Eucalypt

I spy with my little eye, something beginning with 'T'

‘Ahh, the trees’. Not the most common thought one has when reminiscing about the places they’ve been overseas. Unless, of course, one is a botanist or has had a series of unusual experiences involving trees.

Strangely though, trees have been a continuous theme through many of my overseas exploits. There have been various times when travelling that I’ve been shocked to see trees from home in the places I least expected them. The first of these was when I was riding across a section of a Tanzanian mountain range and lo and behold, on the first day along a narrow dirt road there was a border of eucalypts planted by the roadside. I vaguely remembered at this point that eucalypts had been used around the world to help control road moisture issues as they absorb a lot of water. After the intense culture shock I’d experienced whilst travelling up to this point, the sight of these familiar trees was a pleasant reminder of home.

A eucalypt in flower in Uganda.  Image: Sarah Bond   
  
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A eucalypt in flower in Uganda. Image: Sarah Bond

Another time that I had such an experience was when driving through Spain. We were on a major highway heading towards Madrid and I just happened to glance out the window and see a stand of eucalypts beside the highway at an interchange. It was a moment that would likely have passed by without note for most people, except for myself who was experiencing a moment of homesickness. The trees elevated my spirits and gave me a much-needed feeling of belonging.

I’m told by fellow travellers that they’ve had similar feelings and it has made me empathise with those who move to other countries and want to keep a piece of home close by. Perhaps this feeling is at the crux of humanity’s capacity to disperse introduced species - wanting to make a new environment feel familiar and ‘homely’. Colonialism has resulted in one of the greatest expressions of this need, and now, wandering around different parks in Melbourne, you can find oaks and beeches that are well over 100 years old; botanical markers from those early settlers.

I've found that this same phenomenon applies to Australians going to other parts of the world. When I was adventuring around Johannesburg in South Africa, I found eucalypts that were well over 100 years old, planted by Australian gold miners. Eucalypts have since spread widely across the country. Unsurprisingly, there is much discussion regarding the potential effects this introduction has had on the South African environment (just as there is in Australia regarding our own introduced species).

A eucalypt tree (left) in the Knysna township, South Africa.  Image: Sarah Bond   
  
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A eucalypt tree (left) in the Knysna township, South Africa. Image: Sarah Bond

Whilst in South Africa, I had the most surreal and ironic experience when volunteering at a game reserve – we were asked to weed eucalypts (note: not an easy task). It felt quite wrong given that I expend great effort planting them at home to re-establish habitats. In this same reserve, I was happily greeted by monkeys in a stand of eucalypt trees near where I was staying. Watching them climbing and swinging through the very familiar trees, it became very clear that I wasn't in Australia.

Similarly, I went on a paddling trip on a lake in Uganda with another Australian friend. We both had a little giggle as we paddled in a canoe made of a hollowed eucalypt tree. The guide took great pride in telling us about eucalypts and how useful they are. We didn’t discuss the effects of their introduction; however, their damaging impacts on local environments have been widely acknowledged given their huge use of water in an otherwise water restricted continent.

Despite knowing this, all of my experiences with eucalypts overseas have been gratifying just as much as they are unexpected. Although they’re usually accompanied by a quick shot of homesickness, they also often give some quiet relief. Until travelling, I hadn’t thought about the effect that these trees have on me at home. They seem to lend a steadiness to a landscape and have become one of the most quintessentially Australian sights you can see.

A eucalypt canoe shadowed by a eucalypt tree on the banks of Lake Mutanda, Uganda.  Image: Sarah Bond   
  
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A eucalypt canoe shadowed by a eucalypt tree on the banks of Lake Mutanda, Uganda. Image: Sarah Bond

Even now, many of the trees I see every day are special. The Manna Gum beside a creek in Ferntree Gully that I pass on my way home from work. The Candlebark that stands like a ghost amongst the darker trunks of the box trees on a drive through Wonga Park. The beautiful majesty of the Mountain Ash forests in the Dandenongs that stand like spectators, watching those wending their way through the mountains.  

As a connection with place, trees can offer one of the strongest links. For the trees, it seems that they stand as silent witnesses to the passing of the world, not actively participating in the connection. For me, though, they provide some of the deepest ties to my overseas adventures. 


Sarah Bond

Sarah is a botanist who has also had a series of unusual experiences with trees. She works at an indigenous plant nursery in Melbourne and is the Education Manager for Wild Melbourne.

