E for Exotic Eucalyptus trees: Julia Grigg's Morrab Miscellany

Eucalyptus trees are a notable feature of Morrab Gardens, and provide inspiration here for Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

E is for EUCALYPTUS

Do you ever dampen a tissue with a few drops of eucalyptus oil, hoping to clear your chest or help a head cold? Doing so, perhaps you wouldn’t make any connection with the very tall tree you see looming over Morrab Gardens, stately, slender and loftiest of them all, its highest branches waving high over the adjacent rooftops.

A eucalyptus tree growing in a mixed border in Morrab Gardens
A eucalyptus tree towering over its companions in Morrab Gardens. Photo by Paul Brett

In fact, the pungent oil you apply is extracted by steam distilling from the oil glands in the eucalyptus tree’s evergreen leaves. Antiseptic and healing, the oil has many uses.

In 1777 David Nelson, gardener-botanist on Captain Cook’s third Antipodean voyage of discovery, dug up an early specimen of the tree on an island off Tasmania and sent it to the British Museum for naming.
Eucalyptus, also known as blue gum, is among the tallest trees in the world, the tallest measured specimen today soars to 330 feet.

Most Eucalyptus species native to Australia

Most of the 700 species of eucalyptus are native to Australia, where there are 92 million hectares of eucalyptus forest.

Sadly, it was these we saw burning in the horrific forest fires of January 2020, some trees spectacularly exploding due to their leaves’ highly combustible oils, while above, bushfire spread rapidly through the oil-rich air trapped in the trees’ canopies.

The fires destroyed millions of acres of land and killed a billion animals. The koala bear, already a threatened species dependent on the eucalyptus for its food, has been particularly badly affected. Poor koala: its highly selective diet must consist of leaves of a certain age from a specific species of tree, and the tree must grow upon a certain type of soil. Without a plentiful supply of eucalyptus trees, the koala cannot survive. 

Koalas live in eucalyptus woodland, and climb the trees to reach the leaves which form a large part of their diet.
A koala climbing up a tree, Great Otway National Park, Victoria, Australia. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Planted around the world

After their C18th discovery, the trees proved an ideal export and today are found in many countries.

In Kenya’s early colonial days a clump of eucalyptus would be planted at every crossroads, wherever red dirt roads were beginning to open up the country. The trees, their shivering grey leaves moving in the tropical breeze, provided valued, refreshingly-scented cool shade from the Equatorial heat, as well as an available source of firewood.

Environmental impact

With their wide and fairly shallow rootbed, the trees are not the most stable and are sometimes also condemned for guzzling water supply to the detriment of native species and for causing the drying-up of water sources. In contrast, their use in helping drain swampy areas is recognised. In southern Italy in the 1930s many were planted, specifically intended to reduce mosquito habitat thereby helping control malaria.

A multi-stemmed eucalyptus in Morrab Gardens, showing patterns in the smooth bark
The outer bark of many eucalyptus species, like this one in Morrab Gardens, is shed periodically leaving patterned smooth bark beneath. Photo by Paul Brett

Today eucalyptus, recognisable by its dappled, peeling, papery bark, has become the world’s most widely planted tree in plantations, a major contributor to its success being the fact that when cut down, it rapidly grows up again from the roots. The decorative fronds with their blue-green leaves add a special EXOTIC touch to flower arrangements.

E is for the Garden of EPICURUS.

‘There is one natural good, and that is pleasure. In life we should aim to maximize pleasure.’ So said Epicurus in the Athens of 306 BC, gaining himself a modern reputation for advocating a self-indulgent lifestyle.

Philosopher and teacher Epicurus set up his school of philosophy just outside the city in a walled garden where his students gathered daily. For Epicurus, the garden symbolised his central ideal of ataraxia, tranquil pleasure, while also providing his students with a place for reflecting upon and adjusting their mental landscapes.

Tranquillity and simple living

This Epicurean vision of retreating into a natural space to experience virtuous tranquillity and simple living has become distorted over time, the beliefs becoming associated with libertine sensory pleasures, especially gluttony of food and wine.

In fact, Epicurus argued against such behaviour, which he claimed disrupted the mind and caused unhappiness. Instead, he encouraged friendship, moderation and gardening: pursuits that boost an active body and mind.

A marble terminal of the philosopher Epicurus - a Roman copy of an original portrait of the 3rd century BC.
Marble bust of the philosopher Epicurus – a Roman copy of an original portrait of the 3rd century BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

We do not know how Epicurus planted his garden – but we can imagine sparkling fountains and shade trees abounded for keeping the scholars cool in the Greek summer heat.

And we do know how welcoming to visitors the motto over his garden gate was: ‘Here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.’

E is for GEORGE ELIOT

‘It will never rain roses; when we want to have more roses, we must plant more trees’

Eliot was the pen name of Mary Anne EVANS (1819-1880) ground-breaking author of 7 novels, many of which celebrate rural society and ordinary country life. Middlemarch (Penguin 2003), her sixth, has been commended as the greatest novel in the English language. Eliot’s grave is in Highgate Cemetery, her trenchant political views gaining her a place adjacent to that of Karl Marx.

Read more of Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

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