I grew up in California, where eucalyptus were the stringy invasive smelly trees that could burn at the drop of a hat, brought in, supposedly, by the military and planted on bases, like the one that would become the campus for the University of California at San Diego. I have been propagating that myth, but it does seem that in some cases the trees were brought to make railroad ties, and warped and split and burned too easily.
I have yet to verify any of this, really. I can only say that there are several types of gum trees in California, and they have taken over some of my favorite places – not that I ever saw these spaces pre-invasion. But these “exotic pests” are everywhere, and I resented them. I hated their menthol smell. I hated their round-button seed pods. I hated the leaf carpet they left on the forest floor.
So imagine how surprised I am to be enchanted by the eucalyptus-dominated forests here. There’s something so familiar about them, but they are totally alien to me: The trees here are so varied, in the appearance of their bark, the shape of networks of their spreading branches, their leaves. Even their smells are different. This morning on our bike ride to work, I smelled the aroma of burnt sugar in amongst the park eucalypts – I can only imagine that it was the sap of some variety in a grove we passed through. On the way home, I smelled spices, something like nutmeg. We were nowhere near houses, roads, or anything else that might provide that smell. It could only have been the trees.
I’ve seen smooth white giants, with rounded full crowns that look like classical oak trees. I’ve seen tall gray flagpoles with roots that radiate out like ridges in a mountain range. I’ve seen tiny scrub trees and trees that look like red-barked manzanita (my favorite, one of the madrones that is native to California). And among them, strange evergreens with bizarre needles, as well as grass trees sprouting their mops of thin leaves like strange green fountains.
Here, the trees are at home. They are surrounded by the other species with which they evolved. Their world is complex, varied. They are so much nicer when they are not invading.
I was first thinking about this on a walk last week around the base of one of the Glass House Mountains (named by James Cook, I think, because he thought they looked like the glass houses from England from afar — he is supposedly the same guy to bring Eucalyptus back to the Old World, and then from there it made its way to the New World). These chimney stacks of old volcanoes are high and steep and boulder-y, so while Matt and our companions climbed up, I gave in to my vertigo and walked the circuit around the base, twice.
I went through several different biomes and ecotones, ranging from cool ferny glades (that would be damp in the rain if there had been any in what is supposed to be the rainy season right now), to dry dry dry, California-drought-dry patches with stately eucalyptus trees at far distances from each other (I think some of these trees’ root systems extend deep and wide, capturing as much water as they can and shutting out other plants).
It was a beautiful walk.
We had stopped there on our way to Noosa, a beach community that has yet to be spoiled, I think, compared to other places that are overrun. Later on the trip, we walked through Noosa National Park, along the shore and ensconced by eucalyptus forest – which changed its look with the elevation, the proximity to the shoreline, with everything. It was beautiful, and the views of the ocean and the beaches were gorgeous.
Matt and I stayed at the convention center at the edge of town, along the wide river as it winds to the sea. And here, we saw what could have been mangroves, but may well have been eucalyptus that love the banks of a river, and weep down into it. Behind them were the more familiar tall stately trees.
And then on the drive home, along a ridge high above the coastal plain, we passed through orchards of avocados and nut trees, and patches of eucalyptus or the occasional stately giant taking over a field. We walked in a forest to a dry waterfall with a pool, that could have been along the Peninsula south of San Francisco, only denser, more verdant, more packed with eucalyptus and its home ecosystems. It felt like California, even as it felt totally alien to me.
I also finished a book that Matt’s colleague lent me, called Eucalyptus: it’s a love story published in 1998, where the modern-day princess is held captive in her father’s castle-house until someone can name each of the hundreds of species of eucalyptus on the property accurately. I must have liked the book, despite the crazy writing style and the silly concept. Perhaps I was brainwashed by all the stories connected to or about all the different species (more than 700) of eucalypts.
Or perhaps, now, after spending some time in their shade, I just like eucalypts.