Falling from grace: The history of eucalyptus in California

Eucalypti, painting by Guiseppe Cadenasso (1858-1918)
Eucalypti, painting by Guiseppe Cadenasso (1858-1918)

There is much to like in Jared Farmer’s chapters in Trees in Paradise about eucalyptus in California.  He begins with a comprehensive history of when, where, why, and by whom eucalypts were planted in California.  The history begins in the 1870s:  “Planters believed variously that the exotic trees would provide fuel, improve the weather, boost farm productivity, defeat malaria, preserve watersheds, and thwart a looming timber famine.  First and foremost, settlers propagated them to domesticate and beautify the land, to give it more greenery. (1)

Although eucalyptus proved to be a disappointment as a source of timber, it continued to be widely planted in California until about 1913 because it was so well adapted to California’s climate, readily available, and grew quickly:  “In 1924 a botanical investigator estimated that the state contained 40,000 to 50,000 acres of solid eucalyptus, broken down as 80 percent blue gum, 15 percent “red gums,” 4 percent sugar gum, and 1 percent others.”  In 1927, the Los Angeles Times said of eucalyptus, “[it] seems more essentially California than many a native plant; so completely has it adopted California, and so entirely has California adopted it, that without its sheltering beneficence our groves and vineyards would be like Home without a Mother.’” (1)

Well into the 1960s eucalypts were still considered a valuable asset in California.  Harold Gilliam, the nature writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, said, “The Eucalyptus seems an indispensable element of this State’s landscapes, as indigenously Californian as the redwoods, the poppy fields, the long white coastal beaches, the gleaming granite of the High Sierra,’” (1)

Exhibit at Oakland Museum of California
Exhibit at Oakland Museum of California

The tide turns against eucalyptus in California

Jared Farmer dates the reversal of the reputation of eucalyptus in Northern California to 1972, when an unusually deep and prolonged freeze caused eucalyptus to die back.  Because this was a unique event in California, with which there was little experience, the initial assumption was that the eucalypts were dead.  Thus began a concerted effort to remove the dead trees that were presumed to be a fire hazard.  Before the question of who would pay for this massive clean-up could be resolved, it became clear that the trees weren’t actually dead and would resprout. The removal effort was abandoned for the time being. This was an early lesson in the indestructibility of eucalyptus that would prove central to the debate in the future.  Eucalypts resprout regardless of how they are destroyed; whether they are burned by fire or frost or cut down, they will resprout unless their roots are repeatedly poisoned with herbicide (usually Garlon).  

Shortly after this episode, the managers of our public lands began to adopt policies requiring the removal of non-native species based on an assumption that native species would benefit from their removal.  In 1982, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), properties managed by the National Park Service, adopted a policy of destroying all blue gum eucalyptus on 600 acres of park property in Marin County.  Ironically, they chose to announce their intention to destroy the trees on Arbor Day in 1986.  They were flabbergasted by the public’s response to their announcement.  They received letters from 350 members of the public and petitions from hundreds more, virtually all adamantly opposed to the proposed plan.  Marin County supervisors were also opposed to the plans.  Farmer says the GGNRA was forced to scale-back their plans to a single demonstration area. (Farmer doesn’t mention that subsequently GGNRA has destroyed tens of thousands of eucalypts using a variety of justifications including fire hazard. (See “Our Mission.”)

The State Parks Department adopted the same policy to remove all blue gum eucalyptus from State parks around the same time.  They started with Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay and the reaction of the public was much the same as it had been to the plans of the GGNRA.  This time the State Parks Department didn’t back down.  They did a complete Environmental Impact Report in response to public demands and then they removed virtually all the eucalyptus on the island in 1990, with the exception of 6 acres deemed to have historic value.  Eucalyptus has been removed from two other State Parks:  Annadel in Sonoma County and Montana de Oro in San Luis Obispo County.  (If the State of California hadn’t experienced severe budgetary difficulties, this list of parks in which eucalyptus was eradicated would undoubtedly be longer.)

