When it comes to their use in plantings and even in the wider landscape Eucalypts cop a lot of bad press. As usual its often down to poor decisions and management on our behalf. The litany of complaints against the Eucalypt include: Those planted as a windbreak or privacy hedge along a small acreage property boundary, they worked fantastically for the first 2-3 years and then grew so tall and opened-up again underneath. The rain of branches is dangerous for the residents and rough on the mower blades. To top it all off, the quote that the arborist gave to remove these giants, that were only a decade or two old, was enough to make the landholder fall to the ground clasping their chest. Then there are the ex-pat Eucalypts planted internationally in places such as Brazil, California & Spain for timber but can become environmental weeds (can’t emphasises the word planted enough, why oh why do we have to move trees around the planet for our own economic benefit and then get annoyed with them when the naturalise, and discreetly forget that we are responsible for their presence). Then there are the ones that are very much at home where they evolved, on this land that we now call Australia. Although crucial habitat to our beloved Koala, they are more frequently seen as a dangerous, about to burst into flames, demon of a tree that that will burn out the country and send us back to the sea from whence we came. Yet again, it doesn’t have to be like this, First Nations Australians have lived with Eucalypts for at least 60,000 years, by managing the land with fire and there was no flaming apocalypse. As a maturing nation (I say this with hope) we must recognise and appreciate the crucial importance of Indigenous fire management / farming of the landscape, come to terms with our collective responsibility in disrupting, destroying this management during the last few hundred years of European colonisation and the importance of reinstating indigenous fire management for our collective future both socially and ecologically.
Soap box oratory over, time to get back to the Rocket Tree statement. Eucalypt species tend to grow very fast, very, very, very fast. Take a local example we grow, Eucalyptus grandis Rose Gum / Flooded Gum. On one particular site we’ve seen them grow 4 + metres in their first year, that’s if the wallabies don’t nibble them or koalas climb them and start breaking branches, which unfortunately happens on a tree that’s, that young. At least 2 metres a year should be a good conservative figure in coastal SE QLD. We also have some trees getting close to 20 metres at just over 13 years in the ground. Hence the Rocket Tree analogy and in a time when we need to be planting and regenerating trees more than ever, how can we harness this rather impressive growth rate, without ending up with some of the problems listed above.
First up, plant Eucalypts native to your area and/ /or appropriate to the type of planting. There are over 700 Australian endemic Eucalypts. Potential mature heights do vary amongst species, from the smallest Eucalyptus vernicosa theVarnished-leaf Gum of Tasmania to the tallest (historically the tallest trees in the world) Eucalyptus regnans the Mountain Ash. In any given area you will have local native Eucalypt species that should be the only ones going in revegetation projects and arguably forestry plants, but if you do want smaller ones for your garden or landscaping there are host of smaller local natives and cultivars.
Next up reinstate indigenous fire management in Eucalypt based forest systems. This country we now call Australia has a long and proud history (60,000 + years) of human land management. What many of us now think of as wilderness, is a landscape in which human management is / was / needs to be integral, to think otherwise perpetuates the myth of Terra nullius and damages our forests. As many of us are new Australian’s (97%), we have very limited understanding of indigenous fire management, but luckily for us all, First Nations people are reclaiming their right to manage country and organisations such as the Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation and the ground breaking book by Victor Steffensen “Fire Country – how Indigenous fire management could help save Australia”, are again blazing a trail (pardon the pun) to reinstate the land management that so much of this country needs.
Lastly and unfortunately, as so often is the case, inspiration for the use and appreciation of yet another Australian native plant has come from another country, Brazil. Ernst Gotsch has been incorporating Eucalyptus grandis into his agroforestry systems for many decades. The system he has developed is called Syntropic Farming and long story short, plants that grow fast (regardless of whether they are exotic or native), are incorporated into a agroforestry system that produces food and other resources and restores the rainforest ecosystems, by the human management of successional processes of forests. Fast growing trees like Eucalyptus are used to kick start the successional process and be nurse trees for the next stage of development, whether that be fruit trees such as bananas or restoring rainforest ecosystems that have been cleared to grassland. The dominant paradigm with regards planting of Eucalypts is that they are thieves of the soil stealing both nutrients and moisture and likely to explode in a ball of flame if a source of ignition is waived in their vicinity. But how can a tree that’s producing this much biomass be a thief? Surely they are generators of life, harvesting the suns energy at a very impressive rate and we like Ernst need to be making the most of this. Management is the key, we can harvest these incredibly, quick and potentially tall growing trees, by pruning. Ernst has developed as system that allows trees such as our Eucalyptus grandis to grow like only they can, and then prune back to a 6 metre pole each year and all the pruning’s fed back to the soil, rapidly increasing soil carbon and soil development. When harvested like this, these trees can be incorporated into rainforest revegetation or tree crop development and reduce the need for external inputs such as mulch and fertilisers.
The First Nations people of Australia and so many other countries across the globe recognise and appreciate the Eucalypts, it’s about time so many of us new Australians recognised their intrinsic importance to our land and work with them to allow their full potential both ecologically and agriculturally to be realized.