Presenting the Past: Ah, the ubiquitous eucalyptus, Part 1 | August 28, 2009 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Living - August 28, 2009

Presenting the Past: Ah, the ubiquitous eucalyptus, Part 1

by Beverly Lane

Ever notice the stands of old eucalyptus in the San Ramon Valley? These trees are not California natives but they can be seen everywhere in the Oakland-Berkeley hills, the Central Valley, our Valley and Southern California. And therein lies a tale.

Eucalyptus came to California with the Gold Rush. Australian miners sailed here on ships made of ancient blue gum eucalyptus and brought sacks of the seeds with them. As gold miners became farmers, they were happy to plant these seedlings since most of the desirable land was nearly treeless and the eucalyptus grew quickly. One early report stated a grower had 40-foot trees in just six years.

John S. Hittel in his "Resources in California" (1863) stated, "the valleys are mostly bare of trees." There were not enough oaks, willows or sycamores to meet the growing population needs. The Oakland redwoods were felled as San Francisco was built, burned down, and built again until the original redwoods were depleted.

In his work "The Natural Wealth of California," published in 1868, author Titus Fey Cronise gives this picture of Stanislaus County: "With the exception of a few scattered oaks along the larger streams, and a sparse growth of the same trees interspersed with an inferior species of pine found on the eastern foothills, the county is destitute of timber." According to Robert Santos, these 19th century authors paint a clear picture of California's virtually treeless landscape.

Santos wrote: "The demand for trees quickened with settlement because wood was needed for fuel and construction. Settlers from the well-forested eastern United States disliked the monotonous treeless landscape of California and immediately began planting trees near their buildings for beauty, shade and firewood. The eucalyptus could meet these needs quicker than other trees, and because of this and its enormous size, it attracted attention."

There are about 600 kinds of Australian eucalyptus. Early enthusiasts touted their fast-growing qualities and uses for fire wood, windbreaks and construction. Other claims were made which turned out to be true only if certain types of eucalyptus and careful seasoning was employed. Southern Pacific and later Santa Fe Railroads tried to use the wood for railroad ties but discovered that it split and wouldn't hold a spike.

Ranchers found the trees did make good windbreaks and, while the wood was difficult to cut, it burned very well. The bark that shed from blue gum trees made excellent kindling as well. But those who hoped to make furniture or even fence posts were disappointed since it wouldn't take a plane easily and, as it dried, came apart.

R.O. Baldwin had brought Osage seeds from Ohio and planted them on his ranch to have some trees from home. He also planted eucalyptus trees for windbreaks. He and others planted locusts to frame the old highway. Old eucalyptus can still be seen around the headquarters of Baldwin's ranch near El Capitan. Drivers looking for the trees can see them next to San Ramon Valley Boulevard throughout the south part of the Valley.

Seedlings were sold in Bay Area nurseries beginning in the 1850s. In Oakland the Bellevue Nursery's 1871 catalogue advertised 34 species of eucalyptus for 25-30 cents each; blue gum seedlings sold for 10 cents. Gum Tree Nurseries in Hayward marketed 50,000 seedlings in 1873 and was one of the largest sellers.

Ranchers in Alamo, Danville and San Ramon probably purchased seedlings from these nurseries because their serious planting projects began in the late 19th century.

More next week on these local ranchers and their eucalyptus.

Sources: Bill O'Brien, "Ubiquitous Eucalyptus" (Bay Nature magazine, Sept.2005), Robert L. Santos, "The Eucalyptus of California"; 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."