Sweet healing powers of lovely Kiwi tea tree
The two hard winters of recent years killed a lot of plants of the New Zealand tea tree, or leptospermum, because it is not fully hardy here. Many plants had survived for decades before that extreme event and a small number survived those winters to flower now in gardens.
But the New Zealand tea tree has since been replanted in some gardens, despite the risk, because it is such a lovely tree in flower. The plant makes a large bush or small tree to about three metres tall. It is evergreen with small needle-like leaves on whippy stems.
When in flower, every twig carries masses of flowers, strung along the slender stems, which are often drooping or weeping at the tips. The flowers are red, pink or white, the white is pretty but can be a bit lost, while the red and pink are very eye-catching.
The individual flowers are relatively small, each the size of a 10-cent coin. But they are carried in profusion. They can be single or double-flowered, looking like tiny roses, and the double kinds have more colour impact.
One of the finest varieties is 'Red Damask' which has dark-red double flowers on a large bush. 'Pink Cascade' is a beauty with pink flowers carried in a cascading habit. 'Kiwi' is a small bush, not more than about one metre tall, with dark pink single flowers. 'Snow Flurry' has double white and 'Nicholsii' has crimson flowers and bronze leaves.
Choose a spot with adequate space for the plant to develop. The lower branches can be pruned off after a few years to grow it with a single tree-like stem, or multiple-stem. It can have some shade-loving plants underneath, though nothing too competitive.
It likes relatively dry, rather poor, soil, certainly not too rich, because it tends to grow very rapidly in good soil and this makes it more vulnerable to frost. The older the tree gets, the thicker its protective bark becomes.
At planting, make sure to unwind or cut any roots that have wrapped around the root ball because these wrapped-up roots, not making a proper anchor in the soil, can leave the bush very prone to toppling over when mature.
New Zealand tea tree is the source of manuka honey, 'manuka' being the tree's Maori name. The honey has proven antibiotic and antiseptic qualities, and is sold as a tonic. Manuka tea tree oil is used in aromatherapy. It is not the same plant as the Australian tea tree, which is also used in herbal therapy.