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What is Leptospermum?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 15 October 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
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Leptospermum is a genus of flowering plants and trees native to Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia, with the greatest number of species occurring in Australia. There are fewer than 100 species in this genus and it is quite diverse. A number of species are cultivated as ornamentals and these plants are also grown for commercial use. The common name of tea tree, applied to many species, references the historic practice of brewing tisanes from the leaves of the trees.

Members of this genus have a gnarled, twisted growth habit. When allowed to grow freely, they can develop quite circuitous branches and twisted trunks. Pruning can shape a shrub or tree, keeping it compact and regulating the growth to keep development even and aesthetically pleasing. The plants are evergreen, producing very small leaves with sharp tips. Leptospermum species bloom with numerous clusters of small five-petaled flowers. The flowers are white to pink and have dark centers.

These shrubs and trees like full fun, slightly acidic soil, and excellent drainage. They can grow in poor soil conditions, as they have evolved for the sometimes harsh soils found in many regions of Australia, and are frost hardy. Growing ranges vary, depending on the species, but generally Leptospermum can be grown anywhere that winter temperatures do not drop below 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-6.6 degrees Celsius). Most species are very hardy and quite easy to grow with minimal care.

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Some Leptospermum species are used as a source for tea tree essential oil, a compound with mild antibacterial qualities used in a variety of bodycare products. Tea tree oil can also be used as a topical treatment for inflammation and skin conditions. Honey made from bees who feed primarily on tea trees has a distinctive flavor profile and is touted as a health food in some regions by people who believe that the properties of tea tree oil are also present in tea tree honey.

People interested in growing a Leptospermum tree or shrub may be able to find a specimen at a local nursery. Several cultivars are often carried or can be ordered by request. It is also possible to grow from seeds or cuttings provided by another gardener. Gardeners can use these plants in massed plantings or plant a row of them to create a privacy screen and windbreak. It is advisable to establish plantings away from heavily trafficked areas, as the sharp leaves can be quite painful to encounter.

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