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(First published Daily Telegraph, London, 1997)

BY GUM, IT'S ANOTHER BLOODY EUCALYPT
by Ian Richardson

Tree cutting cartoon

Let's get one thing straight right away: I am an Australian and I love eucalyptus trees. But not in the UK!

When I first came to Britain nearly 30 years ago, eucalypts - or gum trees as Aussies prefer to call them - were something of a rarity.

An Australian friend and I had an inebriated plan to sneak onto Hampstead Heath at night and plant eucalyptus seedlings all over it.

Sanity and sobriety prevailed, but the English suburbanite has since seemed determined to do the job for us - at least in their own gardens.

These days eucalyptus trees seem to be everywhere. There are even at Buckingham Palace, where the Queen has planted three over the past 15 years.

England gave Australia its rabbit plagues; now Australia is retaliating with its gum trees.

I live in Ealing, a genteel, leafy part of London, proudly enjoying its Englishness and its unofficial title Queen of the Suburbs.

And I have to confess that my wife has grown a eucalypt in our back garden, but that is okay: it is a bonsai, just eight inches high.

A friend and near-neighbour was once given a eucalyptus tree as an anniversary present. It arrived as a small shrub in a pot, but grew 50-feet high.

She had to have it severely cut back several times, each at a cost of several hundred pounds.

A few years later it is back to its original height and the pruning has made it even wider.

Despite this, she loves her eucalyptus tree, and at least she has it planted in a sensible position well down the garden - which is more than can be said for most I have seen, inexplicably, planted against brick fences or house foundations.

Within two blocks of my home there are at least 20 large eucalypts, looming over their host homes and the street.

Apart from their disfiguring effect on the English suburban landscape, the problem with eucalypts is that they grow at a terrifying rate in this climate, achieved by sucking huge amounts of moisture from the ground and consequently from around foundations.

And because they are evergreens, they continue to keep out the light during the dull winter months.

I predict that eucalypts - along with conifers - will eventually be voted The Tree We Most Wish We'd Never Planted.

James Tighe, the plant adviser at the Syon Park Garden Centre in west London, thinks many people have been attracted to eucalypts because of "the romance of growing something from a foreign climate".

Charles Erskine, the man in charge of the tree and shrub collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, has a few eucalyptus specimens in his care but urges caution when buying them for a suburban garden.

"They grow so fast they can catch you out.

"It's a bit like the Leyland Cyprus, which people buy for hedges, then discover they have a row of trees up to 70 feet high," he said.

One of the biggest suppliers of eucalypts is Celyn Vale Eucalyptus Nurseries of Corwen in Wales. It sells between 50,000 and 100,000 a year.

Not surprisingly, the owner, Andrew McConnell, disagrees that eucalyptus trees are inappropriate for the British landscape.

"More than 80% of plants grown in this country don't 'belong' here, so you could write off all kinds of trees if your argument were accepted," he says.

He admits that eucalypts can be an "environmental disaster" in the wrong place, but his company issues picture labels and other information to try to ensure that customers buy the right sort of trees and know where to plant them.

The company is now also offering varieties that don't grow quite so quickly.

"If intelligently planted, ornamental eucalyptus trees are not a problem," McConnell insists.

Despite such soothing words, I remain unconvinced.

If God had wanted England to have gum trees, he would have also provided koalas and kangaroos.

Eucalypts simply don't look right here. This is specially so in winter when they stick out like giant plastic ornaments in the austere, grey and grand winter landscape.

But don't despair, there is one good use for these arborian invaders from the Antipodes: Take to them with an axe and save the branches and leaves for your next barbecue. As any Aussie will tell you, there's nothing quite like a beefburger or a lamb chop cooked in the aromatic smoke of a gum tree.

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