Eucalyptus (pronounced /ˌjuːkəˈlɪptəs/ ) is a diverse genus of flowering trees (and a few shrubs) in the myrtle family, Myrtaceae. Members of the genus dominate the tree flora of Australia. There are more than 700 species of Eucalyptus, mostly native to Australia, and a very small number are found in adjacent parts of New Guinea and Indonesia and one as far north as the Philippine archipelago. Only 15 species occur outside Australia, and only 9 do not occur in Australia. Species of Eucalyptus are cultivated throughout the tropics and subtropics including the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East, China and the Indian Subcontinent.
Eucalyptus is one of three similar genera that are commonly referred to as "eucalypts," the others being Corymbia and Angophora. Many, but far from all, are known as gum trees because many species exude copious sap from any break in the bark (e.g. Scribbly Gum). The generic name is derived from the Greek words ευ (eu), meaning "well," and καλυπτος (kalyptos), meaning well "covered," which refers to the operculum on the calyx that initially conceals the flower.
Eucalyptus has attracted attention from global development researchers and environmentalists. It is a fast-growing source of wood, its oil can be used for cleaning and functions as a natural insecticide, and it is sometimes used to drain swamps and thereby reduce the risk of malaria. Outside their natural ranges, eucalypts are both lauded for their beneficial economic impact on poor populations:22 and derided for being invasive water-suckers, leading to controversy over their total impact.
Size and habitat
A mature Eucalyptus may take the form of a low shrub or a very large tree. There are three main habit and four size categories that species can be divided into.
As a generalisation "forest trees" are single-stemmed and have a crown forming a minor proportion of the whole tree height. "Woodland trees" are single-stemmed although they may branch at a short distance above ground level.
"Mallees" are multi-stemmed from ground level, usually less than 10 m (33 ft) in height, often with the crown predominantly at the ends of the branchlets and individual plants may combine to form either an open or closed formation. Many mallee trees may be so low-growing as to be considered a shrub.
Two other tree forms are notable in Western Australia and described using the native names "mallet" and "marlock". The "mallet" is a small to medium-sized tree that does not produce lignotubers and has a relatively long trunk, a steeply branching habit and often a conspicuously dense terminal crown. This is the normal habit of mature healthy specimens of Eucalyptus occidentalis, E. astringens, E. spathulata, E. gardneri, E. dielsii, E. forrestiana, E. salubris, E. clivicola and E. ornata. The smooth bark of mallets often has a satiny sheen and may be white, cream, grey, green or copper.
The term marlock has been variously used; in Forest Trees of Australia it is defined as a small tree without lignotubers but with a shorter, lower-branching trunk than a mallet. They usually grow in more or less pure stands. Clearly recognisable examples are stands of E. platypus, E. vesiculosa and the unrelated E. stoatei.
The term "morrell" is somewhat obscure in origin and appears to apply to trees of the western Australian wheatbelt and goldfields which have a long, straight trunk, completely rough-barked. It is now used mainly for E. longicornis (Red Morrell) and E. melanoxylon (Black Morrell).
Tree sizes follow the convention of:
- Small — to 10 m (33 ft) in height
- Medium-sized — 10–30 m (33–98 ft)
- Tall — 30–60 m (98–200 ft)
- Very tall — over 60 m (200 ft)
Nearly all Eucalyptus are evergreen but some tropical species lose their leaves at the end of the dry season. As in other members of the myrtle family, Eucalyptus leaves are covered with oil glands. The copious oils produced are an important feature of the genus. Although mature Eucalyptus trees are usually towering and fully leafed, their shade is characteristically patchy because the leaves usually hang downwards.
The leaves on a mature Eucalyptus plant are commonly lanceolate, petiolate, apparently alternate and waxy or glossy green. In contrast, the leaves of seedlings are often opposite, sessile and glaucous. But there are many exceptions to this pattern. Many species such as E. melanophloia and E. setosa retain the juvenile leaf form even when the plant is reproductively mature. Some species, such as E. macrocarpa, E. rhodantha and E. crucis, are sought-after ornamentals due to this lifelong juvenile leaf form. A few species, such as E. petraea, E. dundasii and E. lansdowneana, have shiny green leaves throughout their life cycle. E. caesia exhibits the opposite pattern of leaf development to most Eucalyptus, with shiny green leaves in the seedling stage and dull, glaucous leaves in mature crowns. The contrast between juvenile and adult leaf phases is valuable in field identification.
Four leaf phases are recognised in the development of a Eucalyptus plant: the ‘seedling’, ‘juvenile’, ‘intermediate’ and ‘adult’ phases. However there is no definite transitional point between the phases. The intermediate phase, when the largest leaves are often formed, links the juvenile and adult phases.
