Dragon Trees of California

There is a craze all over the state about the eucalyptus or Australian blue gum tree…  Eucalyptus will frighten away fevers and murder malaria.  Its leaves cure asthma.  Its roots knock out ague as cold as jelly.  Its bark improves that of a dog.  A dead body buried in a coffin made from the wood of the blue gum will enjoy immunity from the exploring mole and the penetrating worm… [T]his absurd vegetable is now growing all over the State.  One cannot get out of its sight… It defaces every landscape with botches of blue and embitters every breeze with suggestions of an old woman’s medicine chest.  Let us have no more of it.

~ The Argonaut (San Francisco), April 22, 1877

The Englishman William Dampier was a professional pirate and an amateur naturalist. He was also the first man to circumnavigate the globe three times.  After a stint in the Third Anglo-Dutch War, Dampier turned buccaneer and spent most of the 1670s and ‘80s harassing Spanish trade routes in the Caribbean and Pacific, with occasional overland raids through Peru and the isthmus of Darien.  In 1688 Dampier was employed aboard a ship called the Cygnet which had careened for repairs on the coast of New Holland – what we know today as Australia. While the Cygnet’s bottom was being scraped, Dampier took the opportunity to explore the area and take notes on the native flora.  He described one unusual species which he named the “dragon tree” (after similar trees he’d seen in the Madeira and Canary Islands).  These dragon trees, he wrote, produced a gum that “distils out of the knots or cracks that are in the bodies of the trees.” 

Dampier was describing the eucalyptus.  There are over seven hundred varieties of eucalyptus in Australia.  The story of how the tree came to fly its isolated homeland and within the space of a hundred years colonize the Indian subcontinent, Africa, parts of Britain, China, the Middle East and the Americas is a curious one.  Here in California, as in certain corners of Uruguay and South Africa, the eucalyptus once threatened to dominate the entire landscape.  Even today, long after the 19th-century eucalyptus craze ended, coastal California is thick with eucalyptus groves.  Many Californians simply assume the trees have always been here.  Any other tree of a size comparable to a full-grown eucalyptus would necessarily pre-date Spanish and American settlement.

Exactly how the eucalyptus came to California is a point of some debate.  It seems likely that it first arrived during the 1849 Gold Rush.  That year nearly 3000 Australians left for California.  The passage from Sydney to San Francisco, across the full immensity of the Pacific, was in those days shorter than the passage from New York to San Francisco, since the latter required rounding Cape Horn.  (The transcontinental railroad and the Panama Canal were achievements of later generations.)  The Australians, in ships built of aromatic “blue gum” eucalyptus, were some of the very first to arrive for the California Gold Rush.  Somewhere aboard one of those vessels was probably stowed a bag of seeds.

The eucalyptus was soon celebrated as a “wonder tree” – and it really is a wonder.  It grows extremely fast.  Some varieties reach 40-feet in five years, or over 150-feet in 25 years.  Planted in California’s sparsely wooded central and southern coastal pale, it offered a quick return in firewood and lumber, and made a fast-growing wind-brake.  And though it will thrive in arid climates, eucalyptus roots can drain great quantities of water from the soil.  It was planted in many of California’s wetlands to open them up for farming and deny the mosquito a breeding ground in the standing water.  The eucalyptus is largely responsible for putting an end to the endemic malaria that plagued California through the 19th century.  It promised other health benefits too.  Oil distilled from eucalyptus leaves, for example, could be used to produce cleaning products or medicinals like decongestants and cough drops.

By the 1870s, as the Gold Rush petered out, a “Gum Rush” took hold.  Tens of thousands of acres were planted on any available open land.  Lumber mills dedicated solely to the eucalyptus were built.   Professional naturalists and amateur enthusiasts toured the state preaching the benefits of the eucalyptus and advocating its broader cultivation.  Ellwood Cooper was one such gum tree evangelist.  As president of Santa Barbara College, Cooper planted hundreds of acres.  His lush groves of eucalyptus were renowned through all California.  In a lecture delivered in 1875, Cooper praised the eucalyptus as a sort of universal remedy for health complaints and meteorological inclemency.  Plant more gum trees, he said, and the winds will calm, the summer heats moderate, and human health and social well being will improve all around.

But just as the Gold Rush had come and gone, the Gum Rush fizzled out.  The wood couldn’t be properly seasoned to fulfill all the uses for which it had been intended.  The pharmacists lost interest.  A hardwood shortage that contributed to the fevered planting of eucalyptus was instead resolved by increased use of other building materials such as steel, bricks and cement.  And just as the Gold Rush had left behind a landscape transfigured, the short-lived enthusiasm over the Australian gum tree utterly changed California.  The trees were everywhere – and not everyone was happy about it.  The editorialist in San Francisco’s Argonaut newspaper, quoted above, spoke for not a few of his fellow citizens.

Today, botanists and environmental purists in California consider the eucalyptus a “weed,” an invasive, non-native pest.  They style eucalyptus groves “infestations” and call for its total elimination from the landscape.  But there are still others, like yours truly, who recall fondly the blue gum ships that sailed into the Golden Gate in 1849, and who honor the tree that cured malaria.  There are still those who love the cool stillness of a eucalyptus grove in mid-summer, the bark that peels in long crisp sheets, and the clean antiseptic smell of the blue and green dragon scale leaves.

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3 Comments

Filed under History

3 responses to “Dragon Trees of California

  1. endithinks

    Interesting subject. I enjoyed your voice and the story was very informative. I love quirky history stories like these.

  2. The style of writing is very familiar to me. Have you written guest posts for other bloggers?

  3. Ian Woolcott

    No, but I’m a dime a dozen.

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