Gum trees (eucalypts) are the essence of the Australian flora. Their range extends from sub-alpine areas to wet coastal forests, temperate woodlands and the arid inland. In fact, the only major environment where eucalypts are absent is probably rainforest. There are about 12 species which occur naturally outside of Australia but around 700 are Australian endemics. Only 2 species are not found in Australia. One of these, Eucalyptus deglupta, is the only eucalypt to be found growing naturally in the northern hemisphere, occurring in the southern Phillipines (as well as in New Guinea and parts of Indonesia).
Even Australians who wouldn´t know a Banksia from a Begonia know what a gum tree looks like and smells like. Soldiers returning by ship from the first and second world wars are rumoured to have been able to smell the aroma of the eucalypt before land was visible on the horizon. Most Australians may not be able to identify a particular species (there are hundreds of them, after all!) but they will know "that´s a eucalypt."
Although usually regarded as applying to the genus Eucalyptus, the term "eucalypt" really encompasses the closely related genera Angophora and Corymbia as well. Corymbia is, in fact, a new genus (1995) which contains 113 species, 80 of which were formerly within Eucalyptus. Angophora consists of about 13 species.
The term "gum tree" is derived from the habit of some eucalypt species to exude a sticky, gum-like substance from the trunk. This is by no means a general characteristic but "gum tree" has become a common generic term for most eucalypts. A number of other common names have been applied to certain groups of eucalypts based on features such as bark type, timber characteristics or growth habit. Some names in common usage are:
Apple - A name used by early European settlers due to a similarity in appearance of some plants to apple trees (eg. Angophora bakeri, "Narrow-leaved apple")
Ash - Timber is similar to the European ash trees (eg. Eucalyptus regnans, "Mountain ash")
Blackbutt - The lower part of the trunk has persistent bark which is usually black due to past fires (eg. Eucalyptus pilularis, "Blackbutt")
Bloodwood - Timber often has pockets of a dark red gum known as kino (eg. Corymbia eximia, "Yellow bloodwood")
Box - Bark is retained on the tree and is short fibred; plates of bark may shear off with age (eg. Eucalyptus melliodora ("Yellow box")
Ironbark - Bark is retained on the tree and is hard and deeply furrowed (eg. Eucalyptus crebra, "Narrow-leaved ironbark")
Mallee - Multi-stemmed trees, usually fairly small in height (eg. Eucalyptus albida, "White-leaved mallee")
Peppermint - The oil in the leaves has a peppermint-like aroma (eg. Eucalyptus dives, "Broad-leaved peppermint")
Ribbon Gum - Bark is deciduous and is shed in long strips which often hang from the branches (eg. Eucalyptus viminalis, "Ribbon gum")
Scribbly Gum - Bark is deciduous and the smooth trunk is marked with "scribbles" caused by an insect larva (eg. Eucalyptus sclerophylla, "Scribbly gum")
Stringybark - Bark is retained in long fibres which can be pulled off in "strings" (eg. Eucalyptus eugenioides, "Thin-leaved stringybark")
The eucalypts are within the plant family Myrtaceae and can number among their relatives such well known Australian genera as Callistemon ("bottlebrushes"), Melaleuca ("paperbarks"), Leptospermum ("tea trees") and Syncarpia ("turpentine").
The adult leaves of the majority of eucalypts are sickle-shaped and arranged alternately on the branches. They have special glands containing volatile oils which, in some species, are exploited commercially. The leaves of certain species (eg. E.camaldulensis, "River red gum"; E.punctata, "Grey gum"; E.viminalis, "Ribbon gum") are important as the food of the Koala, a tree-dwelling marsupial.
The juvenile leaves are usually quite different from the adult ones, are often greyish in colour and opposite rather than alternate. These leaves are usually superseded by the adult leaves early in the tree´s development but, in a few cases, they may persist into the adult stage of growth. E.cinerea ("Argyle apple") is perhaps the best known of these and its round, silvery foliage is sought as decorative foliage in cut flower arrangements. The "Tasmanian blue gum" (E.globulus) is another which retains the juvenile foliage for a considerable time and both types of leaf can often be seen on the tree at the same time.
Like many related plants, the conspicuous parts of the flowers of the majority of the species are the stamens, the male parts of the flowers. These surround the central stigma which arises from the flower´s ovary. In Eucalyptus and Corymbia the petals and stamens are fused into a cap called an operculum which covers the flowers. As the flower opens the cap is shed. It is, in fact, the operculum which gives Eucalyptus its name (eu, well and calyptos covered). In Angophora the cap is not present and the flowers develop with small petals.
After flowering, hard, woody seed pods develop. The shape and size of these pods are important aids in identifying species. It is often possible to identify a tree, even when foliage and flowers may be many metres above the ground, by collecting pods lying around its base. The pods usually contain a number of true seeds and an amount of infertile "chaff". The seeds are generally larger and more deeply coloured than the chaff. In most cases seed matures within 12 months of flowering but is retained on the tree until stimulated to be shed by the heat from a fire or by the death of the plant.
Commercial Uses of Eucalypts
The most important commercial use of eucalypts is in forestry and this is an area where there has been considerable conflict between conservation and timber interests in the last 20 years or so, particularly as resistance to woodchipping and the move to preserve old growth forests have gained momentum.
Timber production from eucalypts is carried out in Australia and overseas. Many different species are used both from natural forests and from plantations. Eucalypt plantations can be found in more than 90 countries with the largest overseas plantations being in Brazil which has over 1 million hectares. Some of the uses for eucalypts are:
Building (for termite resistance); eg. E.camaldulensis, E.marginata
Furniture; eg. C.maculata, E.globulus
Woodchips; eg. E.camaldulensis, E.globulus, E.viminalis
Paper; eg. E.botryoides, E.camaldulensis, E.grandis
Fuel; eg. E.camaldulensis, E.globulus, E.saligna
Another commercially important feature of eucalypts is the extraction of the oils contained in the foliage. Surprisingly, production of eucalypt oil is greater overseas than in Australia. Portugal and Spain together produce more than 50% of the world´s supply with Australian production being around 5%. Eucalypt oil has been used in medicine, industry and for perfumes and this is outlined in Volatile Oils from Eucalypts.
The flowers of all eucalypts contain nectar and many species are important in the beekeeping industry. Honey is often marketed under the name of the main species involved in its production (eg. Yellow box, Red ironbark).
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