Bottlebrush or paperbark? Callistemon or Melaleuca?

This question arose from a somewhat cryptic sentence in the gardening column of our local newspaper, “The Tinaroo Bottlebrush (Melaleuca recurva but still sold as Callistemon recurvis) is a personal favourite…”

The question, of course, was, “Isn’t a Melaleuca a paperbark?” or words to that effect. A bit of digging (no, not in the garden) revealed the answers to a whole series of interconnected questions.

We’re dealing with two kinds of names of names for plants, common names and scientific (Latin) names, and both are problematic. The plants, however, are just as beautiful to us, and to the birds and butterflies, whatever they are called.

black and white honeyeater on red flowers
New Holland Honeyeaters on bottlebrush in Hobart

Scientific names

Scientific names are more precise than common names but they are sometimes changed by the taxonomists and these changes take time to percolate through to the rest of the scientific community and the general public. In this case we had two closely related groups of plants long classified in two genera, Callistemon and Melaleuca, recently merged under a single name. Callistemon [species name] therefore became Melaleuca [species name] overnight.

Angus Stewart of Garden Drum explains it pretty well:

I will find it hard to get used to saying Melaleuca as the new name for some of my favourite Australian plants such as ‘Captain Cook’, ‘Endeavour’ and ‘King’s Park Special’. But this is what it might come to if the botanical and horticultural world accepts a concerted push in the world of Australian botany to merge the genus Callistemon with its close relative Melaleuca.

The argument is that the differences between the two groups are insufficient for them to be kept separate. The rationale is explained in this excellent article on the website of the Australian Native Plants Society (Australia).

And we might as well follow him to ANPSA:

…the problem with the current classification on the basis of the arrangement of the stamens is that this supposed difference is not clear cut and Callistemon tends to merge into Melaleuca rather than being unambiguously distinct. The well known Callistemon viminalis is one that has often been discussed as not easily fitting the accepted definition of Callistemon.

Over the years there have been suggestions that the differences between species of the two genera are not sufficient to warrant them being kept distinct. A paper by Lyn Craven of the Australian National Herbarium (Novon 16 468-475; December 2006 “New Combinations in Melaleuca for Australian Species of Callistemon (Myrtaceae)”) argues that the differences between the two genera are insufficient to warrant them being retained separately and that they should be combined. As Melaleuca has precedence, adoption of Craven’s work would transfer all species of Callistemon into Melaleuca. Some state herbaria have adopted this change but, at this stage, the re-classification has not been taken up in the Australian Plant Census, which ANPSA recognises as the authority on plant nomenclature. For this reason we have retained Callistemon and Melaleuca as separate genera.

While all Callistemons have their flowers arranged in a “bottlebrush” shape the inflorescences of Melaleuca may also have a globular or irregular shape. It should also be remembered that there are other genera in the myrtle family which may have free or united stamens combined with “bottlebrush” flowers. Botany was never meant to be easy!

So the debate began more than ten years ago and isn’t over yet although the result seems clear enough.

One last little wrinkle is that the form of the species name must match that of the genus, which is why Callistemon recurvis became Melaleuca recurva rather than M. recurvis.

paperbark flower spike
A single Melaleuca flower spike, one of hundreds or thousands on a big tree
bottlebrush flower
A bottlebrush flower

Common names

Staying with ANPSA for a moment longer:

…only Callistemons are commonly called “Bottlebrushes” ; Melaleucas are usually called “Paperbarks” or “Honey Myrtles” or sometimes “Tea Trees” although that name is more appropriate to another related genus, Leptospermum.

Paperbarks are named for their bark and bottlebrushes for their flowers. Given that some bottlebrushes have papery bark and some paperbarks have bottlebrushy flowers (sorry, but it’s hard to be more serious), the separation of common names must always have been blurred.

In fact, one particular tree in our own garden has been worrying me for years on just this account. We have two small trees which are unambiguously bottlebrushes (one is a hybrid, but let’s not go there), one huge tree which is unambiguously a paperbark, and a tall but very scrawny tree with papery bark and red bottlebrush flowers:

The papery bark of our mystery tree
bottlebrush flowers
The bottlebrushy flowers of our mystery tree

Is it a paperbark or a bottlebrush? Either or both, since common names are like that. Melaleuca or Callistemon? It’s now a Melaleuca, whatever it used to be.

