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Melaleuca leucadendra (L.) L. 1767
pronounced: mel-luh-LOO-kuh loo-kuh-DEN-druh
(Myrtaceae — the gum family)
common names: Melaleuca, River Tea-Tree, Paperbark, Cajuput Tree
Melaleuca is a word formed from two Greek words, μελας (melas) black, and λευκος (leukos) white, the reason thought to be that the botanist who named the species first saw the trees after a bushfire! The ‘dendra’ in leucadendra comes from δενδρον (dendron) a tree, so the name of this species is literally ‘black-and-white white tree’ – which is a bit confusing.
The tree is native to Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, widely distributed from the Kimberleys to Cape York, and south as far as Bundaberg. It also is found in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. While the trees often occur arching gracefully over rivers and lagoons, they are also found in forests in tall, straight form up to 40 metres high. Although they are usually found associated with fresh water, some of the beaches north of Cooktown are lined with Melaleuca leucadendra, and the trees are inundated with salt water at high tide.
There are magnificent stands of these majestic trees in many parts of Magnetic Island, mostly along the banks of watercourses, or where watercourses existed before European settlement. The photographs were taken in Picnic Street, Picnic Bay, near its junction with Granite Street. The trees have a bright green foliage, semi-weeping. The leaves are entire, linear/lanceolate, alternate on short stalks. The leaf blades are more than seven times as long as they are wide, up to about 17 cm by 2 cm. There are five longitudinal veins more prominent than the rest. The young shoots and twigs are covered in white or silver prostrate hairs. The flowers are sessile, white, on a long spike, and are heavily scented. I personally find the scent cloying, but the rainbow lorikeets, the bees and the fruit bats love the flowers, and flock to the trees when they are in blossom. The scent permeates the whole of Picnic Bay, even to the inside of houses. There are at least two periods of blossoming each year. The flowers are followed by glabrous fruit capsules.
The Aborigines found many uses for the ‘paper-bark’ of the tree. Strips were cut to form waterproof roofs for huts, food was wrapped in the bark for cooking in an underground oven, and human bodies were wrapped in it before burial ceremonies. In some areas, the trunks were used for making canoes.
The large Melasleucas produce a moderately durable timber with a long history of use as fence posts, railway sleepers and pit props. Where the trunks are straight enough, the timber can be sawn into planks, and used for such purposes as flooring. It must, however, been very carefully dried and seasoned, as it is prone to splitting and warping. The wood can also be used in charcoal-making, and for woodchip production.
The heartwood is pinkish brown in colour, with the sapwood distinctly paler. The grain is often interlocked, and the timber has a fine and even texture.
The essential oil from the tree, when vaporized, is said to soothe the bronchial and sinus passages, and to relieve sore throats. It is often an ingredient in cold and flu remedies and cough pastilles. As far as I can discover (authorities do not always agree), this is what is known as Cajuput Oil, whereas Tea Tree oil is produced from one of the broad-leafed paperbarks, Melaleuca quinquenervia.
Melaleucas are food plants for the larvae of, among others:
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2005-2016
Page last updated 25th January 2018