Phebalium squamulosum ssp. squamulosum

Scaly Phebalium

Family: Rutaceae

A shrub to about 2 metres high with a narrow-erect spread to about 1 metre or so.

In NSW, it is a common species in the greater Sydney area but is found in all coastal subdivisions as well as tablelands subdivisions in disjunct patches; as far south-west as Kosciuszko NP and west out to Grenfell; also found west of Glen Innes and Tenterfield and right up to the very south-eastern and north-eastern corners of NSW. In Queensland, it occurs just into the south-eastern parts but there is also a disjunct record on the Sunshine Coast near Coolum Beach. It occurs in the far south-eastern corner of Victoria with scattered records west to around Warburton and Healesville.

It is usually found on sandy to sandstone-based soils, in open to closed heathland and shrubland as well as dry sclerophyll woodland and forest.

Pheballium squamulosum has 10 recognised subspecies which are all highly variable and this profile focuses on subsp. squamulosum.

Phebalium spp. have simple and alternate leaves. In this subspecies taxon, they range from linear to oblong to broad-elliptic or lanceolate, to about 5 cm long by 1 cm wide, mid to dark green above and with the undersurface almost white-silver in colour with rusty scales / growths.

Phebalium spp. usually have 5-merous flowers (sometimes 8-merous), usually with a nice star-shaped appearance, with 5 petals (sometimes overlapping) and 10 stamens, often with 5 carpels. Flowers can be solitary but more often produced in terminal umbel-like clusters; ranging from white to cream to dark bright yellow or pink in colour. In this subspecies taxon, the individual cream, to pale yellow, to deep yellow, terminal flowers are five-petalled and relatively small, up to about 9 mm across, occurring in conspicuous umbellate clusters about 3 cm wide.

The fruit of Phebalium is a dry cluster of cocci (small woody segments) that each split off (sing. coccus) containing seed. In this species, the cocci are to about 4 mm long.

In the garden

Author’s notes:

This plant deserves to be more widely grown in our gardens. It can be purchased from native nurseries and does grow well.

They grow best in some shade, good drainage and a mulch to ensure a cool root run. The only maintenance required is light pruning after flowering to keep them compact and promote better flowering next season.

I have been growing Phebalium squamulosum ssp. squamulosum for many years in my garden in the northern Sydney suburb of Westleigh and found them to be a reliable and fairly tough plant once they have established.

My plants are growing in a thin layer of topsoil over a clay sub soil and receive little additional watering after the first year or so. After planting, I have sometimes found that they just sit there and do not put on too much growth. This may be due to the lack of consistent moisture as my garden is normally on the dry side or perhaps they are just in the wrong spot.

Dieback can be a problem after a year or two, with some plants simply dying off to dead.

It can be a temperamental plant but worth trying as are many other species of the genus.


Most Phebalium spp. progagate well from cuttings. Seed can be used as well.

Other information

Phebalium squamulosum is a complicated species complex with 10 subspecies recognised. Note, the Australian Plant Census recognises 8 of these species with the other 7 as follows:

  • subsp. ozothamnoides – occuring on the tablelands-areas of NSW and into Victoria, it has short circular to obovate leaves;
  • subsp. argenteum – occurring in coastal areas of NSW and into Victoria, it has longer leaves with silvery scales on the undersurface and is a larger plant generally;
  • subsp. alpina – only occurring in Victoria, in the Kosciuszko areas – it is a smaller shrub with leaves to 15 mm long and 4 mm wide;
  • subsp. coriaceum – ocurring in the north-west slopes / central western slopes of NSW only, with leaves to 25 mm long and 5 mm wide with silvery scales below;
  • subsp. gracile – also occurring in the north and central western slopes of NSW and likely into Queensland, with leaves to 2 mm wide and 20 mm long;
  • subsp. parvifolium – occurring in inland NSW on the central western slopes and south western plains, with leaves to 10 mm long and 1 mm wide;
  • subsp. lineare – occurring in the Hunter Valley of NSW mainly, leaves to 25 mm long and 1 mm wide.

Phebalium is a genus of about 25 species, endemic to Australia, occurring in all states and territories except for The Northern Territory. NSW currently has 13 species.

Many Phebalium spp. would regenerate from the seedbank after fire.

Phebalium – from the Ancient Greek phibaleos (φιβάλεως), which reportedly means “a kind of fig” or an “early fig” – the reference is obscure.

squamulosum – Latin – squama meaning “scale” or “scaly”, referring to the scales on the undersides of the leaves.

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

NSW Flora Online (PlantNET) – Phebalium squamulosum subsp. squamulosum profile page https://plantnet.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/cgi-bin/NSWfl.pl?page=nswfl&lvl=in&name=Phebalium~squamulosum~subsp.+squamulosum

Australian Native Plants Society Australia (ANPSA) – Phebalium squamulosum profile page  https://anpsa.org.au/plant_profiles/phebalium-squamulosum-2/

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 Jeff Howes. Editing and additional text by Dan Clarke