by Jeff Perry
In this post, Jeff Perry, founder and co-owner of Angel City Lumber in Los Angeles, shares his deep knowledge of the regional history of the eucalyptus tree, which is familiar to many of us for its use as wind-breaks, bordering for roads, and other uses, though, as he tells us straight away, it also has its detractors. Thanks to Jeff for sharing his expertise about this common tree with wildly divergent views of its value! Tomorrow, we’ll follow up with a post about the first local large-scale operation involved in cultivating the eucalyptus, this being the Forest Grove Association, formed in 1874 with F.P.F. Temple as a director and treasurer and which planted a large grove of the tree on 200 acres along the San Gabriel River in Downey.
It seems that every horticulturally literate person the world over has a polarizing take on Eucalyptus trees: zealotry or condemnation. With an ever-growing world population and demand for natural resources, understandable panic has increasingly set in over the last couple of centuries. This same panic, though, paired with a deep-rooted psychology in some western populations that humanity transcends nature (either as stewards that must look after it, or as consumers that must exploit it) seems to have disconnected many of us from trees. Wood, the building material, appears to be associated with a tree as much as a chicken nugget is associated with a chicken. Scientifically, anecdotally, and intuitively, trees have been deemed sentient beings throughout human history, yet our modern relationship to them has generally become a generally appreciative yet exploitative one.
The close-to-home allegory of the Eucalyptus tree’s (genus Eucalyptus) human-ushered immigration to the United States’ west coast exemplifies this modern tree-human relationship. The resilient, enormous Eucalyptus tree, endemic to Australia and a few surrounding islands, has been an agronomist’s god and an ecologist’s antichrist, deified and demonized, and all the while it seems to have maintained an unwavering command of its identity: a tree, in nature.
At Angel City Lumber, we intercept fallen Los Angeles County trees from the wood chipper, mill them into lumber and wood products, and sell the wood back to the Los Angeles community, from whence it came. As you read on, you will see why various species of Eucalyptus trees typically make up a hefty portion of our supply.
Since Angel City Lumber’s inception in 2015, many woodworkers and builders alike have repeated the decades (maybe centuries) old mantra that Eucalyptus wood is “unusable.” Over the past 5 years we have utilized Blue Gum, Sugar Gum, Lemon Scented Gum, River Red Gum, Spotted Gum, Swamp Mahogany (a Eucalyptus!), and Red Iron Bark in a number of applications and projects. Indigenous Australians and Aussies have utilized its timber for centuries so we figured we would at least give it a shot. It brings us great joy to flip preconceived perceptions on their head – kind of a self-proclaimed identity we have donned; we wanted to look deeper into how the Californian controversy around these living beings came to be.
For decades now, you would be hard pressed to drive up or down the 405 freeway, picnic in Griffith Park, hit up a farmer’s market, or do basically anything in or around Los Angeles without being a stone’s throw from a Eucalyptus tree. How did this myrtle tree, so iconically Australian, become so identifiably Angeleno and, more broadly, Californian? An interestingly complex combination of good intentions, strong will, ignorance, ethnocentrism, and anthropocentrism of California settlers over the last 150 some odd years may be the source of this mixed bag of opinion. As perspective sometimes sharpens with time, this “invasive alien plant” has not only naturalized as part of the fabric of California landscape but has taught us a great deal not only about its place in nature, but also our own.
After the California Genocide by the Spanish, Mexican, and US governments, the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), and Manifest Destiny reigniting with the Gold Rush (1848), American settlers began to flood California in the late 1840’s. The unshaded, arid, brown, chaparral-covered hills of the Central Valley and Southern California were not necessarily the conditions that Anglo-American migrants from the east were used to for agriculture and natural resources; the native Coast Live Oak and riparian California Sycamore trees were sparse, providing little lumber (wood being the the migrants’ primary building material) and firewood (their primary source for heat and cooking) for the settling masses. To compound matters, the US had cleared some 100 million acres of trees for agriculture and timber by 1850 and speculation of a nationwide timber famine was on the rise.
