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Melaleuca

Myrtaceae
Evergreen, Shrubs, Trees

Australia is home to 140 or more species of melaleucas, and many of these show up in Western gardens. All have narrow, sometimes needlelike leaves and bear clustered flowers with prominent stamens; the blossoms attract birds. Since each flower cluster resembles a bottlebrush, some melaleucas are called bottlebrushes, though that name is more generally applied to members of the genus Callistemon.

Tight clusters of woody seed capsules are attached directly to branches; these hang on for several years, forming odd, decorative cylinders around twigs and branches. Many melaleucas have interestingly contorted branches and bark that peels off in thick, papery layers.

All melaleucas are easy to grow. Most withstand heat, wind, seacoast conditions, poor soil, and limited moisture. Most are vigorous and fast growing; for a natural appearance, control by cutting back selected branches to a well-placed side branch. Almost all melaleucas make good screens; some of the larger ones are useful as flowering or shade trees.

Melaleuca linariifolia
Melaleuca linariifolia

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Melaleuca linariifolia

This tree grows to 20–30 ft. tall and 20–25 ft. wide, with a dense, umbrellalike crown. White bark sheds in papery flakes. Slender branchlets covered with stiff, bright green or bluish green, needlelike leaves about 1 1/4 in. long. In summer, numerous fluffy spikes of small white flowers give the effect of snow on branches. Young plants are willowy and need staking until the trunk firms up.

Melaleuca nesophila

Fast growth to 15–20 ft. tall (possibly to 30 ft.) and about as wide. Grows naturally as a small tree. Develops gnarled, heavy branches that sprawl or ascend in picturesque patterns. Grayish cream to pale brown bark is thick and spongy; gray-green leaves are thick, roundish, to 1 in. long. Roundish bottlebrush flower clusters to 1 in. wide are produced at branch ends most of the year; they open mauve pink, fade to white with yellow tips. Use as a tree or a big, informal screen; or shear as a hedge. Takes ocean winds and spray; poor, rocky soil; desert heat. Little to regular water.

Melaleuca quinquenervia
Melaleuca quinquenervia

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Melaleuca quinquenervia

Upright, open growth to 20–40 ft. tall and 15–25 ft. wide; can become twice as large in the tropics. Pendulous young branches. Thick, spongy, light brown to whitish bark peels off in sheets (you can use these sheets to line wire hanging baskets). Stiff, narrowly oval, 2–4-in.-long leaves are shiny pale green, covered with silky hairs when young. The foliage turns purple with light frosts. Yellowish white (sometimes pink or purple) flowers bloom in 2–3-in. spikes in summer and fall. Good street tree. Trees planted 8–10 ft. apart and thinned occasionally make a pleasant grove. Little to regular water. In Hawaii, cajeput tree has escaped cultivation to become an invasive pest.

Melaleuca thymifolia (photo courtesy of Gerry Whitmont/Garden Picture Library/Photolibrary)
Melaleuca thymifolia (photo courtesy of Gerry Whitmont/Garden Picture Library/Photolibrary)

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Melaleuca thymifolia

Low, spreading shrub to 2–4 ft. tall and 4–8 ft. wide. Bark is corky, flaking, grayish brown. Narrow blue-green leaves are fragrant when crushed. Blooms spring through early summer, with 2–3-in.-wide flower clusters resembling bundles of tiny ostrich feathers in white, pink, deep mauve, or dusky purple. Prefers acid soil but tolerates soils that lack fertility, are somewhat alkaline, or have sluggish drainage. Prune after flowering to keep compact. Takes occasional drought; best with regular water.

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