You can find her on Twitter at @SarahBBond


Banner image courtesy of Sarah Bond.

A Day in the Life of a Eucalypt

What must it be like to live life as a eucalypt? Before studying plants, I always thought that it must be quite a relaxing life, planted solidly and soaking up the sunshine. Now, after learning more about what is involved in a plant’s life, I know that for many trees, and in particular our eucalypts, daily life can be quite stressful. I recently read the book The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, which highlighted many of the trials that trees are constantly facing. These included such hardships as being under threat from herbivorous animals, their competition against neighbouring tree species, and the fight against the slow, yet insistent fungi that can cause a tree to rot.

Whilst reading this book, I thought keenly about the hidden behaviours of our own eucalypts in Australia. There is so much that is not fully known about these wonderful trees and little shared about their experiences. This National Eucalypt Day, I would like you to imagine what it must be like to live a day as a eucalypt tree.

It is early morning on a summer’s day and the first gleam of light is about to peak over the horizon. You feel a light breeze ruffle your leaves just as the first beams start to hit your upper branches. You slowly angle your leaves to capture as many of the sun’s shafts as you can and start the day’s conversion of sunlight into sugars, releasing the oxygen created as a by-product.

You pull water up your trunk from your roots and feel it extend through your branches and into your leaves. This is something you do all day and for many eucalypts in summer, it can be quite a struggle when there’s little water around. You make the most of the early sunlight whilst the temperature isn’t too hot and reduce the amount of water you lose from your leaves.

As the day warms up, you start to pull more water up to your crown. It evaporates off your leaves, keeping you cool for a while, but eventually the temperature, particularly in the afternoon, gets too much for you. You close your leaves to the surrounding environment and slowly angle them away from the direct sun. You wait out the hottest time, storing your sugar reserves for later.

As the sun goes down, you open your leaves again to the air around and start letting oxygen and carbon dioxide flow. You use your evening of free breathing to slowly fuel the growth of more leaves, your trunk, branches, roots, flowers – everything. You also use it to produce the oils in your leaves that make you smell so wonderful, and taste so terrible to any interested animals.

You continue the slow movement of materials through the night into the next day where it starts all over again. As a eucalypt tree, you are rarely hungry, nearly always thirsty, and can only breathe when it’s not too hot. You continually store as much energy as possible so that there are always reserves should any unforeseen circumstances come to pass.

The above narration captures a tranquil day in a eucalypt’s life. But what happens when there are strong winds, an insect boom, flooding rain, or a bushfire?

Our trees survive through extraordinary conditions and display incredible behaviours in response to the daily and long-term changes in their environment. Unfortunately, most of these are hidden from everyday view or are on timescales that go unnoticed to the untrained eye. I am endeavouring to appreciate these behaviours in my local eucalypts and am on the look-out for secrets I may have previously been ignorant to. Next time you wander past a eucalypt, or sit under its most welcome shade on a hot day, spare a thought for its efforts and see if you can notice any of its more unobserved habits.


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Sarah Bond

Sarah is a botanist who works at a local indigenous plant nursery in Melbourne. She is interested in engaging the public with the conservation of local flora and fauna.

You can find her on Twitter at @SarahBBond


Six Things You Should Know About Eucalypts

This National Eucalypt Day we are celebrating all the amazing things about our beautiful eucs! So here are some little-known facts about one of Australia's most iconic plant species.

The tallest flowering plant in the world is a Eucalypt.

Given the opportunity, mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans) will often grow to heights of around 80 metres. However, the tallest mountain ash, know as ‘Centurion’, stands just over 99 metres tall in Tasmania.

Mountain ash is the tallest flowering plant in the world.  Image:  https://adayintheleaf.com

Mountain ash is the tallest flowering plant in the world. Image: https://adayintheleaf.com

Eucalyptus trees can sequester gold.

In 2003, geoscientists discovered a stand of eucalyptus trees that had tiny portions of gold (about one-fifth of the diameter of a human hair) present in their leaves. The eucalypts were able to absorb the gold from the soil around their roots because they were growing directly above a gold deposit.

Eucalypts give the Blue Mountains their name.

The vegetation in the Blue Mountains is dominated by eucalypts, which release volatile oils called terpenoids into the air. These tiny droplets of oil scatter light in a way that causes the mountains to appear blue. You can see the oil glands in a eucalyptus leaf by holding it up to the sun and looking for white and yellowish spots.

The Blue Mountains owe their name - and colour! - to the eucalypts that dominate the landscape.  Image: Adam J.W.C. via Wikimedia Commons.

