No matter which of my windows I choose to look out of, I see eucalyptus covered hills. In many ways, this is a good thing; I love being surrounded by trees and greenery and the gentle scent of eucalyptus adds an extra dimension to walks with my dog, Daisy. And when shafts of light burst out from between their trunks, it’s like being in the X-Files.
I love the patchy colours of the trunks after the outer bark has peeled away. When dry, they are a desert camouflage of sand, grey and caramel but when wet, the colours deepen to a rich green, gold and copper. The ribbons of chestnut coloured bark curling around the base of the trees put me in mind of spindly legs with tights around their ankles.
I hadn’t realised until I came to this part of Portugal that eucalyptus leaves change their colour and shape as the tree matures. In young trees and regrowth, the leaves are fat and silvery green but as the tree grows, the top leaves become longer and thinner and tinged with red. The transformation from young tree to adult goes through an awkward phase where the tree has a mixture of both kinds of leaves, a bit like a gangly teenager whose body is still trying to work itself out.
Eucalyptus was first introduced to Portugal in the late 18th century by Sir Joseph Banks, a British botanist who’d found them in Australia. In recent years, Portuguese farmers have covered vast stretches of land with these trees, especially in central Portugal.
They’re simple to grow, three times as lucrative as cork and can be harvested within 12 years so it’s easy to see why. When cut at the base, a new tree will grow back in very little time. I can vouch for that as every year, patches of hillside turn from green to naked brown as sections of trees are harvested. Within months, silvery green bushes of leaves refill these empty spaces with colour.
The eucalyptus grown in Portugal is used mainly as pulp for making paper. The oils and resin are also manufactured. The forested hills are scattered with rows of beehives, especially around Lousã, where the Serra da Lousã honey is produced. I admit I’m quite relieved that the beehives near me seem to be defunct; I got stung last year and it hurt. A lot.
Bee stings aside, there are other reasons why not everyone is happy about the proliferation of eucalyptus forests. Having replaced the natural diversity of previous woodlands, the monoculture of eucalyptus trees has had an adverse effect on soil quality and on the diversity of wildlife in some areas.
There’s also the problem of forest fires. The oil produced by the trees, combined with the litter created by the falling bark makes eucalyptus forests a serious fire hazard. To minimise the risk of fires spreading, farmers are supposed to clear the bark and trim the trees so that instead of four or five trees growing from one stump, there is only one. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen and when fires take hold they quickly devastate vast areas, turning green hills to grim bare land studded with the blackened remains of tree stumps.
Being surrounded by forests is soothing most of the time but when the air is thick with smoke, helicopters are darting back and forth and the red glow of the fire is clearly visible on the hills surrounding your house, it’s pretty scary. Thank goodness for the bombeiros, the Portuguese fire service, which is heavily staffed by volunteers, and works around the clock to deal with forest fires.
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