Another Sunday, another tree to discover! I went a bit further than last week in search of inspiration, but not much. This one was on the roadside parallel with our house, maybe five minutes walk.
These trees line the road on each side, some towering giants, some just five or six metres high. I tend to notice them even from a distance because of their twisting trunks and gnarly, flaky bark. They are just so eye-catchingly intriguing.
Upon closer inspection the tree seemed familiar. Although the flowers were a different colour than the red ones I’d seen in UK garden centres, and this was a tree rather than the tiny little shrubs I’d come across before, it looked a lot like the bottlebrush plant.
Having checked it out once I was home, it may well be a bottlebrush tree, aka callistemon. Or it might not! Even botanists have trouble definitively classifying callistemons and the very similar melaleuca tree. They are both part of the Myrtle family. They both have bottlebrush like flowers. But only the callistemons are commonly called bottlebrushes. Melaleuca are more likely to be called paperbarks or honey myrtles.
Apparently one difference is that callistemons prefer drier locations and melaleucas prefer wet places. Although where Brunei fits in that spectrum I find it really hard to say. It’s pretty humid all year round, but sometimes in the dry season we can go weeks without a drop of rain. Then during the wet season, plants can be standing in temporary lakes for days. So that little nugget of information was no use to me at all!
The way that botanists distinguish between the two is very specifically about the different way the stamens in the flowers of each connect to the floral tube. Although having said that, apparently even then it is not always entirely cut and dried, hence why sometimes even botanists are not convinced that they should be separately classified. Either way, that was more floral biology know-how than I possessed at the time I was out on my stroll!
Researching the plant name origins, I think callistemons got the better deal by far:
- Callistemon: modern Latin, from Greek kallos ‘beauty’ + stēmōn ‘thread or stamen’.
- Melaleuca: modern Latin: from Greek melas ‘black’ + leukos ‘white’ (because of the fire-blackened white bark of some Asian species).
In exploring more about callistemons and melaleucas I found a really fascinating site called eat the weeds. ‘Green Deane’, who is a life-long forager, had an amazing depth of knowledge about a whole host of plants and their uses. He really opened my eyes.
I couldn’t say I’m a forager by any stretch of the imagination. When I lived in the UK I knew some basics – wild garlic, blackberries, orchard fruit trees, different nuts, some herbs and leaves. But I didn’t know enough to get a meal from. And I certainly wouldn’t know where to start here in Asia- there are far too many plants I don’t have the first clue about! Although I love finding out bits as I go. So thanks to Green Deane I now know that the blossoms of all the callistemons (and melaleucas) can be used to make a sweet tea, or to sweeten other teas. The leaves, which have an amazing aroma and sometimes an almost citrusy quality depending on the variety of callistemon or melaleuca, can also be used to make a tea.
Anyway, although I am still not 100% certain whether this is a callistemon or a melaleuca, it was great to get a proper look at it. I’m not good with unanswered questions, so I might just have to take my macro lens along next week and really get close to the detail to see if I can find out! Also, making tentative steps in the direction of foraging, I am tempted to forage enough leaves and flowers to check out the beverage-making potential. Bottlebrush tea sounds worth a go!