When tree planting actually damages ecosystems



Giraffes prefer the open space and scattered trees of the African savanna.
Volodymyr Burdiak/Shutterstock

Kate Parr, University of Liverpool and Caroline Lehmann, University of Edinburgh

Tree planting has been widely promoted as a solution to climate change, because plants absorb the climate-warming gases from Earth’s atmosphere as they grow. World leaders have already committed to restoring 350m hectares of forest by 2030 and a recent report suggested that reforesting a billion hectares of land could store a massive 205 gigatonnes of carbon – two thirds of all the carbon released into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

Many of those trees could be planted in tropical grassy biomes according to the report. These are the savannas and grasslands that cover large swathes of the globe and have a grassy ground layer and variable tree cover. Like forests, these ecosystems play a major role in the global carbon balance. Studies have estimated that grasslands store up to 30% of the world’s carbon that’s tied up in soil. Covering 20% of Earth’s land surface, they contain huge reserves of biodiversity, comparable in areas to tropical forest. These are the landscapes with lions, elephants and vast herds of wildebeest.

Gorongosa, Mozambique. The habitat here is open, well-lit and with few trees.
Caroline Lehmann, Author provided

Savannas and grasslands are home to nearly one billion people, many of whom raise livestock and grow crops. Tropical grassy biomes were the cradle of humankind – where modern humans first evolved – and they are where important food crops such as millet and sorghum originated, which millions eat today. And, yet among the usual threats of climate change and wildlife habitat loss, these ecosystems face a new threat – tree planting.

It might sound like a good idea, but planting trees here would be damaging. Unlike forests, ecosystems in the tropics that are dominated by grass can be degraded not only by losing trees, but by gaining them too.




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Where more trees isn’t the answer

Increasing the tree cover in savanna and grassland can mean plant and animal species which prefer open, well-lit environments are pushed out. Studies from South Africa, Australia and Brazil indicate that unique biodiversity is lost as tree cover increases.

This is because adding trees can alter how these grassy ecosystems function. More trees means fires are less likely, but regular fire removes vegetation that shades ground layer plants. Not only do herbivores like zebra and antelope that feed on grass have less to eat, but more trees may also increase their risk of being eaten as predators have more cover.

A mosaic of grassland and forest in Gabon.
Kate Parr, Author provided

More trees can also reduce the amount of water in streams and rivers. As a result of humans suppressing wildfires in the Brazilian savannas, tree cover increased and the amount of rain reaching the ground shrank. One study found that in grasslands, shrublands and cropland worldwide where forests were created, streams shrank by 52% and 13% of all streams dried up completely for at least a year.

Grassy ecosystems in the tropics provide surface water for people to drink and grazing land for their livestock, not to mention fuel, food, building materials and medicinal plants. Tree planting here could harm the livelihoods of millions.

Losing ancient grassy ecosystems to forests won’t necessarily be a net benefit to the climate either. Landscapes covered by forest tend to be darker in colour than savanna and grassland, which might mean they also absorb more heat. As drought and wildfires become more frequent, grasslands may be a more reliable carbon sink than forests.




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Redefine forests

How have we reached the point where the unique tropical savannas and grasslands of the world are viewed as suitable for wholesale “restoration” as forests?

At the root of the problem is that these grassy ecosystems are fundamentally misunderstood. The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN defines any area that’s half a hectare in size with more than 10% tree cover as forest. This assumes that landscapes like an African savanna are degraded because they have fewer trees and so need to be reforested. The grassy ground layer houses a unique range of species, but the assumption that forests are more important threatens grassy ecosystems across the tropics and beyond, including in Madagascar, India and Brazil.

A flowering aloe in Madagascan grassland.
Caroline Lehmann, Author provided

“Forest” should be redefined to ensure savannas and grasslands are recognised as important systems in their own right, with their own irreplaceable benefits to people and other species. It’s essential people know what degradation looks like in open, sunlit ecosystems with fewer trees, so as to restore ecosystems that are actually degraded with more sensitivity.

