Eucalypts, commonly known as gum trees, form an integral part of the Australian identity with the bush. From the children's song Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree through to the distinctive smell of eucalypts to iconic paintings and photographs, eucalypts are an essential part of Australian culture, featuring in art, music and literature.
Scribbly gums, Blue Mountains National Park. Photo I Brown. Image Courtesy of the Department of the Environment
The sight and smell of eucalypts are a defining part of Australian life. The sight of the blue haze from the eucalyptus oil arising from the bush in the mountain ranges west of Sydney gave the Blue Mountains their name.
The blue is not only the effect of distance but is also caused by the mountains' characteristic blue haze. Their eucalypt-dominated vegetation disperses fine drops of volatile oil into the atmosphere. The oil drops increase the risk of fire, perfume the air and scatter, with great visual effect, the blue light rays of the spectrum.
Greater Blue Mountains area world heritage nomination (PDF 5,610 KB)
Eucalypts come in a great range of shapes and sizes – from tall trees to small shrubs. Eucalypts are a dominant part of the Australian flora. Eucalypts range across Australia – the only landscape they are completely absent from is the high alpine areas, though they are scarce in rainforests and in the arid interior of the continent, except where they find refuge along streams and in isolated ranges.
One of the most commonly cultivated is the Tasmanian Blue Gum, Southern Blue Gum or Blue Gum, (Eucalyptus globulus). In 2006 it comprised 65 per cent of all plantation hardwood in Australia with approximately 4,500km planted. (Bureau of Rural Sciences, Australia's plantations 2006, pdf). E.globulus is the primary source for eucalyptus oil production around the world.
Eucalypts are a vital resource of the Australian environment, from Aboriginal use through to modern production. Different species are used for specific medicinal purposes and food. Since early settlement, eucalypts have been a vital source of timber and firewood for Australians and they have been a key part of the hardwood timber industry. Managing eucalypt forests has been done for millenia and re-growth is part of the cycle after bush fires.
Eucalypts serve as shelter for many species of native Australian animals and birds. A few varieties of gum leaves are the only food eaten by koalas.
Soldiers returning by ship from the First and Second World Wars were said to be able to smell the aroma of the eucalypt before land was visible on the horizon. Efforts by Australians to describe the evocative durable nature of the eucalypt have been attempted by writers such as Banjo Paterson, the photographer Harold Cazneaux, painters Hans Heysen and Albert Namatjira, scientists Ken Eldridge, John Davidson and Chris Harwood, and modern novelists such as Murray Bail as well as the Australian arts and crafts movement.
Meredith, Louisa Anne, (1812-1895), Gum flowers and love, Colour litho, 1860. Image courtesy of the State Library of Tasmania.
'Eucalyptus' is a combination of Greek words meaning 'well covered', in reference to the cap protecting the bud. The name was first published in 1788, the year of English colonisation.
It is likely Europeans first encountered eucalypts not in Australia, but in the early 16th century when the Portuguese colonised Timor, which has at least two indigenous species. However, the recorded history of Eucalypts begins in 1788, when French botanist Charles Louis L'Hritier de Brutelle described Eucalyptus obliqua (Messmate Stringybark) from specimens collected in 1777. Plant collector David Nelson had collected the specimens at Adventure Bay, Bruny Island, Tasmania during Captain James Cook's third Pacific expedition with HMS Resolution and Discovery. (EUCLID: eucalypts of southern Australia, Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research, 2002).
Several more species were named and published between 1788 and the beginning of the nineteenth century, mostly by English botanist James Edward Smith. As may be expected, most of these species were trees of the Sydney region.
In the nineteenth century, extensive land exploration resulted in the discovery of many new eucalypts and their subsequent naming by several of the great botanists in Australian history, particularly Ferdinand von Mueller. Mueller's work on eucalypts contributed greatly to the first comprehensive account of the genus in George Bentham's Flora Australiensis, (1867).
The first comprehensive classification of the eucalypts was published in 1934 by W.F. Blakely of the Botanic Gardens in Sydney. It treated 606 species and varieties and was based on the earlier researches of J.H. Maiden, a former Director of the Gardens who corresponded with the older Ferdinand von Mueller.'
The classification of the genus Eucalyptus, EUCLID: eucalypts of southern Australia, Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research, 2002
Subsequently, botanists have worked to describe, categorise and classify the myriad species. In 1994, scientists Ken Eldridge, John Davidson, Chris Harwood and Garrit van Wyk detailed aspects of variation, selection, and reproduction that are unique to eucalypts. They argued that that large gains in production and quality could be obtained for relatively little cost by choosing the best geographic seed sources. The book Eucalypt domestication and breeding has become essential reading for practicing foresters managing eucalypt plantations in Australia as well as overseas. Eucalypts are now the most planted hardwood in the world.
