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For other uses, see Melaleuca (disambiguation).
Melaleuca armillaris.jpg
M. armillaris foliage and flowers
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Eudicots
(unranked): Rosids
Order: Myrtales
Family: Myrtaceae
Subfamily: Myrtoideae
Tribe: Melaleuceae
Genus: Melaleuca
L. nom. cons.

See List of Melaleuca species


Cajuputi Adans.
Callistemon R.Br.
Gymnagathis Schauer
Kajuputi Adans.
Meladendron St.-Lag.
Melaleucon St.-Lag.
Melanoleuca St.-Lag.
Myrtoleucodendron Kuntze[1]

Melaleuca /ˌmɛləˈljkə/ is a genus of nearly 300 species of plants in the myrtle family, Myrtaceae, commonly known as paperbarks, honey-myrtles or tea-trees (although the last name is also applied to species of Leptospermum). They range in size from small shrubs that rarely grow to more than 1 m (3 ft) high, to trees up to 35 m (100 ft). Their flowers generally occur in groups, forming a “head” or “spike” resembling a brush used for cleaning bottles, containing up to 80 individual flowers. They are superficially like Banksia species, which also have their flowers in a spike, but the structure of individual flowers in the two genera are very different.

Second only to members of the family Proteaceae, melaleucas are important food sources for nectarivorous insects, birds, and mammals. Many are popular garden plants, either for their attractive flowers or as dense screens and a few have economic value for producing fencing and oils such as “tea tree” oil.

Most melaleucas are endemic to Australia, with a few also occurring in Malesia. Seven are endemic New Caledonia, and one is found only on the (Australian) Lord Howe Island. Melaleucas are found in a wide variety of habitats. Many are adapted for life in swamps and boggy places, while others thrive in the poorest of sandy soils or on the edge of saltpans. Some have a wide distribution and are common, whilst others are rare and endangered. Land clearing, exotic myrtle rust, and especially draining and clearing of swamps threaten many species.


Melaleucas range in size from small shrubs such as Melaleuca aspalathoides and Melaleuca concinna which rarely grow to more than 1 m (3 ft) high, to trees like Melaleuca cajuputi and Melaleuca quinquenervia, which can reach 35 m (100 ft). (One specimen of M. cajuputi reached 46 m (200 ft).)[2]

Many, like Melaleuca linariifolia, are known as paperbarks and have bark that can be peeled in thin sheets, whilst about 20% of the genus, including Melaleuca bracteata, have hard, rough bark and another 20% have fibrous bark. Every species in the genus is an evergreen and the leaves vary in size from minute and scale-like (Melaleuca micromera) to 270 mm (10 in) long (Melaleuca leucadendra). Most have distinct oil glands dotted in the leaves, making the leaves aromatic, especially when crushed.[3]

Melaleuca flowers are usually arranged in spikes or heads. Within the head or spike, the flowers are often in groups of two or three, each flower or group having a papery bract at its base. Five sepals occur, although these are sometimes fused into a ring of tissue and five petals which are usually small, not showy and fall off as the flower opens or soon after. The stamens vary greatly in colour, from white to cream or yellow, red, or mauve with their yellow tips (the anthers) contasting with their "stalks" (filaments).[3]

The fruits are woody, cup-shaped, barrel-shaped, or almost spherical capsules, often arranged in clusters along the stems. The seeds are sometimes retained in the fruits for many years, only opening when the plant, or part of it, dies or is heated in a bushfire. In tropical areas, seeds are released annually in the wet season.[3]

M. quinquenervia bark showing the papery exfoliation from which the common name "paperbark" derives

Taxonomy and naming[edit]

The first known description of a Melaleuca species was written by Rumphius in 1741, in Herbarium amboinense[4] before the present system of naming plants was written. The plant he called Arbor alba is now known as Melaleuca leucadendra. The name Melaleuca was first used by Linnaeus in 1767.[5] Many species previously known as Metrosideros were then placed in Melaleuca. The genus Callistemon was raised by Robert Brown, who noted its similarity to Melaleuca, distinguishing it only on the basis of whether the stamens are free of each other, or joined in bundles.[6] Botanists in the past, including Ferdinand von Mueller and Lyndley Craven[7] have proposed uniting the two genera but the matter is not decided. Evidence from DNA studies suggests that either Callistemon and some other genera be incorporated into Melaleuca or that at least 10 new genera be created from the present genus.[3][8]

In 2014, Lyndley Craven and others proposed, on the basis of DNA evidence, that species in the genera Beaufortia, Calothamnus, Conothamnus, Eremaea, Lamarchea, Petraeomyrtus, Phymatocarpus and Regelia be transferred to Melaleuca.[9] The move has not been adopted by Australian herbaria with some taxonomists, including Alex George opposing the move.[10]

