The seedlings were meant to grow into a workhorse of Southern California's newly planted tree population when they arrived from Australia more than a century ago.
The stately eucalyptus would take root and shoot rapidly upward--with some reaching heights of 200 feet within decades--and break the desert winds for the nascent citrus industry. The trees would offer shade from the sun and wood for railroad ties, furniture and fireplaces.
Little of that industrious promise was fulfilled.
Railroad companies learned that the trunks did not grow straight enough for decent ties. Furniture makers were stumped by the brittle wood that split too easily to hold its shape.
As houses, offices and industry crowded in, more problems came to light when the easily felled branches of aging trees proved a hazard to homeowners. The trees grew so tall that they blocked prime views. They flamed up like torches in fires, taking whole communities with them, and fire experts say they played key roles in the 1996 Lemon Heights fire in Orange County, the deadly Oakland Hills fire of 1991 and repeated blazes in Topanga Canyon and Malibu.
Now, communities all over Southern California are contemplating the future of their eucalyptuses, as public works officials move to bring some of them down in the name of civic safety.
David Niederhaus, general services director for Newport Beach, discovered in March that about 50 of the city's towering blue gum eucalyptuses were suffering from diseases that can strike the trees after they pass their 70th year.
Ten trees were removed and 40 more are being monitored.
"The whole group has to come out," Niederhaus said. "They've reached their life span, and they are in a very congested residential area. One fell over and took off the corner of a house. That's what happens when you take a large, stately tree and put it in a cityscape. It's not the tree's fault."
At least four automobiles have been crushed by falling limbs over the last three years in Newport Beach. "It's a liability concern for any city," Niederhaus added.
In Simi Valley, public works crews tried to take down 35 eucalyptuses because of root rot and termites, but ran into a wail of protest and ended up doing a tree-by-tree evaluation and cutting down 17. The trees were historic, residents protested. They had been planted in the 1920s as windbreaks for citrus groves and deserved to stay.
Ray Treder, deputy public works engineer in Simi Valley, said the trees may be part of California history but cannot thrive in an era of urbanization.
"Development encroaches on their territory, and they are not terribly compatible," he said. "These are remnants from the 1930s and 1940s, and people try to save them when tracts and commercial centers develop around them. They lose irrigation. They get too much fill on the roots or the roots become exposed. It's very stressful to the trees."
Lake Forest had to impose eucalyptus-trimming moratoriums between April and October to discourage the Australian longhorn borer beetle from thriving on dead vegetation. Los Angeles officials feuded with a Woodland Hills golf course for weeks in February over who would remove fallen eucalyptuses from the rooftops of residences.
That doesn't stop people from falling in love with the trees.
One Newport Beach homeowner got so attached to her eucalyptuses that she chained herself, her dog and five friends to one when the city tried to cut them down in 1988. Tustin named the red flowering eucalyptus the city's official tree in 1969 to honor three that have lived since Columbus Tustin planted them in 1870.
William C. Walker of San Francisco imported the first eucalyptus seedlings to the United States in 1859, according to Tustin historian Carol H. Jordan.
They made their way south when windbreaks were needed for the orange groves by 1870.
Orange County historian Jim Sleeper traced many early groves to George Irvine, who bought a shipment of 12,000 seedlings for his Irvine ranch in 1888.
"There are people who really like them and people who really hate them," said Charlie Everett, a Fullerton resident of more than 70 years and the editor of Tree Talk, the newsletter for the Orange County Tree Society.
"It's an evolutionary thing," Everett said. "When there was lots of open space, the eucalyptus grew quickly and did a good job. Now we need trees that do a different job. We don't want something too tall because it blocks people's views. We don't want trees that drop berries and things. As times change, the 'tree of the month' changes. The question now is, are the trees safe for the community?"
They can be, said Gary Glotfelty, the wildland fire defense planner for the Orange County Fire Authority. If each tree is planted a suitable distance from its mates and dutifully maintained, they would be fine.
The problem is that they usually are not well maintained. And when the dry limbs fall on top of the dead leaves and a spark flies in the wind, they are disasters.