In 1995, a new genus, Corymbia, comprising the ghost gums and the bloodwoods was suggested. A formal re-classification of the genus Eucalyptus recognising 800 species was published in 2000 including the ghost gums (subgenus Blakella) and bloodwoods (subgenus Corymbia), described as part of the EUCLID project.
To June 2004, Currency Creek Arboretum (CCA) in South Australia, a specialist eucalypt (Angophora, Eucalyptus and Corymbia) arboretum run by taxonomist Dean Nicolle, had planted over 900 species and subspecies (over 6000 plants) of eucalypts.
The significance of Eucalyptus is now recognised internationally, with an ambitious international effort launched in 2007 to decode the genome of Eucalyptus as one of the world's most valuable fibre and paper-producing trees.
Not surprisingly, local names also vary for the same species. The South Australian blue gum is called the yellow gum in Victoria and in New South Wales it is called the white ironbark.
The eucalypt is extremely adaptable. Within species there can be physical adaptations to factors such as soil aspect and proximity to water. For example, E. pseudoglobulus (Gippsland Bluegum) grows 30–40 metres tall in inland forests and yet it can adapt to exposed coastal cliffs by growing mallee-like (with multiple trunks) and small in height.
Regrowth after bushfire, Blue Mountains National Park. Photo I Brown. Image Courtesy of the Department of the Environment
Eucalypts, evolved to cope with Australia's climate, have adapted to survive though drought and bushfire. In particular, eucalypts have a 'remarkable array of characteristics connected with fire' (Gill 1981 in Gill, A. M. & Groves, R. H., Fire and the Australian biota, 1981).
In some instances eucalypts can be a fire hazard. Yet re-growth enables them to regenerate after fire.
Adaptations that promote fire include: a high content of volatile oils in the leaves and litter; litter that breaks down extremely slowly; an open canopy; long strands of bark that hang from limbs after peeling and which can be carried alight for many kilometres to start new spot' fires well ahead of the fire front.
Greater Blue Mountains area world heritage nomination (PDF - 5,610 KB )
Most eucalypts can regenerate from seed after fire. Many eucalypts have woody capsules that protect the seeds during fire, but which open after fire, releasing their seeds.
While a lot of attention is paid to forestry species, eucalypts are also beneficial in lowering the water table (helping to address salinity), providing wind breaks and shade and as ornamental trees.
In addition to forestry, there are a lot of other uses which are economically important as smaller industries. These include eucalyptus oil, honey production and cut flowers. There are different red and yellow flowering species across different climates and soil types.
Aboriginal use of Eucalypts
Eucalypts are the source for Aboriginal tools as well as shields, dishes, musical instruments and canoes. Some species were also used for medicinal purposes and food.
Eucalyptus oil cottage Industry
Reginald Harvey (12 years), Extracting eucalyptus oil The boiler shed. Image courtesy of The Weekly Times 1926.
The possibilities of extracting eucalyptus oils for medicinal use were first explored by Europeans in 1788. The Surgeon General, Dr. John White, ran out of peppermint oil. White and his assistant distilled oil from the leaves of a tree (later named Eucalyptus piperita, or the Sydney peppermint) which they found made an effective substitute.
But it wasn't until 1852 that Joseph Bosisto started the first commercial eucalyptus oil production, when he set up a crude still at Dandenong Creek in Victoria to produce the medicinal oil - Bosisto's 'Parrot Brand'.
Reginald Harvey, ran his own business near Avoca, Victoria which continued for much of his life, until the peak of the business in the 1960s, until its sale in the 1970s. Harvey first described the process of eucalyptus oil production to the Weekly Times in 1926, as a twelve year old.
Eucalyptus oils can be used for three distinct purposes – medicinal, aromatic and industrial. Various different species of eucalypts have been used for oil production, including E. globulus, E. polybractea, E. australiana, and E. dives.
Craft and forest products
One of the primary uses of eucalypts is as a source of wood. Sometimes Australian timbers are stained to imitate European timbers, but often they are used in their natural state. Used naturally, Australian timbers display unique characteristics in grain patterns and colour variations and they provided a distinctive touch to the arts and crafts pieces made in Australia.
