- Specie: Paperbark Tree
- Scientific name: Melaleuca cajuputi
- Genus: Melaleuca
- Family: MYRTACEAE (myrtle)
- Chinese name: 白千層
- Location: Kennedy Road, Jardine’s Lookout, Pacific Place…
The Paperbark Tree is the epitome of a street tree, lining many main roads in Hong Kong – one of the most accessible being Kennedy Road – and are often grown in rows upon rows in close proximity with each other.
They do make perfect street trees since they tend to grow straight up, hence form orderly rows like ornaments. On the downside, the specie features a narrow and sparse, albeit, tall crown, so they don’t provide much shade. But as decorative ornaments on street curbs, Paperbark Trees are predictable, well-behaved and probably pretty easy to maintain.
What makes these trees special is also what gives these trees its common English name, Paperbark Tree, which it gets from its distinct bark that is eternally peeling off like sheets of paper fraying off its main trunk.
This particular trait of the Paperbark Tree appears somewhat messy, but it does give it a kind of rugged beauty. The sheets of bark peeling off and the countless curvy lines they create gives the specie a unique kind of intricacy and personality.
While it certainly isn’t the primeval forest spirit that the Chinese Banyan evokes with its root systems, the trunks of the Paperbark Tree are reminiscent of a different side of nature. Instead of the opulence of the rain forest, the Paperbark is the desert, arid and dry, sparse, yet with such detail and depth. It is almost like nature, in the absence of a full and lush canopy, has decided to shrink all its magnificence into the trunk of the Paperbark. Like many of nature’s wondrous creations, the effect of the pattern is mesmerising, like currents flowing down a mountain stream, or the rivers of stars that make up the Milky Way.
The Paperbark is more than just the paper, or the bark. It does have foliage, consisting of thin, flowing branches, sporting thin, elongated leaves that are roughly 1cm in width and perhaps 10cm in length. The leaves are not easy to get close to as the specie’s canopy typically rises high above street level. Harder to see are the flowers, which are small clusters made up of white needles at the end of the branches. Since they typically only bloom on the top of the tree, you need a really good zoom lens to get close. Unless you just happen to come across one at eye level.
The fruits are even harder to spot, since they are the same colour as the branches and form tiny wood cups that lined the end of the limbs.
Obviously, the Paperbark isn’t as spectacular as some of the larger tree species around the city, but the specie has plenty of interesting nuances worthy of note.
Pedantically, the Paperbark Tree is part of the Malaleuca genus of the Myrtaceae family, which also contains the eucalyptus. Interestingly, the Myrtaceae family is also referred to as the Myrtle family, but has nothing to do with one of my favourite trees in Hong Kong, the sublime and glamorous Queen Crape Myrtle, which is of the genus Lagerstroemia of the Lythraceae family.
The Paperbark is native to Australia, hence easy link to the eucalyptus. I can’t really imagine these trees in the wild since they are so thoroughly domesticated here. I am guessing they would be similar to a pine forest, with individuals forming vertical columns along the forest floor.
Despite my impression of them as natives of arid and dry areas, Paperbarks actually grow along riverbanks and swamps, and is capable of growing with its roots submerged in water. This particular attribute is perhaps the reason for this trivia tidbit, that Paperbarks were imported into the Florida Everglades, also full of swamps, as an attempt to drain wetland but ended up becoming a major invasive specie that is killing off native species and destroying habitats for the local animal population.
Another trivia worthy fact is that some related members of the Paparbark Tree is also called the Tea Tree, a name that can be traced back to Captain Cook’s visit to Australia, when sailors used the leaves of the tree as a substitute for tea, presumably because they ran out after such as epic sea journey. As you might have notice, that quirky taxonomy also links the specie to yet another light bulb moment, as main ingredient for ‘tea tree oil,’ the natural disinfectant with that distinct and pungent scent.