Sunday, July 14, 2013

Flora of Eagle Rock: Melaleuca leucadendron, or the weeping paperbark

Melaleuca trees on Hill

There's a row of five or six strange, ancient-looking trees on Hill Drive, near Eagle Vista.  These trees have a very distinctive white bark, that looks as if it's composed of hundreds of paper-like layers, all in a state of constant eruption and peeling.  (See below.)  The trees looked familiar to me.  They had small leaves, and the bark looked like something I had seen in the Australian section of the Los Angeles Arboretum.  A woman was watering her plants at one of the houses behind this row of trees.  I asked her if she knew what kind of trees they were.  She said they were Melaleuca trees.  I asked if they were from Australia.  She said that sounded right.

I've tentatively identified these trees as Melaleuca leucadendron.  I thought they were possibly  Melaleuca quinquenervia, but they seem a bit to tall for that species.  Melaleuca quinquenervia apparently tops out around 25 feet.  These trees on Hill Drive are much taller than that.  The species in the genus are native to Australia.  A cousin of the species on Hill is the species commonly known as the tea tree, from which tea tree oil is obtained.

detail of the leucadendron

The name "Melaleuca" comes from the Greek, a combination of "black" and "white," which apparently refers to other species in the genus.  "Leucadendron," you can probably guess at, now knowing that "leuca" means white.  "Dendron" also comes from the Greek, for tree.  So this is the "white tree" in the Melaleuca genus, for obvious reasons: its distinctive, perpetually peeling chalky-white bark.  This tree is apparently also sometimes called the weeping paperbark, and it does seem to have a slightly weeping quality to it.

The bark on these trees is incredible.  The trees look as if they were never young.  The trunks look like you could just peel away layer after layer, and just keep going like that, until everything was gone.  They're reminiscent of some kind of flaky Turkish or Greek dessert.  (Maybe I'm thinking of phyllo -- which is Greek for "leaf" -- as in a leaf of paper.)  They bring to mind ancient, rotting manuscripts, written in lost languages

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