I love the trees in Australia. Of course, the eucalypts are my favorite and are by far the most diverse and most ubiquitous. But paperbarks are high on the list of other trees I fancy. I love the willowy leaves and the soft, pale, tattered bark that peels off in thin layers. Of course, I suspect part of the reason I love paperbarks is that I generally saw them in fabulous, remote settings, often surrounding billabongs. We saw a lot of paperbarks in Kakadu.
Paperbarks are actually not a specific species, but rather a number of related trees that have the same papery bark. These Aussie natives are members of the myrtle family (Myrtaceae) and belong to the genus Melaleuca—which means they are related to the trees from which we get tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia). The Melaleucas from which tea tree oil is made grow in New South Wales, so that’s not what we were seeing in Kakadu.
Actually, it would be more accurate to refer to tea tree oil as paperbark oil. While many paperbarks are called tea trees, true tea trees are a different genus— Leptospermum—though both are in the myrtle family, so no doubt the confusion is due to a family resemblance.
In Kakadu, the paperbarks grow primarily on the edges of creeks, billabongs, lagoons, floodplains, and permanent waterholes. The broad-leafed paperbark and weeping paperbark are the main species seen in these wetland areas. It was spring, so the Melaleucas were in bloom, and the heavy, honeyed fragrance of their flowers suggested to me that they might be popular with bees.