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KPBS Commentaries

The Eucs

A chemistry professor named Jim Whitesell looked up into a campus sky curtained by eucalyptus trees and shook his head.

"Each one of these trees," he said, "discharges as many hydrocarbons into the air as a car."There are more than a million eucalyptus trees in San Diego - far more than a thousand on the UCSD campus where Whitesell has his lab. His wife is the new campus chancellor, Marye Anne Fox, and the last thing she needs would be another San Diego row over eucs, as insiders call them.

People get into fights over this tall, bold, easygoing, serviceable, unspectacular, fast-growing, weed-like tree. They agree only that the euc was brought from Australia and became the quick and easy yard tree of choice across our semi-desert. Its major sites include Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo, Rancho Santa Fe, and Scripps Ranch.

Early San Diego was bare. The earliest lane of eucs was probably the one that remains at Ramona's southern entrance.

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Eucs probably came with the arborist who planted Balboa Park, Kate Session. Mayor George Marston and his city council gave her free rent for a nursery in return for planting a hundred trees a year in the park.

They were set out at Rancho Santa Fe when that region was an empty railroad holding. The Santa Fe brought seedlings from Australia to create railroad ties. But eucs are too soft to hold spikes. Santa Fe settled for a real estate subdivision that became richer than railroads.

Firefighters dread the eucalyptus because, as one says, in wildfires, the tops blast off like miniature cannons, setting their firey crowns airborne, carrying sparks many hundreds of feet. Such scenes were described in the recent Scripps Ranch fire.

And eucs get bugs. One infestation left a thousand trees dead at Rancho Santa Fe. UC Riverside helped end the mess by releasing tiny wasps to attack pest larvae.

Yet at San Diego Zoo, arborist Dan Simpson considers their eucs to be all-purpose life savers - "incredibly useful? - 20 species providing varied diets for 32 pampered koalas, whose tastes in eucs vary with the seasons. For feed, the zoo farms hedgerows of eucs near Scripps Ranch.

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If a euc must be cut down at the zoo, it becomes furniture for koala enclosures. Euc wood lasts longer than some oaks. It withstands heavy cleaning. Primates like its hard, smooth bark.

And you wonder that San Diegans disagree about our most prominent tree, the eucs?