In Western Australia, jarrah (Eucalyptus Marginata, formerly known as Swan River Mahogany), only found in the south-west of the state, was sent all over the world. Jarrah is highly regarded for its durability, tensile strength, and resistance to borers, termites and fungal attack. It was used for railway sleepers and for construction purposes, including wharves, bridges and piers and the London Underground. In the 1960s furniture makers explored jarrah timber for its red-coloured beauty in handmade furniture, which has become popular and highly sought-after.
Eucalypts marking history
John Duncan Peirce, Civilization in the bush. Image Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.
Just as eucalypts mark the Australian landscape, so too there are individual trees that mark out points of Australia's history.
Old Gum Tree – Glenelg, South Australia
On 28 December 1836 the establishment of the new colony of South Australia's government was proclaimed. The Old Gum Tree in Glenelg marks the supposed site of this proclamation, though there has been considerable debate as to whether it is the actual site.
Herbig's Tree – Springton, South Australia
When Johann Friedrich Herbig arrived in the colony of South Australia in 1855, his first home was the large hollow trunk of a river redgum tree. The tree, six metres across its widest point, had a hollow opening which faced away from the direction of rain. It was conveniently located on the banks of a stream 1.5 km from the dairy where Herbig worked. In 1858 Herbig married, and the family continued to live in the tree until 1860. After the birth of their second child, the family decided they needed more room, and moved into a hut. Herbig's Tree is located on the main road in Springton.
Burke and Wills 'Dig Tree' – Thargomindah, Queensland
Burke and Wills Dig Tree, Thargomindah. Image Courtesy of the Queensland Heritage Register.
Burke and Wills were the first explorers to traverse the continent from south to north, opening up the country to pastoralism, though the expedition itself proved disastrous. In December 1860 Burke and seven men established Camp LXV (65) at Cooper's Creek where Burke split his party before pressing on to the Gulf accompanied only by Wills, King and Gray.
Brah, Thomas McDonough, William Patten and Dost Mahomet were instructed by Burke to wait for at least three months (the more cautious Wills preferred four months). On the morning of 21 April, Brah embarked on the four-hundred-mile return journey to Melbourne, having carved three separate messages into a Coolibah tree on the banks of Cooper's Creek. The 'Dig Tree' in south-west Queensland marked a buried cache containing provisions.
Burke's party reached Camp LXV on the evening of 21 April 1861 to discovered that Brah had departed that same day. This marked the beginning of a series of missed opportunities and failed communications with Burke departing and Brah returning once more to Camp LXV. Only King survived the expedition.
Called in 1911 by the Sydney Mail 'William Brah's Tree', in 1928 the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia referred to the tree as the 'Depot Tree'. Frank Clune's 1937 book Dig has been credited with changing the tree's popular, and still-current name, to the 'Dig Tree'. The Burke and Wills Dig Tree eventually came to be regarded as central to the story of the expedition, partly as a result of John Longstaff's iconic 1907 painting exhibited in the National Gallery of Victoria, The arrival of Burke, Wills and King at the deserted camp at Coopers Creek.
The Burke and Wills 'Dig Tree' is one of Australia's national icons. It is an enduring reminder of our pioneering spirit. It is believed that the coolibah tree is 200 to 250 years old. The land surrounding the tree is under the trusteeship of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland.
Tree of Knowledge – Barcaldine, Queensland
Barcaldine Tree of Knowledge<, J.W. Wilson Award for Building of the Year Central Queensland, Brian Hooper Architect and m3architecture. Photo by Jon Linkins. Image courtesy of Australian Institute of Architects.
The Tree of Knowledge is a symbol of an important time in Australia's political development.The ghost gum was used by shearers as a meeting place during their unsuccessful strike in 1891. During that strike, as well as the maritime strike of 1890, a crucial and historical connection was forged between unions and what was to become the Australian Labor Party.
The Tree of Knowledge has since become immortalised in Australian political history as the place where the Australian Labor Party was founded. The John Oxley Library holds the original world heritage-listed Manifesto of the Queensland Labour Party to the People of Queensland (dated 1882).
In April 2006 the Tree of Knowledge was poisoned and did not recover. It was felled the following year, but the site is still considered an important place of National Heritage.
Following the poisoning of the original tree in 2006, cuttings held in storage were used to make new cuttings. A grafted plant from the Tree of Knowledge is planted beside the State Library, home to the John Oxley Library.
As a major feature of the Australian landscape, eucalypts feature strongly in Australian art as Australian painters attempted to capture the unique quality of the Australian bush. Early colonial landscapes conveyed the eucalypt as a towering presence, albeit often with the dense green foliage of typical of European trees instead of the lighter open canopy to which we are now accustomed. Art from the Heidelberg School often features landscapes framed by eucalypts.
