Eucalyptus, commonly known as “gum trees”, are the tallest flowering plants on Earth, with more than 700 species (Bayly 2016), many of which can reach extraordinary heights of up to 100 meters! There are probably few tree genera that have had as much written about them as Eucalyptus. Indigenous to the Australian region, they are now among the most widely cultivated of all trees. Eucalyptus is an important genus in the timber industry. They have been cultivated in over 95 countries worldwide, exceeding 22.57 million hectares (Seng et al. 2022), particularly in tropical and subtropical parts of the word (Coppen 2002). Eucalyptus yields high rates of productivity and can be grown across a wide range of site types and climates.

Why are eucalypts cultivated?

Eucalyptus has several economic benefits. They provide a stable and accessible market, even in remote areas. Eucalyptus wood and their by-products contribute significantly to the local economy!

Due to their fast-growth rate, these hardwoods are often used as windbreaks to reduce erosion. It is cultivated for numerous uses. This includes sawmilling, pulp, charcoal, timber and firewood. The oil produced by Eucalyptus is also valuable for medicinal purposes, cleaning products and natural insecticides. Eucalyptus is also gaining significance for the honey industry.

Did you know? Eucalyptus is aiding in bee conservation! As different Eucalyptus species flower at different times of the year, the presence of Eucalyptus offers reliable pollen and nectar all-year-round! Eucalyptus cladocalyx, for example, is indispensable for the bee-keeping industry!

South Africa’s history with Eucalyptus

South Africa has a long history of introducing, planting, and managing Eucalyptus. The introduction of eucalypts into South Africa is intrinsically bound up with settler colonialism. Nearly 150 eucalypt species were introduced, mainly for forestry trials, between 1828 and 1940 (Bennett 2010).

The first large plantation was established in 1875, after recognizing that the demand for timber exceeded the supply available from indigenous forests (Albaugh et al. 2013). Part of the desire to plant eucalypts arose simply from a need for timber and to cope with the strain put on very limited, deeply precious indigenous forests for the supply of these wood and wood related products (Samways et al. 2010). The expansion of Eucalyptus plantations was fuelled by the need for cheap, fast-growing wood for mining, firewood, poles, sleepers, and other industrial products. Without these highly productive plantation systems, South Africa could never have developed a sustainable supply of critical fibre and timber resources so necessary for the country’s modern economy. These plantations have taken pressure for supply off South Africa’s scarce and deeply precious natural forests.

Eucalyptus plantation in Kwambonambi, KwaZulu-Natal.

To this day, South Africa relies heavily on Eucalyptus plantations to meet its timber needs and they are conspicuous features of landscapes in many parts of South Africa.

In 2020, it was recorded that of the 1.2 million hectares of South Africa’s timber plantations, Eucalyptus accounted for 43% thereof (FSA 2020). Throughout the value chain (i.e. seed to saw, and beyond), these plantations create jobs for thousands of people and contribute up to R70 billion to South Africa’s economy per year!