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SF Woman’s Death Highlights Dangers of Eucalyptus

Updated: Jan 18, 2023 09:26
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Hidden dangers lurk in the eucalyptus canopies of Golden Gate Park and elsewhere in California.

An accident at Golden Gate Park this past Saturday resulted in the tragic death of one San Francisco senior resident. A tree branch suddenly detached from its trunk and struck the elderly passerby below, fatally wounding her. At around 5:15 PM, a passing runner discovered the fallen woman on JFK Drive south of 30th Avenue and Fulton Street. Paramedics arrived promptly but were unable to revive her.

It’s the kind of incident you’d expect from the writers of Six Feet Under or even the Final Destination franchise. This ostensibly chance occurrence happens more frequently than one might expect. In fact, it fits the M.O. of an invasive plant species disguised as a California icon. While it was a pine tree that sadly killed Beth Louise Abrams, frequent visitors of Golden Gate Park initially suspected the offending limb belonged to a eucalyptus tree. After all, it’s happened before.

The no-good wood

The twisting eucalyptus has troubled California since its introduction. In the 1850s, loggers turned to the Australian tree for a cheaper, fast-growing source of construction timber. Though not yet logged to near-extinction, second-generation California redwood could not mature to the quality of old-growth timber in one lumberjack’s lifetime. Swaths of eucalyptus appeared while giant sequoia continued to vanish from their native rugged coastline. 

The joke would be on them. Loggers soon learned that their eucalyptus crops were worthless. Once the trees had been harvested, trimmed and dried, the boards twisted and shrank like noodles. Moreover, the wood proved impenetrable by nail or spike, making them useless for the booming railroad industry. An alternative use for the gangly eucalyptus soon emerged. Farmers found they made effective windbreaks, and landscapers reappropriated them for use as shade trees.

Right at home in our dry coastal climate, the fragrant, oily tree mutated from suburban lawn ornament to invasive nuisance. It forever changed California’s ecology, driving out native plants and wildlife. As if that weren’t enough, the Australian import also accelerates wildfires, whose intense heat makes the tree boil and explode. Eucalyptus groves violently burst into flame during the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm which took 4,000 homes and twenty-five lives.

A true colonizer, eucalyptus thrives on the destruction of the native environment. This is particularly evident after a major forest fire. In 2013, Forest Ecologist David Bowman told KQED about the tree’s evolutionary advantage. “Fire opens up the woody capsules that hold the seeds, which love growing on freshly burned soil. Give a hillside a really good torching and the eucalyptus will absolutely dominate. They’ll grow intensively in the first few years of life and outcompete everything.”

Out on a limb

Charred trees in a neighborhood destroyed by the Oakland Hills Tunnel Fire of Oct. 20, 1991. (Courtesy of Cal-OES)

In another evolutionary twist, eucalyptus trees like to shed their branches. Large limbs are cumbersome to the hungry plant, growing too heavy to maintain. Then, without warning or provocation, they snap, often falling in little to no wind. One would-be victim, Ron Eadie, likened the crack to a shotgun blast 

(Palo Alto Online). From heights up to 150 feet, the dense, pulpy wood plummets to the ground. Mr. Eadie was lucky. “You know what they call those trees, don’t you? ‘Widow makers,’” he said.

Danger hides in our eucalyptus groves. “When these trees fall, people exclaim it’s an act of God that no one was killed,” arborist John Sevier told The Daily Hornet. Orange County officials consulted Sevier after a fifty-foot eucalyptus tree fell and crushed a woman in 2011. The 9,000-pound tree grew from a stand of blue gum eucalyptus planted along Newport Beach’s Irvine Avenue. “In my opinion,” Sevier said, “it’s by the grace of God that more people haven’t gotten killed by these trees.”

The species has claimed lives elsewhere in the state. Sevier once assisted on a case of a four-year-old girl killed by a falling eucalyptus at the San Diego Zoo. In October 2020 a blue gum eucalyptus crashed the wedding party of a young bride in Whittier, killing her mother. Her three-year-old niece suffered a traumatic brain injury and was hospitalized in critical condition. Six other relatives sustained injuries when the eighty-foot specimen fell on the family. The group was posing for photographs.

See also: “Map shows exactly where 289 trees fell down in San Francisco during recent storms

Eucalyptus aren’t the only trees to spontaneously shed their limbs. Others that could see a repeat of this tragedy include sycamore, oak, and poplar. The branch responsible for Saturday’s accident did not fall from a eucalyptus, but a pine tree. It’s victim: 73-year-old Beth Louise Abrams of Bernal Heights, San Francisco (The Chronicle). The wind and rain also brought down an old pine at Metson Lake, also in Golden Gate Park. A Financial District ficus toppled onto a MUNI bus; no one at either locale was injured.

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Jake Warren

Jake Warren

A Potawatomi nonfiction writer and Tenderloin resident possessing an Indigenous perspective on sexuality and a fascination with etymological nuance. Queer decolonial leftist, cannabis industry affiliate, seasoned raver, and unofficial earthquake authority.

5 Comments

  1. Janice Hollander
    January 18, 2023 at 12:13 am — Reply

    Eucalyptus trees do indeed have their problems, but it wasn’t a eucalyptus that killed that woman. It was a pine branch. SF Gate had a picture of it yesterday.

  2. kevin voccia
    January 18, 2023 at 12:12 pm — Reply

    Due to storms pine tree limb falls and kills woman but let’s talk about eucalyptus trees…..

  3. Luciano Mezzetta
    January 19, 2023 at 3:19 pm — Reply

    Redwoods are native. But even they can fall in certain storms. While bad ass queerdom may be immortal, nothing else in the universe is. Madrone is a native tree. It is a good tree to plant.

  4. George M Davis
    January 19, 2023 at 6:28 pm — Reply

    According to a conversation that I had with Jack Gescheidt of the Tree Spirit Project.

    Eucalyptus trees are no more flammable or dangerous than most other tree species.

    They were imported because they are good at preventing soil erosion especially on hillsides and they grow relatively fast. They are also capable of forming their own ecosystem like on top of Mt. Parnassus above UCSF Medical Center who wants to destroy that forest and recreational area for urban development. Is the author of this article associated with them?

  5. Moi
    January 21, 2023 at 4:34 am — Reply

    George, George, George. Calm down. You sound like you have a conspiratorial poking-stick. No one is on your lawn. There is no ‘hippity-hop’ music blaring.

    Someone died. Geesh, George. You sound like an old fart. Get a better life by picking better battles.

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