Eucalyptus trees’ ‘roots’ go back to beginning of Ranch

RANCHO SANTA FE — It’s hard to imagine Rancho Santa Fe without the eucalyptus trees. Driving across Linea del Cielo is an enchanting and romantic adventure no matter how many times we do it. Yet it was just a short century ago that the same land was barren with no roads and none of the lovely trees.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Santa Fe Railway Company was still expanding, still connecting the East Coast with the West Coast.
To accomplish this lofty goal, railroad ties were needed. Tests showed that the eucalyptus tree might
be the solution, but importing the trees from
Australia wasn’t feasible. Conservationists there cried “No!” and the long journey across the Pacific caused decay, dry rot and termite infestation.
The Santa Fe Railway sent a man to Australia to do a study of what soil and climate conditions were necessary to grow eucalyptus. Afterward, an extensive study was conducted in California and Arizona to see if there was a match. Indeed there was, and in 1906 the Santa Fe Land Improvement Company, an affiliate of the Santa Fe Railway, purchased more than 9,000 acres — the acreage once owned by the Osuna family — Rancho San Dieguito, to grow the eucalyptus trees.
To carry out this ambitious plan, the railway needed seed or seedling trees. None were available in the U.S. and merchants in Australia didn’t harvest eucalyptus seed. So the Santa Fe Land Improvement Company once again sent an employee to Australia to establish a nursery.
Trees bearing seed were grown, felled and the seed gathered.
The fallen trees were then sold as firewood. Over a short course of time, 3 million seedling trees were produced, exported and planted in Rancho San Dieguito.
There were problems, however. With no irrigation system in place, Rancho San Dieguito was dry for much of the year except for the rainy season and the horrific drought of 1912 and 1913 made matters worse. Nearly 70 percent of the eucalyptus trees planted in the area died. The Santa Fe Railway also learned that eucalyptus wood was unfit because tie spikes became so loose in the wood as to make the track unsafe. About the same time, the process of creosoting wood came into use and this economical process doubled the useful life of a tie and eliminated the need for so many in the future.
So what was to become of the vast acreage that was now a eucalyptus forest? The burden weighed heavily on the shoulders of the Santa Fe Railway, but it soon became apparent that the trees themselves were an asset. The romance and enchantment of the trees cast a spell. It was the perfect setting for a “Gentleman’s Estate” or perhaps a “Gentleman’s Farming Community.”
The rest, of course, is history. Rancho Santa Fe flourished and became a sought-after homeowner destination. The trees have enchanted us for a century now and will continue to do so, despite recent scares with red gum lerp psyllid disease.
So the next time you drive along Linea del Cielo, try to imagine the route without the eucalyptus trees. You’ll come to appreciate what the trees provide even more.


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