Public opinion about eucalyptus changed radically after the fire in the Berkeley-Oakland hills in 1991.  It is important to note that the managers of public land had adopted the native plant ideology that requires the removal of non-natives such as eucalyptus prior to that fire.  The fire was an opportunity for the managers of public lands to justify their projects based on a claim that the trees are a fire hazard. 

Is it accurate to blame eucalyptus for the 1991 fire?  Although Farmer says the eucalypts were not the cause of the fire, he claims there were eucalypts on only 20% of the burned area but that eucalyptus was 70% of the fuel in the fire.  These statistics are new to us and are not consistent with FEMA’s technical report which says that the homes destroyed by the fire were the biggest fuel source. The primary reason there was so much eucalyptus leaf and bark litter was that there had been another deep, prolonged freeze the winter before the fire that caused the eucalyptus to die back as it had in 1972. As in 1972, no coordinated civic effort was made to clean up the dead tree litter.

Such deep freezes are rare in the San Francisco Bay Area.  The freeze in 1990 was the first and only freeze since 1972 and there has not been another since 1990. The current balmy and dry winter is a harbinger of the warming climate.  Such freezes in the future are unlikely.  If there were another freeze, would we have the sense to clean up the dead litter next time?  We would like to think so.

NY Times reported that 150 homes were burned in the Scripps Ranch fire in 2003, but none of the eucalyptus surrounding the homes caught fire.
NY Times reported that 150 homes were burned in the Scripps Ranch fire in 2003, but none of the eucalyptus surrounding the homes caught fire.

Farmer identifies other factors in the reversal of the reputation of eucalyptus in California.  There have been a few fatalities caused by falling limbs and trees, although Farmer rejects the suggestion that eucalypts are inherently more dangerous than other trees.  Available databases and media reports of tree failures and fatalities don’t support the claim that eucalypts are more hazardous than other trees.

Farmer also reports insect infestations in eucalyptus, particularly in Southern California.  He dances around the question of whether or not these insect predators of eucalyptus were imported from Australia by native plant advocates for the purpose of killing the trees.  We have reported on a study by an entomologist at UC Riverside that supports that theory and we have witnessed native plant advocates bragging about having a hand in that scheme.

However, Farmer rejects the claim that eucalyptus is very invasive.  He also reports the studies that find equal diversity and abundance of wildlife in eucalyptus forest and native woodlands.  Claims to the contrary are often used by native plant advocates to justify the eradication of the eucalyptus forest.

Farmer ultimately concludes that eucalypts in California are dying of old age, implying that this will be the graceful resolution of the conflict about their existence in California.  We believe he is mistaken in that judgment.  Blue gum eucalyptus lives in Australia from 200-500 years, towards the longer end of that range in milder climates such as the San Francisco Bay Area.  Our blue gums haven’t been here that long, so we don’t yet know how long they will live here.  However, many professional arborists with no vested economic interest in their destruction have judged our eucalyptus forest in the Bay Area to be healthy.

We don’t advocate for planting blue gum eucalyptus.  In any case, they aren’t available in nurseries in California any more.  We ask only that existing trees be allowed to die of natural causes because of the environmental damage that would be done by destroying them prematurely:  the release of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the spraying of herbicides to prevent them from resprouting, the loss of the habitat they provide.

We are grateful to Jared Farmer for his book about the trees of California.  Mr. Farmer is a professor of history at State University of New York, Stony Brook.  He is the author of a favorably-reviewed book about Utah where he grew up and received his graduate education.  He has done a prodigious amount of research of both scientific and historical documents about the trees of California.  His writing style is engaging and he steps back from his subject to muse about the philosophical issues raised by his findings.  His book deserves the respect of both tree and native plant advocates.


(1)    Jared Farmer, Trees in Paradise:  A California History. W.W. Norton & Company, 2013


20 thoughts on “Falling from grace: The history of eucalyptus in California”

    1. Thank you. I’m a California native, so the history of eucalyptus is also my history. It won’t be new information to many of my readers, but I’m glad you enjoyed it, just as I enjoy your beautiful pictures of Niagara in the winter, a scene that is foreign to me.

