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Eucalyptus trees disappear from Mills campus

Brenna Smith

The fragrant Eucalyptus trees, with their towering trunks covered in strips of pale light-reflecting bark create a unique, tranquil forest environment in the center of busy Oakland, which is probably part of what lured some students to Mills College in the first place. But the historic Eucalyptus groves, heavily mentioned in promotional packets, have been slowly removed due to administrative decisions and environmentally conscious programs.

“Mills is exhibiting leadership in ecological restoration,” said Barbara Haber, interim associate vice president for Campus Planning. Last year, in addition to Bryant’s Walk, Eucalyptus trees were removed from Leona Creek and native plants such as Toyon and Coast Live Oak were planted.

Haber said there is not yet a specific plan for further tree removal. Removing the trees is a difficult process because once the tall tree is cut down, “the stump has to be ground out,” said Christina McWhorter, Botanical Garden and Greenhouse coordinator.

“If you don’t remove the stump, the tree will just grow back.” Grinding out the stump is expensive, up to $2,000 per tree.

McWhorter hopes to begin researching
alternative removal options such as girdling or applying a very local herbicide.
As a long-term goal, McWhorter said she would like to see most of the Eucalyptus trees taken out, while preserving key specimens as historical trees. “The Eucalyptus trees are significant to Mills alumnae, and we want to still honor that,” McWhorter said.

Alum Heather Lee said, “I remember I liked to be in the groves, by the stream, studying, and oh, it was just heaven.”

Lee considers the trees “a traditional part of the campus,” but is pleased that the College is being cautious of the effect the trees have on the environment.

Hannah Peragine, an environmental studies senior who was part of the committee to decide what to plant to replace the felled trees said she finds the trees unsettling as a school symbol.

“Bryant’s Walk became an archetypal vision of the college, and something that was really incorporated into the campus culture,” said Peragine. “It is a non-native invasive species planted by non-native invasive people – white folks.”

Controversy sparked in 2007 when the announcement to remove the Eucalyptus trees that lined Bryant’s Walk coincided with the breaking ground for the new MBA building.

Haber said the Bryant’s Walk trees would not have survived the construction, and had to be cut down. The trees behind the MBA building will not be affected.

A less-invasive and shorter type of Eucalyptus tree, Sydney Blue Gum, will be replanted when construction is finished. McWhorter is currently tending after these young trees in the Mills Botanical Garden.

Despite founder Cyrus Mills’ love of the species, the Eucalyptus tree is seen as a weed among botanists. The invasive Eucalyptus trees rapidly propagate and kill off plants native to the area.

According to McWhorter, the Eucalyptus tree situation is hazardous to ecology. “This is a classic case of a plant living outside of its natural range,” said McWhorter, also a member of the California Native Plant Society.

“They have what is called an allelopathic effect,” Peragine said. “Which means chemicals in the trees, in this case the oils that are in the leaves, inhibit the growth of native plants surrounding the tree.”

Because of the oil they hold, when Eucalyptus trees burn, they burn quickly and at high temperatures. “They are like giant match sticks,” said McWhorter. Instead of a ground fire, which can be relatively tame, “Eucalyptus trees often create a dangerous crown fire.”

McWhorter is especially concerned with the trees along the waterways. Eucalyptus is a thirsty species that sucks up water from the creek that runs through campus.