Ornamentals: By Mary James Photography by Bob Wigand


G’Day, Melaleuca


These Australian natives are proving to be all purpose…


LOOK AROUND SAN DIEGO landscapes and one melaleuca is bound to catch your eye — the ubiquitous paper-bark tree (Melaleuca quinquenervia) with its distinctive bone-gray peeling bark, skinny leaves and pale yellow bottlebrush flowers.

While this drought-tolerant evergreen tree is a good choice for area gardens, it’s far from the only option in this big group of Australian natives, members of the myrtle family. Recently landscape designers, nurseries and the cut-flower industry are discovering other appealing melaleucas ranging from long-flowering small trees to fast-growing shrubs and groundcovers.

“They are highly ornamental and great for problem areas. Windy, wet, heavy clay — there’s a melaleuca for every need,” says horticulturist Jo O’Connell, who left her native Australia 19 years ago and now runs Australian Native Plant Nursery in Casitas Springs.

O’Connell sells 26 melaleucas, drawn from the more than 200 species that grow in her homeland. (They can be ordered by mail at or from Cedros Gardens in Solana Beach or Barrels & Branches in Encinitas.)

One of O’Connell’s favorites is M. diosmifolia with tiny branch-hugging leaves and fragrant 5-inch long flowers, both in eye-catching shades of lime. These dense shrubs (8 to 10 feet tall and wide) form an attractive hedge or windbreak, especially in coastal areas where it flowers most profusely.

M. hypericifolia also grows 8 to 12 feet tall and puts on a show in early summer when its drooping branches are decorated with terra-cotta bottlebrush flowers irresistible to hummingbirds. Another summer bloomer, M. thymifolia brightens a garden path with bright purple flowers curled like miniature claws. If this three-foot-tall shrub becomes scraggly, O’Connell suggests rejuvenating it by cutting it back to the ground.

A florist favorite, flowers on M. heugelii open from rosy pink buds to form long fluffy white tapered wands. Fragrant tiny leaves and attractive bark add to the ornamental appeal of this bushy seed-grown plant that can vary greatly in height from 6 to 20 feet tall. Accustomed to alkaline soils —
it grows on sandy limestone cliffs in Western Australia, versatile M. heugelii can be a focal point or hedge, especially where erosion control is needed, O’Connell says.

Landscape designers have discovered the equally versatile M. incana, a lacy small tree (to 9 feet tall) that O’Connell praises as “simply beautiful.” Its gray-green leaves, whitish bark and creamy yellow flower clusters in spring fit easily into today’s urban waterwise gardens. O’Connell also grows a prostrate form that can be used as a groundcover or to cascade over walls.

Where a taller tree is desired, O’Connell suggests M. armillaris that grows quickly to about 25 feet high. Tolerant of most soils and salty breezes, this tree with its peeling bark, narrow gray-green foliage, drooping branches and cream flowers is ideal near the beach.

All melaleucas are drought-tolerant and carefree once established. No amendments or fertilizer are needed when planting, though weekly watering is suggested during the first year while the root system branches out. Another plus? Pests are not a problem, O’Connell says.



Ground Work

Planting time: Almost any time of year except during extreme heat

Where: Full sun to part shade

Soil: Tolerant of many kinds of soils, from sand to heavy clay

Water: Drought-tolerant once established

Feed: No fertilizer necessary

Prune: Tolerant of pruning to shape and rejuvenate plant

Growth: Many are fast-growing; check species for specifics

Propagation: Grown from seeds or cuttings

Pests: None


Digging Deeper

Botanical name: Melaleuca spp.

Pronunciation: Mel–la-loo-ca

Common names: Different for each species; most common are paperbark, chenille honey myrtle, gray honey myrtle

Plant type: Evergreen shrubs or trees

Habit: Ranges from bushy shrubs to lacy or weeping trees; frost tolerance varies by species

Foliage: Small, narrow leaves in diverse shades of green

Bloom: Bottlebrush-like flowers in cream, yellow, lime, pink, red or purple

Fruit: Long seed pods may cling to branches for several years

Categories: Gardening