Backhousia myrtifolia

cinnamon myrtle


Backhousia myrtifolia

Hook. & Harv. 1845

pronounced: bak-HOW-zee-uh mir-tih-FOH-lee-uh

(Myrtaceae — the gum family)


common name: cinnamon myrtle

Backhousia is named for James Backhouse (1794–1869), an English nurseryman. He came to Hobart Town in 1832, and visited and reported on penal settlements and Aboriginal establishments until 1834. He then carried out similar work in NSW, Norfolk Island and Moreton Bay until 1837. For the next year or so he visited Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, promoting temperance and Aboriginal protection committees. During this time he also made botanical collections, which he sent to Kew Gardens. In 1838–1841 he did missionary work in Africa, before returning to York where he re-established his nursery business. He wrote A Narrative of a Visit to the Australian Colonies (London, 1843). Myrtifolia is from the Latin myrtus, the myrtle tree, and folium, a leaf – leaves like those of the myrtle tree.

This is a species of small rainforest tree found in subtropical, dry and riparian rainforest, usually along watercourses, from about Fraser Island in Queensland south to Bega in NSW. It can grow to 30 m tall, but is usually up to only about 7 m. It forms a low canopy. Larger trees are usually flanged or somewhat buttressed at the base. It has finely flaky bark, and the young branchlets have spreading hairs. It is part of a group of related Myrtaceae family members that were popularized as spices in Australian bush food cuisine in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This group of plants also includes lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora) and aniseed myrtle (Syzygium anisatum). The name ‘Cinnamon Myrtle’ was coined in the late 1980s to describe a specific elemicin variant used as a flavouring spice. The name is now used to describe the species in general.

The leaves are simple, opposite and entire, ovate to elliptic, 4 – 7 cm long, 1 – 3.5 cm wide, the apex acuminate, the base rounded to attenuate, dark green above and paler below, more-or-less hairy, but usually becoming glabrous with age; the lateral veins are conspicuous, and there is an intramarginal vein close to the leaf margin; the oil glands are large and distinct, and the petiole is 3 – 6 mm long; the leaves have a pleasant spicy cinnamon-like aroma and flavour.

The flowers, usually white or creamy-coloured, are star-shaped and borne in axillary panicles, usually with the central flower aborted. The sepals are 6 – 9 mm long, petaloid, and yellowish. The petals are 2 – 3 mm long, and the stamens about 6 mm.

The small, brown, papery fruits are bell-shaped, about 6 mm long, topped by the persistent, spreading sepals.

Cinnamon Myrtle is a food plant for the larvae of the moth Echiomima mythica.

This is a good tree for a small garden, but it does like some moisture. The small tree photographed is close to the edge of an environmentally-friendly garden by the side of the main road into Horseshoe Bay, at the foot of the hill. I wish the gardener the best of luck with this tree – it can be quite difficult to establish, especially in a dry garden, but if it is nursed carefully for its first few years, it can become very hardy, and grow into a most attractive tree.

This tree is usually too small to produce millable timber, but occasionally a very old tree can be found that has reached about 15 cm in diameter. It is a very hard and tough timber, exceptionally close-grained, and very stiff. Its timber is not much used nowadays, but in the early days of European settlement in Australia it was used for the spokes of wagon wheels. The wood is a pinkish grey when seasoned, and it is sometimes used for tool handles, fishing rods, and bows. I have seen photographs of both crossbows and longbows made from it.


Photograph taken at Horseshoe Bay, 2011
Page last updated 17th October 2018