Deity, Demon or Somewhere In-between: Eucalyptus Trees in California
Eucalyptus: a resilient and often enormous tree endemic to Australia and a few surrounding islands. A deity or demon, depending on who you’re talking to.
The story of the eucalyptus tree is inextricably linked with the increasing panic, over the last few centuries, of an ever-growing world population and associated demand for natural resources. The same panic, paired with a deep-rooted psychology in some Western populations that humanity transcends nature (either as stewards who must look after it, or as consumers who must exploit it) seems to have disconnected many of us from trees. Wood, as a building material, appears to be associated with a tree as much as a chicken nugget is associated with a chicken.
The human-ushered immigration of many eucalyptus species to the United States’ West Coast exemplifies this modern tree-human relationship.
At Angel City Lumber, we intercept fallen Los Angeles County trees from the wood chipper, mill them into lumber and wood products, and sell the wood back to the community. Eucalyptus trees typically make up a hefty portion of timber we work with, in spite of the decades old mantra (uttered amongst woodworkers and builders alike) in the US that Eucalyptus wood is ‘unusable.’
Over the past five years we’ve utilized, amongst others, blue gum, sugar gum, lemon-scented gum and river red gum in a number of applications and projects. It brings us great joy to flip preconceived perceptions of the value of eucalyptus on their head (a self-proclaimed identity we seem to have donned).
You would be hard pressed to drive down the 405 freeway, picnic in Griffith Park, hit up a farmer’s market, or do basically anything in or around Los Angeles without being a stone’s throw from a eucalyptus tree. How did this myrtle tree, so iconically Australian, become so identifiably Angeleno and, more broadly, Californian? A complex combination of good intentions, strong will, ignorance, ethnocentrism and anthropocentrism of California settlers over the last 150 odd years may point somewhere towards an answer. This ‘invasive alien plant’ has not only naturalized as part of the fabric of the California landscape but has taught us a great deal not only about its place in nature, but also our own.
Following the California Genocide by the Spanish, Mexican, and US governments, the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), and Manifest Destiny reigniting with the Gold Rush (1848), American settlers began to flood California in the late 1840s. The unshaded, arid, brown, chaparral-covered hills of the Central Valley and Southern California were not necessarily the conditions that Anglo-American migrants from the east were used to.
Native Coast Live Oak and riparian California Sycamore trees were sparse, providing little lumber (wood being the migrants’ primary building material) and firewood (their primary source for heat and cooking) for the settling masses. To compound matters, the US had cleared some 100 million acres of trees for agriculture and timber by 1850 and speculation of a nationwide timber famine was on the rise.
From this perceived desperation, 19th century western Americans were in search of a savior flora to “beautify” the landscape, shade them from the harsh sun, retain water, mitigate dust, and, for good measure, someday yield copious amounts of timber for their building needs.
While no one knows exactly who ushered eucalyptus seeds to California from Australia, it seems that the first port of call was San Francisco, more specifically the Golden Gate Nursery owned by William C. Walker. It took little time for Californian horticulturists to deify these lignotubers [this refers to the swollen growth at the base of trees]. They’re fast growing, (some species can surpass ten feet/three meters in height per year), have hygienic and medicinal powers, made fantastic windbreaks in the dusty, windblown valleys and plains; and the diameter of their trunks can become enormous – perfect for lumber production and firewood (and later, pulp).
The incidental enormity of these trees coincided with not only a seemingly imminent timber famine, but a demand for thousands of miles of fence stock and rail ties for the emerging Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869. Focus quickly shifted from beautification and greenery to industrial manufacturing and, naturally, financial investment in eucalyptus trees. The ‘quick growth’ characteristic of eucalyptus seemed to dovetail nicely with the financial and economic model of a burgeoning United States.
The rocket-growing Blue Gum eucalyptus, Eucalyptus globulus, made its way down the Golden Coast. Angeleno agronomist, William Wolfskill, often credited with kickstarting California citrus production, also dabbled in eucalyptus cultivation at Rancho Santa Anita (part of which is the present-day Los Angeles County Arboretum).
Perhaps the first true California eucalyptus evangelist, though, was Ellwood Cooper who moved from Pennsylvania to Goleta, outside of Santa Barbara, in 1872. A disciple of the expatriate German-Australian botanist Baron Ferdinand Von Mueller, Cooper catalyzed Von Mueller’s insightful warning of world desertification and climate change due to gratuitous deforestation. Cooper went on to plant a 200-tree eucalyptus grove, ravenously studied the trees’ various species, and published his book Forest Culture and Eucalyptus Trees in 1876.
Cooper informally passed the baton of the American authority on eucalyptus to the Los Angeles “Golden Boy” of the time, Abbot Kinney. Famously known as a real estate developer responsible for the design of Venice, Kinney also became a chairman of the California Board of Forestry, which has evolved into the present-day California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. He delved into the botanical properties, cultivation, and harvesting of many species of the tree in his 1895 book Eucalyptus. Partnered with his friend John Muir, Kinney also started the San Gabriel Timber Reserve which became the present-day Angeles National Forest. As a developer and thus no stranger to investment, he urged the masses to plant eucalyptus, in the vein of Ellwood Cooper and his predecessors.