Calls for global tree planting programmes to cool the climate need to think carefully about the real implications for all of Earth’s ecosystems. The right trees need to be planted in the right places. Otherwise, we risk a situation where we miss the savanna for the trees, and these ancient grassy ecosystems are lost forever.The Conversation

Kate Parr, Professor of Tropical Ecology, University of Liverpool and Caroline Lehmann, Senior Lecturer in Biogeography, University of Edinburgh

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Exaggerating how much CO₂ can be absorbed by tree planting risks deterring crucial climate action



A long way to go…
Amenic181/Shutterstock

Duncan McLaren, Lancaster University

Planting almost a billion hectares of trees worldwide is the “biggest and cheapest tool” for tackling climate change, according to a new study. The researchers claimed that reforestation could remove 205 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere – equivalent to about 20 years’ worth of the world’s current emissions. This has criticised as an exaggeration. It could actually be dangerous.

While the paper itself included no costings, the researchers suggested a best-case estimate of just US$300 billion to plant trees on 0.9 billion hectares. That’s just 40 US cents per tonne of carbon dioxide (CO₂) removed. More detailed studies on the costs of carbon removal through reforestation put the figure closer to US$20-50 per tonne – and even this may be optimistic at such large scales.




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Our research suggests that the promises implied in such studies could actually set back meaningful action on climate change. This is because of what we call “mitigation deterrence” – promises of cheap and easy CO₂ removal in future make it less likely that time and money will be invested in reducing emissions now.

Why would anyone expect governments or the finance sector to invest in renewable energy, or mass transit like high-speed rail, at costs of tens or hundreds of dollars a tonne if they – and shareholders and voters – are told that huge amounts of CO₂ can be absorbed from the atmosphere for a few dollars a tonne by planting trees?

Why should anyone expect energy companies and airlines to reduce their emissions if they anticipate being able to pay to plant trees to offset everything they emit, for the paltry price of less than 50 cents a tonne. If studies like this suggest removing carbon is cheap and easy, the price of emitting carbon for businesses – in emissions trading schemes – will remain very low, rather than rising to the levels needed to trigger more challenging, yet urgently needed, forms of emission reduction.

Tree planting is cheaper but less effective at reducing emissions than building zero-carbon infrastructure like electric high-speed rail.
Pedrosala/Shutterstock

A false carbon economy

The promises of cheap and powerful tech fixes help to sideline thorny issues of politics, economics and culture. But when promises that look great in models and spreadsheets meet the real world, failure is often more likely. This has been seen before in the expectations around carbon capture and storage.

Despite promises of its future potential in the early 2000s, commercial development of the technology has scarcely progressed in the last decade. That’s despite many modelled pathways for limiting global warming still assuming – increasingly optimistically – that it will be deployed at a large scale in coming decades.




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This model of tackling climate change goes hand in hand with another tool – pricing carbon emissions. This potentially allows companies to go on emitting by paying someone else to cut emissions or remove CO₂ elsewhere – an approach called climate offsetting. But offsetting makes exaggerated promises of carbon removal even more risky.

Tree planting financed through offset markets would guarantee the polluter could continue emitting carbon, but the market couldn’t guarantee removals to match those emissions. Trees might be planted and subsequently lost to wildfire or logging, or never planted at all.

Trusting in trees to remove carbon in future is particularly dangerous because trees are slow to grow and how much carbon they absorb is hard to measure. They’re also less likely to be able to do this as the climate warms. In many regions of the world but particularly in the tropics, growth rates are predicted to fall as the climate warms and devastating wildfires become more frequent.

Relying on trees to absorb CO₂ from the atmosphere in the future also appears misleadingly cheap because of the effects of economic discounting. Economists discount the current value of costs or benefits more deeply, the further in the future they occur. Models which determine the cheapest mix of policies available all use some form of discounting.

When researchers add carbon removal options like tree planting to these models, they tend to generate pathways for slowing temperature rise which reduce the role of short term action and replace it with imaginary removals late in the century.

