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The tree can grow to 45 metres tall; it has smooth bark, ranging in colour from white and grey to red-brown, which is shed in long ribbons. The tree has a large, dense crown of leaves. The base of the bole can be covered with rough, reddish-brown bark. The juvenile and adult leaves are stalked, with the adult leaves broad at the base, tapering to the tip. The adult leaf colour is a dull blue-green. The leaf also contains several to many oil-producing glands in the un-veined areas of the leaf. It is fast growing, and usually grows to 40 to 45 meters in height, depending on its location. The tree grows straight under favourable conditions, but can develop twisted branches in drier conditions. River Reds and many other eucalypts have an ominous nickname, "Widow Maker", as they have a habit of dropping large boughs (often half the diameter of the trunk) without warning. This form of self-pruning may be a means of saving water or simply a result of their brittle wood. This is also an efficient way of attracting wildlife that live in the holes formed, which gives the red gum a source of natural fertiliser
The species can be found along the banks of watercourses, as well as the floodplains of those watercourses. Due to the proximity to these watercourses, River Red Gum is subject to regular flooding in its natural habitat. River Red Gum prefers soils with clay content. The trees rely on not just on rainfall but also on regular flooding as well, since flooding recharges the sub-soil with water.
Red gum is so named for its brilliant red wood, which can range from a light pink through to almost black, depending on the age and weathering. It is somewhat brittle and is often cross-grained, making hand working difficult. Traditionally used in rot resistant applications like stumps, fence posts and sleepers, more recently it has been recognised in craft furniture for its spectacular deep red colour and typical fiddleback figure. It needs careful selection, as it tends to be quite reactive to changes in humidity (moves about a lot in service). It is quite hard, dense (about 900 kg/m3), can take a fine polish and carves well. It is a popular timber for wood turners, particularly if old and well-seasoned. It is also popular for use as firewood. Significant amounts of Victoria and NSW's firewood comes from Red Gums in the Barmah forest.