What is a box tree? Good question. Until recently I had no idea.
About half-an-hour’s drive west of Melbourne there is a small area of remanent grey box (Eucalyptus microcarpa) forest at a place called Eynesbury.
In mid-May, a couple of weeks before the start of winter here in Victoria, my brother Theo and I, and our kids, drove to Eynesbury to explore (the lockdown for the first wave of COVID-19 had just been relaxed, and the second wave had not yet started). We parked our cars, scoffed down the bacon sandwiches we had packed, and headed off along a path into the scrub.
To my untrained eye the grey box trees looked just like normal gums: tall, with pale grey-brown leaning trunks, twisting branches, and scraggly clumps of dull green leaves.
About five or ten minutes into our walk we came across a surprise: a baby snake. This was the first time I’ve every seen a baby snake and the first time I can remember seeing a snake of any kind this close to winter. It was, I reckon, about a foot long, maybe a little bit more; its head was dark, almost black; its body was light brown, almost translucent. It moved quickly, whipping and curving itself across the gravel, twigs, and fallen leaves by the side of the path.
A short way further on I found a twisted, pale grey piece of branch to use as a walking stick.
Kids, look here
a baby snake! And here's
a good stick. 🌵
“I wonder why box trees are called box trees?”, I said as we walked along, not really expecting an answer.
“Probably because the early settlers used them for making boxes,” Theo deadpanned.
It turns out this was not the silliest suggestion: Australian box trees were probably named for their similarity to European box trees (such as Buxus sempervirens) and European box trees do have very dense wood that is used by cabinet makers, wood turners, and in the making of musical instruments. The words “box” for a wooden container, and “box” for a kind of tree, both trace back to the same Greek source word (via Latin). So, box trees being called box trees because they are “those trees that are really good to make boxes out of” is not that much of a stretch.
I’ve always wanted to know how to identify different kinds of gum trees and other eucalypts, and despite a bit of research over the years I’m still not much good at it. This much as I have worked out (with the help of EUCLID, a database of Australian Eucalypts): gum trees have (mostly) thin, smooth bark; box trees are usually covered in fibrous, mat-like bark; and iron barks have hard, brittle, deeply-furrowed bark that is impregnated with resin.
EUCLID, Eucalypts of Australia, https://apps.lucidcentral.org/euclid/text/entities/eucalyptus_microcarpa.htm
Shorter Oxford Dictionary (5th Ed.), Oxford University Press, 2002.