The Blue Mountains owe their name - and colour! - to the eucalypts that dominate the landscape. Image: Adam J.W.C. via Wikimedia Commons.

Eucalypt, eucalyptus and gum tree are not interchangeable labels.

The word ‘eucalyptus’ refers to a single genus of trees. The word ‘eucalypt’ refers to a group of species that belong to multiple genera, including Eucalyptus, Corymbia and Angophora. The term ‘gum tree’ refers to some species of eucalypts that exude a sticky, tannin-like substance called kino, more commonly known as gum. This means that a gum tree is not always a Eucalyptus tree, that a Eucalyptus tree is not always a gum tree, and that a eucalypt can be a gum tree, a Eucalyptus tree, or both. Confused yet?

Eucalypt leaves don’t make koalas drunk.

The notion that koalas are constantly in a state of drunkenness due to the toxicity of eucalypt leaves is a common misconception. In reality, eucalypt leaves contain so little energy that koalas must eat an enormous amount of them (up to one kilogram a day). Furthermore, koalas must sleep for up to 22 hours a day in order to conserve the little energy that they do obtain from their diet.

Despite popular opinion, eucalyptus leaves do not make koalas 'drunk'.  Image: Rennett Stowe via Wikimedia Commons

Despite popular opinion, eucalyptus leaves do not make koalas 'drunk'. Image: Rennett Stowe via Wikimedia Commons

 

For all the fun facts there are to learn about eucalypts, one of the best things about them is their iconic symbolism throughout Australian culture – let’s celebrate how lucky we are to have such unique and beautiful trees growing amongst us. Happy National Eucalypt Day!


Emma Walsh is a science graduate who enjoys sharing her love of nature with others. In the past, she has worked as a wildlife presenter, and enjoys teaching children about our native wildlife and its conservation. Her other interests include gardening and bushwalking.

 


Banner image courtesy of Peter Woodard via Wikipedia.

Australia's Natural Carbon Banks

This is a guest post by Maggie Riddington.

Traditionally home to many Indigenous Australians, rainforests are not only beautiful, natural landscapes enjoyed by many bushwalkers - they also have a vital role to play in storing carbon at a time of growing community concern about climate change. In fact, if Australia is to honour its commitments made at the recent Paris Climate Summit, these beautiful ancient places might hold an important key.

In the peak of the Australian Summer, as temperatures soar, people often seek relief from the heat in natural spaces. They head to the beach, they go for a dip in the river, or if they are fortunate enough to be in the vicinity, they head to the rainforest. It’s a few degrees cooler in the rainforest and there they can seek relief in the lofty shade of the ancient myrtle beech and southern sassafras.

Image: Maggie Riddington

Image: Maggie Riddington

But as people seek refuge from increasingly extreme weather, so do the cool temperate rainforests of Victoria seek out, albeit very slowly, appropriate climatic niches to flourish. In fact, they’ve been doing it for thousands of years. Climatically restricted to areas of high rainfall and mild temperatures, such areas now exist only in southeast facing gullies where they are afforded sufficient protection from harsh conditions. 

According to the Bureau of Meteorology annual climate summary released last week, 2015 was one of Australia’s hottest years and was the hottest year on record globally. In Victoria, areas of rainforest received rainfall well below average and temperatures much higher than average. That’s particularly bad news for forests dependent on mild temperatures and high rainfall. 

Whether you’re in the Otways, far-east Gippsland, the Strzelecki Ranges or the Central Highlands, when you step out of a rainforest you step into a mountain ash forest. The adjacent forests, being the most carbon dense in the world, offer salvation to the rare and retreating rainforest in more ways than one. For instance, the mountain ash forests act as buffer zones for the rainforests, sheltering them from high temperatures, disease and fire.

Not only do the mountain ash forests protect cool temperate rainforests from harsh climatic conditions, they also store an incredible amount of carbon (1,867 tonnes per hectare), but if cut down they release a substantial amount of carbon into the atmosphere. In this way, the mountain ash forests help mitigate the effects of global warming on these rainforests. 

Protecting Victoria’s rainforests and mountain ash forests is imperative to mitigating global warming. Not only for the forests themselves, but for the people who know and love them.

These forests are important places for all Australians, but they also hold a pragmatic significance as carbon stores that might help bridge the divide between Australia’s current carbon output and the pledges we’ve made to the international community.


Cover image by Maggie Riddington.