The name Melaleuca is derived from the Ancient Greek μέλας (mélas) meaning “dark" or "black”[11] and λευκός (leukós) meaning “white”,[12] apparently because one of the first specimens described had fire-blackened white bark.[13] The common name "tea-tree" has been applied to species in the genera Leptospermum, Melaleuca, Kunzea, and Baeckea because the sailors on the Endeavour used the leaves of a shrub from one of these groups as a replacement for tea Camellia sinensis during Captain James Cook's 1770 voyage to Australia.[14]

Paperbark trees on the East Alligator River in the Northern Territory

Distribution and habitat[edit]

Most melaleucas occur naturally only on the Australian mainland. Eight occur in Tasmania, but only two are endemic to that island. One (Melaleuca howeana) is endemic to Lord Howe Island and seven are endemic to Grande Terre, the main island of New Caledonia.[15] A few tropical species also occur in Papua New Guinea, and the distribution of one subspecies, Melaleuca cajuputi subsp. cumingiana extends as far north as Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. The south-west of Western Australia has the greatest density of species and in the tropical north of the continent, species such as Melaleuca argentea and Melaleuca leucadendra are the dominant species over large areas. Melaleucas grow in a range of soil types and many tolerate occasional or even permanent waterlogging. Some species, especially the South Australian swamp paperbark, Melaleuca halmaturorum, thrive in saline soils where few other species survive. Many are fire tolerant, regenerating from epicormic buds or by coppicing, but no melaleucas occur in rainforest and few species occur in the arid zone.[3]


Melaleuca quinquenervia (broad-leaved paperbark) is the most damaging of 60 exotic species introduced to the Florida everglades to help drain low-lying swampy areas. Introduced in the early 20th century, it has become a serious invasive species, with damaging effects including the displacement of native species, reduction in wildlife habitat, alteration of hydrology, modification of soil, and changes in fire regimes. The area of infestation has increased 50-fold over 25 years.[16][17][18] A psyllid, Boreioglycaspis melaleucae has been tested as a biological control agent.[19] Some success has also been achieved with a weevil, Oxyops vitiosa.[20] Scientists from the Agricultural Research Service in the United States Department of Agriculture continue to test Australian insects for their potential as biological control agents.[21]

Some species of Melaleuca, especially Melaleuca alternifolia, are cultivated for the production of tea tree oil, and in plantations are susceptible to a number of insect pests. The most significant of these is the Chrysomelid, Paropsisterna tigrina, but other beetles, cutworm caterpillars (Agrotis species), psyllids, mole crickets (Gryllotalpa), and others cause significant damage. More than 100 species of insects are known to feed on melaleucas. Native stands have fewer predators, but tea tree sawfly (Pterygophorus species) and longicorn beetles are often found.[22]


Traditional Aboriginal uses[edit]

Aboriginal people used several species of Melaleuca to make rafts, as roofing for shelter, bandages, and food preparation.[23] "Bee bread" and honey were collected from the hives of stingless native bee hive in melaleuca forests in the Northern Territory.[24] Bundjalung people traditionally lived in the area of north-eastern New South Wales where Melaleuca alternifolia is endemic, and they treated skin infections by crushing the leaves of that species over skin infections, then covering the area with a warm mudpack.[25]

Essential oils[edit]

M. alternifolia is notable for its essential oil which is both antifungal and antibiotic,[26] while safely usable for topical applications.[27] This is produced on a commercial scale and marketed as tea tree oil.[28]

Melaleuca cajuputi is used to produce a similar oil, known as cajuput oil, which is used in Southeast Asia to treat a variety of infections and to add fragrance to food and soaps.[29]


Melaleucas are popular garden plants, both in Australia and other tropical areas worldwide. The first to be cultivated were grown in England from seed in 1771. Some melaleucas are commonly cultivated, grown as trees for parks and large gardens (such as Melaleuca leucadendra)[30] or as ornamentals (sometimes as Callistemon) such as Melaleuca citrina (Callistemon citrinus), Melaleuca hypericifolia and Melaleuca wilsonii.[31]

