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Marvellous Melaleucas

Brian Walters

For a group of plants that have been in cultivation for almost 200 years, melaleucas are a fairly unprepossessing bunch. It's rare to see a Melaleuca promoted in the same way that many grevilleas are, for example. They don't have the same "image"! This means that melaleucas are not well known apart from the few widely cultivated species.

This is a pity because melaleucas, as a group, are as tough as a politician's hide...but far more attractive! That's not to say that there aren't some that are difficult to grow. But even many species native to Western Australia can be easily cultivated in humid, east coast regions. And that IS unusual.

What is a Melaleuca?

Melaleucas are part of the myrtle family in what's commonly known as the "bottlebrush group". One of their closest relatives is Callistemon (the true "bottlebrushes") from which they differ in the arrangement of the stamens, the male part of the flower. The flower clusters in Melaleuca occur not only in "bottlebrush" spikes but, in some species, are arranged in globular or loose clusters.

Melaleuca bark
Typical Melaleuca 'paperbark'  

There are about 200 species of Melaleuca, all but a handful endemic to Australia. The generic name means "Black and White" which is presumably due to the appearance of the partly burnt bark on some of the tree species. They occur naturally in all states with Western Australia having the most diverse collection of about 80 - 90 species (if this is a bit vague, it's because there are still several un-named and undiscovered species). There are a few named horticultural cultivars and these are usually selected forms of species rather than hybrids.

Melaleucas have a wide range of growth habits. Most are small to medium shrubs but there are several, well-known tree species...if you can't find a spot for one in your garden, you're just not trying!

Over the years people have tried to put common names to many of the melaleucas, with varying degrees of success. "Honey Myrtle" is one that is often seen (as in "Desert Honey Myrtle" for M.glomerata. It's a fairly pointless name though, given that many other genera in the myrtle family, including Callistemon, Kunzea, Beaufortia and Eucalyptus produce nectar-laden flowers.

Really, "Melaleuca" is such a beautiful name, why do we need to avoid using it? What's wrong with calling a plant "Desert Melaleuca", for example?

Another common name used for some of the tree species is "Paperbark". This, at least, has some logic as anyone who has admired the bark of M.quinquenervia (broad-leaved paperbark) will verify. As kids we used to peel off strips of the thin papery bark of this and similar species, didn't we? Vandals; that's what we were! I'm sure we don't let our own kids do that.

"Paperbark" is one of the few really good common names that have been applied to native plant species. It's simple, it's easy to remember and, above all, it's often appropriate.

Selecting and Planting

You'll find a reasonable range of melaleucas in garden centres, and even more at specialist native plant nurseries. Despite this, those readily available would probably be less than 10% of the known species. They also tend to be overlooked by the buying public as they are unspectacular container plants unless they happen to be in flower. Most species have small, narrow leaves that don't have the visual impact of a Grevillea or a Banksia, for example (which just about leap out of the pot and demand to be taken home!).

Don't be too concerned if a Melaleuca in a container looks a bit "leggy"; they usually respond well to even hard pruning. So, provided there is healthy fresh foliage, the plant will "bush up" well if it is given a reasonably severe trimming when it is planted or, in cold climates, after any danger from frost damage has passed.

Any "legginess" probably indicates that the plant has roots that are "pot bound". Again, this is not necessarily a cause for concern but the outer layers of the roots will need to be loosened to enable the plant to adapt to the garden environment.

Melaleuca - Some species and forms worth trying
Melaleuca calothamnoides
Melaleuca calothamnoides
Melaleuca fulgens
Melaleuca fulgens
Salmon pink form
Melaleuca fulgens hybrid
Melaleuca fulgens
Melaleuca thymifolia - pink
Melaleuca thymifolia
'Pink Lace'
Melaleuca capitata
Melaleuca capitata
Melaleuca 'Georgiana Molloy'

'Georgiana Molloy'
Melaleuca nodosa
Melaleuca nodosa
Melaleuca quinquenervia
Melaleuca quinquenervia
Broad-leaved paperbark
Melaleuca viridiflora
Melaleuca viridiflora
Red form
Photos: Keith Townsend, Brian Walters

Growing Conditions

In nature melaleucas are often associated with swamps and boggy conditions. Some, such as M.quinquenervia will even be seen growing directly in watercourses with their roots immersed. This suggests that they should be a suitable choice in gardens where drainage is less than ideal. And, as a general rule, this is true enough. They will often thrive where more delicate plants will (literally) rot away.

