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Blotto on blue gums at Hampton Court

Tim Entwisle

Tim Entwisle

July 3, 2014

We are growing two kinds of gum tree in our Hampton Court Palace Flower Show garden. With a name like ‘Little Boy Blue’, the dainty cultivar of the Silver-leaved Mountain Gum (Eucalyptus pulverulenta) from grassy woodlands in southern New South Wales surely won’t get you drunk. The other, the Cider Gum (Eucalyptus gunnii) from Tasmania, might just do it.

PC128315They both have waxy-blue, roundish leaves at first, and, if you allow them, longer sickle-shaped leaves (like those in frosty photo above) more typical of a eucalypt later in life: you can keep eucalypts forever young with regular and rather aggressive pruning.

Without pruning, Eucalyptus ‘Little Boy Blue’ could get to 20 metres, but it is bred from a mallee species, which means it’s naturally multi-stemmed and typically more like large bush than a tree. Judicious trimming can keep it at 2-3 metres up and across. It should be hardy in much of the UK if given some protection from the worst of the weather (e.g. south side of a wall). We featured this cultivar in our gold-winning 2011 Chelsea Flower Show garden.

Eucalyptus 'Little Boy Blue' in Spain

Eucalyptus ‘Little Boy Blue’ in Spain

And the species, Eucalyptus pulverulenta, was featured recently on the Facebook page of the Australian Seed Bank Partnership, a national effort to conserve Australia’s flora through seed collecting, banking, research and knowledge. On 13 May 2014 they excitedly informed their Facebook friends that seed from a natural population had been collected and stored.

Seedbank eucLike Cider Gum, the bark is flaky, the foliage good for cut-flower arrangements and the flowers creamy and fragrant in spring. But no-one drinks ‘Little Boy Blue’. Cider Gum, on the other hand, has been drunk, and undoubtedly some have been drunk on it. Whether you should, and whether you would benefit from that experience, is a question I can’t answer.

You can be pretty sure from its botanical name that Eucalyptus gunnii is from Tasmania. It was named by Sir Joseph Hooker, Director of Kew Gardens from 1865 to 1885, after the South-Africa-born plant collector and politician Ronald Gunn. Gunn spent most his life in Tasmania, gathering plants and plant enthusiasts, and he was highly regarded by Hooker. His name is hard to miss in any guide to Tasmanian native plants.

European settlers in Tasmania would tap Cider Gum like you would a Maple, to extract the sap from its trunk. Fermentation turned it into what has been described as a ‘cider-like drink’. I suspect this means it has alcohol in it and tastes more like an apple than hops, barley or molasses. I think beer and rum were the other popular drinks of the time.

Eucalyptus gunnii in Spain

Eucalyptus gunnii in Spain

Like all eucalypts, it had other uses too. Any alcohol can make a handy antiseptic, but eucalyptus oil (unfermented) has been used to kill skin bacteria in Australia, and later around the world. These days eucalyptus oil is more commonly used to remove stains and treat colds and flu.

Bosistos-Eucalyptus-Oil-200ml_6The first inhabitants of Australia were of course on the many uses of the gum tree already. Aboriginal people have used eucalyptus leaf oil as a disinfectant for tens of thousands of years. The also use sap for the same purpose, boiling it in water until dissolved and then rubbing into cuts and bruises. And heartwood diluted in boiled water was used to treat diarrhea.

Like the early Europeans settlers, Aboriginal Australians do digest eucalypts, using seed to make flour for damper, roots as another source of starch, and nectar drinks from the flowers of species such as the Manna Gum (Eucalyptus viminalis).

Making cider from Cider Gum was their idea too. In spring, Tasmanian Aboriginal people cut a hole in the trunk of the Cider Gum, eating the sap or boiling in water to make a thick syrup. Sometimes the syrup is used to make a cider-like drink, favoured for corroborees. There are some who think there is bigger market for a maple-syrup like product, or a fermented drink, from the Cider Gum.

PC128314Until then, enjoy its aromatic blue leaves as a garden plant at home, or in our aptly named ‘Essence of Australia‘ garden at Hampton Court Palace next week.

[Images: the top and bottom pictures are from one of the large and beautiful eucalypts growing near the Jodrell Laboratory in Kew Gardens, photographed on a frosty morning in December 2012. The others are images (taken by Jim Fogarty) from Viveros Medipalm, the nursery in Spain from where we sourced most of our plants for the show garden.]

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9 years ago

Will these cultivars and hybrids present a problem to the genetic integrity of our eucalypts Tim?

Hybridization can act as a stimulus for the evolution of invasiveness in plants and so I wonder if the work that has been done on that has fostered any debate?

Tim Entwisle
9 years ago

No problem in UK of course. In Australia it’s always a concern, as you know. Often they are kept coppiced and not setting seed, so that would be OK. Gums interbreed so much it’s hard to predict for sure. Very good question/point!

9 years ago
Reply to  Tim Entwisle

Thanks Tim. I’ve only recently been made aware of the issue after reading Tim Lows book ‘The New Nature’ and so I wondered what you might think. Nice to be able to get the “view from the ridge”.

I enjoy your posts and dip into your blog now and then.

Catherine Stewart
9 years ago

Coppicing as a way of growing eucalypts for their foliage is much more popular outside of their native homeland than in Australia. I wonder why? Are we too frightened they’ll turn into a 20m monster while our back is turned?

9 years ago

That’s because they will Catherine…..orrible things 🙂

Tim Entwisle
9 years ago
Reply to  Eugene

I suspect it’s something to do with the majesty of many gums and their being such a significant part of our life and folk lore in Australia – i.e. we feel it emasculates or diminishes them in some way to coppice. About time we got over it!