Melaleucas used in horticulture[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Melaleuca L.". Germplasm Resources Information Network. United States Department of Agriculture. 2009-01-27. Retrieved 2009-11-10. 
  2. ^ Boland, D. J. Boland (2006). Forest trees of Australia (5 ed.). Collingwood, Vic.: CSIRO. p. 612. ISBN 9780643069695. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Brophy, Joseph J.; Craven, Lyndley A.; Doran, John C. "Melaleucas: Their botany, essential oils and uses" (PDF). Australian centre for international agricultural research. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  4. ^ Rumphius, Georg (1741). Herbarium amboinense Volume 2. Amsterdam. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  5. ^ "Melaleuca L.". APNI. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  6. ^ Brown, Robert (1814). A Voyage to Terra Australis Volume 2. London. p. 548. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  7. ^ Craven, Lyndley (2006). "New combinations in Melaleuca for Australian species of Callistemon (Myrtaceae)". Novon 16: 468–475. doi:10.3417/1055-3177(2006)16[468:ncimfa];2. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  8. ^ "Callistemon - background". Australian Native Plant Society (Australia). Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  9. ^ Craven, Lyn A.; Edwards, Robert D.; Cowley, Kirsten J. (30 June 2014). "New combinations and names in Melaleuca (Myrtaceae)". Taxon 63 (3): 663–670. doi:10.12705/633.38. Retrieved 6 June 2015. 
  10. ^ George, Alex S. (August 2015). "More Nomenclature Clutter" (PDF). Wildflower Society of Western Australia Newsletter 53 (3): 7–9. Retrieved 17 August 2015. 
  11. ^ "melas". Wiktionary. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  12. ^ "leuko-". Wiktionary. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  13. ^ Holliday, Ivan (2004). Melaleucas : a field and garden guide (2nd ed.). Frenchs Forest, N.S.W.: Reed New Holland Publishers. pp. 6–9. ISBN 1876334983. 
  14. ^ Southwell, Ian (1999). Southwell, Ian; Lowe, Robert, eds. Tea tree : The genus Melaleuca. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic. pp. 1–2. ISBN 9057024179. 
  15. ^ "Melaleuca (genre)". Endemia of New Caledonia. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  16. ^ Mazzotti, Frank J.; Center, Ted D.; Dray, F. Allen; Thayer, Dan. "Ecological consequences of invasion by Melaleuca quinquenervia in south Florida wetlands: Paradise damaged, not lost". Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  17. ^ Langeland, K.A. "Help protect Florida's natural areas from non-native invasive plants". University of Florida. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  18. ^ "Melaleuca quinquenervia". Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  19. ^ "Featured creatures". University of Florida. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  20. ^ "Putting the bite on Melaleuca: UF and USDA to release Australian insect to control invasive tree in south Florida". University of Florida news. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  21. ^ "Overseas collections help solve domestic problems". United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  22. ^ Campbell, A.J.; Maddox, C.D.A. (1999). Southwell, Ian; Lowe, Robert, eds. Tea tree : The genus Melaleuca. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic. p. 169. ISBN 9057024179. 
  23. ^ Levitt, Dulcie; Lyon, Ken (1981). Plants and people : aboriginal uses of plants on Groote Eylandt. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. pp. 54–55. ISBN 9780391022058. 
  24. ^ Williams, Cheryll (2010). Medicinal plants in Australia. (1 ed.). Dural, N.S.W.: Rosenberg. ISBN 9781877058943. 
  25. ^ Markham, Julie L. (1999). Southwell, Ian; Lowe, Robert, eds. Tea tree : The genus Melaleuca. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic. p. 169. ISBN 9057024179. 
  26. ^ Carson, C. F.; Hammer, K. A.; Riley, T. V. (17 January 2006). "Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree) Oil: a Review of Antimicrobial and Other Medicinal Properties". Clinical Microbiology Reviews 19 (1): 50–62. doi:10.1128/CMR.19.1.50-62.2006. PMC 1360273. PMID 16418522. 
  27. ^ O'Brien, Peter; Dougherty, Tony (2007). The effectiveness and safety of Australian Tea Tree oil (PDF). Barton, A.C.T.: RIRDC. pp. 9–12. ISBN 1741515394. Retrieved 19 August 2015. 
  28. ^ Brophy, Joseph J.; Craven, Lyndley A.; Doran, John C. "Melaleuca - Their Botany, Essential Oil and uses (Preliminaries)" (PDF). Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. Retrieved 19 August 2015. 
  29. ^ Doran, John C. (1999). Southwell, Ian; Lowe, Robert, eds. Tea tree : the genus melaleuca. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic. pp. 221–224. ISBN 9057024179. 
  30. ^ Wrigley, John W.; Fagg, Murray (1983). Australian native plants : a manual for their propagation, cultivation and use in landscaping (2nd ed.). Sydney: Collins. pp. 351–352. ISBN 0002165759. 
  31. ^ Brophy, Joseph J.; Craven, Lyndley A.; Doran, John C. (2013). Melaleucas : their botany, essential oils and uses. Canberra: Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. pp. 34–35. ISBN 9781922137517. 

Further reading[edit]