Forestry & Iconography The Golden State’s Eucalyptus Culture

written by Grove Koger

images from Laguna Beach and the Greenbelt
the new book “Celebrating a Treasured Historic American Landscape”

Were they a good idea? A bad idea? Over the past few decades Californians have had sharply differing opinions about them, but they certainly seemed like a good idea at the time.

That time was California in the 1850s, when so many of the new state’s forested acres had been stripped of trees for fuel and construction. In other parts of California, the naturally spare landscape struck newcomers as barren and uninviting. As Jared Farmer notes in his fascinating Trees in Paradise, it was about then that W.C. Walker’s Golden Gate Nursery of San Francisco started selling the seeds of a new and unusual tree—the eucalyptus.

Eucalypti are natives of Australia and thereabouts, but of course countless species now grow in California. One in particular, the Tasmanian blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus), is common in the lower elevations, and its blue-green color and menthol odor are familiar to most of the state’s residents. They’re also giants to be reckoned with. The largest one in California—and the nation—is growing in the Lost Coast community of Petrolia. It’s 141 feet high, 49 feet in circumference, and has a spread of 126 feet.

We can’t be certain, but when nurseryman Walker planted some of those seeds himself in 1853, he may have been the first person in the state to do so. In any case, he hoped to harvest much more than firewood and timber from the exotic trees. Their leaves would yield a medically valuable oil and their flowers a bumper crop of honey. Walker’s optimistic fellow Californians followed suit over the following decades, with encouragement from the federal government. The Timber Culture Act of 1873 specified that homesteaders put a minimum number of their acres in trees, and the fast-growing eucalypti were an obvious choice.

Not coincidentally, California was filling with human newcomers as well, including the men and women who would become its most prominent artists. One of them, Italian-born San Franciscan Giuseppe Cadenasso, became famous for painting eucalypti. Initially the works drew ridicule, but after his death in 1918, the San Francisco Bulletin remembered him as “the first California artist to catch the mystic beauty of the eucalyptus tree with a facile grace and atmosphere entirely his own.”
Farther south, George Rogers bought 155 acres in the early 1880s in what’s now downtown Laguna Beach and planted much of the ground with eucalyptus seed. He subdivided the land a few years later, a step that led to the creation of what are now some of Laguna’s most prominent thoroughfares. A bucolic 1915 photo of the dusty but appropriately named Forest Avenue includes a number of the shaggy trees, and while most had been cut down by the late 1920s, the newly formed Laguna Beach Garden Club saw to their replanting. “Streets are being smoothed and straightened,” author M.F.K. Fisher would write a little later of a barely disguised Laguna. “Old eucalyptus trees are uprooted to make way for curbings. ‘Desecration!’ the artists shriek. ‘Necessity,’ soothe the progressives, and they plant more trees in much more orderly rows.”
English-born Norman St. Clair had begun living in Pasadena around 1900, but he visited Laguna on a regular basis and set up a studio there in 1903, coming to be regarded as the little community’s “pioneer” artist. At least one of his watercolors, Eucalyptus—Laguna, depicts the trees that had by then become ubiquitous. Other artists followed and were naturally drawn to the giants, which soon became as common on canvas as they were on the ground. Joseph Kleitsch painted them shading Laguna’s old post office, Granville Redmond painted them towering over meadows glowing with wildflowers, and Edgar Payne painted them rising dramatically against a backdrop of distant foothills. Perhaps the most striking example is Guy Rose’s dramatic Laguna Eucalyptus. It wasn’t long before the plein air, Impressionist-influenced painters of Southern California became known as the “Eucalyptus School.” Few of them were natives, of course, making the vaguely derisive label accurate in more ways than one.
All things considered, eucalypti haven’t lived up to their promise. Wharf owners and railway men learned early on that their timber made poor pilings and ties. On the other hand, their fallen leaves and constantly peeling bark can be serious fire hazards, as community after community has learned. The trees crowd out native species, alter soil chemistry and nitrogen mineralization rates, interfere with migratory bird patterns—it’s a litany of unpleasant facts that you’re undoubtedly familiar with. And yet …
In the century and a half since W.C. Walker planted his first eucalyptus seeds, the trees have grown to be reassuringly familiar if problematic features of the landscape. But thanks to a generous assist from the Eucalyptus School, they’ve become something else as well, something bigger—cultural icons. A number of them even appear on Laguna’s Heritage Tree List. And unpleasant facts are no match for icons.
Laguna Beach
and the Greenbelt
Celebrating a Treasured
Historic American Landscape

This book celebrates Laguna Beach and its greenbelt, which have been designated a Historic American Landscape by the National Park Service, Department of Interior, and presents the nomination documentation that is housed in the Library of Congress. It is dedicated to the generations of devoted people responsible for shaping the city’s character and traditions.

Laguna’s mountains and dramatic canyons, coastal cliffs, and ever-changing ocean views attracted plein air artists and others beginning early in the last century, and from the beginning its residents were dedicated to protecting and embellishing it. The fortunate confluence of geography, history, and community resolve has resulted in the preservation, in the face of the surrounding suburban sprawl, of an authentic small town and a vast area of protected open space that provides breathing room for all of us.

The genesis of this project lies in a visit to Laguna Beach by Noel Vernon, professor at Cal Poly Pomona, on August 10, 2009. Vernon was the American Society of Landscape Architects coordinator for the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) and introduced the program to Ann Christoph, Vonn Marie May, Ted Wells, and Tom Osborne. At that meeting, Christoph suggested nominating the city of Laguna Beach and the Laguna Greenbelt as a Historic American Landscape. The nomination would emphasize the fact that the dramatic and scenic landscape had been the basis of the development of Laguna Beach as an art colony, with a tradition of environmental awareness and protection, and ultimately as a center of citizen-generated landscape preservation.

The HALS nomination idea was discussed for years and was well received, but it was not acted upon until Ron Chilcote organized a committee that met for the first time on March 9, 2015. The group agreed that the greenbelt, the legacy of plein air painting, the seascape and bluebelt, and Laguna Beach as a special place all pointed to a need to identify the history and effect of this unique landscape: to describe its characteristics, document its importance, and record its past so that present and future generations would recognize its significance.

With knowledgeable and enthusiastic members, the committee coalesced to produce the nomination application. The committee members were as follows: Bob Borthwick, Mark Chamberlain, Ron Chilcote, Ann Christoph, Harry Huggins, Eric Jessen, Tom Lamb, Barbara Metzger, Verna Rollinger, Historic landscapes are special places. They are important touchstones of national, regional, and local identity. They foster a sense of community and place. Historic landscapes are also fragile places. They are affected by the forces of nature, and by commercial and residential development, vandalism and neglect. They undergo changes that are often unpredictable and irreversible. For these reasons and for the benefit of future generations, it is important to document these places.

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