Under the gum trees

Unknown“Of all the trees we could’ve hit, we had to get one that hits back.”  J.K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

It’s Australia Day and the mighty eucalyptus tree takes centre stage alongside koalas, kangaroos, thongs [flip-flops] and lamb. The Australian salute [flicking flies off your face] gets a helping hand via miniature paper Aussie flags. Thousands are out and about enjoying celebrations, gorging on Aussie tucker and downing a beer or five!

But while we celebrate all the things the rest of the world loves about Australia, few may be aware that our native gum tree is causing other countries grief.

What? How can the tree that is home to our cute koalas cause pain? And where else in the world can our our sweet-smelling eucalypts be found?

Everywhere it would seem. Our humble gum is a hardwood and has been planted throughout Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North and South America from as early as the 1700s. While the tree is native to Australia, it can grow in different climates.

DSC08000Its popularity came to the attention of nation builders because it is one of the fastest growing trees in the world. It can grow to nearly 50 feet [15.2 metres] tall in four years, and each tree can be harvested four to five times during its 20-year life span.

But here’s the rub. While it is believed to be a non-invasive species, under the gum tree something sinister is brewing for some foreign countries.

First the upside: Sure, the eucalyptus is a hardy and versatile. Its wood is used for a variety of products, including paper, lumber plywood, veneer, flooring, charcoal, firewood, essential oils and landscape mulch. It’s also used for biofuel, with whole-tree chips providing char and oil that can be transported and stored. The chips also supply low-energy gas.

And, yes, the tree’s compounds protect against insects, vertebrate herbivores, ultraviolet radiation and cold stress. Among these are  isoprenoids that give eucalyptus foliage its distinctive smell.

But it is what the tree does under the ground that’s causing such an upset.  In the highlands of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador and parts of Colombia and Chile, eucalypts were planted for fuel wood and to control erosion. Like a growing number of Asian countries, particularly India, Peru has found that eucalypts drain water supplies and fail to regulate the flow of water as well as the native vegetation they replace.

DSC03835Oh no! It would seem the tree that feeds our native koalas not only deplete the soil of nutrients and produce toxins that kill nearby crops but also competes aggressively with other vegetation and displaces indigenous species.

The truth is Peruvians despise Australia’s native gum tree.

It spoils your Australia Day to learn about this yet there is some good news: In America the tree is revered because of its bio-energy properties.

In south-eastern US the eucalypt, which was introduced in 1878 [but not grown commercially until the late 1960s], has been credited with providing an alternate crop to sustain the nation’s pulpwood production.

Despite its success stateside, countries like Peru and India just want to get rid of it!

Meantime we Aussies continue to sell eucalyptus leaves to tourists — as well as ourselves — as potpourri pouches to put in clothes draws, as a bush-remedy tea, luxury soap or relaxing hand lotion and yes to squat those flies from our eyes [by burning its oil].

I guess there’s something to be said about the power of the eucalyptus tree, good and bad!

Judy Wilkinson is a freelance journalist and blogger who recently visited the Peruvian cities of Lima, Puno, Machu Picchu and Cusco only to discover why the Australian native eucalypt has fallen out of favour.