Updated: Oct 15, 2019
Author: Hilary Collins, CEO Hardy Eucalyptus
There’s a lot to celebrate in the middle of March. The passing of winter storms, the start of Spring, National Eucalyptus Day UK and of course Sheelah’s Day - what do you mean, you haven’t heard of that one?
Before you think I have completely lost the plot, let me explain how all this is legitimately linked to Eucalyptus, with a strong scientific root. This festival, like many others, is a happy blend of Pagan origins and more modern Christian beliefs, but the roots of Sheelah can be traced back to Neolithic times and she was subsequently embedded in the ancient Celtic calendar on March 18th. There is evidence to suggest she is the ancient Earth Mother Goddess associated with rebirth and fertility, the obligatory warding off of evil spirits, leafing out of trees after winter, the sowing of a ‘dead’ seed which then germinates; in other words the symbol of Spring.
Fast forward to 5th century Ireland and they acquire Saint Patrick, he of the snakes and shamrock, seriously celebrated by the Irish all over the world on March 17th, with much drowning of the shamrock. Around this time, it seems that clergy were permitted to be married and research has unearthed his (possibly mythical) wife Sheelah, who was even more celebrated on March 18th, especially by Irish ladies.
The church is very strong in Ireland and there are often certain um necessary prohibitions during Lent (like no alcohol), but St Patrick and St Sheelah conveniently allow for special merry making, just before the Spring equinox around March 20-23rd. Let’s face it, after being battered to death all winter by snow-ridden Atlantic gales, you really need to celebrate the arrival of Spring in style!
Come the 1600’s and the great famine, many Irish folk emigrated to Newfoundland, Canada and Australia, where they still continue this two day celebration, commemorating the lives of Paddy and Sheelah. According to the 19th century Australian press, semi-conscious ladies, slightly the worse for drink were brought before the Justice of the Peace on March 18th and unable to even say their own name, they were all referred to as Sheelahs. The rest, as they say, is history.
For heaven’s sake, bring on the Eucalyptus, I hear you cry and quite right too! Eucalyptus are incredibly day length sensitive; their growth patterns respond to the seasons. Days start to lengthen soon after the Spring equinox. Being evergreen, Eucalyptus sense this; first small shoots begin to emerge up top and then their roots start to fire up at the end of March. Growth continues at a moderate pace until the Summer solstice 20th June and five days later, the Eucalyptus rapidly accelerate, going completely bonkers in July and August. You can see this shift in growth pattern quite plainly at our nursery. Nearly all of their growth is done during June to August. Come the Autumn equinox, Eucalyptus slow down entirely and with the cooling nights, they being to ripen their wood, building their winter defence system against the frosts.
Bear with me – we’re getting to the good bit! Timing is everything. You need to prune your evergreen Eucalyptus, just at the point where it is sucking all the goodness and carbs out of its old foliage and about to shove all this collateral into new growth. This is when old leaves turn red/yellow/biscuit/black/spotty or a combination of all of those and drop off. Leaves only last around 12 months or so, even in evergreens. In oak trees, we call it Autumn. Eucalypts do everything fast – suck out food, drop leaves, push out new shoots, boom, grow. Prune too late and you have wasted this nutritional resource, weakening the tree, because you will be pruning off too much new growth. You certainly don’t want to be savaging your ornamental Euc much after June and never during the winter. Cut foliage production is exempt from this management for a variety of reasons and carries its own perils.
How do you know when to carry out this delicate surgery, since the definite arrival of Spring is so flexible and depends on the weather, you sensibly ask? You need an aide-memoire, a diary date to prompt you to go and look closely at your Euc, to check its leaves and new shoots and plan what you are going to do. What better date than National Eucalyptus Day, 18th March commemorating the Australian Sheelah – how can you forget? It may well be that under frosty or snowy conditions, you decide to put off this responsible deed until the warmer days ahead, but at the very least you will have made a start. The Irish cut-foliage producers carry out the last harvest and pruning of their plantations on St Patrick’s day and then quite rightly go off for a tremendous celebration of a job well done.
Why prune your Eucalyptus? For a dense hedge screen, trim to maintain a neat and bushy shape, like a Capital ‘A’ but with the top cut off. Shrub-on-a-stick needs to be trimmed to keep its height down and again to maintain bushiness and if growing a Euc for cut foliage with juvenile leaves, this is the time to pollard. Meanwhile, a vigorous growing standard in training requires formative pruning to help it establish a low crown and a firm root system, prior to it attempting sky-scraper-status. This is also the time of year to engage your tree surgeon to work on that rather large tree to keep it at a sensible size; never let him do it in the winter!
So if you are growing your Eucalyptus as a hedge screen, shrub-on-a-stick, training a young standard or more seriously need to pollard an ancient giant specimen that should never have been planted in your tiny back garden, book a date with your tree on March 18th, get up close and personal with it and decide how you are going to prune yours.
Meanwhile on National Eucalyptus Day UK, March 18th , at Grafton Nursery hardy-eucalyptus, we will be raising a glass or two of a rather good Shiraz in a toast to Sheelah, the arrival of Spring and most importantly to all of you good people practicing Responsible Eucalyptus Ownership!
Btw The Australians celebrate National Eucalyptus Day on 23rd March.
To avoid the risk of being accused of making all of this up, I include my reference material http://todayinirishhistory.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/sheelahs-day.html https://www.yourirish.com/traditions/sheelahs-day https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/st-patrick-had-a-wife-and-her-name-was-sheelah-1.3013056 https://stairnaheireann.net/2014/03/18/in-the-old-celtic-calendar-today-is-sheelahs-day/ http://tairis-cr.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/sheelahs-day.html