Blue gums line the gravel road that winds past our dusty little farmhouse. Look out to the west. Once you could see for miles, but not any more. Now your gaze stops at the towering gums.
Why are they still there, blocking my view?
Eucalyptus trees, as blue gums are more properly called, are a hardy bunch with more than a few annoying features.
You couldn’t call them pretty trees. Their bark peels like last week’s sunburnt skin littering the lawn with long brown stripes. Branches sprout every which way and their dull green leaves hang limply from every twig.
They’re supposed to be evergreen, which in blue gum terms means they shed their leaves all year round. No brilliant yellow, orange and red displays outside my house, just green and brown leaves wafting down in every breeze.
And yet, these Aussie imports are fascinating trees.
So Many Eucalyptus Trees Around The World
You can find gum trees in many corners of the world. Perhaps that makes them Australia’s biggest export? Altogether there are more than 700 species, with just fifteen of them not native to Australia.
We tend to lump them altogether simply as “gums” but the reason they’re found in so many different countries is that there’s a eucalyptus tree for almost every climate. You’ll find them in the tropics, in the deserts and in swamps. Look around Australia and they’re sticking up on the coast — and the mountains. Many wilt at the first sign of a frost — others are partial to a cold winter. The trick is to find the right one for you.
In the late 1800s early New Zealanders had a love affair with eucalyptus trees and planted them in their thousands. From Kaitaia to Bluff farmers and plantation owners invested in gum tree forests for their future timber potential. Unfortunately, they didn’t properly research the correct varieties — and they seem to have ignored the few experts who did — so many trees wilted in unsuitable conditions. To add to the confusion, the same common name was used for different eucalyptus trees in different states which didn’t help planters over here.
The New Zealand National Geographic Magazine perfectly describes the problem.
Furthermore, some difficulties were not of the foresters’ making. Harry Bunn, a retired director of the Forest Research Institute and a eucalypt sympathiser, says: “In Australia, the name of a species in one state was often different from its name in another. Some of our foresters wanted to order seed of the E. regnans that grew in Tasmania, where it was called swamp gum, so they ordered swamp gum seeds. Unfortunately, in those days most of the seed came from Woy Woy, in New South Wales, and their swamp gum is E. ovata. It was duly collected from the worst site possible, delivered to New Zealand and planted on all the state plantations, including in the hills behind Whakarewarewa and at Puhipuhi. Of course, it was a dismal failure. After that, we started using Latin species names.”https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/eucalypts-trees-of-the-future/
Properly grown, and in the right conditions, gum trees do have beautiful timber. But that’s not why we have gums on our farm.
My father-in-law loved planting trees on his farm. Douglas Firs seem to have been his favourite, judging by all the tree lanes lining our paddocks. But every now and then he planted pockets of gums thanks to his friend and advisor Graham Mulligan. He ran a well known tree nursery in Winton, and was an expert in growing eucalypts.
50+ years ago Tommy planted the gum trees that line the road beside our house. They were only a few metres tall and still spindly when we transported our house to shelter behind them.
Take The Good With The Bad
I didn’t know — and Terry didn’t care — that their roots would suck the goodness from the ground all around, And those pesky leaves create a mulch through which very little will grow. That’s my excuse for not having a decent front garden.
In autumn, winter and spring, their tall shadows slide over the house, blocking out the precious sunlight far too soon. On the westward side of the row, it’s bright and breezy. Behind, in our garden, it’s cold and grey.
When the wind is howling along the road, stirring up a choking cloud of dust, there’s not a speck on our side of the trees. And, during summer’s scorching heat that early shade is a welcome relief.
So many storms have beaten against those trees and they’ve withstood every one. No windows have been broken, no trampolines tossed, no rubbish bins rolled: the trees are our protection and shelter.
Tommy chose our gum trees well. We don’t know what variety they are, but they’ve withstood every drought and snowstorm the years have thrown their way.
Gum trees are shallow rooted, which means that they tend to topple in stressful situations. But the ones by our house show no signs of falling. We keep the weight off them by chopping branches off them every couple of years when the mobile hedge trimmer visits the valley.
Those branches make fantastic firewood. Terry cuts them up with a chainsaw and splits the bigger logs while they’re fresh because once the wood dries out it becomes hard as nails. It burns for hours and I love to use it in winter. Blue gum is the perfect wood for banking the wood burner overnight.
In spring, our gum trees sprout delicate white flowers and the bees love them. Their pollen is full of protein and the nectar is just what they need to kick off honey production for the season.
The birds love them too. Each morning they ring out the dawn chorus from every branch. Native korimako (bellbirds) and piwakawaka (fantails) come to feast on the nectar and the flies that constantly hang around the trees. In fact, those trees act as a giant fly-screen for our house — another blessing to be grateful for.
Yes, annoying as their leaves, bark and shade can be, we’ll leave our gum trees where they stand. We’re grateful for their shelter and to Tommy, who planted them so long ago.
Here’s to the gum trees — long may they stand.