The Eucalyptus: Loved and Hated in Burlingame

A eucalyptus tree on El Camino Real shows the tree's tendency to shed its bark. Photo © Danica Hodge

Perhaps no local tree has inspired such controversy in Burlingame as the eucalyptus. The species, native to Australia, was planted by John McLaren in the 1870s as a fast-growing windbreak in what was then a largely treeless area. Interspersed with elm trees, the eucalyptus was meant to encourage the growth of the elms. But when the elms failed to thrive, it was the eucalyptus that remained as the signature tree of Burlingame.

Majestic or Menacing?

Most of the towering eucalyptus trees in Burlingame are the species Eucalyptus globulus, known as the Tasmanian blue gum. Loved as they are by many, the enormous trees have also caused a host of safety problems, including buckling and narrowing sidewalks, broken curbs, flooding, and hazards for motorists. There is also that characteristic smell of wet eucalyptus and peeling and fluttering bark. Furthermore, it is also considered to be an invasive species, displacing native flora.

The Advocates

John McLaren considered the evergreen blue gum to be a perfect windbreak due to its strong root anchorage, flexible trunk, and foliage that directs the wind upward. In a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle in 1874, he defended the species on the basis of experiments using Eucalyptus globulus to defend against malaria. Noting that the tree has the property of soaking up the water of shallow marshes, McLaren declared, “I have no doubt [Eucalpytus globulus] will be the leading tree for forest and ‘wind breaks’ on this coast.”

The eucalyptus is one of the fastest growing trees in the world and is capable of reaching up to 300 feet in height. It has been said that a eucalyptus takes 20 years to produce the same amount of wood as an oak that takes 200 years to grow. Its rapid growth creates a ready source of wood, undoubtedly the reason for the tree’s ubiquity on the Peninsula. The eucalyptus is also one of the most common planted species throughout all of California, and it has been called “the tree of California.”

The Objectors

Those who object to the trees are often those who are closest to them. One of the most notorious of the anti-eucalyptus crusaders was Mrs. Nydia Adams of 915 El Camino Real. Between 1928 and 1935, she waged a one-woman war against the trees, chronicling every fallen limb and perceived hazard in a series of letters to the city council.

William F. Partlow, a San Mateo attorney and owner of 1270 Drake Ave., perhaps expressed a common sentiment when he wrote to the city council in 1942:

“This is to advise and notify you that the Eucalyptus trees . . . are definitely dangerous and a hazard to the lives of my wife, baby, and myself . . . . the ‘holy of Holies’ that stands at the corner of our house . . . causes extreme nervousness to my wife with its swaying over our house in a high wind. . . . The sword of Damocles could have been no more disturbing than living under this tree.”

State of the Eucalyptus

Nonetheless, those who seek to preserve the trees seem to be winning the battle—with some concessions. Today, the policy of Burlingame is to continue to preserve the heritage eucalyptus on El Camino Real and other thoroughfares. However, dead or dying trees, or trees that otherwise create a hazard, are removed and replaced with other varieties of tree—either smaller eucalyptus or disease-tolerant elms.

Howard-Ralston Eucalpytus Rows Named to National Register of Historic Places

On March 15, 2012, thanks to the efforts of the Burlingame Historical Society and its president Jennifer Pfaff, the Howard-Ralston Eucalyptus Rows that line El Camino Real were added to the National Register of Historic Places and the California Register of Historical Resources after a lengthy review process. This honor establishes the trees’ historical importance to the city of Burlingame. The historic grove is a 2.2-mile stretch between Peninsula Avenue and Ray Drive, and there are currently 557 trees in the expanse.