all, there are between 400 and 600 species of this fast grower.
Some are tall, some have soft bark and some have paper-thin bark with an incredibly hard old growth interior.
As with most fast growing plants, the cell structure of these trees is large and not compact. Here, the eucalyptus stores a lot of water interstitially, passing along the myriad of sugars we all depend on.
Unlike the cell density and hardness of the oak tree though green eucalyptus wood can be relatively soft, especially if it is juvenile.
The definition of a hardwood tree is based upon the distinction of it being deciduous or evergreen. A deciduous tree (one that loses its leaves every winter) is a hard wood, where softwood is an evergreen. Believe it or not, balsa wood is one of the lightest and softest of woods and it loses its leaves on a yearly basis, making it a hardwood.
A California Live Oak is evergreen making it a soft wood. So the nomenclature is a little bit erroneous. Eucalyptus is softwood, but depending on the species, this is not always the case.
Being a low maintenance kind of guy, I love the different kinds of eucalyptus trees but only in someone else’s yard. Lately, this favored fast grower has lost its position with ecologists and landscape architects alike because of its fire predilection, incredible oil content and speed of growth when compared to other more desirable indigenous species.
As far as Rancho Santa Fe and the eucalyptus is concerned? Eventually fire, the Lerp Psyllid , or the Longhorned Bore Beetle will decimate this species domination and put nature back into balance.

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  1. anonymous says:

    These are beautiful trees that are unfairly maligned. Next time you see a news story about fire or tree falls, pay attention, you’ll see that all trees burn and fall.

    Thankfully landscape architecture is fickle and the euc being out of favor will pass.

  2. Eucalyptus watcher says:

    Research the Oakland fire and you will find "The fire ultimately killed 25 people and injured 150 others." "Many of the first dwellings to burn were surrounded by thick, dry vegetation. In addition, the nearby undeveloped land had even more dry brush, along with several groves of non-native volatile eucalyptus trees." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oakland_Firestorm_of_1991
    Eucalyptus are "the world’s largest weed" http://www.wrm.org.uy/bulletin/54/USA.html

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