From this perceived desperation, 19th century western Americans were in search of a savior flora to “beautify” the landscape, shade them from the harsh sun, retain water, mitigate dust, and, for good measure, would someday yield copious amounts of timber for their multitudes of building needs. For the early, common western American settler, survival was not necessarily baseline and the immediacy of cultivating such a resource seemed imperative.
While no one knows exactly who ushered Eucalyptus seeds to California from Australia, it seems that the port of call was San Francisco, and more specifically the Golden Gate Nursery owned by William C. Walker. It took little time for Californian horticulturists to deify these lignotubers [this refers to the swollen growth at the base of trees.] Early growth can surpass 10 feet of height per year for a quick canopy. Eucalyptus trees also possess hygienic and even medicinal powers from bark and leaf; fantastic windbreak in the dusty, windblown valleys and plains; and enormous diameter trunks perfect for lumber production and firewood (and later, pulp).
The incidental enormity of these trees coincided with not only a seemingly imminent timber famine, but also a demand for thousands of miles of fence stock and rail ties for the emerging Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869. Focus quickly shifted from beautification and greenery to industrial manufacturing and, naturally, financial investment of Eucalyptus trees. The “quick growth” characteristic of Eucalyptus seemed to dovetail nicely with the financial and economic model of a burgeoning United States.
The rocket-growing Blue Gum Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus globulus, made its way down the Golden Coast. Angeleno agronomist, William Wolfskill, often credited with kickstarting California citrus production, dabbled in Eucalyptus cultivation at Rancho Santa Anita (on part of which is the present-day Los Angeles County Arboretum).
Perhaps the first true California Eucalyptus evangelist, though, was Ellwood Cooper who moved from Pennsylvania to Goleta, outside of Santa Barbara, in 1872. A disciple of the expatriate German-Australian botanist Baron Ferdinand Von Mueller, Cooper catalyzed Von Mueller’s insightful warning of world desertification and climate change due to gratuitous deforestation. Cooper went on to plant a 200-tree Eucalyptus grove, ravenously studied the trees’ various species, and publishe his book Forest Culture and Eucalyptus Trees in 1876.
Cooper informally passed the baton to the Los Angeles “Golden Boy” of the time, Abbot Kinney, as the American authority on Eucalyptus. Famously known as a real estate developer responsible for the design of Venice, Kinney also became a chairman of the California Board of Forestry, which has evolved into the present day California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. He delved into the botanical properties, cultivation, and harvesting of many species of the tree in his 1895 book Eucalyptus. Partnered with his friend John Muir, Kinney also started the San Gabriel Timber Reserve which became the present day Angeles National Forest. As a developer and thus no stranger to investment, he urged the masses to plant Eucalyptus, in the vein of Ellwood Cooper and his predecessors.
And this is where things got interesting.
The feverish planting and quick harvests of American Eucalyptus gave yields of unstable, warped timber. Timber trees harvested in Australia were required to be upwards of 100 years old before sound timber was to come of it.
For many and most wood applications, timber cut from tree logs cannot be implemented in building practices right off the mill. The time-consuming, laborious, and potentially frustrating process of wood seasoning, or drying, has become less so today compared to the past because of wood kiln technology. Previous to this, wood was air-dried. A general rule of thumb for air-drying is that you can expect a ratio of one year per overall thickness in inches to dry lumber. Some purists maintain that air-drying is still the only way to maximize strength, stability, and color of wood. Today, there are the offerings of dehumidification, vacuum, and radio frequency wood kilns. Unfortunately, the wood drying techniques of the time were comparatively rudimentary and the Blue Gum timber that lumber companies were harvesting was deemed as unusable for lumber, but not before the tree had spread to most of California. The many groves planted along the West Coast, intended for commercial harvest, were left standing as the lumber yields proved to warp, twist, and split, deeming them unsuitable for lumber.
Eucalyptus investors lost their sure-fire bet. The bitterness of these lumber barons aligned with a general Californian feeling emerging about the tree: “Eucalyptus is taking over!” These water hungry, allelopathic [those that release secondary compounds that affect neighboring plants] trees were popping up in uncultivated areas, resilient and robust. The former tree deities were falling from the pedestal we had placed it upon, and fast. As time marched on, the inevitability of a Eucalyptized California became part of the land’s aesthetic and charm, if not a lumber boon.
