This week’s plant of the week happens to come from one of my favorite places – South West Australia. The Melalueca Nesophila originates from a small town called Albany located on the south west shores of the cold water latitudes bordering the Australian continent.
How long has it been here in America? I have no clue, but I can remember it along the coastal cliffs even as a child. If you visit the campgrounds in Cardiff and Carlsbad you will find it sculpted by the wind and swept up the sides of the sandstone cliffs by the salty breezes of the ocean.
It is a natural choice as a privacy barrier between campground spaces and controls the erosion on the melting cliffs as its paper bark trunks wind like unruly hidden white snakes up the bank and foliate into beautiful but tiny emerald green leaves.
Melalueca Nesophila can get 25 feet tall and is crowned with bright purple puff ball flowers through most of the summer and early fall. Most passersby will call it Bottlebrush. The difference is that the Bottlebrush is in the Callistemon family and has separate stamens where the Melalueca Nesophila gathers all its stamens at one juncture. If you look closely on the small twigs or small branches of this tree, you will find woody nodules that house the newly formed seeds, old remnants of the original flowerings.
Walking the ramp down to Pipes to surf or parking along the west side of Coast Highway 101 by the campgrounds, the Camphoraceous smell of this plant is intoxicating. It greets me every time like an old friend and the fond connection I have for the beach and this smell floods through me like the dusky scent of this amazing plant.
This particular Melalueca is one type of approximately 200 different kinds or species of myrtle bush. In Australia they can be found along the edges of marshes and boggy places. Although they are fairly drought- and salt spray-tolerant, this plant does need regular water in order to grow quickly and remain in good vigor. Its small waxy leaves help prevent moisture loss from the heat of the day and the evaporative effects of a constant wind.
The powerful scent of this plant comes from the amazing oils and compounds found within its small olive green leaves. Man has adapted a steam distillation process by which the Melalueca oil, (Terpinen 4-ol) is separated from the plant and condensed into a concentrated product. Tea tree oil, as it is known, comes from the Melalueca plant and is found in shampoos, skin moisturizers, and acts as an antifungal as well as an antiseptic for many maladies.
The interesting thing here though is that the Melalueca is not a tea tree. You cannot drink tea made from the Melalueca Nesophila as it is toxic. It can also cause skin irritation to some with skin sensitivities. The true drinkable tea tree is the Australian Leptospermum Lavegatum, a sister to the Melalueca that has the same small ovoid green leaves but no white paper-like bark.
Early settlers would drink tea made from the Lavegatum because it is rich in ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and helped prevent the onset of the dreaded scurvy, a Vitamin C deficiency disease.
In a garden, the way to plant the Melalueca Nesophila is to choose a large space for it to crescendo into a specimen plant that you would hand prune on a regular basis to discover its beautiful structure or to create a beautiful sound and privacy barrier with it by planting several plants in a zig zag line along the property line.
Subsequent prunings with a hedge trimmer or pruning shears will yield a dense colorful screen perfect for nosy neighbors or a busy street where dust and noise can be an issue.
A fast growing plant when watered well in good drainage conditions, this plant can grow quickly and will require regular light pruning in order to create an aesthetic and colorful addition to your landscape. I recommend irrigating with adjustable drip emitters that can deep water during the summer months and be turned off during the winter.