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The Many and Contradictory Meanings of Southern California's Iconic Eucalyptus Trees

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| Photo: jar () | Flickr: Creative Commons License

Nathan Masters' illustrated history of the eucalyptus gets -- literally -- to the root of an iconic presence in the California landscape. By 1900 (and hardly more than 30 years after its introduction from New South Wales), the Australian blue gum was so immediately identifiable that wistful, impressionist paintings of the spindly, pale trees could be mocked as coming from California's "Eucalyptus School" of landscape artists.

Those paintings were much admired in their time and quickly became part of the California brand: an amalgam of natural beauty, mild exoticism, and desire. Plant a eucalyptus and you possessed part of what you longed for in coming here. And if you were selling resort vacations or real estate or a fast motor car, a backdrop of eucalyptus trees marked your product as specifically Californian in spirit.

The transition from tree to symbol was fully realized in places like Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County. Begun as a plantation in 1907 to supply wood for the Santa Fe railroad, the rancho was recast in 1920 as one of California's first "themed" communities.

Beneath the eucalyptus trees, architects Richard Requa and Lillian Rice conceived an 8,000-acre retreat of gracious homes built in the new Spanish Colonial Revival style -- white stucco, terracotta tile, and wrought iron tracery. Both the trees and the building style were imported, both "inauthentic" in an entirely authentic Californian way.

That kind of contradiction is part of Rancho Santa Fe, as it is of California generally.

Guarantors of a lifestyle brand by 1920, eucalyptus trees had first arrived in California, Masters notes, as industrial raw material. But why? The answer speaks to part of the California experience, particularly here in the south, that's left out of our mythology of abundance.

Limitless power is part of that myth, beginning with the belief in the 1860s and 1870s that California's hills, having yielded gold for the taking, would yield coal just as abundantly to power a steam-driven economy. California had plenty of gold, it turned out, but almost no coal.

Firewood was available but it was a poor substitute, hard to find where people and industry concentrated, difficult to transport and store, and relatively expensive to process. Northern California, at least, had an apparently limitless supply of wood to fuel the boilers of its new industries, but most of coastal Southern California was brush-covered savannah.

Energy production and distribution were critical bottlenecks in the development of the southern counties between 1860 and 1900. For a while, tons of eucalyptus charcoal produced in Australia were shipped halfway around the world to power Los Angeles. Our own eucalyptus plantations soon followed, igniting a speculative boom in wood production until better railroad connections in the late 1870s and coal from mines in Utah and Wyoming began to ease the region's energy crisis.

It wasn't until the discovery of oil in the southern counties in the 1890s and expansion of distribution networks for natural gas and electricity in the early 20th century that the Los Angeles region began to overtake Northern California as the state's industrial powerhouse.

We tend to think of Southern California -- both positively and negatively -- as a place of "too much" and forget -- when thinking of water, power, and clean air -- that it's often been a place of "not enough."

The eucalyptus tree -- a beautiful hazard when covering incendiary hillsides -- serves contradictory purposes in our story of ourselves. The eucalyptus bespeaks our desire for a domesticated landscape, but it also tells of a desire for power.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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