A large woody shrub or small tree, growing to potentially 6 metres in height; often seen as a sprawling shrub to about 3 metres tall and 2 metres wide, with papery bark.
It has a natural range that is mainly coastal, occurring north of Merimbula on the south coast of NSW, extending north to about Gosford and west to about Katoomba and west of Lake Burragorang.
It has become a weed in Victoria, South Australia, as well as New Zealand.
It typically grows in damp moist sandy habitats, in dense coastal heath, shrubland and dry sclerophyll woodland.
Melaleuca spp. can present with simple and alternate or opposite leaves. In this species, leaves are opposite and decussate (with each pair of leaves orientated as right angles to the adjacent pairs (this feature combined with leaf size makes for easy identification); to 40 mm long and to 10 mm wide, narrow-elliptic to lanceolate in shape, with a prominent sunken midvein, mid-green to somewhat grey-green or blue-green.
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, the flowers are red to orange, arranged in a spikes, up to 60 mm long and wide, usually produced on the older wood. Flowers can number up to 40 in each spike, appearing in spring and summer.
The capsules are broad-ovoid, up to 10 mm in diameter, with persistent sepals.
This species has been very common in cultivation for some time and is one of the more popular paperbarks to grow.
It is a hardy plant in a wide range of climates. It reportedly can be grown in light (sandy) as well as heavier (clay) soils. It will perform better if it is given regular watering. However, drainage is not so much of an issue. Plant in full sun to part shade for best results. It can grow surprisingly fast.
Plants should be pruned; a light pruning is best to encourage a bushy and dense shape. It can also be pruned hard to allow older leggy plants to completely regenerate. Birds are attracted to the flowers.
Given time, the author has seen this plant develop a substantial trunk and grow to 2 metres wide. Hence, it is advised to give it some space in a suburban garden.
Melaleucas are mostly pollinated by insects, including the introduced honey bee (Apis mellifera), flies, beetles, wasps and thrips. Birds such as lorikeets and honeyeaters, as well as, flying foxes often visit the flowers and are probably also pollinators. Hence, they are important plants to create diversity in a suburban garden.
Most species respond well to pruning. It is advised to undertake a light annual trim to promote bushy growth. Some will withstand severe pruning as they can produce coppicing growth (epicormic shoots etc).
Melaleucas are typically healthy plants and can usually defend against pests and diseases. The most serious pest is probably webbing caterpillar. These grubs will encase themselves in a web-like structure of foliage and droppings, causing severe defoliation.
Melaleucas can be fertilised if done responsibly. The use of a slow-release fertiliser after flowering is recommended.
The popularity of M. hypericifolia has caused problems in some areas where it has tended to become weedy in natural bushland. Care should be exercised in cultivating the species in southern Victoria, as well as South Australia.
Additional notes from Hugh Stacy: It presents a dense leaf mass, ideal for screening. Plants may reach 4 m high by 2 m spread, but can be controlled by pruning. Thinning of branches growing inwards is recommended to improve the flower display; red spikes develop on older wood from October to February. This is a reliable garden plant with pleasant foliage which may flower in three years from seed, in sandy soil with plenty of sun and moisture.
Melaleucas can be propagated by either seed or cuttings. However, to maintain desirable characteristics of a particular plant, vegetative propagation (eg. cuttings) must be used. This also applies to propagation of named cultivars.
There is a cultivar named ‘Ulladulla Beacon’ that is simply a low-growing and spreading prostrate form of M. hypericifolia.
In 1797, James Edward Smith (an English botanist and founder of the Linnean Society) described the plant as:
“The most beautiful of the genus. It grows in swampy ground …is plentiful in the English gardens, and was generally taken for an Hypericum, till it lately produced, in several collections near London, its elegant flowers.”
This species easily regenerates after fire, producing coppicing basal and branch shoots. It will also regenerate by seed.
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, 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.
hypericifolia – Latin – foliage resembling that of the genus Hypericum. *Hypericum perforatum (St John’s Wort) is a rampant weed in parts of NSW.
This species is not considered to be at risk of extinction in the wild.
NSW Flora Online (PlantNET) – Melaleuca hypericifolia profile page
Growing Illawarra Natives – Melaleuca hypericifolia profile page https://finder.growingillawarranatives.org/plants/plant/315
Wikipedia – Melaleuca hypericifolia and Melaleuca profile page
Australian Native Plants Society Australia – Melaleuca profile page https://anpsa.org.au/genera/melaleuca
Wrigley, J.W. & Fagg, M.I. (2001). Australian Native Plants – Propagation, cultivation and use in landscaping. 4th edition. New Holland Publishers, Pty. Ltd. Australia.
Craven, L.A., Edwards, R.D. and Cowley, K.J. (2014). New combinations and names in Melaleuca (Myrtaceae). Taxon 63(3): 663-670.