In all except a few species, the leaves form in pairs on opposite sides of a square stem, consecutive pairs being at right angles to each other (decussate). In some narrow-leaved species, for example E. oleosa, the seedling leaves after the second leaf pair are often clustered in a detectable spiral arrangement about a five-sided stem. After the spiral phase, which may last from several to many nodes, the arrangement reverts to decussate by the absorption of some of the leaf-bearing faces of the stem. In those species with opposite adult foliage the leaf pairs, which have been formed opposite at the stem apex, become separated at their bases by unequal elongation of the stem to produce the apparently alternate adult leaves.
The most readily recognisable characteristics of Eucalyptus species are the distinctive flowers and fruit (capsules or "gumnuts"). Flowers have numerous fluffy stamens which may be white, cream, yellow, pink or red; in bud, the stamens are enclosed in a cap known as an operculum which is composed of the fused sepals or petals or both. Thus flowers have no petals, but instead decorate themselves with the many showy stamens. As the stamens expand, the operculum is forced off, splitting away from the cup-like base of the flower; this is one of the features that unites the genus. The name Eucalyptus, from the Greek words eu-, well, and kaluptos, cover, meaning "well-covered", describes the operculum. The woody fruits or capsules are roughly cone-shaped and have valves at the end which open to release the seeds. Most species do not flower until adult foliage starts to appear; Eucalyptus cinerea and Eucalyptus perriniana are notable exceptions.
The appearance of Eucalyptus bark varies with the age of the plant, the manner of bark shed, the length of the bark fibres, the degree of furrowing, the thickness, the hardness and the colour. All mature eucalypts put on an annual layer of bark, which contributes to the increasing diameter of the stems. In some species, the outermost layer dies and is annually deciduous, either in long strips (as in Eucalyptus sheathiana) or in variably sized flakes (E. diversicolor, E. cosmophylla or E. cladocalyx). These are the gums or smooth-barked species. The gum bark may be dull, shiny or satiny (as in E. ornata) or matte (E. cosmophylla). In many species, the dead bark is retained. Its outermost layer gradually fragments with weathering and sheds without altering the essentially rough-barked nature of the trunks or stems — for example E. marginata, E. jacksonii, E. obliqua and E. porosa.
Many species are ‘half-barks’ or ‘blackbutts’ in which the dead bark is retained in the lower half of the trunks or stems — for example, E. brachycalyx, E. ochrophloia and E. occidentalis — or only in a thick, black accumulation at the base, as in E. clelandii. In some species in this category, for example E. youngiana and E. viminalis, the rough basal bark is very ribbony at the top, where it gives way to the smooth upper stems. The smooth upper bark of the half-barks and that of the completely smooth-barked trees and mallees can produce remarkable colour and interest, for example E. deglupta.
- Stringybark — consists of long fibres and can be pulled off in long pieces. It is usually thick with a spongy texture.
- Ironbark — is hard, rough and deeply furrowed. It is impregnated with dried kino (a sap exuded by the tree) which gives a dark red or even black colour.
- Tessellated — bark is broken up into many distinct flakes. They are corkish and can flake off.
- Box — has short fibres. Some also show tessellation.
- Ribbon — this has the bark coming off in long thin pieces but still loosely attached in some places. They can be long ribbons, firmer strips or twisted curls.
Species and hybridism
There are over 700 species of Eucalyptus; refer to the List of Eucalyptus species for a comprehensive list of species. Some have diverged from the mainstream of the genus to the extent that they are quite isolated genetically and are able to be recognised by only a few relatively invariant characteristics. Most, however, may be regarded as belonging to large or small groups of related species, which are often in geographical contact with each other and between which gene exchange still occurs. In these situations many species appear to grade into one another, and intermediate forms are common. In other words, some species are relatively fixed genetically, as expressed in their morphology, while others have not diverged completely from their nearest relatives.
Hybrid individuals have not always been recognised as such on first collection and some have been named as new species, such as E. chrysantha (E. preissiana × E. sepulcralis) and E. "rivalis" (E. marginata × E. megacarpa). Hybrid combinations are not particularly common in the field, but some other published species frequently seen in Australia have been suggested to be hybrid combinations. For example, E. erythrandra is believed to be E. angulosa × E. teraptera and due to its wide distribution is often referred to in texts.
A small genus of similar trees, Angophora, has also been known since the 18th century. In 1995 new evidence, largely genetic, indicated that some prominent Eucalyptus species were actually more closely related to Angophora than to the other eucalypts; they were split off into the new genus Corymbia. Although separate, the three groups are allied and it remains acceptable to refer to the members of all three genera, Angophora, Corymbia and Eucalyptus, as "eucalypts".
