Ubiquitous Eucalyptus By Ellary Allis
As Southern California debates the ecological hazards posed by the non-native eucalyptus, or gum tree, the majestic giants proliferate unconcerned, as they have since the 19th century, when demand for wood for construction was high and the imported trees seemed like a brilliant solution to deforestation. Farmers began planting eucalypti as windbreaks in the 1870s, encouraged by the trees’ early boosters. It was tobacco heir Abbot Kinney (as in Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, California- hallowed ground of retail for the bohemian bourgeoisie on the Westside of Los Angeles) who was the eucalypti’s number one hype man, extolling its virtues as an antiseptic and anti-malarial, impressing upon the public that every part of the tree was ripe for commercial exploitation. Of the roughly 800 eucalyptus species, Tasmanium blue gum (Eucalyptus globules) became California’s adopted tree. The California Invasive Plant Council has classified the Tasmanium blue gum as a “moderate” invasive species, because the toxicity of its leaf liter mean native plants are unable to grow underneath eucalyptus groves. Eucalyptus also poses a fire hazard; volatile compounds in the tree’s oil can become explosive in brush fires. The branches are prone to snapping off, and a falling branch from a mammoth eucalyptus can be deadly. Eucalyptus branches are heavy due to the density of the wood and their high resin content. Falling branches have earned the Australian ghost gum Eucalyptus papuana an ominous nickname: “the widow maker.” Fault lines and eucalyptus trees do not a harmonious partnership make; the shallow root system of the eucalyptus makes the entire tree vulnerable to toppling over. The street I grew up on in Los Angeles has been obstructed multiple times by eucalyptus corpses who met their end when the ground jolted. Despite all the controversy that surrounds them, eucalypti are an iconic part of the arboreal landscape here, are one of the fastest sprouting trees in the world, and are rooted, if shallowly, in so many spots around the city that we’d do well to learn a little about the tree and explore its benefits as a medicinal plant.
When the eucalyptus flowers, a bud cap of petals called an operculum grows around the stamens of the eucalyptus flowers until they’re ready to open. The word eucalyptus refers to these caps; it’s derived from the Greek words eu (well) and kaluptos (covered), so the name eucalyptus means well-covered. The specific name globulus comes from the Latin word for “spherical,” a nod to the shape of the fruit. The common name blue gum is a reference to the blue-grey, waxy bloom that covers the juvenile leaves. Eucalyptus is native to Australia, and at this point accounts for around 70 % of Australian forest. A small number of natives are also found in nearby Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The eucalyptus originated between 30 and 50 million years ago, shortly after Australia and New Guinea separated from Gondwana, the southern supercontinent formed when Pangea broke up in the early middle Jurassic period. The Australian Blue Mountains are named for the blue mist that shrouds eucalyptus forests as the leaves release vaporized oil.
For tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal tribes in Australia have used eucalyptus as a medicinal. A tonic of eucalyptus gum and water can be taken internally for diarrhea, and the antiseptic qualities of the oil are effective for treating cuts and sores when applied topically. Massaging eucalyptus oil into sore muscles, joints, and gums provides pain relief, and the smoke of burning eucalyptus leaves is a remedy for reducing fever. With regards to its sacred uses, termite hollowed young eucalyptus stems are the raw material used to create the didgeridoo-the long wooden aerophone emblematic (for Westerners) of northern Australian Aboriginal culture. The droning sound of the didjeridoo, which is played both ceremonially and recreationally, can reproduce the sounds of the natural landscape: wind, thunder, the creaking of trees, thumping of feet, and various animal voices.
In modern Western herbalism, eucalyptus is commonly used as an expectorant (helps expel mucus and other secretions from the lungs), as an anti-viral, and as an astringent. Because eucalyptus eases respiration by dilating the bronchioles in the lungs and moistening the mucous membranes, using the leaves for tea and vaporizing the oil in steams soothes symptoms of asthma, coughs, and sinus infections; most commercial vapor rubs and lineaments contain eucalyptus. Inhaling the minty scent of eucalyptus essential oil reduces fatigue and promotes mental clarity. Eucalyptus oil is also astringent, restoring the skin’s normal pH balance and toning and tightening pores.
Make your own eucalyptus facial toner!
Combine 1/4 cup of distilled water, 1/4 cup of alcohol-free witch hazel, 6 drops of rose oil and 6 drops of eucalyptus oil in a jar. Shake to mix ingredients. Apply gently to face and neck with soft cotton pad or cotton ball.