The low heat and slow, gradual moisture extraction in wood drying kilns is required to effectively dry Eucalyptus wood. This drying technology and modern luxury has allowed us to experiment and produce positive results thus far in manufacturing Eucalyptus wood and wood products.
Today, at Angel City Lumber, we prize the overlooked Blue Gum Eucalyptus for its strength and beauty. Its resin (kino), density, and closed grain make it an excellent outdoor application species as well as for flooring. The low heat and slow, gradual moisture extraction in wood drying kilns is required to effectively dry Eucalyptus wood. This drying technology has allowed us to experiment and produce positive results thus far in manufacturing Eucalyptus wood and wood products. Wood kiln drying can be as fickle and nuanced as air drying, but with experience, tracking, and a little luck, the drying speed and stability of the wood improves tremendously.
With the luxury of our modern drying practices, we are able to pull out Blue Gum’s beige backdrop with subtle streaks of brown and mauve. Our flat sawn boards reveal the grain’s cosmic and elliptical shapes. The quarter and rift sawn boards create marked patterns that look like staccato notes on sheet music. As an outdoor application species, Blue Gum quickly grays to a currently chic silvery appearance.
Blue Gum Eucalyptus is not the only species we see from this great genus. Perhaps thanks to Abbot Kinney’s zealotry of Sugar Gum Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus cladocalyx, quite a few of these tree logs come to our log deck when they perish, usually by way of the West Side, especially Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades. The wood from a Sugar Gum tree is monochromatically taupe and holds lots of fiddleback and wood figure, maybe due to its interlocking grain as the tree grows.
Lemon Scented Gum Eucalyptus, Corymbia Citriodora, most notable to the layman for the lemon-like scent, that emanates from crushed leaves, and its extremely smooth bark, Lemon Scented Gum wood shares Sugar Gum’s beigeness but has cocoa brown overtones layered into the heartwood.
River Red Gum Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus camaldulensis, boasts a rich, monochromatic crimson color wood with the same potential for wild grain figure. The coloring of Red Iron Bark Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus sideroxylon, is a similar red, but slightly going toward salmon, with subtle streaks of subdued oranges, greens, and purples.
Make no mistake, however, our current amateurist botany at Angel City Lumber is little match against identifying the upwards of 200 Eucalyptus species in Southern California, excluding potential hybrids. With over 700 species hailing from Australasia, identifying them all, accurately, is often like finding a needle in a haystack and, for good measure, throw in the notion that in the last decade botanists have internationally accepted (controversially) the breakout genus “corymbia” from the larger “eucalyptus” genus umbrella.
In any event, at Angel City Lumber the many Los Angeles Eucalyptus trees we have recovered have allowed us to honor them in a variety of projects. One of our most notable projects utilized some 25 Blue Gum Eucalyptus tree logs (roughly 30 tons) at 1 Hotel West Hollywood, The logs were milled on three sides, cut and joined into a polygonal shaped raised planter, roughly 60 feet long, 15 feet wide, and three feet high.
In addition, the storied Eames House in the Pacific Palisades, home to the late industrial designers and artists Charles and Ray Eames, was built upon a Eucalyptus grove. One of the most iconic trees on the grounds, a four and a half foot diameter Sugar Gum by the front door, and another River Red Gum downhill from the house, were removed in their declining years at an arborist’s recommendation. We milled the trees’ logs, kiln dried the lumber, and the Eames Foundation along with the Eames’ lifelong manufacturing partner, Herman Miller, created a limited edition run of a classic design (Occasional Table LTR [or Low Table Rod Base]) utilizing the wood from the trees of the home.
Maybe for no other reason than we have not tried it yet, we can accept Eucalyptus for what they are, not what we need or want them to be, for us, at any given time. It seems that bridging the gap in the opinions held of the tree begins with an acknowledgment that they are awe-inspiring and beautiful by their very nature, well-suited for some things, ill-suited for other things, but by and large, perfect as they are. This is a microcosm, and maybe indicative of, the many current aspects of life that divide us all worldwide. Even beyond acknowledgement or acceptance, those of us at Angel City Lumber choose to hold reverence and gratitude for all the tree sentinels that have arrived to our community, no matter their emigration.