By Ellen Girardeau Kempler
Fixed in oil and watercolor by the plein air artists who established Laguna’s art colony, the eucalyptus seems integral to our local landscape. With their graceful height, brick-colored bark, fragrant leaves, feathery flowers and button-like seeds, this Australian import lends year-round color and softness to Laguna’s parched and muted native surroundings.
Our historic view would be different had the California plein air movement– and Laguna’s founding artists Norman St. Claire, Granville Redmond and William Wendt–started 50 years earlier. Records trace Southern California’s first eucalyptus globulus, or blue gums, to agricultural farmer William Wolfskill, who in 1865 planted five trees on his homestead in Rancho Santa Anita. Others soon began touting the trees’ potential as an easily cultivated and fast-growing source of firewood. They soon planted them throughout the region in groves of thousands.
According to local historian Karen Turnbull, most of Laguna’s original eucalyptus trees were planted because of the Timber-Culture Act of 1871. Meant to encourage western migration, the law required all settlers who claimed 160-acre homesteads to plant 10 acres of trees. The eucalyptus groves grew so fast that many needed to be cut down for development at the turn of the century.
In 1895 Abbott Kinney, the utopian visionary who designed Venice, California’s canals, praised eucalyptus’ medicinal, practical and ornamental uses in a 300-page book. He wrote: “The introduction of this tree has done more to change radically the appearance of wide ranges of country in California than any other one thing. In the reclamation of many arid plains of the central and southern parts of California the blue gum has worked almost like magic. It modifies the winds, breaks the lines of view all so quickly that one can scarcely realize that a valley of clustered woods and lines of trees was but a year or two before a brown parched expanse of shadeless summer dust.”
By the time artist Norman St. Clair settled in Laguna in 1903 and inspired others to join him, eucalyptus had already changed the local landscape. Although the trees’ shallow root systems, high oil content and plentiful seeds have made them much less popular today, you can still enjoy this living link to Laguna’s art history in fragrant groves at the Sawdust Festival, in Old Top of the World and other spots around town.
The former communications director of Laguna Art Museum and Laguna Canyon Foundation, Ellen Girardeau Kempler is founder and chief navigator of Laguna-based Gold Boat Journeys. She specializes in writing, editing, content development and creative visioning workshops. Contact her at [email protected].