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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Aussie tree changed Solano’s landscape

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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Luther Harbison tried varieties of eucalyptus

With the introduction of eucalyptus trees from Australia around 1853, California’s landscape began to change rapidly. Nurseryman Ellwood Cooper was one of the first to seriously experiment with eucalyptus. He envisioned large belts of tree plantings to serve as windbreakers across California.

His lectures at Santa Barbara College and other locations stressed the positive impact that large-scale planting of trees had on local and world climate.

The arrival of the railroads in California and their need for a steady supply of material for track maintenance and firewood also fueled the demand for local lumber sources. In the late 1870s, the Central Pacific Railroad alone planted one million trees in the San Joaquin Valley during a two-year period.

By the end of the 19th century, with eucalyptus trees firmly established in California, business enterprises - from nursery to furniture manufacturers to pharmaceutical companies - saw an opportunity to profit from the trees.

In 1902, horticulturist Alfred James McClatchie published “Eucalyptus Cultivated in the United States,” outlining the many uses of the trees.

Other writers followed in extolling the potential for economic opportunities the trees offered.

What followed was a eucalyptus boom that began around 1905.

In upper Solano County, orchardist Luther Harbison - noted for his interest in experimenting with new species - was one of those growers to investigate eucalyptus as a viable crop.

On March 23, 1907, The Reporter ran “The Growing of Eucalyptus,” letting readers know that Luther Harbison was experimenting with young eucalyptus trees.

“The Value of Its Timber For Various Purposes Is Just Being Recognized,” the headline said. “The growing of Eucalyptus is beginning to attract considerable attention in many sections of the state, and while possibly rather extravagant claims are made in some cases, there is no doubt but if proper varieties are planted good returns can be secured.”

Three years earlier, Luther Harbison had become interested in eucalyptus’ potential and had started to purchase different varieties of young trees.

By March, there were 3,000 trees on the Harbison Ranch.

The article detailed his findings so far: ” he thinks the Red Gum

(E. Rostrata) the most promising. These trees are rapid growers and are not in the least affected by the heat of the summer or the cold of winter.

“The Sugar Gum (E. Corynocalyx), on the other hand, will stand neither.

“The Forest Red Gum (E. Tereticorvis) has not yet been tried, but Mr. Harbison believes it will do well, while the Red Mahogany

(E. Resinifera) also seems to be adapted to this climate. The Blue Gum is not considered fit for anything except stove wood, and on account of its grain, is exceedingly difficult to work up for that purpose.”

On April 20, 1907, The Reporter quoted Luther Harbison’s report to Professor E. Wickson of the University of California on his experiences in growing the different varieties. The full text was printed in the Pacific Rural Press.

The Reporter article detailed Luther’s struggles in establishing a little-known tree variety. “Many of the trees were lost through my own want of skill,” he wrote. “They should have been watered at time of setting out.

“I was advised to plant the trees four feet apart in order to duplicate forest conditions. I planted six feet and am now of the opinion that the distance was too close, as the crowding out process begins too early. The average planter in the Sacramento valley wants every tree to be a success.

“The land planted was an old pasture, shallow and gravelly. Cultivation has been kept up.”

He commented on the varieties that he planted, ranking them by their success. Of the 10 varieties mentioned in The Reporter’s article, only three seemed to thrive and meet his hopes.

His notes on two failing varieties show the scale of his investment and the loss he had to take: “E. diversicolor. Failure; not more than two or three out of 250 being in a half way passable condition. It suffers from both heat and cold.

“E. obtusiflora is a record failure and I will be well satisfied if a half dozen trees survive as a warning to other planters. A combination of poor pasture land with heat and cold is too much for this species.”

Of two others he said: “One E. amygdalina and one E. oblique have shown a determination to look well without making much growth. The first named is quite ornamental. These varieties should be tried on better land.”

He then discussed the potential for planting large groves of eucalyptus.

A forward-thinking man, he also took the benefits of an evolving new technology into account.

“The hard woods of the country are being rapidly exhausted and the farmers of the Sacramento valley would find profits in supplying the deficiency to the extent of their own future needs. Electric power for cutting lumber will be available long before the trees can be grown. All the uses of these hard woods cannot be enumerated here, but I may mention shade, windbreak, fuel, fence posts, timber for wagons, implements, and the interior finishing of dwellings. We will despise no mainspring that leads to action in tree planting but hold that a well-informed mind coupled with judgment is better than enthusiasm.”

Information in this column is based on “The Eucalyptus of California,” by Robert L. Santos, California State University, Stanislaus (1997). I will continue this story in my next column.