The fascinating history of the humble Eucalyptus

Addis Ababa is the capital city of Ethiopia and its name, in the Amharic language, means ‘new flower’. 

It is, in fact, a comparatively new city, having been founded by the Emperor Menelik II in 1886, though the site was actually chosen by his wife.

It owes its existence to a tree, the urn gum or Eucalyptus urnigera.

Before the foundation of Addis Ababa the ancient Empire of Ethiopia had a movable capital. It had to move because it rapidly exhausted all the supplies of wood fuel in its hinterland.

But Menelik was a brilliant and outward-looking man who knew about coppicing and knew about the urn gum, which had been discovered some decades earlier by an Englishman, Sir Joseph Hooker, growing in the mountains of Tasmania.

He imported the tree and established plantations all around his new capital. It grew exceptionally well and could be coppiced on an annual or bi-annual basis to produce a sustainable supply of fuel for the inhabitants of the new city to cook with.

The capital stayed in one place and, to this day, is surrounded by eucalyptus coppices.

I relayed this piece of trivial information to a neighbour of mine the other day.

Up until a few years ago he had a dozen or so eucalyptus trees growing in his garden. They had all been killed in the hard frosts of 2010 and 2011.

Since then he had been cutting them up and burning them in his stove.

He discovered what Menelik had discovered, that they make excellent wood fuel which has the added bonus of giving off a wonderful aroma when it burns.

Now he wants to replace the dead trees with some new ones which he could coppice for his stove.

The trees that he’d lost in the big frost had not been urn gums, they had been cider gums, Eucalyptus gunnii.

This is another species from the mountains of Tasmania. It doesn’t coppice quite as well as the urn gum but it is a little hardier.

It’s only fully hardy in the mildest parts of this country but, statistically speaking, the chances of another winter severe enough to kill it are remote, particularly in the light of global warming.

So I said I’d do what I could to source some for him.

Tree nurseries, at least in my part of the country, won’t risk growing eucalyptus in open ground.

For this reason bare-root saplings are not available. They have to be bought as container-grown plants raised under cover.

These, of course, are more expensive, though for a small plantation the cost is not prohibitive if you shop around and restrict yourself to young plants.

I also discovered that seed is available very cheaply from some UK mail order companies, and this is the time of year to sow it.

If he’s lucky with the winter frosts the trees will be capable of phenomenal growth rates — anything up to two metres a year.


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