Cazneaux Tree – South Australia
In 1937 Harold Cazneaux photographed a red gum in Wilpena Pound, in South Australia's Flinders Ranges. The photograph, titled The Spirit of Endurance, was reproduced on calenders and posters all over the world and won many awards in Australian and International exhibitions. The tree became known as the Cazneaux Tree.
Harold Cazneaux (1878–1953), The Spirit of Endurance, 1937. Image Courtesy of the State Library of South Australia.
In May 1941 Cazneaux reportedly wrote:
This giant gum tree stands in solitary grandeur on a lonely plateau in the arid Flinders Ranges, South Australia, where it has grown up from a sapling through the years, and long before the shade from its giant limbs ever gave shelter from heat to white men. The passing of the years has left it scarred and marked by the elements – storm, fire, water, – unconquered, it speaks to us from a Spirit of Endurance. Although aged, its widespread limbs speak of a vitality that will carry on for many more years. One day, when the sun shone hot and strong, I stood before this giant in silent wonder and admiration. The hot wind stirred its leafy boughs, and some of the living elements of this tree passed to me in understanding and friendliness expressing The Spirit of Australia.
Gum trees and pastoral landscapes were favourite subjects for Hans Heysen (1877–1968). Probably more than any other artist, Hans Heysen changed the way Australia saw the gum tree. Heysen trained his eye on the eucalypts in the landscape of Hahndorf, the Adelaide Hills and Flinders Ranges.
Albert Namatjira (1902-1959), Ghost gum, c.1948, watercolour. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia: NGA 2008.241.
The grandeur and spirit of eucalypts was captured on canvas in an iconic fashion by Albert Namatjira. Namatjira' renditions of gums in his country became iconic symbols of the Australian spirit.
Literature and poetry
Eucalypts have also made their presence felt in literature and poetry. Australian writers have attempted to capture the nature of its presence in the landscape. Its nature is seen as both pervasive and evocative. Banjo Paterson describes how the 'subtle strange perfume' of the eucalyptus in blossom drifting amongst the leaves, ferns and grasses overlays the Australian landscape from the mountains, the swamps and the hills of pine.
There came a whisper down the Bland between the dawn and dark, Above the tossing of the pines, above the river's flow; It stirred the boughs of giant gums and stalwart ironbark; It drifted where the wild ducks played amid the swamps below; It brought a breath of mountain air from off the hills of pine, A scent of eucalyptus trees in honey-laden bloom; And drifting, drifting far away along the southern line It caught from leaf and grass and fern a subtle strange perfume.
A.B. 'Banjo' Paterson, The wind's message
Many other writers have also attempted to capture the sometimes overwhelming and defining nature of the eucalypt; 'A galah done like a dinner/ In burning eucalypts (Peter Nicholson, Gifts)
Scribbly gums, Blue Mountains National Park. Photo I Brown. Image Courtesy of the Department of the Environment.
Australia's obsession with eucalypts becomes a metaphor for obsession in Murray Bail's award-winning novel Eucalyptus (1998). Bail's work centres around a man whose obsession with eucalypts won't be relinquished until his daughter's suitors are able to name all species.
The smell of eucalyptus has created both a yearning and recognition of its fragrance and associated qualities.
I'm yearning for the fragrance of eucalyptus gums and kookaburras laughter through
John Hayes, Longing for My Homeland
The smell is also a trigger for memory
Here in Great-grandpa's hut
an invocation of eucalyptus...
Ian C Smith: Your hair was so yellow
Combined with other characteristics it also becomes part of the quintessential experience of growing up in Australia.
the laugh of wet-haired youths
around a Zepher 6, the smell of insect repellent and eucalyptus and the distant constant slowly listless bang of the flywire door
Dylan Thompson, A child's Christmas in Warrnambool
- Department of the Environment, World Heritage Places, Greater Blue Mountains area
- Warriparinga: A conciliation project
- Canoe trees
- Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research , About eucalypts – EUCLID: eucalypts of southern Australia.
- Ferdinand von Mueller
- The Old Gum Tree
- Herbig's Tree
- Dig Tree Reserve
- The Tree of Knowledge, Queensland
- Famous South Australian Trees
Painters and photographers
- Murray Bail, Eucalyptus, 1998
- Ashley Hay, Gum: the story of eucalypts and their champions
Last updated: 9 June 2015
Creators: Heidi Sheppard, et al.