One of the most distinctive features of the Australian landscapes are the trees. The most common type of tree is the Eucalypt, or gum tree, with about 550 and 600 species. These trees make up about 95% of our forest trees, and they have been shown on Australian stamps. This article shows some of them.
They symbolise the Australian landscape and contribute to its colour, both because of the blue-grey foliage of the trees and because of the oil that vaporises from the leaves in warm weather, adding to the misty blues of distant hills. Eucalypts are found in all parts of the continent, from the coast to the treeline on Mount Kosciusko, our highest mountain, and from the edge of the desert to the margins of the rainforest. They have adapted to all types of climates and soils.
The river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) shown on the left has the typical shape of the eucalypts. This is the $2.00 Painting Series stamp issued in 1974. The river red gum is found on floodplains throughout mainland Australia and is one of the most common gums.
A distinctive feature of the eucalypts is the gumnut - the seed pod of the gum tree, shown on the right with typical flowers and leaves. The seeds are held in the gumnut and are dispersed from it up to several years after the flowers die. The name "gum tree" refers to the gum which exudes from the bark, especially from the smooth barked species, and most often when they are damaged.
Identifiable Species on Stamps
The first readily-identifiable species to be pictured on an Australian stamp was the Tasmanian blue gum (E. globulus) on the 15 cent stamp in the State Floral Emblems series, issued in 1968, and shown to the left. it is a large tree up to 70 metres high with yellow to cream flowers. It is native to Tasmania and a small part of southern Victoria. It is one of the most widely planted eucalypts overseas, including Spain, Portugal, India, Brazil, South Africa, and the USA. It is grown mainly for the oil that can be distilled from the leaves, and also for firewood. It is such a feature of the landscape between Los Angeles and San Francisco that many people think that it is native to the area.
The river red gum on the 1974 issue mentioned earlier was the next eucalypt issue. E. camaldulensis can be found along most watercourses in every state in mainland Australia. It grows to about 30 metres and has smooth white or grey bark streaked with red. It has been the centre of an important timber industry, producing heavy, dark red timber used for a range of uses from polished furniture to railway sleepers and fences. The design on the earlier 1969 15 cent timber stamp (not illustrated) showing part of a log with gum nuts and gum leaves is probably based on the river red gum.
Ghost gum is the common name for the tree shown on the 1978 25cent stamp on the left. This name for the E. papuana comes from the light grey to white, smooth bark that makes this species so distinctive, especially when it is growing in a single species forest and seen at night in the moonlight. It is widespread across northern Australia.
In 1980, the swagman on the Waltzing Matilda strip of five 22 cent stamps was shown sitting "under the shade of a Coolibah tree," as the words of the song tell us. This was probably E. microtheca (not illustrated), although there are several species with this common name. It is a medium-sized tree, usually with a crooked trunk. It grows near watercourses almost all over Australia, especially in the more arid areas.
Five species of eucalypts were shown on the stamp vending machine folders (booklets) issued in 1982:
E. calophylla 'Rosea' (1 cent) - pink flowered marri; native to Western Australia but widely grown in the eastern states; tall tree with pink flowers.
E. caesia (2 cents) - native to Western Australia, where most of the best flowering eucalypts come from; small tree with dusty pink to red flowers and reddish flakes of bark over a smooth green trunk.
E. ficifolia (3 cents) - the red-flowering gum; small tree native to Western Australia; flowers are from white to bright scarlet and every shade between; widely planted in gardens across Australia, but not very successful in areas with a wet summer season.
E. globulus (10 cents) - Tasmanian blue gum; one of only two identifiable eucalypt species to be on more than one stamp issue.
E. forrestiana (27 cents) - known as the fuchsia (or fuschia) mallee; small tree native to Western Australia; most distinctive feature are the pendulous four-winged red-yellow buds which give the tree its common name.
In 1988, the 70 cent stamp in the Panorama of Australia series (not illustrated) showed an area of bush dominated by E. regnans, the Mountain Ash. This is the tallest of the eucalypts, growing to more than 95 metres in height. It is the tallest hardwood in the world and the tallest flowering plant. It is native to the mountains in eastern Victoria and southern Tasmania. It is one of the most important hardwoods, being widely used for interior and building construction as well as for wood pulp. Like some of the giant Californian redwoods, some of the largest trees are named, including the largest example, the Maydena Tree, at just over 98 metres, or 320 feet. Others are the King of the Cumberland, the Ada tree, and the Cornthwaite tree. Unlike the redwood, they are relatively short-lived, with 300 to 400 years appearing to be their maximum life span. Redwoods can live for more than 2000 years. The mountain ash is also easily killed by fire, with regeneration occurring quickly from seed. It also grows quickly.
Salmon gums were shown in a painting by Robert Juniper on the 28 cent stamp in the Sterning Vending Machine folder issued in 1990 (not illustrated). The painting does not provide a realistic portrait of the trees which grow to about 30 metres, with a straight trunk and salmon-pink, smooth bark.
