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Plant of the Month: June 2009

Bottlebrush shrubs in Seattle
Callistemon species

MYRTACEÆ; Myrtle Family

    Seattle just experienced its coldest winter since 1990. Since every Callistemon shrub I have examined here, survived the winter, I hereby write an brief introduction to the genus. For ever so long I thought these highly distinctive Australian shrubs and small trees were utterly cold-tender --except for a few species, in protected locales. Therefore, I ignored them. Still, every time I visited California I greatly admired their flamboyant beauty. Though I mostly prize edible, fragrant or drought-tolerant plants, Callistemon species and hybrids are mostly weakly or not scented, inedible, and more thirsty than I like. Nonetheless, they are very striking visually.
    Callistemon the genus was named in 1814, from the Greek kallos, beautiful, and stemon (stamen) in allusion to the conspicuous floral stamens that characterize the genus. The English name Bottlebrush is extremely apt. A 2006 scholarly paper by Lyn Craven states: "The Australian species of the bottlebrush genus Callistemon R. Brown are not sufficiently distinct from Melaleuca L. for Callistemon to be maintained as a separate genus. The primary character states used to justify maintenance of Callistemon are that its staminal filaments are free and not grouped. This breaks down as fused filaments in five groups, the defining features of Melaleuca, occur in some Callistemon species. Therefore, it is concluded that the two genera should be combined." [Novon: A Journal for Botanical Nomenclature / Vol. 16, number 4 (2006) pages 468-475].
    Over 35 Callistemon species exist, all Australian. All are evergreen, bearing pointy simple leaves and whorled dense flowerheads. According to Stanley J. Palmer (circa 1975): "Flowers are followed by round, woody seed capsules appearing like bands of beads pressed into the bark. They are quite picturesque, especially as the tree ages. Nature planned these seed capsules as veritable fortresses to remain tightly closed over many years, ensuring the security and viability of their contents until some calamity --usually fire, overtook the plant."
    They may bloom much of the year in California, but in Seattle the kinds I have seen bloom mostly in May or June. Most bear red or yellowish flowers, that attract hummingbirds. They are not fussy as to soil, but certainly require sun to bloom. (Without flowers they are just scrawny and scratchy.) Besides the colorful flowers, however, the young foliage shoots are usually pink or bronzy --and often hairy-- contrasting happily with the older foliage.
    Telling apart the various Callistemon species, cultivars and hybrids, can be daunting to a beginner. The kind most commonly grown worldwide, and in California, is the first one I will feature:

Callistemon citrinus (Curtis) Skeels 1913
= C. lanceolatus (Sm.) DC. 1828
= Melaleuca citrina (Curtis) Dum.Cours. 1802, non Turcz. 1852
= Metrosideros citrina Curtis 1794
Lemon Bottlebrush; Crimson Bottlebrush
    It can remain a shrub or be a small tree. Very desirable, but not cold-hardy. The leaves are 1.5 to 3.5 inches long, and smell delightfully lemony when crushed. The flowers vary from bright fiery red to mauve-pink or scarlet, in clusters 4 to 6 inches long. It has been cultivated in England since 1798; in California since 1853. 'Splendens' is the best known of at least 12 cultivars ascribed to C. citrinus --some likely are hybrids. In Seattle there are two specimens at the Carl English Botanical Gardens at the Locks. They are in the employee parking-lot, next to two smaller specimens of C. pallidus. I planted a Callistemon citrinus 'Jeffers' in a Laurelhurst garden in May 2006, and show a photo of its flowers this spring. 'Jeffers' is smaller, with smaller leaves, violet-tinged flowers, and is more cold-hardy.

