Gardening Articles by Russell Fransham

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Melaleuca quinquenervia
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Melaleuca

For many years I've had a 'thing' about the beautiful Australian swamp paperbarks.

Ever since I first saw them co-starring in 'Crocodile Dundee' I've loved their sinuous, muscular form and creamy, peeling bark. And I'm not talking about Paul Hogan.

In fact the bark is quite extraordinary, very thick and soft like sponge rubber, but layered like filo pastry so it peels off in sheets. You could use it to stuff a mattress.

The toughest one is Melaleuca quinquenervia, the cajeput tree. It grows equally happily in water, bog or dry soil in the milder parts of NZ. The spongy waterproof bark extends throughout the root system conducting oxygen to every extremity like a snorkel, which is what allows it to grow in water.

The chunky, sculptured form makes it a very handsome garden specimen which can be grouped to make a magnificent grove. The heavy, grey-green foliage is frosted with deep red at the end of Winter by the cold weather, while the young growth is a soft silver-green and coated with silky transparent hairs.

The cajeput flowers most of the year with slightly caramel-scented clusters of creamy bottlebrush flowers whose copious nectar feeds wax-eyes, rosellas and tui.

Coastal winds have to be pretty severe before the leathery foliage shows damage and its ability to grow in waterlogged soils makes it extremely important in stabilising flood-prone land and river banks where its fibrous roots form a protective mat which prevents scouring erosion.

It grows everywhere in Australia from Melbourne to Darwin near or in water.

After Crocodile Dundee came out I went to Queensland and collected swamp paperbark seed and found it grew equally well here. The Sheraton Mirage at Port Douglas is built amid a sprawling ancient grove of these beauties and their wonderful gnarled trunks create an atmosphere of spooky splendour.

In Sydney they are the most bullet-proof of street trees with tar seal right up to the trunks, and if you bump into one, the spongy bark softens the impact!

Planted among rocks at an entrance and softly lit from below, the pale gnarly trunks and Eucalyptus-scented canopy can create a subtle and elegant portico.

In some respects the cajeput reminds me of a very butch silver birch. A rugged, athletic one.. tough but graceful.

Sort of Paul Hogan with creamy peeling bark.

(Copyright Russell Fransham 2003)