When it comes to choosing the ideal garden shrub, a Melaleuca has to be a primary candidate in a Mediterranean climate. Melaleucas are handsome in form, virtually pest and disease free, and while modest in their water requirements, they tend to grow quickly. They also associate well with many other water conserving plants.
The genus Melaleuca from Australia contains some 140 species mainly of large bushes but also includes some trees and low growing shrubs. There are a number of species and varieties that fulfill various design functions, but all are evergreen and typified by a fine, feathery texture. The large shrubs such as M.nesophila and M.armillaris are excellent as informal screens, while the green/gold foliage of M.bracteata, “Revolution Gold” supplies interesting color variation in a shrubbery.
Most shrub forms of Melaleuca can be easily grown as wide-canopied low trees. In this way, the twisting shape of the branches and gnarled sight of the peeling bark, typical of many species, can be put to good effect. M.lanceolata for instance can make a highly picturesque emphasis and even focal point in the garden. A fine quick-growing tree is the Paperback Tree M.quinquenervia.
Low shrubs perform the very important role in a plant composition of visually filling up the space at the height range of about 50cm to 1 meter. Admittedly tall herbaceous perennials perform the same function, but they are generally a less permanent and reliable feature in the garden than a small bush. A wonderful example is “Green Dome, a cultivar of M.armillaris, which forms a lovely fluffy bright green cushion to about 75cm in height and 1meter in width. It can be successfully combined with other low growing foliage shrubs such as the sensational Pittosporum, Wheeler’s Dwarf and Coprosma repens.
Melaleucas, by possessing a fine needle-like texture, associate well with coniferous plants such as Cypress and Junipers. They either add a subtle variation on a theme, or can act as a transition between a group of conifers and plants of somewhat different leaf texture. They do not look good in my opinion next to tropical and large leaved plants, but go well with the usual Mediterranean mainstays like Myrtle, Pomegranate and Olive, and make a good background to herb plants and shrubby perennials like Chrysanthemum frutescens.
In terms of care, they are easy to grow but do have a number of requirements worth taking note of. Melaleucas can tolerate poor soils but not waterlogged, non-aerated ones. Good drainage is essential, while plenty of organic matter improves soil aeration. They, like many other genera from Australia, dislike excessive fertilizer and can be particularly sensitive to phosphorous at high levels. It’s best therefore to feed organically with compost and to desist from chemical fertilizer altogether. Most are hardy to drought, wind and heat and are suitable usually, for mild winter climates only.