When it comes to fragrant leaves and exotic barks, no trees can match the myrtles (Myrtaceae).
The common myrtle (Myrtus communis) is the appropriate species to start with when introducing the distinguished members of this family of plants. It can be visited at Orcutt Ranch, a public park at 23600 Roscoe Blvd., West
Hills, where myrtles have reached their mature height of about 15 feet. Their bark is smooth and mottled and their shiny green leaves emit a musky perfume. Myrtus communis “Compacta” is a dwarf myrtle used as a drought-tolerant hedge.
Eucalyptuses lead the parade of myrtles that have come to California from Australia. My first eucalyptus acquaintance was the blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus), which I encountered when working in an avocado grove in Santa Paula, where it was planted as a windbreak. The blue gum grows to more than 200 feet tall, so you may not want to plant it in your back yard, even if it is one of the earth’s truly majestic trees.
Eucalyptus citriodora, the lemon-scented gum, is one of the most popular ornamental trees in our area, although it is cold sensitive and should not be grown north of Granada Hills. Peeling bark reveals alabaster trunks which grow quickly to a height of 80 feet. Aside from the visual splendor of the lemon- scented gum, its fragrance is legendary. Five to 10 of these trees planted along the front of a building provide a constant aroma of citrus to tenants and passers-by.
Eucalyptus roots are generally noninvasive. For this reason, eucalyptus trees are often planted close to structures, which may be damaged by their brittle branches, which have a tendency to break without provocation. Most eucalyptus species should also not be planted on slopes where – on account of their strong vertical growth habit – they are prone to fall over in wind storms.
Imagine a trunk in technicolor and you will perhaps be able to visualize the Mindanao gum (Eucalyptus deglupta). Growing as a street tree at the western edge of the UCLA botanical garden, its smooth, exfoliating bark is colored yellow, green, red and violet.
Two commonly asked questions are: What plants can be grown under eucalyptus and do eucalyptus leaves make good compost?
Succulents of every kind grow well under eucalyptus, including ice plants, jade plants, sedums, agaves and aloes. The eucalyptus leaf is eminently compostible, though shredding will speed up its decay in the compost pile.
Bottlebrushes (Callistemon and Melaleuca) are another famous group belonging to the myrtle family. The most renowned is the crimson or lemon
bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus), which is blooming now. Callistemon viminalis is a weeping version of the same tree. There are many notable melaleucas, including the sponge barked Melaleuca quinquenervia, the pink pompon-laden Melaleuca nesophila, and the delicately leaved Melaleuca elliptica and Melaleuca decussata. If your local nursery doesn’t carry them, they can be ordered through San Marcos Growers of Santa Barbara.
The Austalian tea tree (Leptospermum laevigatum) and the New Zealand tea tree (Leptospermum scoparium) live up to the “unforgettable” moniker attached to virtually all members of the myrtle family. The Australian tea has a twisting growth habit, with a trunk that veers back and forth at sharp angles. The New Zealand tea tree, which usually has the stature of a large shrub, is studded with brilliant flowers – there are scarlet, pink and white varieties – in spring, summer or fall.
Guavas are a more tropical category of plant included in the myrtle family. The strawberry guava has tart fruit and a smooth yellow trunk; the pineapple guava, which is blooming now, has sugary, edible flower petals; and the Malaysian magenta guava has burgundy leaves, bark, and fruit.
Allspice (Pimenta dioica), of most pungent fragrance, is a myrtle everyone should have. It grows easily in southern California. The Surinam cherry (Eugenia uniflora) may be grown as a fruit-bearing hedge, but does better along the coast than inland. Finally, the peppermint tree (Agonis flexuosa) has unusually furrowed bark and a pleasant leaf aroma.
Most of the myrtles are not fussy about soil or water conditions, though they develop the classic iron deficiency symptom – new leaves are yellow with green veins – when grown in compacted, alkaline or waterlogged soil.