Sarah Winman’s book, Still Life, is set largely in Florence and in one scene the main character decorates his Christmas tree with sprays of holly and eucalyptus. This surprised me because when I visited Florence briefly in the 1970s, I don’t remember seeing any gum trees. Perhaps I was too busy looking at boys (and art, of course).
Eucalyptus trees are native to Australia and there are at least 600 species here. Most Australians have a great affection for gum trees, even if they can’t name more than a few varieties.
I googled ‘why are there gum trees in Italy?’ and discovered that there are gum trees all over Europe. They gained popularity in Europe in the late 19th century because of their medicinal properties: the oil from the leaves is antiseptic and effective in reducing pain, swelling, and inflammation. People also thought the trees would help drain the swamplands and reduce the incidence of malaria, which was rife at the time.
A report from a news correspondent living in Naples in 1880 says:
“This lovely, healthful tree is destined to play a great part in the improvement of Italian soil.
Senator Torelli, in his project for draining and improving the malaria districts through which so many Italian railway lines run, indicates that the planting of the eucalyptus as a principle means to an end. If such plantations had been begun by the Government many years ago, many lives would have been saved.”
The Eucalyptus in Italy – The Argus, Melbourne 1880
Malaria cases in Italy at the time amounted to over 2 million, with between 15,000 and 20,000 deaths per year (1% of the population). To put this in context, this is roughly equivalent to the death rate in Italy from Covid, so malaria was a serious problem, and they were desperate to do something about the mosquito-infested swamps.
They also planted thousands of gum trees in Portugal to combat to combat soil erosion and malaria, and then a century later, Scandinavian timber companies bought up large tracts of land to grow blue gums (eucalyptus globule) to pulp for paper.
According to this article, the vast plantations crippled village economies by commandeering valuable farming land and lowering the water table. Now the exotic blue gum is the most abundant tree in Portugal, covering about 7% of the country. Native to Tasmania and south-eastern Australia, it’s easily recognizable by its minty scent and pale peeling bark.
Portuguese people are strongly opposed to the eucalyptus forests: the trees are regarded as highly invasive and aggressive. To local environmentalists, the gum tree is to Portugal what the rabbit is to Australia – an environmental disaster. The local insects can’t feed off the trees, so there are no birds. The forests are silent.
Gum trees don’t belong in Portugal any more than the camphor laurel trees belong in Australia.
Widely planted as shade trees in the late 19th Century, the camphor laurel (Cinnamomum Camphora) is considered a weed in New South Wales and Queensland and is just about the only tree you can cut down without gaining permission from the local authorities. It’s ranked among the top ten most invasive plants in Australia because it sneaks into waterways and competes with the native species, most notably the blue gum, one of the favourite food trees of the koala.
Here in Australia, we are familiar with the scourge of invasive species. We introduced rabbits and foxes with no thought to how they would integrate with the native flora and fauna and the Queensland government famously introduced cane toads in 1935 to combat the devastating sugar cane beetles, without bothering to check if cane toads actually ate the beetles.
They didn’t, and now we have an out-of-control infestation of the horrible ugly toads. As well as being ugly, they are also poisonous, putting our native fauna at risks and other small mammals, such as cats and dogs. Cane toads are native to Florida and as far as I’m concerned, they should all go back there.
I suppose it’s ironic that whilst we revile cane toads, many Americans are not so keen on our gum trees. They grow all over the United States, but are especially prolific in California.
The trees were first introduced in California in 1865 by a fur trapper called William Wolfskill who, seeking to settle down as a farmer, planted blue gums outside his house in Southern California. An innovative man, he made a fortune growing oranges, wine grapes and walnuts, and he recognised the potential that eucalyptus trees had to upset the commercial timber market. Timber was scarce, and he believed that the fast-growing eucalyptus could provide a local supply of timber in a few short years.
Before long, news of the versatility of the tree spread and in 1872, Ellwood Cooper planted a 200-acre eucalyptus grove near Santa Barbara. Several other farmers also planted groves of gum trees, but it was tobacco heir Abbot Kinney who turned the fad into something that would alter the landscape forever.
Kinney was a state forester and used his position to promote the eucalypt. He wrote a book explaining that every part of the plant could be used commercially, including the volatile oil in the leaves, which he said had powerful anti-malarial properties. Over the next few years, optimistic farmers planted millions of trees and by 1909, blue gums were ubiquitous.
The bubble burst in 1913 when the US Department of Agriculture confirmed that eucalyptus wood warped, cracked, and twisted as it dried. According to the Janka scale, created to measure the hardness of wood, blue gum is difficult to dry, making it unsuitable for fencing, but they continued to be popular as shade trees.
Many Americans revile our beloved gum trees because of their supposed contribution to the wildfires in 2018 and 2020. However, forestry experts say that the native pine trees also contain volatile oils that are highly combustible and eucalypts are no better or worse than the indigenous species.
Here in Australia, where bushfires are a regular occurrence, we blame poor land management and climate change for our calamitous summer fires. We would never to think to blame our indigenous species, perhaps because they are so much part of our landscape and our psyche.
When you talk to most Australians about our connection to the land, we are likely to talk about our deep love of ‘the bush’.
We love our gum trees, but we’re happy to keep them here where they belong.