The eucalypts are, of course, the iconic Australian plant – approaching the coast, our island continent wears a perfume of eucalyptus oil. Eucalypts deservedly dominate our perception of Australian trees (regardless of botanical caveats).
You might have read Murray Bail’s 1998 Miles Franklin award winning novel Eucalyptus. A fairy tale in which the quest for suitors of Ellen Holland’s sublime beauty is to identify the rare eucalypts her father collects. The story is enchanting and was progressed for a film directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse starring Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman – disappointingly now abandoned. Dean Nicolle was the eucalyptologist engaged for research – the only potential suitor who might successfully complete such a quest in real life.
Last year Nicolle won the inaugural Bjarne K. Dahl medal for his contribution to eucalypt research, education and conservation – this is the Miles Franklin for eucalyptologists and deserves to have the same coverage given the eucalyptus oil running in Australia’s veins. Nicolle’s exploration of eucalypts is peerless – by 15, Nicolle had established the Currency Creek arboretum. As he observes, he may not have been mad but his parents’ support for this venture might have seemed so – although as things have turned out they should be considered prescient. The Currency Creek arboretum is now the most comprehensive eucalypt collection in the world and includes over 900 species and subspecies and more than 8000 individual plants.
Dean Nicolle at work with a eucalypt
The depiction of eucalypts in Australian culture is largely confined to those autochthonous trees rooted in our country’s ecology. The celebration of cultivated eucalypts is reserved for farmers, foresters, arborists, apiarists, dyers, and the indefinable society of tree planters whose passion is embodied in planting trees far removed from their origin, and the celebration of their diverse productions in timber, shade, shelter, habitat, honey, dyes, and significantly, beauty. Les Murray’s poem Eucalypts in exile explores the trajectory of eucalypts emigrated as products or established from seed beyond Australia observing,
Their humans, meeting them abroad,
often grab and sniff their hands.
While we might embrace émigré eucalypts in exile outside Australia, within those transported within their own country are just as likely to be viewed with suspicion – if they’re even noticed. Our celebration of locally native trees largely consigns those transplants along country highway verges, in the median strips of country towns, verging paddocks, or in the tears in our urban and periurban fabric to a lost land. Or perhaps, as the climate warms, we’re inclined to see the worst in them.
Standing round among shed limbs
and loose slabbings of bark
is homeland stuff
but fire is ingrained.
They explode the mansions of Malibu
because to be eucalypts
they have to shower sometime in Hell.
Many foreign cities such as Los Angeles are hemmed by eucalyptus
Nicolle’s exploration of eucalypts is without prejudice. His terrain includes molecular studies, ecological and taxonomic fieldwork and conservation and the use of cultivated species – through his arboretum’s application in national and international collaborative research, and to cultivation of eucalypts. His love for eucalypts is evident in all of his work including his latest two books – Smaller eucalypts for planting in Australia and Taller eucalypts for planting in Australia.
Perhaps these most clearly illustrate his incisive analysis – a catholic taste, model inclusiveness and an evangelising fervour for the selecting and planting the right eucalypt in any situation to provide the attributes being sought in terms of utility and beauty. These books are a delight – Annett Börner’s layout allows ready access to key information for utilisation, cultivation and identification. The text for cultivation, uses and management is invaluable (in contrast to some guides where headings are filled by formula rather than knowledge). The introductory text explains the key features of eucalypts and their cultivation as well as dissecting the inherent logic in the layout.
Australians know all to well how eucalypts “have to shower sometime in Hell”
I’m a fan of these books for the depth of knowledge they make accessible to the reader. The asides to the main text are delightful. How did Nicolle find out that the extremely rare Seppelt Range yellowjacket (Eucalyptus ceracea) was cultivated in Broome or recognise the purple-leaved mallee (E. pluricaulis) on the roadside at Kanmantoo? Just opening the pages suggests opportunities for planting – these are Nicolle’s friends that he’s introducing us to and allowing us to understand some of their strengths and weaknesses.
Of course the path for a self-employed eucalyptologist is a difficult one well outside our celebration of income and celebrity. Nicolle supports his family, arboretum and eucalypt explorations by consulting and publishing – honest toil.
The books are available from Nicolle. I can’t recommend them too highly – these are important works in understanding Australian natural and cultural history through the sap of our eucalypts and will make an essential addition to your library and outstanding Christmas presents.
Smaller eucalypts for planting in Australia: their selection, cultivation and management
Taller eucalypts for planting in Australia: their selection, cultivation and management by Dean Nicolle
$35 individually or $60 for both