Melaleuca styphelioides

Prickly Paperbark

Family: Myrtaceae

Melaleuca styphelioides, is a medium tree that may reach a height of 20 metres with a canopy spread over 5 metres. The papery bark peels off in strips.

It grows naturally from north of Nowra in NSW, extending northwards mostly close to the coast but extending west to as far as Kandos and the upper Blue Mountains. It extends north along the coast and some inland areas to just north of Hervey Bay in Queensland.

It typically grows in dry sclerophyll woodland and forest, along sream and creek banks and low-lying areas.

Melaleuca spp. can present with simple and alternate or opposite leaves. In this species, leaves are alternate but sometimes spiralling around the stem; ovate, dark green, up to 15 mm long and attenuating to a sharp point at the apex (hence the common name). The prickly foliage provides nesting sites for small native birds.

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, flowers are held in terminal, white, bottlebrush-like spikes to 2 cm long, with flowers clustered in 3s within the spike and with each flower having up to or over 100 stamens; produced profusely in late spring and summer.

The fruits are capsules. In this species, they are to 3 mm wide and produced on the flowering spike after flowering.

In the garden

The Prickly Paperbark is used as a street tree in some Sydney and Melbourne suburbs.

It is a relatively easy plant to grow and will tolerate a clay to alluvial soil. It may grow on sandy soils but possibly not as well. It can be pruned to create a dense shrub. It could be used as a feature tree in a garden, perhaps in a backyard corner with smaller shrubs underneath. The papery bark make a nice feature.

Editor’s note: my grandparents had this tree in the corner of their large backyard in western Sydney and I often climbed up into it as a kid; reclining back on one large branch to read. The paper bark made for nice cushioning.

It could be pruned early to create a dense shrub and might be kept smaller through pruning. It can grow into a 10 m tree or taller, so allow some room to spread.

Very hardy generally. Foliage, flowers and bark are all attractive features.


Propagate from seed and cuttings.

Other information

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.

styphelioides – refers to the similarity of the leaves to species of the Styphelia genus. This species was first described in 1797 by James Edward Smith from plant material collected by David Burton near Port Jackson.

This species is not considered to be at risk of extinction in the wild.

NSW Flora Online (PlantNET) – Melaleuca styphelioides profile page        https://plantnet.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/cgi-bin/NSWfl.pl?page=nswfl&lvl=sp&name=Melaleuca~styphelioides

Growing Illawarra Natives – Melaleuca styphelioides profile page https://finder.growingillawarranatives.org/plants/plant/317

Botanic Gardens of South Australia – Plant Selector – Melaleuca styphelioides profile page http://plantselector.botanicgardens.sa.gov.au/Plants/Details/957

Wrigley, J.W. & Fagg, M.I. (2001). Australian Native Plants – Propagation, cultivation and use in landscaping. 4th edition. New Holland Publishers, Pty. Ltd. Australia.

By Warren and Gloria Sheather. Editing and additional text by Dan Clarke.