Melaleuca alternifolia is a large shrub to small tree (in some cases) that reaches a height of 10 metres, with a spread of several metres wide.
In NSW, it is only found naturally on the north coast and northern tablelands botanical subdivisions, north from the Coffs Harbour-district (with possible naturalisations further south); occurring as far west as Tenterfield and a little further towards Texas in Queensland. It extends into Queensland, to areas such as Stanthorpe and Rathdowney.
It is mainly found along creeklines and swamp-flats in dry sclerophyll woodland and coastal shrublands.
Bark is papery and peels away in strips.
Melaleuca spp. can present with simple and alternate or opposite leaves. In this species, leaves are light green and aromatic, irregularly arranged and crowded, from whorled to spiral/alternate, very narrow linear, to about 35 mm long and 1 mm wide, with an acute apex.
In Melaleuca species, flowers are usually arranged in spikes or heads. Within the head or spike, the flowers are often in groups of two or three. Flowers have five sepals (sometimes fused into a ring of tissue) and five petals which are typically small and do not persist on the flower for long.
Like many other Myrtaceae genera, the flowers are conspicuously staminate with each flower having many stamens surrounding one carpel. The stamens are typically fused into five separate bundles (staminal claws) which each bundle sitting opposite a petal (a generally useful identifying feature for the genus to distinguish it from Callistemon). Melaleuca flowers do not have pedicels (sessile).
In this species, white staminate flowers are carried in many flowered spikes, to about 5 cm long, withindividual flowers about 6 mm wide and holding up to 60 stamens; profuse and conspicuous, appearing mostly in summer.
The fruits are capsules. In this species, they are to 3 mm wide and produced on the flowering spike after flowering.
A tall, colourful hedge could be created by growing alternate plants of both Snow-in-Summer species.
Valuable Tea Tree oil is extracted from the leaves.
In our cold climate garden (near Armidale, NSW) plants are crowned with the flowers in summer. Many insects visit the blooms. The species’ common name is Snow-in-Summer and refers to this floral display. M. alternifolia shares this common name with M. linariifolia.
M. alternifolia copes with both moist and dry situations. It makes a nice shade tree and specimen tree in the right situation.
Propagate from seed and cuttings.
M. alternifolia was originally considered to be a variety of M. linariifolia. The type was collected between Coffs Harbour and Grafton, NSW in the early 1920s.
This species can regenerate well after fire through epicormic shoots and basal coppicing as well as form the seed bank.
The genus Melelauca has been subject to recent taxonomic revision with early and recent botanists including Ferdinand von Mueller and Lyndley Craven (deceased in 2014) proposing to expand the genus to include all Callistemon spp. and others. Craven et al. (2014) published new species combinations which included the renaming of all Callistemon species to Melaleuca, based on evolutionary relationships and DNA evidence and other features. Currently, the NSW Herbarium advises that the Callistemon genus can still be used.
Melaleuca is a genus of about 220 species, occurring mostly in Australia, but also Malesia and New Guinea. Australia has about 215 species with 210 reported endemic, occurring in all states. NSW currently has 30 species.
Melaleuca – is derived from the Ancient Greek mélas (μέλας) meaning “dark” or “black” and leukós (λευκός) meaning “white”, apparently because one of the first specimens described had fire-blackened white bark.
alternifolia – Latin – referring to the alternate leaf arrangement (although this is described as being variable).
This species is not considered to be at risk of extinction in the wild.
NSW Flora Online (PlantNET) – Melaleuca alternifolia profile page https://plantnet.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/cgi-bin/NSWfl.pl?page=nswfl&lvl=sp&name=Melaleuca~alternifolia
Botanic Gardens of South Australia – Plant Selector – Melaleuca alternifolia profile page http://plantselector.botanicgardens.sa.gov.au/Plants/Details/438
Wrigley, J.W. & Fagg, M.I. (2001). Australian Native Plants – Propagation, cultivation and use in landscaping. 4th edition. New Holland Publishers, Pty. Ltd. Australia.