This is because discounting over 30 to 60 years makes the removal options look incredibly cheap in today’s prices. Priming models to focus on minimising cost causes them to maximise the use of discounted future removals and reduce the use of more expensive near term emissions reduction.

I am not arguing against reforestation, nor for a purely technological response to climate change. Trees can help for many reasons – reducing flooding, shading and cooling communities, and providing habitat for biodiversity. Incentives for reforestation are important, and so are incentives for removing carbon. But we shouldn’t make trees or technology carry the whole burden of tackling climate change. That demands moving beyond technical questions, to deliver immediate political action to cut emissions, and to begin to transform economies and societies.

This article was amended on July 13 2019 to clarify the proposed costs of carbon removal by reforestation.The Conversation

Duncan McLaren, Professor in Practice, Lancaster University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

White cedar is a rare bird: a winter deciduous Australian tree



Scamperdale/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Gregory Moore, University of Melbourne

Sign up to the Beating Around the Bush newsletter here, and suggest a plant we should cover at batb@theconversation.edu.au.


White cedar (Melia azedarach) grows naturally across Queensland and northern New South Wales, but is widely planted as an ornamental tree all over Australia. It also grows across much of Asia, and belongs to the mahogany family.

This wide dispersal sees the species given a very wide and diverse range of common names, including: umbrella cedar, pride of India, Indian lilac, Persian lilac, and Chinaberry. It Australia it is known as white cedar due to its soft general-purpose timber.

The name Melia was the Greek name given to the ash tree, which has similar foliage, and azedarach means “poisonous tree” – parts of it are toxic.




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White cedar is something of a rarity among Australian native trees, as it loses its leaves in winter or early autumn. Winter deciduous trees are highly valued in landscape design as they provide all the benefits of summer shade, but allow winter light.



The Conversation

While Australia has an abundance of evergreen tree species and a variety of summer deciduous trees that lose their leaves in summer when water is scarce, we have few winter deciduous native trees. White cedar fits the bill beautifully, and despite a few shortcomings has some very attractive traits.

White cedar is usually a small spreading tree with a rounded canopy up to about 6m in height, but under the right conditions trees can be more than 20m tall, with a canopy spread of 10m or more. They have quite dense foliage composed of dark compound leaves up to 500mm long, which transition from dark green to a pale yellow in autumn.

As a winter deciduous tree they are a very popular native tree that has been widely planted as street trees and in domestic gardens, where specimens of 10-12m are common. The trees are often considered to be short-lived (around 20 years), but in gardens and where irrigation is available some may live for 40 years or longer.

Good specimens of white cedar have many small flowers (20mm) that are white with purple/blue stripes and a wonderful, almost citrus-like scent. The fruits are about 15mm in diameter and bright orange in colour. They are usually retained over winter and so the trees provide a seasonal smorgasbord – shade in summer, autumn foliage colour, orange fruits in winter, and attractive scented flowers in spring.

Many specimens are prolific in their production of fruits and seeds, which readily germinate, underscoring the weed potential of the species under the right circumstances. They can be an invasive species in some parts of Asia and Africa.

Unfortunately as the fruits mature and dry they become as hard as ball bearings. If you mow over them they can fire from under a mower like bullets, and if they land on a hard paved surface they can be a tripping hazard for people who unexpectedly find themselves skating. The fruits and foliage can also be quite toxic if eaten. So this would appear to put a bit a dampener on the use of the tree. However, in recent years non-fruiting varieties of white cedar have become available and these have proven popular as street and garden trees.

A toxic treat

Many parts of the tree are toxic – interestingly, though, not the fleshy part of the fruit. It has evolved to be attractive to the birds that disperse seed. However the seeds are very poisonous, and as few as 6 or 8 seeds can be fatal for children. Fortunately, the seeds are very hard and do not taste very pleasant, so the risk of humans eating them is quite low.

Despite this, white cedar has been widely used as a medicinal plant by indigenous cultures, especially for intestinal parasites. The seeds have been widely used to make beads by indigenous peoples in Asia and Australia, and in some places the tree is called the bead tree.

