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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Trees sparse before eucalyptus arrived

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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Capt. Waterman may have brought the first seeds

The California landscape that greeted the first missionaries and later the people lured west in the Gold Rush was very different from the one we are familiar with today.

Vegetation in much of Northern California consisted of wide-open spaces filled with a variety of native grasses. Trees were scarce; only a few oaks, willows, sycamores and brush dotted the plains.

Large trees such as pines only could be found in the foothills.

In the valleys, the lack of large trees posed some problems.

When Los Angeles citizens celebrated California’s independence in 1850 and wanted to fly the flag of the United States, they had to bring a tree down from the San Bernardino mountains in order to fashion a flagpole.

John S. Hittel published his “Resources of California” in 1863. describing this treeless landscape: “The valleys are mostly bare of timber, with here and there a grove of oaks, and lines of trees along the water courses. Most of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, , the eastern slopes of the Coast Mountains, and the Coastal Range south of latitude 35 degrees, are treeless.”

Early California was a society that depended on large quantities of wood, whether to build a cabin, a wagon or a piece of mining equipment.

Wood also was used daily to heat a cabin or cook food. The lack of forests quickly became a problem.

Without any other building materials available, settlers shipped complete houses in parts from the East Coast around the Horn.

When Captain Josiah Wing moved from San Francisco to Suisun in 1852, he broke down the frame house he had shipped to San Francisco and rebuilt it in its new location.

While houses could be shipped by those who could afford the cost, providing the huge amounts of wood for the daily needs of the ever-growing population proved more difficult.

What little natural resources existed, were quickly used. When Oakland, for example, was founded in 1850, the settlement was surrounded by native oak and redwoods.

Within a decade, all trees had been cut down and used.

Fortunately, the many new settlers from around the word also brought new ideas on how to solve this problem.

Among the men who came to San Francisco in 1849 were 2,600 Australians. Australian ships were built from one of the native Australian woods: blue gum eucalyptus.

In fact, one 90-ton schooner was said to have been constructed from a single eucalyptus tree.

The men were familiar with the fast-growing, easily adaptable trees whose leaves, branches, bark and roots provided everything from hardwood for construction and furniture to firewood to medicines that could help in the fight against fever and coughs.

Nobody knows exactly who brought the first eucalyptus tree seeds into the country. Three contenders are quoted as being the most likely ones in historic research: W. C. Walker, owner of the Golden Gate Nursery in San Francisco, who is believed to have planted the first seeds in 1853; Dr. H. H. Behr, who had been to Australia twice and was familiar with Australian botanist and eucalyptus tree champion, Baron von Mueller; and Solano County resident, Captain Robert Waterman.

David Weir, author of “That Fabulous Captain Waterman,” alleged that Waterman sent his ex-shipmate to Australia to obtain seeds, which he then planted on his property in 1853. He also shared the precious seeds with a friend over in the Vacaville area, Josiah Allison.

Unfortunately, David Weir never revealed his sources. Nor can today’s reader decide which of his stories are based on true events and at which point he might have woven in some creative storytelling.

While it currently seems impossible to authenticate Weir’s tale that Captain Waterman was among the first to introduce eucalyptus seeds to California, other sea captains with contacts to Australia, are known to have brought in precious seeds in later years. Among them was Captain Joseph Aram, who planted eucalyptus trees in San Jose in 1856.

The Shellmound Nurseries and Fruit Gardens in Oakland listed seedlings for $4 each as early as 1856.

By 1858, the Golden Gate Nursery, located in Golden Gate Park, also offered seeds and seedlings of several eucalyptus varieties, such as “Eucalyptus Resinfera Splendid sweeping forest tree. 60 feet,” advertised for $10.

Another variety, growing to 20 feet, sold for $10 as well, while a 5-foot dwarf type cost $5 per seedling.

General James F. Stratton, California’s Surveyor-General, who had visited Australia in 1862, is credited with planting the first large-scale eucalyptus grove, 45 acres in Hayward, Alameda County.

From there, interest in these fast growing trees increased rapidly.

By 1870, the State Board of Agriculture promoted the creation of “artificial forests.”

The Board even offered a prize to the grower of “the largest quantity of useful forest trees planted during the year.”

The winner was General Stratton.

By the last quarter of the 19th century, eucalyptus had become firmly established in the California landscape.

The 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.