Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Wandering Eucalyptus

As a kid in Australia, I spent many a day climbing eucalyptus trees, dangling from precarious heights, and scraping arms and knees on the rough branches and bark. Gum nuts would fall on my head and get tangled in my hair, and my clothes would be stained with sap and reek of eucalyptus oil. These precious memories have stuck with me, and it’s always a surprise when they spring up out of the blue. Many times I’ve trekked in countries like Peru or Turkey, and I’ve smelt the distinct aroma of eucalyptus then I’ve turned a corner and come across hills covered in these beautiful trees. 

With over 800 species of the plant endemic to Australia, there’s no surprise these trees have spread their branches around the world. Eucalypts are renowned for consuming a lot of water, and it’s not uncommon for people to use them to dry up swamps. By doing this, the breeding grounds of mosquitoes disappear and the risk of malaria is eliminated. 

When the Trappist monks planted eucalyptus trees at their Tre Fontane Monastery near Rome, Italy, in 1870, they not only removed the risk of malaria in the surrounding area, but they founded a new cottage industry. Trappist monks produce goods that are sold to provide an income for the monastery, and after they discovered how to cultivate the bees and honey using the pollen from the eucalyptus trees, they found a new profitable endeavor. And to prove how resourceful these monks are, there is a Trappist Liqueur de Tre Fontane that is distilled from the leaves of eucalyptus trees. I’ve not yet sampled it, but it’s on my list of things to do in Italy!

What surprises me the most though, is the recent discovery that eucalypts may have flourished in South America millions of years ago. Scientists have found fossils of leaves, flowers, fruits, and buds in Patagonia, Argentina, and they believe these are the only scientifically validated fossils that prove the eucalyptus existed outside of Australia without humans transplanting them. The fossils date back to 52 million years ago and represent a sub-genus of eucalyptus known as Symphypmyrtus, making this the oldest eucalyptus fossil ever found. Patagonia is a haven for fossils and dinosaurs, so it’s interesting to contemplate if any of these creatures ate eucalyptus leaves or flowers as part of their regular diet.

When most people think of Australia, they imagine the not-so-cuddly Koala (no, it isn’t a bear!), sitting in a gum tree (also known as a eucalyptus), stoned off its head. These lazy creatures love to loll about in eucalyptus trees, sleep 18 hours a day, and spend another 3 hours chewing on toxic leaves that would kill most animals and humans. The eucalyptus leaves are low in nutrition, but the koala’s bodies are designed to slowly metabolize the toxins, which is why they sleep so much. Next time someone tells you koalas get high on eucalyptus leaves and they sleep because they’re stoned, you can tell them it’s a myth, and their sleepiness is due to them conserving energy so they can digest their food. Bummer, man.

With people turning to greener products, eucalyptus oil is making a comeback. Eucalyptus oil has anti-bacterial properties and can help people with respiratory conditions. There’s nothing like a dab of eucalyptus on a handkerchief to help relieve one’s cold symptoms. Eucalyptus oil is a great insect repellent, stain remover, odor remover, and a few drops in the wash of stinky gym gear can do wonders. If you have a niggling headache, rubbing a few drops on your temples can get rid of that pain quickly. Oh, oh, I’m starting to sound like an advert, but I promise, it does work!

Those who have been to California may be familiar with the eucalypts there. With a similar climate to Australia, the eucalypts thrived after they were imported in the 1850s during the American Gold Rush. The Californian government encouraged plantations with the view to use the timber for construction, furniture, and railroad ties. Unfortunately, eucalyptus bark tends to twist while drying and made it impossible to hammer rail spikes into the ties. What the importers also didn’t realise at the time is that the young trees in California were no comparison to the centuries-old eucalyptus trees in Australia. The older trees didn’t warp or split, and it didn’t take long before the eucalyptus industry in California took a nose dive. Today, eucalypts provide windbreaks for highways and farms, and are used as ornamental trees in cities and private gardens. The eucalyptus tree however have come under some heavy criticism because they don’t support native animals in California, and the trees have been classified as a fire hazard. With a naturally high oil content, the trees can combust and turn into fire balls if there’s a bushfire.

Even though eucalyptus trees can be found in just about every corner of the world now, I still associate these wonderful trees with my birth country. One of the most photographed and visited sites in Australia is the Blue Mountains, just outside of Sydney. If you’ve ever seen photos or visited, you’ll understand how they got their name. Originally called the Carmarthen Hills, this beautiful piece of paradise underwent a name change to the Blue Mountains because of the dense population of oil-bearing eucalyptus trees. When the atmosphere fills with fine oil droplets and combines with dust particles, water vapor, and the right light, a mysterious blue haze settles floats through the trees and above the rivers. Spectacular is the first word that comes to mind. 

Every now and again when I travel I feel a little homesick, so it’s nice to get a surprise and find a crop of eucalypts gracing hills in foreign lands. I can close my eyes and breathe deeply, let the strong eucalyptus scent wash over me and imagine being back home amongst the gum trees where the lazy koalas sleep and kookaburras laugh.

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