Several eucalypts are among the tallest trees in the world. Eucalyptus regnans, the Australian Mountain Ash, is the tallest of all flowering plants (Angiosperms); today, the tallest measured specimen named Centurion is 99.6 m (327 ft) tall. Only Coast Redwood is taller and Coast Douglas-fir about the same; they are conifers (Gymnosperm). Six other eucalypt species exceed 80 metres in height: Eucalyptus obliqua, Eucalyptus delegatensis, Eucalyptus diversicolor, Eucalyptus nitens, Eucalyptus globulus and Eucalyptus viminalis.
Most eucalypts are not tolerant of frost, or only tolerate light frosts down to –3 °C to –5 °C; the hardiest are the so-called Snow Gums, such as Eucalyptus pauciflora which is capable of withstanding cold and frost down to about –20 °C. Two subspecies, E. pauciflora subsp. niphophila and E. pauciflora subsp. debeuzevillei in particular are even hardier and can tolerate even quite severe winters. Several other species, especially from the high plateau and mountains of central Tasmania such as Eucalyptus coccifera, Eucalyptus subcrenulata, and Eucalyptus gunnii, have produced extreme cold-hardy forms and it is seed procured from these genetically hardy strains that are planted for ornament in colder parts of the world.
An essential oil extracted from Eucalyptus leaves contains compounds that are powerful natural disinfectants and can be toxic in large quantities. Several marsupial herbivores, notably koalas and some possums, are relatively tolerant of it. The close correlation of these oils with other more potent toxins called formylated phloroglucinol compounds allows koalas and other marsupial species to make food choices based on the smell of the leaves. For koalas, these compounds are the most important factor in leaf choice.
Eucalyptus flowers produce a great abundance of nectar, providing food for many pollinators including insects, birds, bats and possums. Although Eucalyptus trees are seemingly well-defended from herbivores by the oils and phenolic compounds, they have insect pests. These include the Eucalyptus Longhorn Borer Phoracantha semipunctata and the aphid-like psyllids known as "bell lerps," both of which have become established as pests throughout the world wherever eucalypts are cultivated.
On warm days vaporised Eucalyptus oil rises above the bush to create the characteristic distant blue haze of the Australian landscape. Eucalyptus oil is highly flammable (trees have been known to explode) and bush fires can travel easily through the oil-rich air of the tree crowns. The dead bark and fallen branches are also flammable. Eucalypts are well adapted for periodic fires via lignotubers and epicormic shoots under the bark.
Eucalypts originated between 35 and 50 million years ago, not long after Australia-New Guinea separated from Gondwana, their rise coinciding with an increase in fossil charcoal deposits (suggesting that fire was a factor even then), but they remained a minor component of the Tertiary rainforest until about 20 million years ago, when the gradual drying of the continent and depletion of soil nutrients led to the development of a more open forest type, predominantly Casuarina and Acacia species. With the arrival of the first humans about 50 thousand years ago, fires became much more frequent and the fire-loving eucalypts soon came to account for roughly 70% of Australian forest.
The two valuable timber trees, Alpine Ash E. delegatensis and Australian Mountain Ash E. regnans, are killed by fire and only regenerate from seed. The same 2003 bushfire that had little impact on forests around Canberra resulted in thousands of hectares of dead ash forests. However, a small amount of ash survived and put out new ash trees as well. There has been some debate as to whether to leave the stands or attempt to harvest the mostly undamaged timber, which is increasingly recognised as a damaging practice.
Cultivation, uses, and environmental effects
Eucalypts have many uses which have made them economically important trees, and have become a cash crop in poor areas such as Timbuktu, Africa:22 and the Peruvian Andes, despite concerns that the trees are invasive in some countries like South Africa. Best-known are perhaps the varieties Karri and Yellow box. Due to their fast growth, the foremost benefit of these trees is their wood. They can be chopped off at the root and grow back again. They provide many desirable characteristics for use as ornament, timber, firewood and pulpwood. Eucalyptus is considered the world’s top quality pulping species due to its high fibre yields. It is also used in a number of industries, from fence posts and charcoal to cellulose extraction for biofuels. Fast growth also makes eucalypts suitable as windbreaks and to reduce erosion.
Eucalypts draw a tremendous amount of water from the soil through the process of transpiration. They have been planted (or re-planted) in some places to lower the water table and reduce soil salination. Eucalypts have also been used as a way of reducing malaria by draining the soil in Algeria, Lebanon, Sicily,, elsewhere in Europe, and California. Drainage removes swamps which provide a habitat for mosquito larvae, but can also destroy ecologically productive areas. This drainage is limited to the soil surface only, because the eucalyptus roots have up to 2.5 m (8.2 ft) length, not reaching the phreatic zone; thus rain or irrigation can wet the soil again.