Eucalyptus is one of the smells I associate with the Camino, particularly stretches of the Camino del Norte/Primativo, and while I enjoy the sweetness that fills the air as its thimble-like seed capsules crunch underfoot in the early morning, I can’t help but wish it wasn’t there. Perhaps that’s because one interloper rarely likes another?
Eucalyptus is native to Australia and like most gate crashers it just can’t hide what it is. It’s tall and slender, bare at ground level before its branches start high in the trunk, while its pale grey leaves are like nothing else in the landscape — you can spot a cluster or even individual trees from across a valley. Alongside its seed capsules, the ground around it is usually strewn with the bark it sheds annually, peeling off in great slivers like burnt Irish skin in the Spanish sun.
It’s also almost designed to be fire hazard. The chemical composition of the great accumulations of dried bark stop it from rotting easily, but it certainly lights up without too many problems, while the leaves’ oil content only adds to its flammability. On top of all that, the large volume of water it soaks up make ground conditions much drier than they would otherwise be. Native oak and pine forests can survive small grass fires but when a eucalyptus plantation goes up in smoke it takes everything around with it, as has become increasingly clear in recent years in Galicia, like 2019 when forest fires cut off roads and forced the evacuation of a number of villages.
What is it doing in Galicia? In large part it’s another unfortunate legacy of the Franco era. The combination of warm weather and high-rainfall make particularly good growing conditions for this water-guzzling friolero, and so it was planted in great swathes, primarily to produce wood pulp. The downside, even without creating situations that would make Red Adair weep, is that it has crowded out many of the native species like Holm Oak and the pines that inspired the Galician regional anthem, Os Pinos (‘The Pines’).1 A knock-on effect is that it has also affected the web of creatures that live on and with the older resident species, whether it be birds that nest in them, mammals that live among their gnarled trunks and roots, or those that eat their acorns and pine nuts.
Many Spanish ecologists and environmentalists are opposed to its presence, loose control over plantations, and its continual spread. It seems sadly prophetic that the Galician poet Eduardo María González-Pondal Abente (composer of Os Pinos) called his 1886 collection of poems, Queixumes dos pinos (‘Lamentations of the Pines’).2
2 For a collection of his poems translated into English by Eduardo Freire Canosa, see https://wheniwasachildinferrol.neocities.org/EduardoPondal/index.html