Punk trees (Melaleuca quinquenervia) are subtropical evergreen, broadleaved trees and native to Australia, Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia. Also known as paperbark, cajeput or white bottlebrush, these trees were introduced to the United States early in the 20th century in the hopes of draining the Florida swamps but are now classed as invasive or noxious species in a number of states. Punk trees are hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 9 through 11 and can survive frosts.
Members of the eucalyptus family, punk trees grow to about 40 feet tall and have spongy, white bark that peels easily. Their small white flowers bloom in bottlebrush spikes at the tips of branches, and the fruits are small capsules, clustered on twigs, containing hundreds of seeds. Punk tree leaves are lance-shaped, gray-green in color and about two inches long and smell like camphor when bruised.
Punk trees grow in terrestrial or aquatic situations and have taken over vast swathes of the Florida Everglades. Thriving in full sun, they prefer moist soil conditions. The trees spread by way of tiny seeds, with a single tree capable of producing 20 million seeds in one year alone. In their native Australia, they are classed as a conservation species and are valued by beekeepers and local wildlife.
Punk tree distribution in the United States is largely confined to southern Florida, where the tree occupies several million acres of land, within the Everglades. Once established, the trees develop into dense groupings, shading out other forms of vegetation and providing very little food for wildlife. In Florida, punk trees are classified as noxious weeds, and it is prohibited to grow or cultivate the species. Punk trees are also classified as noxious weeds in Alabama, North Carolina, Texas and Vermont and classed as quarantine plants in California and Oregon.
Uses and Warning
In Australia, the easily peeled bark of punk trees has many uses, ranging from making food wrappings to food and drink containers. The leaves of the tree can be used to make tea or to form a liquid that is suitable for washing. The blooms of punk trees may be soaked in water to produce a sweet drink. Some people develop respiratory irritation, nausea or headache when around punk trees, particularly if the trees are in bloom. Contact with the bark of punk trees may also cause a skin rash.