Just off Diablo Road by the Diablo Country Club entrance, it is easy to see the eucalyptus trees that owners of Oakwood Park Farm planted next to their race track around 1895. At one time the trees framed the entire track and many are still there, gently curved in an oval.
Alamo resident Claudia Nemir recalled that her grandfather Claude Glass said he planted many eucalyptus along today's San Ramon Valley Boulevard in San Ramon. He worked for the county roads department in the early 20th century. These trees helped drivers see the edge of the road during foggy days and nights and provided windbreaks. Some of those ancient trees have been severely trimmed and form our own "Appian Way" between I-680 and the boulevard.
East of the row of trees Glass planted was Bishop Ranch's landing field. During our agricultural heydays when fruit and walnut orchards covered the Valley floor, crop dusters used this landing field.
Another location in San Ramon is marked by mature eucalyptus trees, next to Deerwood Road. These trees mark part of San Ramon's original village. Deerwood was formerly called Old Crow Canyon Road and led to Hayward from old San Ramon. Aerial photographs from the '50s show the trees looming over the landscape.
In Danville, the hill between Sycamore Valley Road and Camino Tassajara around Old Orchard Road was called Gum Tree Hill because of its prominent eucalyptus groves. Pioneer John Chrisman owned this property in the 1880s. An occasional tree remains.
In the Oakland-Berkeley hills huge eucalyptus plantations replaced grasslands during the early 20th century, a project of entrepreneur Frank Havens. He hired men to plant millions of seedlings, expecting to make a fortune from the wood. According to writer Bill O'Brien, not until 1914 did Havens discover that "only the largest blue gums were suitable for commercial purposes, and even these needed special handling."
Author Robert Santos pointed out a major criticism of eucalyptus their role in California fires. "Winter freezes compound the fire problem by killing back trees that then drop the dead wood and foliage to the grove floor ... The fires in the East Bay hills of 1923, 1973, and 1991 were preceded by a freeze. Very few eucalyptus actually die from frost because their root systems are unaffected. They merely shed the frost-burned foliage and wood, and re-sprout. But the amount of litter dropped to the ground is enormous."
Today monarch butterflies enjoy the eucalyptus stands at Ardenwood Regional Park and some native birds have accommodated to the trees. One modern use of eucs as biomass generates electricity. But dense plantations create a monoculture, and un-managed groves shred copious amounts of bark and leaves, providing a perfect milieu for wildfires.
California's "wonder tree," which so excited people in historical times, is now an integral part of our landscape, for better or worse.
Sources: Bill O'Brien, the Ubiquitous Eucalyptus (Bay Nature magazine, Sept. 2005), Robert L. Santos, The Eucalyptus of California; Charlotte Wood Rambling Reminiscences of The Charles Wood Family and Their "Woodside Farm" Home; museum archives
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