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The Australian Invasion : Killer Beetles From Down Under Threaten the L.A. Landscape

June 22, 1986|JACK SMITH

A sinister insect called the long-horned beetle is threatening a Southern California treasure--the graceful eucalyptus trees that give our landscape its distinctive character.

Like the eucalyptus tree itself, the beetle comes from Australia. It is believed to have "smuggled itself in" on a load of lumber about 20 months ago.

Foresters say the beetle is quite capable of killing millions of eucalyptuses; there is no known pesticide that will stop it.

That may not pose as ghastly a prospect as a nuclear-power-plant explosion, but it would be an aesthetic disaster of the first magnitude--more depressing, in the long run, than the downtown library fire.

Anyone who has ever driven north to Santa Barbara or south to San Diego has seen these magnificent trees, either lonely as sentinels against the sky, or in forests of many acres.

The most common of the varieties seen here is the stately blue gum, which grows as high as 150 feet and as wide as six feet at the base. Its slender silhouette and green-bronze bark and foliage identify the scene as Southern California as much as any other landmark.

It was a landscape often depicted in the paintings of Hanson Duvall Puthuff and his colleagues of the "Eucalyptus School," as one disdainful art critic called it. They used to hang in large numbers in the Galleria of the Biltmore Hotel, once a haven of realistic Western art. Their tranquil pastel beauty--of mountains, trees, blue sky and grassy meadows--seemed to cast a spell.

Arthur Millier, then art critic of The Times and a landscape painter himself, wrote of one such Puthuff exhibition:

"The eucalyptus stand still and straight against yellow-lit mountains. . . . Occasionally he turns to the wide mountainless plains where forests of eucalyptus break the horizon and luminous clouds from the sea fill the sky."

Eucalyptus trees were imported from Australia in the late 19th Century by men who would probably be regarded today as greedy entrepreneurs. It was planted for lumber and for firebreaks and in San Diego County for Santa Fe railroad ties.

Curiously, the tree that was soon so common on the landscape was not universally admired. In 1877 San Francisco's Argonaut weekly found nothing good to say about the eucalyptus:

"In point of beauty it is as desirable as the scaffolding of a factory chimney. This absurd vegetable is now growing all over this state. One cannot get out of its sight. It asserts itself in long twin ranks, between which the traveler must run a sort of moral gantlet, and crops up everywhere in independent ugliness. It defaces every landscape with blotches of blue, and embitters every breeze with suggestions of an old woman's medicine chest. Let us have no more of it."

One resident expert on the eucalyptus is Elliot G. McIntire, professor of geography at Cal State Northridge. "What makes a California landscape distinctively California?" he asks. "For much of the state, a major factor is the presence of tall, stately eucalyptuses. In many parts of the state the traveler is never out of sight of a eucalyptus, and in some areas they completely dominate the vegetative landscape."

Native to Australia, the genus has more than 200 species and innumerable varieties. A few men brought it to California. One of these was Alexander Campbell-Johnston, who had a ranch and store in Garvanza, just north of Highland Park. He sold tens of thousands of seedlings. (His wife, Frances, built the lovely Church of the Angels on Avenue 64--a replica of an English Gothic country church--as a memorial to him.)

Eucalyptuses were brought to Santa Barbara by Ellwood Cooper, who planted more than 200 acres, with more than 50,000 trees of 50 species. Most of the eucalyptuses of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties are descended from his.

The romantic Abbot Kinney, who tried to turn Venice into its namesake city on the Adriatic, established the nation's first experimental forest station in Rustic Canyon, which today has dozens of magnificent eucalyptuses of many species, many near a century old.

Beautiful as it may be, the tree was introduced mainly for commercial profit. But it was too hard for lumber, it was too expensive to treat for railroad ties, and electricity and natural gas replaced it as a fuel.

Many long rows of blue gums, planted as windbreaks, still stand. When I was a youth I used to hitchhike from Los Angeles to March Field, where I was stationed in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Sometimes I walked for miles, at night, without a ride, and I can still remember the great, towering, silent rows of eucalyptuses that kept me company.

We allowed the library to burn by twiddling our thumbs for years.

I hope we get something done about that beetle before our eucalyptuses are gone.

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