This is where things get interesting.
The feverish planting and quick harvests of American eucalyptus gave yields of unstable, warped timber, due to the rudimentary wood drying techniques of the time. (For many and most wood applications, timber cut from tree logs cannot be used in building practices right off the mill. The time-consuming, laborious, and potentially frustrating process of wood seasoning, or drying, has become more efficient today due to wood kiln technology.)
Much of the blue gum timber harvested by lumber companies was deemed as unusable, but not before the tree had spread to most of California. The many groves planted along the West Coast, intended for commercial harvest, were left standing, deemed unsuitable for lumber.
Eucalyptus investors lost their sure-fire bet. The bitterness of these lumber barons aligned with a general Californian feeling emerging about the tree: ‘Eucalyptus are taking over!’ These water-hungry, allelopathic trees were popping up in uncultivated areas, resilient and robust.
Today, at Angel City Lumber, we prize the overlooked blue gum eucalyptus for its strength and beauty. Its resin (kino), density, and closed grain make it an excellent outdoor application species as well as for flooring. The low heat and slow, gradual moisture extraction in wood drying kilns is required to effectively dry eucalyptus wood. This drying technology has allowed us to experiment and produce positive results thus far in manufacturing eucalyptus wood and wood products. Wood kiln drying can be as fickle and nuanced as air drying, but with experience, tracking, and a little luck, the drying speed and stability of the wood improves tremendously.
With the luxury of our modern drying practices, we are able to pull out blue gum’s beige backdrop with subtle streaks of brown and mauve. Our flat sawn boards reveal the grain’s cosmic and elliptical shapes. The quarter and rift sawn boards create marked patterns that look like staccato notes on sheet music. As an outdoor application species, blue gum quickly grays to a currently chic silvery appearance.
Blue gum eucalyptus is not the only species we see from this great genus. Perhaps thanks to Abbot Kinney’s zealotry of sugar gum (Eucalyptus cladocalyx), quite a few of these tree logs come to our log deck when they perish, usually by way of the West Side, especially Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades. The wood from a sugar gum tree is monochromatically taupe and holds lots of fiddleback and wood figure, maybe due to its interlocking grain as the tree grows.
Lemon-scented gum (Corymbia citriodora), most notable for the lemon-like scent that emanates from crushed leaves, and its extremely smooth bark, shares sugar gum’s beige-ness but has cocoa brown overtones layered into the heartwood.
River red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis), boasts a rich, monochromatic crimson coloured wood with the same potential for wild grain figure. The coloring of red ironbark (Eucalyptus sideroxylon) is a similar red, but slightly more salmon, with subtle streaks of subdued oranges, greens, and purples.
Make no mistake, we amateur botanists at Angel City Lumber are nowhere near identifying the upwards of 200 eucalyptus species in Southern California, excluding potential hybrids. With over 700 species hailing from Australasia, identifying them all might be described as trying to find a needle in a haystack. And then there’s the fact that in the last decade botanists have internationally (and controversially) accepted the breakout genus Corymbia from within the Eucalyptus genus. It’s complicated.
In any event, the many Los Angeles eucalyptus trees we have recovered have allowed us to honor them in a variety of projects. One of the most notable utilized around 25 blue gum logs (roughly 30 tons) at 1 Hotel West Hollywood. The logs were milled on three sides, cut and joined into a polygonal shaped raised planter, roughly 60 feet long, 15 feet wide, and three feet high.
In addition, the storied Eames House in Pacific Palisades, home to the late industrial designers and artists Charles and Ray Eames, was built upon a eucalyptus grove. In 2019, one of the most iconic trees on the grounds, a four-and-a-half-foot diameter sugar gum by the front door, and another river red gum downhill from the house, were removed at an arborist’s recommendation. We milled the trees’ logs, kiln dried the lumber, and the Eames Foundation along with the Eames’ lifelong manufacturing partner, Herman Miller, created a limited edition run of a classic design (Occasional Table LTR) utilizing the wood from the trees. This past year, two other Eucalypts were removed as their root systems were threatening the house’s foundation. From these trees, we worked with Eames Office and Globe Brand to memorialize these trees as eucalyptus skateboard decks, yielded from the trees, anthropomorphically nicknamed “Molly” and “Mitchell.”
Maybe for no other reason than we have not tried it yet, perhaps we can try we can accept eucalyptus for what they are, not what we need or want them to be, for us, at any given time. It seems that bridging the gap in the opinions held about this tree begins with an acknowledgment that they are awe-inspiring and beautiful by their very nature, well-suited for some things, ill-suited for other things, but by and large, perfect as they are.
Even beyond acknowledgement or acceptance, we at Angel City Lumber choose to hold reverence and gratitude for all the tree sentinels that have arrived to our community, no matter their origin.
Header image by Alex Papke, for Globe Brand.