Aussie to its roots: the gum tree at home and abroad

Gum trees and a wooden railway bridge in Victoria.
Gum trees and a 19th century wooden railway bridge in Victoria.

The eucalypt may be a uniquely and specifically Australian tree, but it’s also an international emigrant, says Flinders writer and academic Dr Danielle Clode.

Dr Clode’s lead essay in the November issue of the Australian Book Review (ABR) is the result of the award of the $5000 ABR Dahl Trust Fellowship. Her 7,500-word article examines the sometimes conflicting perceptions and roles of the eucalypt in the environment and in art, industry, history, medicine and culture.

Dr Clode has also been awarded a $40,000 Australia Council Literature Grant for an Established Writer, which will fund the writing of a new book, a partially fictionalised account of the 1772 expedition to Australia led by French navigator de Kerguelen.

In Seeing the Wood for the Trees, Dr Clode focuses on the Southern Blue Gum, the species once known as the “Prince of Eucalypts”, which has colonised the world.

While eucalypts owe their distinctive characteristics to the evolutionary isolation of Australia, since the 1800s Southern Blue Gums have been transplanted to dozens of cities and countries around the world. They have been street trees in Kyoto and Addis Ababa, and have been cultivated in California, the Mediterranean fringe and South America.

Dr Clode said one of the ironies to emerge from the export of the Southern Blue Gum is its well established utilitarian role in other countries, where it has been employed in construction and in boatbuilding. In Australia, she said, gums traditionally have been regarded as “wild things”: it is only in the past 25 years that they have been extensively cultivated in plantations, mostly dedicated to paper manufacture.

Dr Clode said the ability of the gum tree overseas to grow “too well in the wrong place” has led to an ambivalent reputation, with the trees “simultaneously hailed as saviours of dryland forestry and salinity remediation and censured as environmental weeds and fire-prone water guzzlers”.

“There are lots of anomalies in how we regard them: we love them, but as soon as they drop a branch, or catch fire, we don’t love them any more,” Dr Clode said.

Neither has an intrinsic affection for the tree that is regarded as “quintessentially Australian” saved gum trees from a savage and sustained assault in their native land. While the colonists were initially deterred from felling gum forests by the extraordinary hardness of the wood and a capacity for rapid regrowth, from the mid-19th century the availability of industrial tools, notably the circular saw, saw widespread clearing.

With clearance accelerating throughout the 20th century, Dr Clode said the result has been the loss almost 40 per cent of Australia’s original forest coverage, in the least wooded inhabited continent in the world.

Dr Clode said much more remains to be written about the gum tree.

“There are around 700 species, each of which you could probably do a book on,” she said.

You can read the full article online here.

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