Book Review: Gum: The story of eucalypts and their champions by Ashley Hay

First Published 2002. Updated edition published 2021.

Review by the NPA’s Environmental Book Group

Eucalypts are a special group of plants that most represent the character of the Australian bush. This book was discussed by the Group at its meeting on 14 March. It tells the history of the development of knowledge of eucalypts and their place in the broader story of Australia and the world. The period covered is from Cook’s 1770 voyage to 2020, with a look to the future. It also recognises long standing First Nation knowledge, culture, and practices. The narrative is told mainly as the story of “champions” and their contributions in exploring, collecting, exporting, drawing, painting, studying, classifying, writing about, promoting, and conserving eucalypts.

Botanist Joseph Banks noted in his 1770 visit that the common large trees yielded a “reddish gum” and coined the name “gum tree”. Banks amassed a huge collection of Australian botanical material but left the research and documentation to others. In 1786 Frenchman Charles Louis L’Heritier de Brutelle first botanically described gum trees. He named them eucalypts, from the ancient Greek words “eu” (well or very) and “kalypto” (covered or hidden). The latter refers to the flowers.

Others given high prominence include explorer and surveyor Thomas Mitchell (1792-1855), botanist Baron Ferdinand von Mueller (1825-96), author and illustrator May Gibbs (1877-1969), forestry scientist Max Jacobs (1905-79) and environmentalist Geoff Law. Thomas Mitchell made many observations of eucalypts of the inland. He hypothesized that “fire, grass, kangaroos, and humans seem dependent on each other in Australia” and observed thicker forests developing in areas where “periodical burning by natives” had ceased. Baron von Mueller’s published output was prodigious and included detailed descriptions of the properties and potential uses of the more common eucalypts. This included the medicinal value of eucalyptus oil and their use in draining swamps and preventing malaria (as used in Italy). He sent seed to many countries. May Gibbs’ gumnut babies were instantly popular, capturing a spirit of “Australianness” in the still newly independent nation. Max Jacobs promoted eucalypts globally as superb plantation trees, part of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s global development program. That program was  purely utilitarian and ignored broader ecological and environmental considerations which came to greater prominence later in the 20th century. Nevertheless, eucalypts remain the most common type of plantation tree globally. Geoff Law moved to Tasmania to become an environmental activist in the early 1980’s. He was prominent in the campaign to cease forestry in Tasmania’s native forests, giving particular publicity to Eucalyptus regnans (Mountain Ash), the world’s tallest flowering plant.

The final chapters do not contain stories of champions which are otherwise such a feature of the book. They cover more recent developments, including the relationship between fire and eucalypts and possible impacts of climate change. These are areas of ongoing research, as is much else about the taxonomy, characteristics, and cultural significance of eucalypts.

The author’s narrative style flows well. The reader is never lost in detail or struggling to understand what is meant. It is highly recommended for those interested in this iconic Australian plant group.

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