- DIVISION: Magnoliophyta
- CLASS: Magnoliopsida
- ORDER: Myrtales
- FAMILY: Myrtaceae
- GENUS: Melaleuca
- SPECIES: linariifolia
With unusual characteristics you can see (a profusion of flowers), smell (camphor-like aromatic leaves), and feel (soft-to-the-touch bark), the paperbark tree provides a banquet for the senses. Native to Eastern Australia, usually found along waterways and wetlands in its native habitats, the paperbark tree is one of more than 230 species in the Melaleuca genus. It is known for its spongy and paper-like bark, its prominent clusters of fluffy white flowers, and its scent-bearing leaves, which can be used to make tea tree oil.
While the branches of young paperbark trees can look willow-like and wispy, mature trees have an umbrella-like crown. When the paperbark tree blooms, the crown is covered with a cloud of puffy white flowers—which led to one of the tree’s popular names, “snow-in-summer.”
The paperbark tree is popular for use in Southern California landscaping and gardens, as it is both hardy and drought tolerant, but it will also grow well in wet areas where drainage is a problem. This fast-growing tree can reach a maximum height of about 30 feet and can be up to 20 feet wide, however most backyard paperbark trees or shrubs are much smaller.
The almost rubbery, white bark that gives the paperbark tree its name is sponge-like and easily tears off the trunk in strips. The tree’s smooth, green leaves are linear in shape and are up to 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) in length. The tree flourishes in full sun or partial shade, and it can withstand temperatures as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-7 degrees Celsius).
While the paperbark tree can grow up to 30 feet tall with a crown spreading up to 20 feet wide, most found in backyards and gardens are much smaller trees, or are pruned to shrub or hedge height. The tree flowers in spring, with spikes of fragrant, white flowers that resemble bottlebrush, throughout the crown—often completely covering the leaves. Small, woody seed pods later appear, closely spaced along the tree’s branches.
Tea tree oil can be made from the leaves of the paperbark tree by steam distillation, although Melaleuca alternifolia is the most common species used for essential oil production. The oil is used in hair care products and as an antiseptic or antifungal medication.
Australia’s native people reportedly used the bark of the paperbark tree for making bedding and bandages, for use as a food wrap in cooking, as a fire-starting material, and as a material to patch holes in canoes.
Paperbark trees are considered stable, and are widely used in landscaping.
Paperbark trees can be found at the Safari Park, in Walkabout Australia, and a few can also be seen at the Zoo.