River Red Gum - Eucalyptus camaldulensis

Monday, Dec 18, 1989 at 09:29


River Red Gums are a familiar and iconic tree seen lining watercourses and on floodplains right across inland Australia. They play an important role in stabilising river banks, holding the soil and reducing flooding.

River Red Gum is the most widespread eucalypt in Australia, although they do not grow naturally in Tasmania.

Eucalyptus camaldulensis var. camaldulensis is found in the Murray-Darling catchment area, while Eucalyptus camaldulensis var. obtusa is found outside the Murray-Darling catchment along stream lines throughout most of arid central and western Australia and the drier parts of the wet/dry tropics.

The only occurrence east of the Great Dividing Range is a small population in the Hunter Valley in NSW.

They can live up to 600 years or more. Trees can grow to 45 metres tall, growing straight under favourable conditions, but can be stunted and twisted in drier conditions.

The base of the trunk may have fibrous, rough, grey-brown bark, above that is smooth bark, ranging in colour from white and grey to red-brown which is shed to reveal smooth new bark. The tree has a large, dense crown of leaves. Adult leaves are a dull green to blue-green and have oil-producing glands between the veins.

Buds are small, about 5mm across opening to white flowers that occur in clusters of 7 to 11 flowers along the small branches. The bud cap or operculum is drawn out into a point or “beak” that is especially prominent in the Murray Darling form of the tree. Flowering has been recorded from October through to March.

Eucalyptus camaldulensis is named for a private estate garden near the Camaldoli monastery near Naples (L'Hortus Camaldulensis di Napoli), from where the first specimen came to be described in 1832. It is not known where that Italian tree originated.

River Red Gums (and many other eucalypts) have an ominous nickname, "Widow Maker", as they drop their limbs in times of drought to conserve water. Fatalities have been recorded, hence camping under River Red Gums is not recommended.

The hollows created by the falling of the limbs provide homes to a host of wildlife, including species such as Carpet Pythons, Turquoise Parrots and Squirrel Gliders. Trees that have fallen into rivers provide habitat and food for fish and other aquatic animals. This diversity of animals that use the trees makes the River Red Gum forests a rich ecosystem along inland waterways.

The largest remaining stand of River Red Gum is the 65,000ha Barmah-Millewa forest straddling the border of Victoria and New South Wales. It retains enormous cultural significance to the traditional owners, the Yorta Yorta.

For thousands of years Aboriginal tribes have utilised a range of resources from River Red Gum forests including fish, shellfish, crustaceans, small mammals, water fowl and a variety of plant species. Plants also supplied materials for fish traps, spears and nets. River Red Gum bark was used to construct shelters, canoes and shields.

Canoe Trees, whether alive or dead, are the remnants of an important Aboriginal industry. Most of them can be found along Lakes Albert and Alexandrina, the Coorong and the River Murray and its tributaries. Aborigines cut and peeled long sheets of bark to make their canoes. Today, it is possible to see relics of the Aboriginal lifestyle, including middens, oven mounds, scarred trees and fish weirs.

River Red Gum was a valued resource used by the early European settlers. By the 1860s heavy cutting of these forests had commenced. The durability of the timber and its resistance to termites made it popular for railway sleepers, wharves and mine shafts. The timber was also used to fuel river boats.

Red gum is so named for its brilliant red wood, which can range from a light pink through to almost black. It is brittle and often cross-grained, making hand working difficult. Traditionally used in rot resistant applications like stumps, fence posts and sleepers, more recently it has been used in craft furniture for its spectacular deep red colour and typical fiddleback figure. It is quite hard, dense (about 900 kg/m3), can take a fine polish and carves well. It is a popular timber for wood turners, particularly if old and well-seasoned. The large trunk burls are also highly prized for turning into decorative bowls. It has also been used for firewood, charcoal production, gums, honey and oils.

This rare combination of attributes makes River Red Gum an outstanding candidate for extensive commercial hardwood plantations and a key tool in the fight against salinity. It is one of the most widely planted eucalypts in the world with plantations established on every continent.

The Lake Albacutya form of River Red Gum is one of the most common plantation forms. In its native state it is typically stunted, twisted and undistinguished. But when planted away from of their native habitat if water is available they grow rapidly, straight and tall. They can survive in very salty environments and have exceptional drought tolerance.

There are many remaining large old River Red Gums, and some of them have a colourful history. A giant red gum tree near Orroroo measures more than ten metres in circumference and is estimated to be at least 500 years old. However the largest and oldest tree so far encountered in South Australia is the Big Gum Tree at Forreston. It has a girth of 13.843 metres, is 25 metres tall and is more than 600 years old. As with several of the other large old trees its hollow trunk has provided a home to some of the early settlers in and around Forreston.

River Red Gums often appear as stately and beautiful trees. They have been recorded and made famous by photographers such as Harold Casneaux in who in 1937 produced a much loved photograph of a tree in the Flinders Ranges “The Spirit of Endurance”.

Artists have also been fascinated by River Red Gums, notably Hans Heysen who regularly visited the Flinders Ranges sketching and painting. His many paintings of River Red Gums have made this tree justly famous. During 1926 Heysen had visited the Flinders Ranges and was highly impressed with its scenery, in particular its great variety of beautiful gum trees. Many years later he said; 'The Flinders region has held a 'spell' over me ever since I first went to Quorn and Hawker looking for new material for brush and pencil. Since then my interest in this unique landscape has grown with each successive trip. The great Red Gums in the creek beds fill me with wonder; their feeling of strength of limb, of vigour and life, suggest the very spirit of endurance'.

Like Heysen many generations of Australians have used and marvelled at this most impressive tree. We are fortunate indeed that it can be easily and widely seen, admired and photographed on our travels.

J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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