An easy grower

One of the good things about white cedar is they are easily grown, and cope quite well with the low rainfall in many parts of Australia. They also tolerate a variety of soil types, which is why they have been so widely and successfully spread.

The trees are quite resistant to termite damage and their poison does protect them from grazing mammals and some insects. They can be prone to root problems and it is not uncommon for their trunks to break off at ground level, especially if they have been poorly propagated or planted, which can be a big problem when they are planted as a street tree.




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Although they are related to mahogany, their wood can be quite brittle and easily broken, which means care should be taken when pruning or working on them. When the wood dries it shatters easily and can send shards in all directions when you try to snap it. In Australia the wood can range from light cream to dark brown in colour, and while it is quite a useful wood for carving and furniture, it is not widely used.

As a winter deciduous native tree of smallish stature, with many attractive characteristics, the white cedar really is an Australian rarity, despite how widely it occurs or is planted.


Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.The Conversation

Gregory Moore, Doctor of Botany, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Built like buildings, boab trees are life-savers with a chequered past



A boab tree in the Kimberley. Boab trees can live for thousands of years and their trunks hollow out as they get older.
Shutterstock

Gregory Moore, University of Melbourne

Sign up to the Beating Around the Bush newsletter here, and suggest a plant we should cover at batb@theconversation.edu.au.


When you are in the northern part of Western Australia, one of nature’s joys is seeing a large boab tree close up, perhaps for the first time.

The boab (Adansonia gregorii) is a native to this part of Australia, but is related to the broader group of species called boababs that live in Madagascar and Africa – but more on that connection later.

Boabs are also called bottle trees, the tree of life, boababs and Australian boababs. Some of the indigenous Australian names include gadawon and larrgadi.

From their iconic swollen trunks, to living up to 2,000 years and the many uses for their “superfood” fruits, here’s what makes boab trees so fascinating.



The Conversation

The ‘upside-down tree’: trunks that save lives and lock up prisoners

While the boab in Australia is not quite as well-documented as the African species, specimens have been recorded at over 1,000 years of age. Some living trees have been estimated to be nearer to 2,000 years old.

And while it’s difficult to age the trees, several specimens of the African species have been dated at 2,000 or more years old.

Australian boabs can grow up to 15 metres tall at maturity and have swollen, attention-grabbing trunks called a caudex, which may be up to five metres in diameter.

The African boab species, A. digitata, can be much taller, at 25 metres high and with a diameter of up to 15 metres.




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In such dry continents, the caudex is a life-saver, often containing water, which was tapped by Indigenous folk. It has been estimated that some of these huge old trees can hold more than 100,000 litres of water in their trunks.

In Africa, these massive trunks have been used as shelters, homes, farm sheds and, more recently, even shops and bars.

Sadly in Australia, legend has it the huge trunks were used to make lock-ups for Indigenous people and other prisoners.

The infamous Boab Prison Tree, just south of Derby in Western Australia, was said to have once held Indigenous prisoners.
Shutterstock

It’s not just the trunk that can stop you in your tracks. The boab has a unique branching structure, one that looks more like a root system than a canopy.

Some locals in Africa will tell you the tree was dropped from heaven to earth and landed upside down. So the African species of boab is sometimes called the upside-down tree.

Boab fruits are ‘superfoods’ and its shell has many uses

A. gregorii, the Australian boab species, has large, attractive white flowers up to 75 millimetres in length. Its round fruits are edible and sought after by birds, mammals and humans. The fruit gives rise to some of the common names for the tree, such as monkey bread tree and dead rat tree. The latter comes from the appearance of older fruits in the canopy looking a bit like … well, dead rats?




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In fact, there’s great interest in fruits from the African species, A. digitata, which are considered a “superfood” because of their high levels of antioxidants, calcium, potassium, magnesium, fibre and vitamin C. It’s assumed many of these traits will be shared by the Australian boab, but there is little research as yet to prove it.