The next identifiable species is again the ghost gum, on one of the pair of 45 cent stamps issued for Australia Day in 1993. The tree forms most of the foreground in the painting of a central Australian scene by Albert Namatjira, the most famous Australian Aboriginal artist of the 20th century. This painting shows the tree more realistically in its natural landscape than did the 1978 stamp described above.
The final species that I have illustrated is the 1996 $5 stamp to the right, showing a part of a mountain ash, E. regnans. This tree was described above in some detail.
Eucalypts have been shown on many other Australian stamps, but the particular species is not easily identifiable. The first was probably the 1929 green airmail 3 pence stamp showing an aeroplane flying above a farming scene. The tree on the right on that stamp is likely to be a river red gum. The shape and situation of the tree is very similar to that of E. camaldulensis, but it can not be confirmed by visual examination of the stamp alone.
Unidentifiable Species on Stamps
Other stamps showing eucalypts include:
- 1934 2d, 3d, 9d merino ram on the John Macarthur centenary issue.
- 1936 2d, 3d, 1 shilling centenary of South Australia.
- 1937 2d, 3d, 9d 150th anniversary of the founding of New South Wales.
- 1937 ½d orange kangaroo and green koala stamps.
- 1940 1d, 2d, 3d, 6d Australian Armed Services series.
- 1942 2d, 2½d, King George VI stamps.
- 1946 2½d, 3½d, 1 shilling centenary of Major Mitchell's explorations.
- 1950 1½d green Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and 2½d King George VI stamps.
- 1962 5d 50th anniversary of the Australian Inland Mission.
- 1964 9d black-backed magpie stamp.
- 1970 6 cent 18th International Dairy Congress - this also shows a standing dead tree, which is a common feature of eucalypt forests.
- 1979 20 cent Australia Day stamp.
- 1980 60 cent King Parrot stamp - showing the hollow sections of gum tree branches commonly used by birds as nesting sites.
- 1985 33 cent Snugglepot and Cuddlepie stamp in the children's books strip of five stamps - shown near the top of this article.
- 1987 36 cent stamp showing the "terrible descent" in the Man from Snowy River strip of five stamps.
- 1988 on three of the five stamps in the Arrival of the First Fleet strip.
- 1990 65 cent stamps showing a quoll on a tree branch in the Animals of the Hight Country series.
- 1992 several of the 45 cent Threatened Species series, in particular the trees shown with the Pygmy Possum and the Squirrel Glider.
- 1992 50 cent koala stamp - koalas eat eucalypt leaves almost exclusively - the species they prefer varies on a local or regional basis, but are limited to probably less than 20 species overall - they browse no more than 2 or 3 regularly, while others are used opportunistically for food or for other behaviours such as sleeping.
- 1994 on two of the 45 cent stamps showing koalas.
The Uses of Eucalypts
Other Australian stamps could be used to show the sorts of uses that the trees were put to, including:
- the Murray River wharf shown on the 20 cent 1979 stamp in the Ferries and Steamers series.
- the wooden railway bridge on the 35 cent Puffing Billy stamp.
- the buildings on the 43 cent, 75 cent, and $1.20 stamps in the 1991 Literary Legends series.
All of those structures were very likely to have built from eucalypt timber because of its strength and durability under harsh environmental conditions.
Eucalypt flowers are a very good source of honey, with different species producing very different colours and tastes. With different species flowering at different times throughout the year, bee-keepers move their hives to keep the bees close to the nectar source.
Other Australian Trees
The second most common type of Australian tree is the wattle, which are all species of Acacia. Our national floral emblem is the Golden Wattle, Acacia pycnantha. The closest relative to the Eucalyptus is the Angophora, or rough- and smooth-barked apple (no relation to the domestic apple). It is often difficult to distinguish these from some eucalypts in the forest.
Sources of Inspiration
Early Australian poets, such as Adam Lindsay Gordon, wrote:
'When the gnarl'd, knotted trunks eucalyptian,
Seem carved, like weird columns Egyptian.'
Will Ogilvie praised:
'Hurrah for the red-gums standing
So high on the range above!'
And A.B Paterson mentioned :
'A scent of eucalyptus trees in honey-laden bloom.'
Australia, unlike most other continents, has a very small amount of native forest, covering about 6% of the land area. Much of this has been cleared for farming since Europeans first settled in 1788. Eucalypts form the basis for these forests.
Trees are an integral part of our lives. We use them for our houses, furniture, chemical products, and medicines. Songs, poems and prose in every language praise the beauty of their flowers and foliage, fruit and restful shade. They support countless animals and other plants. They are great primary producers, moderating the climate and filtering some of our industrial wastes. Without them, our civilisation would be very different.
It is very fitting that trees appear on many stamps from throughout the world. Eucalypts are the quintessential Australian tree; it is very appropriate for them to appear on our stamps.