Just for the sake of completeness

  • Banksias also have bottlebrush-shaped flower spikes but are distinctive enough not to be easily confused with Melaleucas.
  • Grevilleas are more closely related to Banksias than to Melaleucas but some have flowers which might mislead the casual onlooker. The common name of large species is “Silky Oak” but most species are known, like Banksias, by their Latin name.
  • Leptospermums are in the same family as Melaleucas (Myrtaceaeand share their common name, “Tea Tree”, with paperbarks.
  • “Tea tree” is sometimes also spelt “ti-tree”.
  • Tea tree oil is extracted from a Melaleuca.

Crows, Currawongs and Choughs

This post parallels my recent Extended Honeyeater family essay and is prompted by the same holiday experiences: visiting Canberra and Victoria before Christmas I saw birds which don’t live around Townsville and wanted to fit them in to my existing knowledge.

It turned out that the birds I was curious about are not all members of the same taxonomic family but all belong to three families within the superfamily Corvoidea, i.e.,

  • Corvidae: crows, ravens (and jays, which don’t occur in Australia)
  • Artamidae: woodswallows, butcherbirds, currawongs and Australian magpie
  • Corcoracidae: white-winged chough and apostlebird

Continue reading “Crows, Currawongs and Choughs”

White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike finds a meal

White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike
White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike with lunch

Cuckoo-shrikes, both White-bellied and Black-faced, are occasional visitors to our garden. This one is the former, Coracina papuensis. 

Yes, it has a black face, but the real Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes, C. novaehollandiae, have more black on their face – compare them here. And no, it is neither a cuckoo (Cuculidae) nor a shrike (Laniidae) but is in another family, Campephagidae,  with the Trillers; Wikipedia (previous link) speculates that the ‘cuckoo’ part of their common name may come from a superficial resemblance to some cuckoos.

Common names are unreliable guides to appearance, behaviour or family affiliations, particularly here in Australia where the first European settlers met hosts of strange birds and animals and applied the nearest old-world names to them.

Dove’s disappointment

ringneck pigeon in dry birdbath
Where’s my water?

We had a bit of rain a while ago but nothing but drizzle since then so our birdbath still gets a lot of use. This Spotted Dove, an early-morning visitor, looks quite put out at the low water level.

I, of course, blame the other birds, especially the Mynahs,  for splashing it all out. They, more fairly, blame me for not refilling it fast enough. Never mind – we do try, and I did top it up when I noticed the problem.

Incidentally, the bird has had a Latin name change: it is now Spilopelia chinensis rather than Streptopelia chinensis. Continue reading “Dove’s disappointment”

Identifying a spider

black spider
My unknown spider, about 10 mm long

There are lots of spiders in Australia, in case you hadn’t noticed, and lots of different species – plenty, in fact, to challenge professional taxonomists (the people who scientifically describe, classify and name species) let alone ordinary people who just come across something cute or scary and want to know what it is.

My expertise is somewhere in between those two extremes, since I picked up a reasonable knowledge of the wildlife around me as I grew up on a farm and have added to it considerably in the last ten years.

How did I add to my childhood knowledge? How does anyone with only a beginner’s knowledge add to it? Here it is my method … if something so casual deserves to be called a method.

black spider
On the lid of a plastic drum – clearly an unnatural habitat

(1) What do I already know about this particular creature?

  • What kind of animal is it? It’s an arachnid (eight legs) not an insect (six) and out of the arachnids it is pretty obviously a spider (the others are scorpions, ticks and mites, harvestmen and pseudoscorpions, none of which look much like spiders.)
  • Size: It is medium size – head and body together are about 10mm long. (That’s not clear from the photo here, but I remember roughly how big it was. Sometimes I try to put something of known size in the photo for reference, e.g. my thumb nail (15mm wide), my little finger nail (about 10mm), a house key or a coin.)
  • Habitat: I saw it running around on the ground, looking as though it was hunting, near a farm house. It then ran up a plastic drum, so it probably also hunts on tree trunks in its natural surroundings.
  • Location: It was in inland North Queensland (specifically Mingela, but NQ and the dry climate are likely to be more significant).