Fruit of the African boab tree fruit are initially covered in velvety fur.
Ton Rulkens/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

The soft part of the fruit is surrounded by a hard, coconut-like shell that’s initially covered in a velvety fur. The hard shell has been used for cups and bowls, but has also been intricately carved and decorated by Aboriginal artists in Africa and Australia. If the seeds are left inside the fruit as it dries, they can be used for toys like rattles.

On both continents, Aboriginal people have eaten the white powder that surrounds the seeds. The leaves are rich in iron and the pulp from the fruits tastes like cream of tartar.

The Indigenous people of both continents were also well aware of the medicinal uses of the fruits. The bark and leaves of the trees also treat various ailments, but particularly those associated with digestive disorders.




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But at present there is very little modern research on the medicinal and dietary aspects of either the baobab or boab.

How the boab tree got to Australia

One of the mysteries surrounding the boab is how it got to Australia – the Australian species has clear affinities with related species in continental Africa and Madagascar.

A baobab tree, Adansonia digitata, in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania. Its journey from Africa to Australia remains a mystery.
Yoki/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

There are three intriguing theories.

The first is that all of the boababs originate from the super-continent Gondwana – consisting of Africa, South America, Antarctica, Australia, India and Madagascar – before it fragmented almost 80 million years ago. But A. Gregorii and A. digitata are so similar genetically that, given the millions of years that have elapsed, this theory is now in question.

The second theory comes from recent DNA analysis of the species. It suggests they separated more recently, perhaps only 70,000 years ago, which raises the question, were humans involved in their journey? But did they come to Australia from Africa, or from Australia to Africa? The latter is a less likely scenario given the direction of ocean currents.

And the third theory is that fruits arrived on the Australian shore after an epic ocean voyage from Africa.




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Boabs are usually found in the remote outback of Australia, but in 2008, a large 750-year-old boab was transported from Warmun in the Kimberley to Perth and transplanted in Kings Park.

Transplanting such a large tree is both daunting and fraught, with a high chance of failure, but the deciduousness and growth habit of the boab gave some cause for optimism about a successful outcome. For the reward of having a large old boab growing in Perth, it would be worth it.

After a period of stress, the tree appears to be coming good, reflecting the toughness of the species.

A large, mature boab is a splendid tree of arid Australia that inspires awe in all who experience them close up. They really are a beauty and a bottler of a tree!


Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.The Conversation

Gregory Moore, Doctor of Botany, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

This centuries-old river red gum is a local legend – here’s why it’s worth fighting for


Euan Ritchie, Deakin University

Sign up to the Beating Around the Bush newsletter here, and suggest a plant we should cover at batb@theconversation.edu.au.


In Dr Seuss’s The Lorax, his titular character famously said:

I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.

In the midst of a global extinction crisis, the Lorax’s call to preserve what is precious couldn’t be more apt. The greatest threat to the survival of species globally continues to be habitat destruction and modification.




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A potential and local victim of this ongoing environmental catastrophe is a single tree, and a tree I have a deep personal connection with. The tree I refer to is Bulleen’s iconic 300-year-old river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis).

To me this tree has been a constant in my life. While everything else has changed around me, it has stood there, solid, just as solid as its red gum fibres are known to be.

As a child I fondly remember looking up at this tree in awe, as we’d often stop at the nearby service station on a hot summer’s day to buy a cold drink or ice-cream on the way to Saturday sport, the nearby Birrarung (Yarra River), or my grandmother’s house.



The Conversation

Bulleen’s majestic river red gum

It’s estimated to be approximately 20 metres in height with a canopy spread of 17 metres. And its trunk measures a whopping two metres across.

The tree is thought to be the oldest remnant of a once substantial red gum forest, and was saved by a local resident when the rest of the area was cleared for the construction of a service station.

It now faces destruction, as it is within the preferred path of construction for Victoria’s North East link.




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While the measurements of this tree are impressive, the splendour and value for me is that it has survived for so long and, in more recent times, against tremendous odds.