<i>Callistemon citrinus</i> 'Jeffers' June 16 2009

Callistemon citrinus 'Jeffers' June 16 2009 in Laurelhurst (photo by ALJ)

Callistemon pallidus (Bonpl.) DC. 1828
= Metrosideros pallida Bonpl. 1816
= Melaleuca pallida (Bonpl.) Craven 2006
Pale or Lemon Bottlebrush
    A shrub or be a small tree. The leaves are 1.25 to 2.25 inches long, and gray-green rather than pure green. The flowers are cream, in clusters 1.5 to 2.5 inches long, and not nearly as handsome as the red-flowered species. In Seattle there is one south of the greenhouse at the Washington Park Arboretum; it measured 15 feet tall in 2005, but after this winter he gardeners cut it in half or so. Another at the Arboretum is in the Mediterranean area ((20-3E). Both of these date from seeds recieveed in 1990. Two much younger are at the Carl English Botanical Gardens at the Locks --in the employee parking-lot, next to two larger specimens of C. citrinus. I planted one in a Laurelhurst garden in May 2006, which first bloomed in October 2008; I show a photo of its flowers this spring. One in a yard on the north side of East Denny Way west of 14th Avenue East, is robust; I photographed it last July.

<i>Callistemon pallidus</i> July 2 2008

Callistemon pallidus July 2 2008 on Denny Way (photo by ALJ)

<i>Callistemon pallidus</i> June 9 2009

Callistemon pallidus June 9 2009 in Laurelhurst (photo by ALJ)

<i>Callistemon citrinus</i> and <i>Callistemon pallidus</i> June 24 2009

Callistemon pallidus foreground and Callistemon citrinus background June 24 2009 at Locks (photo by ALJ)

Callistemon linearis (Schrad. & Wendl.) Colv. ex Sweet 1826
= Melaleuca linearis Schrad. & Wendl. 1796
Narrowleaf Bottlebrush
    A shrub. The leaves are up to 5 inches long, and notably narrow. The flowers are red, in clusters 3 to 5 inches long. I planted two in a Montlake garden in July 2007, but they have been watered insufficiently, and so scarcely bloomed this year; I show a photo.

<i>Callistemon linearis</i> June 18 2009

Callistemon linearis June 18 2009 in Montlake (photo by ALJ)

Callistemon pityoides F.Muell. 1883
= C. Sieberi auct., non DC. 1828
= C. Sieberi var. pityoides (F. Muell.) Cheel 1922
= Melaleuca pityoides (F. Muell.) Craven 2006
Alpine or Mountain Bottlebrush
    An extremely cold-hardy, stiff shrub bearing small leaves .5 to 1.5 inches long. The flowers are pale yellow, in clusters 1.5 to 6 inches long. At the UW campus an old one is south of Bagley Hall.

<i>Callistemon pityoides</i> June 23 2008

Callistemon pityoides June 23 2008 at Bagley Hall (photo by ALJ)

Callistemon viridiflorus (Sieber ex Sims) Sweet 1826
= C. salignus var. viridiflorus (Sieber ex Sims) F.Muell. 1864
= Metrosideros viridiflora Sieber ex Sims 1825
= Melaleuca virens Craven 2006
Green Bottlebrush
    A shrub to 10 feet tall but usually less. It is native to Tasmania. The leaves are 1.25 inches long, and dark green. The flowers are pale yellow-green to creamy yellow, in clusters 3 inches long. In Seattle there is one dating from 1990 at the Washington Park Arboretum in the Mediterranean area (20-3E).

<i>Callistemon viridiflorus</i> June 30 2009

Callistemon viridiflorus June 30 2009 from Wash. Park Arboretum #191-90 (photo by ALJ)

    Colvos Creek Nursery (, near Seattle on Vashon Island, has sold at least 20 kinds of Callistemon, some as cuttings, others by seed. It is possible some of the photos I show below are misidentified. I welcome input from readers more knowledgeable than I. Besides what I note above, other kinds of Callistemon exist in Seattle --such as at Washington Park Arboretum C. rigidus (#333-90) and C. subulatus (#193-79); and in private gardens the 'Woodlanders Hardy' for example. At Kruckeberg Botanic Garden in Shoreline, not far north of Seattle, I found an apparently wild seedling of a Callistemon. When it blooms it can be identified.

<i>Callistemon</i> sp. January 20 2009

Callistemon sp. January 20 2009 wild at KBG (photo by ALJ)

Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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