Happy National Eucalypt Day
Posted: March 20, 2021
Categories: Plant The Look
National Eucalypt Day - 23 MarchThis week, go hug a gum - or at least thank it for the shade, shelter, and beauty it provides.
There's over 850 types of Eucalypt native to Australia, and consequently huge differences in size, shape, bark, leaf and flower. Aboriginal languages gave us names for some - tingle, marlock, moort, yate; European settlers named others after trees they were familiar with - mahogany, box, peppermint, oak. Many were named after their distinctive appearances - ghost gum, stringybark, woollybutt, bloodwood.
“A clean light soaked into the shaggy bark of a eucalyptus and it was a powerful thing to see. The whole tree glowed, it showed electric and intense, the branches ran to soft fire, the tree seemed revealed.”Don DeLillo, Mao II
Eucalypt - Resilient & AdaptableEucalypt gums appear all over this wide brown land, whatever the climate and conditions. There are gums that grow in the dry searing heat of the outback desert, and gums that grow in the lush moist east coast rainforests. Frost-hardy gums that thrive through snowfield winters, and heat-resilient gums that thrive in Darwin summers.
Gums that tower to 100m - like Eucalyptus grandis, flooded gum, rose gum and Eucalyptus regnans, mountain ash, swamp gum - the tallest flowering plant on earth, of which Centurion is the tallest of all; and gums such as Eucalyptus macrocarpa - mottlecah - silvery-white and small enough for a suburban back yard.Much of our native wildlife depends on gums for food, shelter, and nesting places. We depend on them for timber, honey production, dappled shade in challenging locations. They provide much-needed feed for stock, and reduce salinity in pasture soil. Gum trees have woven themselves into the fabric of our nation.
“Some people, some nations, are permanently in shade. Some people cast a shadow. Lengths of elongated darkness precede them, even in church or when the sun is in, as they say, mopped up by the dirty cloth of the cloud. A puddle of dark forms around their feet.Murray Bail, Eucalyptus If you want a good read this month, we recommend Murray Bail's novel Eucalyptus - an Australian fairytale about all kinds of love, interlaced with mini love stories to eucalyptus and all their remarkable qualities.
It's very pine like. The pine and darkness are one. Eucalypts are unusual in this respect: set pendulously their leaves allow see-through foliage which in turn produces a frail patterned sort of shade, if at all.
Clarity, lack of darkness - these might be called 'eucalyptus qualities'.”
Eucalypt - What's In a Name?The term 'eucalypt' encompasses several different trees - mainly Eucalyptus, also Corymbia, Angophora, and others less common and familiar. Debate has been raging since the 1990s in taxonomic circles - they're the people who decide what Genus a plant belongs to - as to whether all these plants should be same species or separate ones. DNA analysis is bringing light to some areas of plant classification, and complicating others... Meanwhile, we gardeners can continue to call them all gums, and carry on as before!
“The place didn't look the same but it felt the same; sensations clutched and transformed me. I stood outside some concrete and plate-glass tower-block, picked a handful of eucalyptus leaves from a branch, crushed them in my hand, smelt, and tears came to my eyes. Sixty-seven-year-old Claudia, on a pavement awash with packaged American matrons, crying not in grief but in wonder that nothing is ever lost, that everything can be retrieved, that a lifetime is not linear but instant.”Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger
Eucalypt - Useful & Beautiful
“Then something immense came into view; an enormous shock-haired giant with his arms stretched out. It was the big gum-tree outside Mrs. Stubbs' shop, and as they passed by there was a strong whiff of eucalyptus.”Katherine Mansfield, The Garden Party and Other Stories
The salubrious smell of the gum is unmistakable, and can make an ex-pat Aussie nostalgic for home. Eucalyptus oil is remarkably useful; distilled for antiseptics, flavourings, fragrances, insecticides, solvents, and pharmaceutical use. The trees are an excellent source of natural dyes, from the leaves and bark, to roots and flowers. If you fancy having a go : this Frankie step-by-step project is a good starter for inspiration; artist Sally Blake tells you what colours to expect; and this ANPSA factsheet gives you technical details on the process.
Eucalypt - World TravellerEucalypts' ability to grow in a range of climates, soils, temperatures, and to grow very fast and straight, has led to the trees being planted around the world for oil, timber, cut foliage, and year-round shade. Eucalypts are found on almost every populated place on earth - like this beautiful avenue of swamp messmate in Brazil. The photographer Matheus Betat writes:
In 1937, the former owner of Fazenda Pinhal and a historic resident of the region Francisco Segura Garcia established on the shoulder of RS-040 the cultivation of hundreds of eucalyptus seedlings of the robusta species. After a few years, the development of the plants provided the emergence of a unique landscape along this stretch of the highway, with 2,800 meters of road completely covered by intertwining tree tops.
Gums are resilient and adaptable trees, which accounts for the ease they have acclimatised to different conditions around the world. So well, in fact, that in many places where they were introduced as a fast-growing timber tree, they are now considered an environmental weed. Gums are highly flammable - a result of all that oil - and a lightning spark on a tree can start a bushfire. Because of this, and the amount of bark litter that some species shed, they are not recommended for planting close to the house in fire-risk areas. On the positive side, gums also bounce back after fire, thanks to what are known as 'lignotubers', and can be one of the earliest plants to regrow - as the image shows.
Eucalypt - Worth Their Weight in GoldEucalypts can even be gold prospectors. CSIRO researchers discovered that trees growing in the Kalgoorlie area are found to have tiny deposits of gold in their leaves, brought up from the soil itself into the tree's network of cells. So next time you shelter under a coolibah - whether Leichardt's microtheca, the 'bastard coolibah' intertexta, or Burke & Wills' coolabah dig tree - keep a close lookout for glinting in the foliage above... Trees worth their weight in gold? Must be Eucalyptus.
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong,Andrew Barton Paterson
Under the shade of a Coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled,
"You'll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me."