(2) What do I know about classifying and identifying spiders?

Resources: three really good websites (as used below) but no good reference books.

Spiders (order Araneae) are divided into two suborders, Mygalomorphs and Araneomorphs. I know immediately that this isn’t a Mygalomorph because they are just the big hairy tarantulas and funnelwebs, so my unknown spider is an Araneomorph.

Each suborder is divided into families and that may be as far as I get with an identification because there are lots more families in this suborder than in the other one. On the other hand, knowing the family may tell me most of what I wanted to know anyway, since each family has many common characteristics. For instance, if I knew that I had a Huntsman, I would soon know all this and this. And of course learning the families, 80 of them according to Volker Framenau’s authoritative Checklist (pdf), is much easier than learning all 3634 species (so far).

(3) Method

The home page of lists all the Araneomorph families but is not the best for quickly identifying my spider because it has neither a key (a set of yes/no questions steering the user towards the correct identification) nor a set of photos of typical family members. Ron Atkinson’s Find-a-Spider guide has the set of questions, backed up by photos, while Ed Nieuwenhuys’ Spiders of Australia has the photos, backed up by descriptions and (if you go looking), a location/web grid which is a pretty good substitute for a key.

Let’s go for his photos this time. Half a dozen of them look similar enough in proportions and coloration to be worth checking:

Screen shots from the index page of Spiders of Australia

The last two are very similar to each other and the most like my unknown spider. Clicking on the Spotted Ground Spider link gets me to more and bigger photos and a feeling that none of them are quite right – but look: “Storena formosa is a very common spider … a spectacularly coloured spider that resembles the Gnaphosid Supunna picta” with a link which takes me, as it turns out, to the second of my two top picks, the Wasp-mimicking Spider. And this is the one: white spots on black body, mostly-black legs with orange-brown front legs, white stripe down the middle of the head (‘cephalothorax’ if you want to be technical, but ‘head’ will do) and nothing in the description rules it out:

The wasp-mimicking spider or Supunna picta is one of the fastest spiders in Australia. While running, it waves its two forelegs above its body, mimicking the two antennas of a wasp. The front two legs have a brown tinge. Male and females are identical and their length varies between 5 and 7 mm. This species is closely related to much larger Supunna albopunctum (7 -12 mm) but this spider has two rows of white dashed spots on its abdomen. In autumn and winter the females construct a flat very white disc shaped egg-sac of 5-6 mm. The spider feeds on ground dwelling insects and spiders.

At this point I am fairly sure I have the spider’s identity, but it’s worth checking on the other main sites. Typing “Supunna picta” into the search box on takes me here and gives me a little more confidence (e.g. size to 8mm here matches my guess of “about 10” a bit better than Nieuwenhuys’ “5 – 7mm”). Ron Atkinson’s site offers a Species List which takes me to a photo and description which again confirm my first conclusion.

So there we are: it is a Swift Ground Spider, aka Painted Swift Spider, aka Wasp-mimicking Spider (this is why we like Latin names!) in the family Corinnidae. Corinnidae  is not one of the bigger or better-known families (it doesn’t even have a common name) and I’m not surprised that it didn’t immediately come to mind when I saw this spider. If it had, the identification process would have been somewhat quicker.

The process I have demonstrated, incidentally, is similar for birds, butterflies or any other group of animals; I just chose spiders to demonstrate it because I had a good example at hand.

Each kind of creature has its dedicated sites and its printed guide books; my regular readers will know most of those I rely on, since I continually refer to them and link to them. And if individual research fails, there is a great community of helpful experts, especially on the appropriate Flickr groups, Field Guide to Insects of Australia and Spiders of Australia – thanks again to Rob, Graeme, Kristi, Tony, Michael, Boris, Jean, Steve and everyone else who has helped me get this far!