Of all the trees that
cast their welcome shade over the Peninsula's byways, none is so intruguing
as the eucalyptus. Brought to California less than 100 years ago,
these stately giants are, with the exception of the isolated Sequoias,
the largest living things in the West.
Just who introduced the eucalyptus in California is a matter of conjecture, but it is a historical fact that the first small shoots were brought to the west coast from Australia in sailing vessels years after California was admitted into the Union.
Credit is given to the Shellmound Nurseries and Fruit Gardens in Oakland for setting out the first eucalyptus trees in 1856. Other silviculturists are of the opinion this specie of the myrtle tribe was introduced in 1863 by Bishop William Taylor who preached in the streets of San Francisco in the roaring 1850's. He had visited Australia and while there became a great admirer of the stately eucalyptus and send several shoots home to his wife who had remained in the States.
It matters little who planted the first trees in California. The important thing is that they grew well along the West Coast as in their native Australia. Californians were amazed to see these foreign trees grow to a height of twenty feet in two seasons. The result was that groves which sprang up in Alameda County soon spread to other parts of the state. Elwood Cooper set out large groves in 1865 on his ranch near Santa Barbara and T.P. Lukens of Pasadena, Abbott Kinney of Venice and others followed.
An article in the Overland Monthly of November 1888, credits General Stratton of Alameda County with being among the first to plant eucalyptus to any extent. In 1869 he set out forty-five acres of the shoots on a hilly tract of land near Hayward. The venture was very profitable, for eleven years later twenty acres were cut and after charging every item of cost and yearly rental of $5.00 an acre, the owner showed a profit of $4,866.
Growers since that time hae learned that five-year-old blue gums, when set out six by six feet apart, will yield fifty to eighty cords of wood per acre; ten-year-olds, eighty to 150 cords. The yield, according to foresters, will even exceed these figures substantially if the trees are irrigated.
In the first biennial report of the State Board of Health for 1870-71, the eucalyptus tree was reported as being serviceable in two ways. "The roots act as a sponge, pumping water and drainage ground and emitting odorous antiseptic emanations from its leaves. It absorbs from the soil ten times its weight in water every twenty-four hours."
The result was that the eucalyptus was put to work to make swamp lands more habitable. The Sacramento Union, in an editorial on October 20, 1874, had this to say about that experiment:
"The eucalyptus tree has, up to a late date, been chiefly accounted valuable in this state for the rapidity of its growth and the various uses to which its wood may be applied. But it is now established as a fact that it has quite a value on account of the anti-bilious quality of its foliage which, by the rapid absorption of noxious fever-breeding malaria, acts as preventative of some of the worst common forms of fever prevalent in many parts of the state. Kern Island had been almost uninhabitable from chills and fever. Eucalyptus groves absorbed the dangerous malaria, making it as healthy as the Coast Range."
In 1888, the Overland Monthly reported an eucalyptus which blew down near Melbourne, Australia, measuring ninety feet in circumference and 475 feet high. None of the trees in California had yet attained that size, but they were growing fast. Many of them had exceeded a height of seventy feet, and three feet in girth in twelve years--150 feet in thirty years. Today, California's tallest eucalyptus giants are those which stretch skyward more than 200 feet on the University of California campus in Berkeley.
Pioneers not only discovered the medicinal value of the eucalyptus and its worth as fuel but they found its wood had many other uses as well. Some varieties of the tree were highly valued for manufacture of wagon felloes, they exterior wooden rim of the wheel. Other varieties made excellent ship timbers and the wood produced a very high grade of charcoal. The bark was found to be useful in paper making and tanning.
Besides these many uses the eucalyptus is valuable for the gum-resin which comes from its trunk and the volatible oil in its leaves. This gum-resin is employed in the manufacture of soaps, perfumes, lozenges, courtplaster, liniments, syrups, pomades, toilet vinegars, varnishing oils, veneer, tracing paper and a score of others.
In the years before the war with Japan, approximately 150,000 pounds of eucalyptus oil were imported annually from Australia. Strangely, oil from California trees is said to lack potency of that grown in Australia.
About 300 varieties of eucalyptus are known to exist and today between sixty and seventy-five of those are found in California. Of the dozen or more varieties that line our highways, the blue gum is the most distinguishable by its smooth, olive-green trunk, bright blue juvenile foliage and flat-topped, button-like fruit. It is regarded by some as the vandal of the family because its roots have a way of seeking defective sewer lines and tapping them. Some California cities have adopted ordinances prohibiting their being planted or grown within seventy feet of a sewer line.
Orchardists recognize the blue gum as a heavy surface feeder which robs their citrus or fruit trees of much needed moisture, but even so, they are constantly setting out more and more of them because of their value as wind breaks.
Many of the eucalyptus trees found on the Peninsula, especially in and around Burlingame, come from the trees planted years ago by William Davis Merry Howard.
In coming from another part of the world to California the eucalyptus proved it had what it takes in a land where versatility counts. The intrepid Bishop Taylor, were he alive, probably would be amazed at the way eucalyptus has taken hold in California, and how Californians have become attached to the eucalyptus. But were he to live a hundred years hence, he probably would be even more amazed, for it is a certainty that by then many more varieties of the "gum tree" or "stringy-back tree"--or eucalyptus-- will have found their way to our landscape.