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What Are Paperbark Trees?

By Rebecca Cartwright
Updated May 16, 2024
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The paperbark tree is Melaleuca quinquenervia, a species native to eastern Australia and nearby areas. They are tall trees with an upright growth pattern. Paperbark trees are evergreen, so do not drop their leaves. The common name comes from the tendency of their bark to split and peel off in layers. Paperbark trees have naturalized in some locations outside of their native range, most notably Southern Florida where they have had a noticeable impact on some local ecosystems.

A mature specimen of the species stands 80 to 100 feet (about 24 to 30.5 m) tall. They have a narrow crown and a random branching pattern. The paperbark tree is native in Australia from northern Queensland to Sydney. It is also found in parts of the Solomon Islands and New Guinea.

Although they will grow in a wide range of soil conditions, paperbark trees are best suited to poorly drained clay soils. They are particularly well adapted to areas that are flooded during certain seasons. Paperbark trees require a relatively warm climate though they will take light frost, withstanding temperatures down to about 20 degrees F (about -7 degrees C.)

The trees have long, narrow, pointed leaves, usually 4 to 5 inches (about 10 to 13 cm) long. When crushed, the greenish-gray leaves give off a distinctive odor. The white flowers are very small and grow in a characteristic long cluster, often described as a bottle brush shape, at the tips of the branches. Round brown seed capsules follow the flowers, each containing up to 300 tiny seeds. Trees flower and set seeds year-round.

In their native range paperbark trees are subject to periodic fires. They are well-adapted for this, regrowing rapidly from the root. Trees that come through a fire with immature seed capsules attached will ripen those within a few days, quickly spreading seed for new trees. Severe frosts and even physical damage to a tree will also trigger rapid seed maturation.

Paperbark trees are sometimes grown as ornamental trees in warm regions outside their native range, including Southern California, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. At one time they were widely planted in southern Florida and have now naturalized in that area. Because conditions there closely resemble those in their native setting, paperbark trees are very competitive with native vegetation. The species grows so well in that part of Florida that it is now considered a threat to native ecosystems, especially the Everglades.

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