Murray Bail wrote a novel, Eucalyptus, with a plot that hinges on one of those marry-my-daughter contests that show up in fairy tales: The successful suitor must name all the eucalypts on the father’s property, and the father has planted at least one of pretty much all of them. That’s hundreds of species —and as things get studied and shuffled, it’s hard to say how many species there are, let alone which any tree belongs to.
Studying eucs is a good way to stay humble. The sort of person who reads articles like this probably knows that all those blue gum eucs aren’t native to California, but I’m surprised now and then by somebody who doesn’t. Blue gum shows up in Arts and Crafts décor as often as California poppies, and as emblematically. Those sickle-shaped adult leaves are pretty when cast in bronze or ceramic, true. And blue gum is a handsome tree in its proper place—which at this point is probably Tasmania.
They grow fast, and the idea behind importing and planting them on cut-over tracts here was land speculation: buy all this cheap land with a teenager’s-beard of euc saplings on it and wait a few years to sell logging rights to your magnificent stands of valuable, legendarily durable wood. The catch was that the legends were about old-growth Tasmanian timber, and these comparatively young trees make lumber that’s hard to work with and unreliable.
There are other eucalypts that show up here in smaller numbers, and two of the less ponderous make handsome and, as far as I can see, civilized street trees. One of them is blooming now, and if you’ve gone down the west part of Cedar Street, or Sixth or Seventh, or even on the 880 freeway in odd spots south of Oakland, you might have turned and said, “What’s that??” It’s a shortish, sturdy-trunked, roundheaded tree with dark green leaves and big, explosive fans of brushy flowers, startlingly scarlet or occasionally crimson or rosy pink. Look more closely for big brown seed capsules like thumb-sized thimbles. There are only a few around, but they’re hard to miss: Red-flowering gum, scarlet gum, Eucalyptus ficifolia or, as some are calling it lately, Corymbia ficifolia. Even “gum” is supposed to be a misnomer, as it’s a bloodwood… which doesn’t describe its pale timber, but tells who its relatives are. Of course it’s confusing; it’s eucalyptus.
The tree is native to a very small bit of Western Australia, a 50-mile-long strip of mild-climate coast on the region’s southern tip. Because of its limited range, it’s a rare species naturally, but it’s being cultivated in Mediterranean places across the world. It looks conventionally more handsome away from home, as gardeners prune it up a bit so it’s more a tree and less an undisciplined shrub. Beauty and a good fit in the garden have saved some plants from extinction, even if it hasn’t done much for the ecosystems they were born in.
Red-flowering gum is listed as invasive, but in a half-hearted way and in unspecified places; I’ve never seen it in wildlands here. Its roots are supposed to run deep, which would make it sidewalk-friendly and explain its ability to survive our summer drought. At home, it gets a little rain all year.
Another eucalypt scattered across Berkeley is E. sideroxylon, red ironbark or mugga. This one is quite the contrast to Ms. Scarlet, being much more leggy and slender, and, given a good stiff wind, graceful with its weeping habit. It flowers in winter, rather less showily, waving its reddish blossoms on long flexible whips of twig. What I like best about it are its movement and color scheme. Its bark is its best fieldmark: glowing red fissures in black bark, with the look of barely cooling pig iron or crusting live lava. Contrast this with the long blue-green leaves for a very handsome, dynamic tree. Decent pruning and its naturally small size would make it a good garden tree, especially if it has room to dance.
It’s invasive in Africa, but, like scarlet gum, not something you’ll see crowding out wild species here. The worst thing I can say about it is that it’s sometimes the victim of pruning atrocities that leave it a static, if nicely colored, mess.›