eucalypts. Well…..what a surprise!
No, it wasn’t a bout of gum leaf painting that inspired this topic, though you may be excused for thinking so. The reason is actually that a couple of weeks ago I found myself standing alone in the middle of a magnificent tuart forest down south and the experience inspired more thought about our heritage. So I’m giving you - those of you who have perhaps in your busy lives dismissed trees as being simply green and brown and part of the scenery - a little education on a topic that is, as most of you would know, very close to my heart.
Well there I was in
the middle of a tuart forest, and it was magnificent. The wind was sighing and
moaning in the treetops. I could hear twigs falling and leaves scattering.
The slow crunch of my tentative footsteps on the thick leaf carpet made a resounding noise that was foreign to the music I could hear around me. I was an intruder there. The birds didn’t seem to mind, their chatter unbroken. But I felt I shouldn’t be there and the feeling was almost tangible. With the presence of man in their midst, perhaps the tuarts themselves felt threatened, cringing in their all too recent collective memory of the axe, the saw and the bulldozer. That forest was a spiritual place – peaceful, but brooding, and as I left I felt humble and more than a little remorseful for the sins of our fathers in their ignorant desecration of the trees of this land.
Tuarts are one of the
three rough barked eucalypts (along with marri and jarrah) and are indigenous
to the southwest of WA. Their status is considered to be reasonably stable at
present, though the excellent quality of their timber and the relentless clearing
of land has been a very real threat to their survival.
Eucalypts are ancient trees. We know from fossil remains that their ancestors were alive millions of years ago but because they were confined to Australia, they were not seen by Europeans until the seventeenth century or recognized by science until the eighteenth. Abel Tasman was the first European to describe a eucalypt and now they are the most widely planted trees in the world.
The word ‘eucalypt’ comes from the Greek words for ‘well-covered’ and refers to the little cap – the operculum - that closes and seals the top of the bud before the flower emerges. Some of you will know these better as the little hats worn by Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (May Gibbs).
Eucalypts are among the world’s tallest trees, some species growing to heights of around 270 – 300 ft, though there have been rare recordings of eucalypts reaching to heights of 375 ft. The mountain ash of Victoria and Tasmania are topped only by the giant redwoods of California. WA’s massive karri’s and the flooded gums of NSW also rank with the world’s giants. At the other end of the scale, the diminutive narrow-leafed sally, found in the Blue Mountains of NSW is hardly more than a shrub – but still a eucalypt.
Mallees are eucalypts too, distinctive by their trunks which are not singular, but rather many trunks emerging from underground. The trees though, are smaller in stature, growing mainly in the more arid regions.
One peculiar feature of eucalypts is that even though there are hundreds of species (all of which are evergreens), their leaves are all very similar – generally even-coloured, lanceolate in shape (longish and pointy-ended), and downward hanging. It is thought that one of the reasons for the design of these downward hanging, pointy-ended leaves is to collect and then direct any excess moisture (such as dew or raindrops) down to the ground to be absorbed by the roots. In a land where water is often scarce, clever tree!
Most larger eucalypts
are well adapted to survive the inevitable and devastating fires of the Australian
bush, though some species are not - our karri being one - and this is a paradox
because eucalyptus oil contains a high octane material which is particularly
effective as a fuel and being so, is a major catalyst in the ferocity of our
The charred remains of a stand of eucalypts - stark, black, leafless and desolate - are not usually what they seem. In all probability they are not dead. Their strategy for forward planning is a notable feature in the survival of many of the hardier species of eucalypt. The majority of the species have very thick bark that will provide effective insulation for the tree’s deeper living tissues. In case of bushfire (or drought or over-zealous insect attack) it actually holds back some of its leaf buds, concealed within its trunk and branches, so that after the fire or drought has passed it is able to send forth new shoots. Then with a surprisingly rapid spurt of growth, the tree is once again in business. A tactic of some species is to erupt their pod cases when the threat is over, sending out large quantities of seeds that germinate in the newly formed ash beds, resulting in a burst of activity as seedlings flourish in clear surroundings without any competition from other stifling undergrowth.
As devastating as our bushfires may be and as cruel as our droughts are, they are not the major threat to our eucalypts.
But I’ll have to continue this topic in the next issue because you’ve probably finished your cup of tea, and I’ve finished my allotted space.
Cheers, ‘till next month