San Diego Floral Association
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September/October 2011 Volume 102 No. 5
Why Cords of Eucalyptus Didn't Turn Into Cords of Money
By John Blocker
Photo: John Blocker
Great groves of eucalyptus trees were planted in San Diego during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to be harvested for wood. Their value as an economic crop was either short-lived or a failure, but the groves survived and their beauty is now prized by the communities that grew up around them.
In 1853, three years after California became a state, clipper ship captain Robert H. Waterman retired to Solano County. His former first mate brought him a bag of eucalyptus seeds from Australia. Waterman planted the seeds along the roads of Fairfield and Cordelia, towns he founded. These trees are credited with being the first eucalyptus planted in California.
By 1856, nurserymen in the San Francisco Bay area sold 14 varieties of eucalyptus. Since then eucalyptus have been planted as shade trees in parks, along streets in cities, and beside farm houses in the countryside. Farmers utilized them as windbreaks. One need only drive through the more temperate regions of the state to see the popularity of these trees.
The need for fuel and lumber grew in California with population growth. In 1871 Robert E. C. Stearns for the California Academy of Science wrote, “When we consider the fact of the great number of farms in California that are nearly or wholly destitute of wood, and the great and continuous expense entailed by our system of fencing, the importance to the farmer of dedicating a portion of his land to the cultivation of forest trees, from which he can obtain fuel and fencing materials is too palpable to admit of debate ....”
Above Art: Eucalyptus from cover of California Garden
The Blue Gum Miracle
Stearns urged farmers to plant Eucalyptus globulus, the blue gum tree from Southeastern Australia, to help satisfy California’s need for fuel and lumber. Blue gums grow up to 20 feet per year and can reach 200 feet tall. Timber crops can be harvested every seven years.
Forest land covered less than one percent of San Diego County in 1871. Until the beginning of the next century, eucalyptus trees would be planted in San Diego for fuel and for lumber intended for many uses, including ship hulls. Potash also could be made from eucalyptus. Potash is made by leaching wood ash and boiling down the residue in large iron pots. Potash was used in making many products, including ceramics, glass and soaps.
Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, the nineteenth century’s recognized world-expert on the eucalyptus, said the blue gum “contained a larger proportion of potash than the elm or maple, which are the trees most esteemed for the purpose in America. The yield from the latter trees is estimated at 10 per cent of the ashes, while that from the eucalyptus is 21 per cent.”
By 1875 founders of National City, Frank Kimball and his brother Warren had already planted eucalyptus. In 1882 they used eucalyptus to fire kilns to make bricks for a train station, anticipating the arrival in National City of the railroad they would bring from the East Coast. In 1884 through 1885, Warren planted thousands more eucalyptus along the Sweetwater River as well as along the proposed railroad right of ways. He planned to use the wood for fuel for locomotives as well as for railroad ties.
During the last half of the nineteenth century, eucalyptus trees were touted for an array of uses. Dyes and perfumes can be made from the oils. The oils also were advertized as cures for many diseases, including malaria and diphtheria. Growers planted eucalyptus next to their crops to eradicate pests such as phylloxera, an aphid-like insect inflicting major damage to grapes at the time.
Harvesting of eucalyptus waned when a cheaper source of potassium mined in Germany abolished the potash market. Additionally, metal replaced wood for ship hulls and coal and petroleum replaced wood as the fuel of choice. Most medicinal claims for eucalyptus proved to be untrue and cheaper alternatives to eucalyptus oils became available.
San Diego’s Historic Groves
A resurgence of planting occurred in 1906 when the Santa Fe Railroad purchased the San Dieguito Rancho to grow the trees for railroad ties. They needed ties by the millions for their expanding transportation system. Over the next few years, they planted three million trees on 8,800 acres of the rancho.
In 1908 F. P. Hosp in a paper read at the California Fruit Growers and Farmers Convention in Riverside, plugged the blue gum tree: “Eucalyptus globulus, or blue gum, is said to be the fastest growing tree in the world. Now, how is it that all or most of the hills in California are lying bare and idle and treeless? It is only of late, since a great railroad corporation has shown by its enterprise and faith in timber growing that the public is waking up and taking an interest in this vast and highly profitable industry.”
He promised again, as had been done in the previous century, that cords of eucalyptus could be turned into cords of money. In 1908 Hosp formed a corporation and bought 219 acres near what is now the intersection of the I-5 and Highway 78. He planted 40,000 trees.
In 1910 unemployment was high in Southern California. The City of San Diego had recently abolished the use of its rock pile as a make-work program for prisoners. The city hired Max Watson, the 23 year old son of a Unitarian minister, to oversee a penal farm on unused land on Torrey Mesa.
Watson advertised he would pay 50 cents a day and room and board to persons willing to do an honest day’s work. While the camp operated, more than 400 prisoners and destitute men worked at the site. Newspapers referred to the farm as Watson’s Hobo Camp.
Watson’s workers mostly planted subsistence crops. Hoping to make a profit for the city, Watson directed his workers to plant more than 300,000 Eucalyptus cladocalyx or sugar gums on Torrey Mesa.
In 1910 E. W. Scripps appointed Chauncy Jerabek – later City of San Diego’s Parks Director and writer for California Garden – to be head gardener of his Miramar Ranch. Jerabek directed the planting of thousands of eucalyptus on the ranch, although about 60 percent of the plantation had been set in the ground before he arrived.
These groves, all planted to supply ties to the railroad, were financial failures. The eucalyptus wood was too brittle to hold a spike. However, these eucalyptus groves grew into some of San Diego’s most iconic landscapes.
The Hosp grove became so beloved by the residents of the City of Carlsbad that they approved a measure in 1986 to buy 53 acres of the old plantation for parkland. The eucalyptus grove on Torrey Mesa became the site of the University of California at San Diego, now considered one of the most beautiful campuses in the UC system. The City of San Diego neighborhood of Scripps Ranch is renowned for its eucalyptus grove, the same grove planted on the Miramar Ranch by Chauncy Jerabek. The San Dieguito Rancho is now known as Rancho Santa Fe. One of the wealthiest communities in the world arose amid the railroad’s failed eucalyptus plantation.
–John Blocker worked with the agricultural industry in San Diego and has attended garden conferences and viewed gardens around the world during the past 20 years. From 1998 to 2008, he was on the board of the California Garden and Landscape History Society.
City of Carlsbad Parks and Recreation Pamphlet, “Hosp Grove Trail.”
Gayle M. Groenendaa, “History of Eucalyptus in California,” Proceedings of a Workshop on Eucalyptus in California, June 14-16, 1983, Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-69,
Heather Hinter, “The Tree Wars,” UCSD Alumni, January 2005.
F. P. Hosp, “The Eucalyptus for Use and Ornament,” Proceedings from the California Fruit Growers and Farmers Convention, Issue 34, 1908.
“Interview with Chauncy Irving Jerabek, 1890-1978 [March 8, 1978],” Oral History, San Diego Historical Society.
G. Stanford Leland, “San Diego’s Eucalyptus Bubble,” Journal of San Diego History 16:4 (Fall 1970), 11-19.
Mission: To promote the knowledge and appreciation of horticulture and floriculture in the San Diego region.