Friday, April 01, 2022

Johnny Eucalyptus

You may have wondered where California’s many eucalyptus trees came from. They are, after all, an Australian native. 

In the early 1850s, eccentric nurseryman John Gumm left his native Kentucky and started walking west -- alone – shortly after his childhood sweetheart, Jenny Mallee, rebuffed his proposal of marriage. In time, he would come to be known as Johnny Eucalyptus.

Unlike most who came to California then, he was not looking for gold. But along the trail he fell in with a group of would-be prospectors headed to California and traveled with them into the goldfields. There, he met, befriended, and briefly shared a tent with "Sidney Red," an Australian miner who had several large sacks of eucalyptus seeds with him. The seeds, Red said, were an insurance policy. If he failed to strike paydirt in the mines, he would plant a forest of fast-growing eucalyptus and grow rich selling lumber. But Red died in a mining accident and Johnny was left with the seeds. 

Eucalyptus in Southern Cailfornia (California State Library)

Soon, Johnny learned from another Australian that only old growth eucalyptus provided usable lumber, and that he’d have to wait centuries for any trees he’d planted to be commercially viable. Indeed, the wood split, warped and cracked readily. But Johnny didn’t care. He already envisioned what could be done with those seeds. He dreamed of beautifying all of California, bringing trees to a place that was often typified by grassy, marshy, scrub-brush-covered land. He thought no one would cut down his wonderful trees because they were useless as lumber or even as firewood.

Until the early 1890s, Johnny Eucalyptus traveled up and down the state on foot, scattering seeds as he went. In some places, however, he found people uprooting his trees, and so he devised a plan. From then on, he planted the trees in rows, immediately atop property lines and at the edges of roads, in the hope that people would hesitate to cut down a tree on land they weren't sure they owned.

(Courtesy Santa Clara University Library)

Some said Johnny was a genius, but he lived on the roadside, occasionally sleeping on someone’s floor for the night when they’d let him. They say the smell of eucalyptus about him – as much as his general eccentricity – was a likely reason he never married. A small, wiry man, he dressed in colorful road-worn clothes, had a long scraggly beard, and owned almost nothing. A vegetarian, he wore a eucalyptus-wood salad bowl on his head as he walked from town to town. But despite his odd appearance, he spoke eloquently of the eucalyptus’ beauty and utility.

According to Johnny, the trees provided medicinal benefits, although it’s unclear which benefits he espoused. However, the claims of the many opportunists who followed in his footsteps were better documented. According to “experts,” one part or another of the eucalyptus tree could cure (or at least mitigate) nearly any ailment. Keeping skin and teeth healthy, warding off insects, healing burns and ulcers, lowering fevers, alleviating cold symptoms, and curing arthritis and venereal disease are just a few examples. 

Trademark filing, 1896 (Calif. State Archives)

Johnny was often accompanied on his endless hikes through California by a host of curious woodland animals. But he only dreaded one creature: The koala bear. He feared they would one day appear in California and undo much of his hard work. Johnny was always on the lookout for them. 

Unlike most pioneers, Johnny carried no gun into the wilderness. However, he carried a huge Bible, with which he could physically beat down assailants or, obviously, koalas. 

John Gumm never got to do battle with the hated koalas. He spent the last months of his life in the little Orange County community of El Toro, where he convinced ranch owner Dwight Whiting to plant more than ninety varieties of eucalyptus on four hundred acres. Many of those trees remain today, as reflected in the “forest” half of El Toro’s new name, “Lake Forest.” In fact, rows and forests of Johnny Eucalyptus’ trees can still be  found all up and down the state.

Eucalyptus along State Highway, Tustin, circa 1930

According to his death certificate, Johnny died on March 23, 1895, from “bein’ plum wore out.” 

From the beautification of California’s landscape to the sinus-penetrating effects of Vicks VapoRub, Johnny – as one scholar put it – “brought folks a heap o’ happiness and never asked for any thanks.”

 His legend lives on.