Eucalypts: Our Misunderstood Emblem

Eucalyptus is a signal tree for Australia, yet few Australians read eucalypts effectively. Botanists explore relationships between species; horticulturists use the seeds and take cuttings (yes, cuttings!) to propagate millions of plants for timber, oil and carbon credits; foresters steward native and plantation forests; and apiarists migrate with their flowering.

Although we think of them as our own, the adaptability of eucalypts sees them dominate woodlots and amenity plantings throughout much of the world. I suspect (without the benefit of any research) that eucalypts cover a larger area outside Australia than inside our coast

The difficulty of coming to terms with eucalypts is rather more profound than satisfying scientific curiosity or economic opportunity. Identification of eucalypts is less of an issue than identification with eucalypts. In fact, eucalypts aren’t the dominant tree of the Australian landscape, because much of the country is dominated by wattles, but eucalypts are the dominant tree of the landscape where most Australians live. They dominate the Australian consciousness as the quintessentially Australian tree. Try a vox pop with your friends or colleagues

The journey of Australian artists and writers in coming to terms with the Australian landscape is reasonably well known, yet still redolent with ambiguity The evolution from John Glover’s to Hans Heysen’s and then to Fred Williams’ eucalypts is more than a journey of artistic style.Veneration of their subjects of course remains, but the the paintings reflect a growing sensibility to the landscape by Europeans. The success of Aboriginal artists in addressing the landscape, and their more refined enthusiasm for eucalypts, is salutary. Russell Drysdale’s observation,’… a landscape alien to man, harsh, weird, spacious and vacant, given over to the oddities and whimsies of nature‘ reflects this ongoing struggle for environmental reconciliation by the dominant culture.

For those who want to explore further the subtleties of Australians’ relations with the eucalyptus, Nonie Sharp published a fascinating piece last year on the place of eucalypts in the Australian artistic imagination. It’s called The Artistic and the Literary Imagination in Australia and Beyond: Finding Places of the Heart Among the Gum Trees. You can find it here.

As well, Gum: the story of eucalypts and their champions by Ashley Hay (2002) explores this theme further, and Murray Bail’s novel Eucalyptus from 2000 conveys the mystery, even secrecy and hero(me)ism defining this quest. If you haven’t thrown out The Australian’s Literary Review supplement from November 7 you might have a look at Nicholas Rothwell’s essay.

Its worth noting before I get to the point – this is after all a gardening column, not a literature review – that there is significant debate around what constitutes Eucalypus and what should sit in other genera such as Corymbia. For taxonomists this is a critical point, but I’ll gloss over it here – I may well labour the point in another article.

The importance of our relationship with eucalypts is immediately apparent in our gardens. What richer lode of Australianness could we tap – apart from wattles of course? The challenge for gardeners is in choosing the right species for your garden and getting hold of the seed or a plant.

A reasonable starting point is to choose locally indigenous species – in Adelaide the yellow gum Eucalyptus leucoxylon (there are some great selections too but these aren’t readily available from the Adelaide Plains). The mighty red gum E. camaldulensisand E. porosa are worth growing too – but you might struggle to find space for them in suburban Adelaide.

There’s no sensible short list for gardens. The key questions are what do you have in terms of soils, aspect and space, and what are you looking for in terms of form, bark texture, foliage, flowers and fruits?

If you have no space, grafted Eucalyptus ficifolia is worth looking at, as is the hybrid E. ficifolia X E. Ptychocarpa. This Red-flowering Gum, and the hybrid with Swamp Bloodwood – turns up in a range of colours from crimson to orange and the hybrid covers the same spectrum. Interestingly, these popular forms are among those that are the subject of the eucalyptus/corymbia argument.

Eucalyptus sepukralis is rarely as spectacular in cultivation as in its natural habitat, but the plants funereal aspect impressed Adelaide’s gift to Melbourne’s botanic gardens, Ferdinand von Mueller. The fine arching canes of E. sepukralis emerge above the kwongan heathlands of southwestern Australia and stream bewitchingly across those heathlands in strong winds. These three can all be managed effectively as container plants.

If you’re on sand you might try the famed Rose of the West, Eucalyptus macrocarpa with dense, opposite silver leaves arranged in four rows and spectacular flowers to 10cm across. Gungurru, E. Caesia, remains a favourite that seems to vary from garden to garden in Adelaide – sometimes spectacular with pendulous white or red branches draped with grey lanceolate leaves and large pink flowers and sometimes petulant and dying back for no reason.

I think we are going to need to come back to eucalyptus – there’s much too much to cover here!

Failing a devotional pilgrimage across Australia, here are some nearby places to see a range of eucalypts:

However, Dean Nicolle’S 32.5 ha private arboretum at Currency Creek is closest to Murray Bail’s story in Eucalyptus – visit and see if you can get a group together to sponsor a tour. Dean has established the most important eucalypt arboretum in the world – his devotion sees about 90 per cent of the 900 species of eucalypts represented by more than 6,000 specimens on this one site.

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 23 November 2007.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.



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