This week’s arboreal themed post is focused on a tree close to home and despite it being considered an aggressive alien, it is a tree I am rather fond of.
In my home town, one species of tree stands out above all others and has become so strongly associated with the garden city it has been referred to as the “Toowoomba tree”. It is a grand shade tree with an old-world dignity but it is no native nor is it a harmless exotic but rather an “aggressive noxious weed”, perhaps a fitting symbol for the history of colonisation of this region. I live on the lands of the Giabal and Jarowair peoples who despite fierce resistance shamefully suffered decimation during colonisation of this region. So in a perverse kind of way, it seems fitting that the Toowoomba tree should be an aggressive exotic.
It is an undeniably beautiful tree with grand scale and quiet dignity but it really does not belong here and by virtue of the aggressive way it forces native species out of the ecological loop, it represents a threat to some of our most precious native animals and the local flora they depend on. I am speaking specifically of koalas. The tree in question is the camphor laurel, a tree native to Asia but not Australia. Some of our birds, like the currawongs, love the berries the camphor trees produce, by eating the berries they spread the trees far and wide and the seedlings compete with eucalypt, the koala’s food source. Aggressive opportunists the camphor laurels successfully compete against the eucalyptus establishing themselves in the gum trees place resulting in a reduction in koala habitat. While the tree might have been widely planted in the 19th century, these days most councils would look with horror on Toowoomba’s grand trees, not because of the threat to local flora and fauna but because of the disruptive root system these trees also produce, they happily lift footpaths with their roots and plumbing represents only a minor challenge to these arboreal behemoths who will happily crack pipes to access water.
Toowoomba’s camphor laurels are relatively young having been first planted around the mid-1800s as garden trees to give shade. Fast-growing, as shade trees they excel. Toowoomba’s camphor laurels are considered noteworthy and of historical significance, particularly the trees located in Queen’s park. While the trees are prolific in Toowoomba, having been widely planted as street trees, to the best of my knowledge it is only the trees in Queens park that are afforded historical significance protection, with the council having a special exception from the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, to plant camphor laurels within Queens park and maintain the magnificent avenues of these classic exotics.
I live in a street planted with these grand trees and I have to confess to a great fondness for them despite their noxious weed status. They bring such a welcome protective, grand, green to my personal environment, which was I guess the reason they were planted in the first place. I guess they will be replaced by natural attrition but they can be a long-lived tree, there are examples in Japan that are over 1000 years old. I have noticed some of the local trees have been showing signs of distress in recent years, a drying climate does not agree with them and in my street they are heavily pruned to accommodate power lines. Those pruned trees are sending out new shoots, coppicing from their roots which in itself is a sign of distress.
I think it is the fragrance of the trees that is so comforting, that fresh, clean camphor smell. It is the scent that gives Vicks vapour rub it’s distinctive odour, camphor is a principle ingredient in that cold and flu comfort cure, very much a fragrance of childhood. Nature has always been a great pharmacopoeia. Camphor wood is a natural insect, particularly moth, repellent as I am sure most people know, so that familiar strong sinus clearing fragrance has multiple purposes.
Despite their contentious existence, they are a defining presence in my town, so many streets have been planted with these rather grand trees and it is hard not to feel a fondness for them. Towering spreading arms of green they envelop our streets, embracing our suburbs in a great green embrace. An aggressive noxious weed they may be but they also bring a sense of the forest to my doorstep and I love them for that.
National Trust Toowoomba camphor laurels