Surviving against all odds

The Bulleen red gum stands beside one of Melbourne’s busiest roads and the immediate area is covered with concrete and bitumen. The tree’s roots and health have therefore been challenged for a long time, and yet this massive red gum stands, as if in defiance of the modern world and the development that has encircled it.

Since this tree has survived for so long, it undoubtedly holds a special connection with so many: the Wurundjeri-willam people of the Kulin Nation, members of Australia’s famed Heidelberg school of artists who lived and worked in the near vicinty, everyday commuters that have driven or walked by or stopped to admire it, or the war verteran Nevin Phillips who once apparently defended it with his rifle against it being chainsawed.

Very old trees such as Bulleen’s river red gum deserve our respect and protection, for these trees have substantial environmental, economic and cultural value.
National Trust

Further proof of the value of this tree to so many is that it was awarded The National Trust of Australia’s (Victoria) 2019 Victorian Tree of the Year.

Why we must speak for and save old trees

I grew up near this tree and, like the Lorax, I would like to speak for it.
Trees as old as the Bulleen river red gum are now increasingly rare in our world, and beyond their strong personal and cultural values, including in some places as Aboriginal birthing sites, they are tremendously important for other reasons as well.




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These trees provide shade and help keep our cities cooler, improve our mental health and wellbeing, and store considerable amounts of carbon aiding our fight against climate change.

Perhaps most importantly, under their bark and in their cracks and hollows, they provide homes for many of Australia’s precious but increasingly imperilled native wildlife, including bats, birds, possums and gliders, snakes and lizards, insects and spiders.

These homes are prime wildlife real estate, especially in our big cities, where such large old trees are vanishingly rare but where considerable wildlife, common and threatened, still persists. And yet more could survive with a helping hand from us.

A powerful owl chick in a tree hollow, in outer Melbourne.
John White (Deakin University)

As cities like Melbourne continue to grow around the world, there will be more and more cases where arguments of progress are used to justify the further destruction of what nature remains. But progress shouldn’t come at any cost, and in the case of preserving iconic and valuable trees such as Bulleen’s river red gum, it would seem there’s more than enough reasons to ensure this tree’s life and its many values continue.

Perhaps again the wise sage, the Lorax, says it best.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.


Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.The Conversation

Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The sexy gum: a love story



File 20190412 44773 1vclst9.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Dr Michael Whitehead is campaigning to rename the Gimlet Gum to the Sexy Gum.
Author provided (No reuse)

Michael Whitehead, University of Melbourne

It is perhaps poetic that a region most famous for its lack of trees lies so close to one of Australia’s greatest tree-based spectacles. The Nullarbor Plain, our famous, flat, featureless expanse is literally named for its absence of trees (“arbor” being Latin for tree).

And if you ever get to drive west along the longest stretch of dead-straight road across this iconic landscape, you will come to know the highlights that characterise the experience: the cliff-top views of the Great Australian Bight and the idiosyncratic roadhouses.




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Then finally, a landscape of low shrubs gives way to mallee trees and woodland vegetation. Somewhere between Caiguna and Fraser Range you’ll see your first Eucalyptus salubris, also known as a gimlet gum, or joorderee by the Ngadju people.

It was on a recent botanical research trip chasing scraggly emu bushes that I stumbled upon, and fell in love with, Eucalytpus salubris. The trunks were what instantly caught my eye, slender with graceful twists, all the more observable for the brilliantly shining coppery bark.



The Conversation

The sexy gum

The tree first appears in European record during early explorations crossing east of the Darling Range. Then, it was called “cable gum” after the gently twisting grooves in the trunks.

Later the tree was given the common name of “gimlet” after a form of hand drill. Unfortunately this name stuck and today the species remains “gimlet” – a wholly unattractive moniker for such a splendid tree.

But our imaginations need not be held hostage by the stubborn colonialists who named our flora after such dreary things.




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That’s why I’m campaigning to update the common name to something more universal, more marketable, something truer to its sensual twists and smooth, glowing bronze surface.

