10 Eucalyptus-scented thoughts to clear the Monday morning fog
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong, under the shade of a…what? Not a wattle, bunya pine or weeping fig tree, that’s for sure.
No, our jumbuck-filching, tuckerbag-stuffing antihero spent his last moment beneath a coolabah tree. Eucalyptus coolabah is found in riparian zones, like our man’s billabong, and is often wider than it is tall. The 350 year-old Dig Tree, forever associated with the disastrous Burke and Wills expedition, is also a coolabah. My dad really, really wants to see it.
2. Canoes and baskets
If the dodgy swagman had paid more attention to his surroundings, he could perhaps have negotiated the billabong with less finality: aborigines have crafted canoes from eucalypts for centuries.
Like the coolabah, the river red gum (E. camaldulensis) grows along waterways, and is the most widely distributed eucalypt species in the country. Bark from the trees was fashioned into canoes used for fishing and river crossings, and canoe trees bearing the scars of earlier use can be seen throughout south-eastern Australia.
3. Fire and brimstone
The other thing old mate could have done is set fire to the tree. As a natural incendiary device you’d be hard pressed to find better.
Eucalyptus oil is highly volatile (one reason it’s good for your schnozz and pipes), and bushfires spread via the open canopies, deep leaf litter, and long strands of peeling bark carried on the wind.
On the plus side, most eucalypts can regenerate after fire, carrying their seeds within tough capsules that the fire unlocks.
4. Gumnut Babies
Eucalypt seed pods inspired another classic from the Australian story-telling pantheon: Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. The stories, by May Gibbs, star a pair of babies, naked except for seedpods that they wear like a sort of tough, green beanie. (I admit it does sound slightly weird when put like that). With their mates in tow, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie lead the charge against the big, bad Banksia Men, arch-enemies of the ‘gumnut babies’.
If the shapes of the seedpods aren’t wonderful enough, the flowers of the eucalypt are a joy to behold. For me, the West Australian eucs are the showstoppers: go to Kings Park in Perth and take a hankie, because seriously, it's a drool-fest.
6. Margaret Preston
Of the many Australian artists who have captured the eucalypt, I have a real fondness for Margaret Preston and her bold, coloured prints. Kookaburras sit in old gum trees, they frame views to Sydney Harbour, and flowers and seedpods fill vases.
The artists aren’t the only ones making beautiful lines – the scribbly gum is a living sketchbook. Whilst there are five varieties known as scribbly gum (E. haemastoma, E. sclerophylla, E. racemosa, E. rossii and E. signata, the only one found naturally in Queensland) their scribbles all have the same source: they are tunnels made when the larvae of the scribbly gum moth burrows between the old and new bark to lay its eggs. You could spend a lifetime trying and not be able to create patterns that exquisite.
8. Tree of Knowledge
Speaking of trying, the town of Barcaldine went to considerable time, effort and expense looking after its most famous arboreal landmark, the Tree of Knowledge, a ghost gum. Reportedly a gathering spot for striking shearers during the period of industrial disputes that led to the founding of the Labour Party, the 150+ year-old tree was receiving good quality care and thriving, when it was mysteriously poisoned in 2006. This was also trying for the town. In the same location now stands a much-awarded timber structure. From the outside it resembles an enormous box. Inside the timber pieces are arrange to create a negative of the canopy of the former tree.
9. In the garden
Perhaps the poisoning of the Tree of Knowledge was politically motivated, but eucalypts have somewhat of a reputation for being difficult in the garden. To hear some speak, having a euc within coo-ee of home is a death wish, as if the trees build up years of simmering resentment and then just lose it, throwing their toys and limbs out of the cot and onto innocent suburbs below. Having said that, being woken by the sound of lightning striking a euc outside our family home during a cyclonic summer night, is a very clear and strong childhood memory.
Despite this, one of Australia’s most famous gardens, Cruden Farm, the long-time home of Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, is most famous for its entry drive avenue of lemon-scented gums. If you don’t have a Murdoch-sized garden what can you grow? The plunkett mallee (E. curtisii) is a small tree, growing to 6 metres with lovely cream-coloured flowers; the swamp bloodwood (E. ptychocarpa) is a tall tree to 8 metres; and the ‘Summer’ range of hybrid gums have selected Western Australian flowering eucs grafted onto rootstock that enable them to better tolerate out humidity. Check out Fairhill Nursery’s range.
Tips for Young Players: planting two or three trees in the same hole creates a multi-trunked effect, and allows the canopies to grow together and not shade out your whole garden.
10. Holland and Ellen
Knowledge is at the heart of one of my favourite Australian novels. What lengths would you go to, to prevent your treasured only daughter from marrying and moving out? In Murray Bail’s (fabulous, wonderful) Eucalyptus, Ellen‘s dad requires suitors to name all the varieties of that tree growing on his property.
A love song to this most cherished Australian tree.
The Australian Government maintains a webpage dedicated to the Eucalypt.
All eucalypts are gum trees, but not all gum trees are eucalypts. Find out more about eucalypts, angophoras and corymbias here.