There are over 700 species of eucalyptus, which are fast-growing, versatile and have a clean, medicinal scent. Even the Australian song “Waltzing Matilda” celebrates the useful eucalyptus, or “coolibah.” As both Australian and U. S. settlers harvested and planted eucalyptus, it insinuated itself into the landscape and area history.
On December 2, 1642, Abel Janszoon Tasman wrote about large trees his landing party discovered on an island. The trees were “...2 ½ fathoms in thickness, and they measured from 60-65 ft. from the ground to the lower branches..,” according to Robert Zachrin in his book, “Emigrants Eucalyptus.” The explorers named the trees “gum” or “dragon” trees, after similar trees in the Canary Islands, and they named the island Tasmania. Joseph Banks, a botanist with Captain Cook's 1770 expedition to Botany Bay, collected specimens and returned them to England. Charles Louis L'Heritier de Brutelle, a French botanist, studied the specimens and gave the tree the scientific name 'Eucalyptus.' The name refers to the cap covering the flower bud, with the Greek “eu” meaning “well,” and “kalypto” meaning “I cover.”
Introduction into the United States
According to Robert L. Santos of the University of California, early descriptions of California describe a denuded landscape, except for the random groves of scrub oak and other small trees along gullies. During the Gold Rush, the exploding population needed timber for housing, mining and other construction. Construction quickly decimated the oak groves giving Oakland its name, along with stands of redwoods. By 1850, when California became a state, the lack of timber forced lumbermen into the San Bernardino mountains to find trees tall enough for a flagpole. Into this situation came the Australians. California already received supplies from Australia, since U. S. ships had a lengthy trek around the southern tip of South America. Australians settling in California brought the fast-growing, tough eucalyptus with them as a quick source of lumber.
As the population grew, so did concerns about future growth. Politicians and lumbermen encouraged planting groves of eucalyptus, both for timber and for creating protected areas for growing crops. The California Tree Culture Act of 1868 paid landowners $1 per tree planted and nurtured for four years.
Enterprising businessmen foresaw the need for lumber and planted groves of eucalyptus; according to the Eucalyptus Facts website, in 1877 Californians planted over 44,000 eucalyptus trees in Alameda County alone.
The Central Pacific Railroad, after planting nearly one million eucalyptus trees in 1877 and 1878, discovered that eucalyptus railroad ties, posts and poles spit, twisted and cracked, unlike products made from the older eucalyptus trees in Australia. The dried wood was too tough to use in furniture manufacturing and other construction projects, and most of the eucalyptus groves became firewood, according to a University of California San Diego article. As construction turned to cement, and steel cars replaced wooden buggies, the lumber market declined. The declining market spared large numbers of eucalyptus trees, however, preserving the trees as windbreaks and as shade trees.
In 1979, California's Parks Department voiced concerns about eucalyptus trees supplanting native vegetation and wildlife. The department planned to remove eucalyptus trees from Angel Island and allow the native vegetation to return, but protests quickly stopped the plans. The National Park Service also shelved a project poised to cut down all eucalyptus trees in the Golden Gate Recreation Area, where thousands of eucalyptus trees spread over hundreds of acres.
In contrast, Vietnam is planting eucalyptus trees in an effort to restore defoliated land. Hawaii also has stands of the quick-growing tree, using it as a commercial lumber source.