Eucalytpus salubris is the Sexy Gum.

Love goes where my eucalypt grows

E. salubris is a dominant species forming woodlands on deep soils east of the Darling Range. And while much of its former range in the Wheatbelt of Western Australia has been cleared, extensive populations of E. salubris remain in the astonishing stronghold of the Great Western Woodlands.

Those who have walked in a mature woodland understand the pleasure of wandering unimpeded in the shade of widely spaced trees.

Widely spaced trees of the Great Western Woodlands.
Keren Gila/Wikimedia, CC BY

The Great Western Woodlands offers this experience on a grand scale. At around 16 million hectares they are the largest tracts of intact temperate woodlands on Earth, occupying an area larger than England and Wales combined.

And it is not just size that is impressive about these woodlands.

The Great Western Woodlands are a renowned hotspot for eucalypt diversity, home to around 30% of Australia’s eucalypt species in just 2% of its land area.

As one of the more common species throughout the area, E. salubris plays a critical ecological role, providing habitat for several threatened bird species including the rotund and charismatic Mallee fowl.




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Due to its remoteness and unreliable rainfall, the Great Western Woodlands has avoided the widescale grazing and clearing that has degraded neighbouring areas to the south and west.

But despite the value of this untouched landscape, most of the area is “orphan country” with no formal management policies in place. Some 60% of the Great Western Woodlands is unallocated crown land, unmanaged and open access.

This is a plus for visitors wanting to experience it now, but raises important concerns about the long-term security of the area.

While remote, threats to the Great Western Woodlands do exist. Chief among them is the increasing frequency and intensity of bush fires.

Most eucalypts are resprouters with the ability to regenerate burned canopies from buds under the bark. There are, however a number of species, such as Mountain Ash, that will die following canopy fires and can only regenerate from the soil seedbank (called “reseeders”).




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E. salubris, the sexy gum, is one such reseeder. While the traditional occupants of the land used fire as a land management tool, they also knew E. salubris woodland took hundreds of years to regenerate and were careful to never burn the canopy of old growth forests.

The eye-pleasing spectacle of mature open Eucalytpus salubris woodland above red soil and blue-bush therefore exists today thanks to careful management from this era, and deserves careful handling to ensure its ongoing future.

An ambassador for the Great Western Woodlands

Late in the day, when the Sun’s glancing rays light up the bark of E. salubris, punctuating a pastel blue-green woodland with glowing streaks like molten metal, it’s hard to not stop for at least a moment and be impressed.

And while E. salubris’ role as keystone species might be important ecologically, I think the Sexy Gum can be similarly important as ambassador and draw-card for the Great Western Woodlands.

Its golden tones and metallic lustre conjures just the appropriate impression for the WA Goldfields. It is totally Instagram-able, and I don’t think it’s a hard sell to convince people E. salubris is a spectacle worth getting off the beaten track for.The Conversation

Michael Whitehead, Research Fellow in Evolutionary Ecology, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A detailed eucalypt family tree helps us see how they came to dominate Australia



File 20190312 86690 1fiqo8w.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
In Australia you can have any tree you want, as long as it’s a eucalypt.
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Andrew Thornhill, James Cook University

Eucalypts dominate Australia’s landscape like no other plant group in the world.

Europe’s pine forests consist of many different types of trees. North America’s forests change over the width of the continent, from redwood, to pine and oak, to deserts and grassland. Africa is a mixture of savannah, rainforest and desert. South America has rainforests that contain the most diversity of trees in one place. Antarctica has tree fossils.

But in Australia we have the eucalypts, an informal name for three plant genera: Angophora, Corymbia and Eucalyptus. They are the dominant tree in great diversity just about everywhere, except for a small region of mulga, rainforest and some deserts.

My research, published today, has sequenced the DNA of more than 700 eucalypt species to map how they came to dominate the continent. We found eucalypts have been in Australia for at least 60 million years, but a comparatively recent explosion in diversity 2 million years ago is the secret to their spread across southern Australia.

