Historic Blunders

13th January 2006 at 00:00
The Californian prospectors who rushed to Australia in the 1850s had just one thing on their minds - gold. But it was the seeds of a remarkable tree that filled many of their pockets on returning home. The Tasmanian blue gum, a type of eucalyptus, shoots up an astonishing 20 feet per year, making it one of the world's fastest-growing trees. What's more, it thrived in the semi-arid soil of California, where it quickly found favour both as an ornamental and as a wind-break for citrus groves.

By the 1870s, Californians were beginning to regard the blue gum as a miracle tree, attributing to it all manner of health-giving properties and even claiming that it was fireproof (in fact, the resin-rich wood is highly flammable).

And then came the great eucalyptus lumber boom. In 1904, word spread that east-coast timber reserves were running out. With the Panama Canal about to open up this rich new market, blue gum seedlings became the passport to an instant fortune.

Fifty nurseries frantically advertised their wares, and before long California had gone blue gum crazy. Farmers tore up vegetable crops and replaced them with trees, while land speculators made a mint by selling ready-made eucalyptus groves.

The author Jack London planted 60,000 trees on his ranch and urged his readers to do the same. Meanwhile, the Santa Fe railroad, finding itself short of sleepers, bought 8,000 acres on which to grow its own.

But it was the railroad crews who were to burst the bubble. For as soon as they tried driving spikes into the sawn timber, it split.

Soon, all California was waking up to the awful truth. As a source of building material, their beloved eucalyptus was virtually useless, and countless investors who had handed over fortunes found themselves up a gum tree.

Or, to be more accurate, up the wrong gum tree. For while many of the 600 eucalypt species continue to provide Australia with the world's richest source of hardwood, the Tasmania blue gum adopted by Californians turns out to be the least workable of all.

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