  1. As I write, I am looking out the window from where we have lived for a significant part of every year, on Albany Hill. I enjoy the graceful drape and the shimmer of the sunlight on the huge Eucalyptus between us and the bay, on a gorgeous day.

    I stopped for a moment and looked out another window at the hundreds of Eucalypts on another side and realize that anyone suggesting that there is not diversity around Eucalypts simply cannot have set foot in such a forest. The air is pungent with the smell of the vital oil in the trees; yet, these trees are not more inherently flammable than other trees. The soil around these trees is moist below the top layer since Eucalypts have a root system developed to retain water for long periods of time, even in very hot weather, so I feel safer in this forest than in some others. Birds are everywhere. The vegetation is of many types, right up around many tree trunks. But I had a realization this morning that perhaps some people have trouble seeing the diversity of vegetation because they are of a consumer culture that suggests that, if something is not massive (like some of these trees), it is insignificant.

    Decades ago, I thought of desert as flat, plain, dead. Then I spent time in Nevada where we were acting to stop Nuclear Weapons work at the Nevada Test Site. I woke up after a night in a tent to crisp, cool air, and soon saw a tiny flower. I guess my head was clear after a refreshing night’s sleep because that morning I saw flowers everywhere. Before that, I had never bothered to look. I had not stopped to see what was spread right before my eyes: Nature’s bounty. My understanding of deserts was turned on its head. The desert wasn’t the problem; my lack of imagination and effort were the problem, and I then understood part of what we faced with people developing these bombs. They didn’t see what was right before their eyes, whether people, wildlife, or vegetation.

    It’s a beautiful day on Albany Hill. I’m glad so many people take refuge here from daily life in a bustling urban area. This is one of the Bay Area’s treasures and I feel blessed to get to live alongside these majestic trees. They have stories to tell us. Humans might not watch them closely enough, but I’m pretty sure they are watching us.

    1. You are indeed lucky to have a view of Albany Hill, one of our beauty spots in the East Bay. One of the unique things about Albany Hill is that there is eucalyptus forest on the top that meets an oak woodland on its north side. This is one of the many places in the Bay Area where we can see with our own eyes that eucalyptus does not intrude into native woodlands. Historically, oak woodland occupied only the north side of hills where they were protected from the prevailing wind from the southwest and where greater shade retained more moisture in the soil.

  2. I was recently driving around San Francisco and Oakland admiring the tall trees, which I didn’t know were blue gum eucalyptus until checking online. It makes me sad to see so many articles about “thinning” or destroying these forests. What makes them any less worthy of being here than “native” plant species?

    1. Good question. The most common answer we hear to your question is, “They don’t belong here.” And the most common response we hear to that statement is, “Neither do we.”

      Many native plant advocates also believe that native plants cannot survive in the shade and leaf litter of eucalyptus. There is some truth to that because many native plants do not tolerate shade because there were virtually no trees in native San Francisco Bay Area so plants are adapted to full sun. However, there are many native plants growing now in the eucalyptus forest, so it is not entirely true.

  3. The painting by Jack Cassinetto? Who gave you the right to post on your web site? Did you simply pick up from the web? Unless you have a written right from the owner you will need to remove it from your web site. That artwork is the work of my husband and it is not from the early 1900s. The photo belongs to whomever took it, probably the gallery where you took it from. Please remove the photo. Connie Cassinetto

    1. The internet source of the photo said the painting was “inspired by the plein air painters of the early 1900s.” I seem to have misinterpreted that description and made the mistake of assuming it was in the public domain. I have deleted the photo. I apologize for my error.

    1. Thank you for publishing the link to the Million Trees blog. Here are a couple more references about the role of eucalyptus in the 1991 Oakland wildfire that may interest you. This is a link to the opinion of a prominent fire scientist at the US Forest Service fire science laboratory: https://milliontrees.me/2016/05/06/fire-scientist-says-eucalyptus-did-not-burn-with-high-intensities-leading-to-home-destruction/
      And here is a collection of quotes of fire survivors of the 1991 wildfire which indicate that eucalyptus was not more involved in that fire than any other tree species: https://milliontrees.me/2010/05/05/the-power-of-a-legend/

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