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Danville Express

Living - September 11, 2009

Presenting the Past: Eucalyptus trees all over the Valley, Part 2

by Beverly Lane

In her "Rambling Reminiscences" history, Charlotte Wood wrote that, around 1880, her father Charles brought home eucalyptus seedlings.

"Father, greatly interested in the upbuilding and improvement of the country, invested in several boxes of the attractive little trees," she wrote. "Each crate, or box, contained 100 thrifty-looking little blue plants six or eight inches high. Being very hardy, they were put in odd spots not suitable for grain culture and as one can see today (1951), they made rapid growth for they now are mammoth trees." Some of these trees can still be seen along Camino Tassajara near the Wood Ranch housing development.

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

Beverly Lane is curator of the Museum of the San Ramon Valley and co-author of "San Ramon Valley: Alamo, Danville, and San Ramon" and "Vintage Danville: 150 Years of Memories."

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