This erect to spreading shrub (‘epacrid’) reaches a maximum height of 1.5 metres with a spread of 0.5 metres.
It is a very common shrub throughout the tablelands and western slopes of NSW. It gets into some coastal areas, especially south of the Southern Highlands and the north coast but is not often seen close to the coast. It extends into the north-east and northern-central parts of Victoria, west to about Stawell. It extends into Queensland, through the coast and inland to north of Cairns.
It typically grows in dry sclerophyll woodland to forest as well as rocky shrublands, on skeletal-sandy to loam soils and rocky areas.
Melichrus have simple and crowded leaves with parallel venation – a feature of all epacrids. In this species, the leaves are triangular, pale green to blue-green, to 25 mm long and about 6 mm wide, often arched back with a sharp point and parallel veins on the lower surface along with tiny teeth on the margins.
Melichrus have tubular flowers (urn-shaped / urceolate), solitary in leaf axils but crowded into leafy inflorescences. In this species, flowers are carried from March to November, cream to white to green-cream in colour, sometimes with pink tinges, to about 1 cm long; with a fragrance during some of the flowering stage.
The fruit is a drupe with a fleshy mesocarp (middle layer) and hard endocarp (inner layer) (as seen in other drupes such as cherries). In this species, it is globular and green-brown in colour, ripening to red-purple, 4 mm in size.
Not a lot of information is available regarding the cultivation of this species. Check with native nurseries for availability. It may be more readily cultivated in the future.
It is a very nice plant in full flower and has prickly foliage which may provide some habitat value. Frost and drought tolerant.
Author’s note: So far we have not incorporated the Urn Heath in our cold climate garden but the species is common in our regenerating woodland.
Note: The ‘epacrids’ or ‘Australian Heaths’ (meaning family Ericaceae subfam. Epacridoideae (previously family Epacridaceae) are a notoriously difficult group of plants to grow in Australian gardens. They are very attractive but do not usually survive well in garden conditions. This is likely due to specific relationships that this plant group has with mycorrhizal fungi (root-fungi) along with difficulties in re-creating their natural specific habitats (such as wet sandstone heathland) in gardens. Native nurseries continue to progress in propagation and so all we can do is trial them and hope for the best. Some Epacris species were successfully cultivated in England in the early days for a time.
Melichrus urceolatus has one horticultural drawback. In common with other Ericaceae, it is difficult to propagate from seed or cuttings. Someone, in days gone by, must have had a propagating answer because Urn Heath was introduced into England in 1824.
Melichrus is a genus of 4 species – endemic to Australia – only occurring in NSW, Victoria and Queensland. All 4 species occur in NSW.
This species likely regenerates from seed after fire but also has a lignotuber and so would be capable of re-sprouting.
The ‘epacrid’ family has undergone the following reclassifications:
Melichrus – from Greek – Melichrous (μελίχρους) – meaning “honey-dew” – referring to the glands on the hairs attached to the flowers that emit a honey-smelling secretion.
urceolatus – Latin – “urceolate” – reffering to the shape of the flowers (urn-shaped).
This species is not considered to be at risk of extinction in the wild.
NSW Flora Online (PlantNET) – Melichrus urceolatus profile page https://plantnet.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/cgi-bin/NSWfl.pl?page=nswfl&lvl=sp&name=Melichrus~urceolatus
Plants of South Eastern New South Wales – Melichrus urceolatus profile page https://apps.lucidcentral.org/plants_se_nsw/text/entities/melichrus_urceolatus.htm