However, it's not quite that simple (well, what did you expect? ...nature rarely makes gardening simple!). Some care is needed with the Western Australian species when grown in the east. As I've already mentioned, many of these are easily grown but they will rarely succeed in poorly drained situations.

Melaleucas are also more tolerant of shady conditions than many other plant species. They won't thrive in heavy shade and they certainly flower best in sun but they can be a real answer to a difficult landscaping problem.


Like most plants, melaleucas can be attacked by a variety of pests, particularly if they are growing poorly. Healthy plants growing in a mixed garden which is frequented by a variety of birds are rarely attacked to an extent that cannot be tolerated. A few chewed leaves on a vigorous plant is no reason to reach for the insecticide.

The most common pest is the well-named "webbing caterpillar". These grubs build a protective shield around themselves comprising plant material and their own... let me put this as delicately as I can... droppings. They can seriously defoliate a plant if left unchecked and can be difficult to spray because the web tends to protect them. I find that the best treatment is to physically destroy the webs by hand and then remove the pests with a strong jet of water from a hose (water restrictions permitting, of course).

Try These for Starters

The accompanying table lists 20 species, about half of which are readily available. The rest will require some searching out or you could try propagating some for yourself.

Melaleucas are easily grown from seed and a good range of species is available from commercial seed suppliers. The only disadvantage is that they may take 5 years or more to flower. Propagation from cuttings is also easy and, if propagated from a mature, flowering specimen, they will usually flower in their second season.

SpeciesSize (metres)Flower ColourCode (see footnote)Remarks
capitata1.5 x 1.5YellowH1Very attractive species with well displayed flowers.
calothamnoides1.0 x 1.0Red/greenCVery attractive species, rarely grown.
decussata2.5 x 2.0MauveVAn "oldie but a goodie"; flowers fade quickly.
diosmatifolia2.0 x 1.5MauveVFormerly M.erubescens.
diosmifolia3.0 x 2.0GreenH1Green brushes are very attractive but plant can be slow to flower.
nematophylla3.0 x 2.0PinkH1Interesting narrow foliage and conspicuous flower heads.
fulgens1.5 x 1.5Red/ApricotH1Red form is more attractive bush; salmon/pink. Other forms and colours available.
'Georgiana Molloy'2.0 x 1.5CeriseH1Spectacular flowers but shrub is a little untidy.
huegelii3.0 x 1.5WhiteH2Upright growth and pink buds are distinctive.
hypericifolia2.5 x 2.0RedVSome forms larger; prostrate form also available.
incana2.0 x 2.0CreamH1Weeping, grey foliage; "Velvet Cushions" is compact form.
linariifolia6.5 x 3.5WhiteV"Sea Foam" is a magnificent cultivar in flower.
macronycha2.0 x 1.5RedH1Very attractive "bottlebrush" type.
nesophila4.0 x 3.0MauveH1Good, quick growing screen; attractive foliage/flowers.
nodosa1.5 x 1.5YellowVVariable species; smaller forms are most attractive.
quinquenervia9.0 x 6.0WhiteVTypical "paperbark"; can sometimes grow larger.
squamea2.5 x 2.0Purple-mauveH1Requires extra water in dry conditions for best performance.
thymifolia1.0 x 1.0PurpleVWhite and pink forms also available.
viridiflora10.0 x 6.0Yellow/RedH3Weeping red flowered form is attractive; frost tender.
wilsonii1.0 x 1.5PurpleH2Very spectacular species.
V: Hardy in most soils and climates
H1: Hardy in temperate regions
H2: Hardy in temperate regions but best in areas of low summer humidity
H3: Hardy in tropical and sub-tropical areas; probably unsuited to cold climates

Based on an article published in the May/June 1993 issue of "Gardens and Backyards" magazine.

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Australian Plants online - 2007
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