Hundreds of species

The oldest known Eucalyptus macrofossil, from Patagonia in South America, is 52 million years old. The fossil pollen record also provides evidence of eucalypts in Australia for 45 million years, with the oldest specimen coming from Bass Strait.

Despite the antiquity of the eucalypts, researchers assumed they did not begin to spread around Australia until the continent began drying up around 20 million years ago, when Australia was covered in rainforests. But once drier environmental conditions kicked in, the eucalypts seized their chance and took over, especially in southeastern Australia.

Eucalypts are classified by their various characteristics, including the number of buds.
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There are over 800 described species of eucalypts. Most of them are native only to Australia, although some have managed to naturally escape further north to New Guinea, Timor and Indonesia. Many eucalypts have been introduced to other parts of the world, including California, where Aussie eucalypts make cameos in Hollywood movies.

Eucalypts can grow as tall trees, as various multi-trunk or single-trunk trees, or in rare cases as shrubs. The combination of main characteristics – such as leaf shape, fruit shape, bud number and bark type – provided botanists with enough evidence to describe 800 species and estimate how they were all related to each other, a field of science known as “taxonomy”.

Since the 1990s and early 2000s, taxonomy has been slightly superseded by a new field called “phylogenetics”. This is the study of how organisms are related to each other using DNA, which produces something akin to a family tree.

Phylogenetics still relies on the species to be named though, so there is something to sample. New scientific fields rely on the old. There have been a number of eucalypt phylogenetic studies over the years, but none have ever sampled all of the eucalypt species in one phylogeny.




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Our new paper in Australian Systematic Botany aimed to change that. We attempted to genetically sample every described eucalypt species and place them in one phylogeny to determine how they are related to each other. We sampled 711 species (86% of all eucalypts) as well as rainforest species considered most closely related to the eucalypts.

We also dated the phylogeny by time-stamping certain parts using the ages of the fossils mentioned above. This allowed us to estimate how old eucalypt groups are and when they separated from each other in the past.

Not so ancient

We found that the eucalypts are an old group that date back at least 60 million years. This aligns with previous studies and the fossil record. However, a lot of the diversification in the Eucalyptus genus has happened only in the last 2 million years.

Gum trees are iconic Australian eucalypts.
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Hundreds of species have appeared very recently in evolutionary history. Studies on other organisms have shown rapid diversification, but none of them compare to the eucalypts. Many species of the eucalypt forests of southeastern Australia are new in evolutionary terms (10 million years or less).

This includes many of the tall eucalypts that grow in the wet forests of southern Australia. They are not, as was previously assumed, ancient remnants from Gondwana, a supercontinent that gradually broke up between 180 million and 45 million years ago and resulted in the continents of Australia, Africa, South America and Antarctica, as well as India, New Zealand, New Guinea and New Caledonia.

The eucalypts that grow natively overseas have only made it out from Australia in the last 2 million years or less. Other groups in the eucalypts such as Angophora and Corymbia didn’t exhibit the same rapid diversification as the Eucalyptus species.




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What we confirmed with the fossil record using our phylogeny is that until very recently, and I mean in terms of the Earth being 4 billion years old, the vegetation of southeastern Australia was vastly different.

At some point in the last 2-10 million years the Eucalyptus arrived in new environmental conditions. They thrived, they most likely helped spread fire to wipe out their competition, and they then rapidly changed their physical form to give us the many species that we see today.

Very few other groups in the world have made this amount of change so quickly, and arguably dramatically. The east coast of Australia would look very different if it wasn’t dominated by gum trees.

The next time you’re in a eucalypt forest, take a look around and notice all of the different types of bark and gumnuts and leaves on the trees, and know that all of that diversity has happened quite recently, but with a deep and long link to trees that once grew in Gondwana.

They have been highly advantageous, highly adaptable and, with the exception of a small number of species, are uniquely Australian. They are, as the press would put it, “a great Australian success story”.The Conversation

Andrew Thornhill, Research botanist, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.