A tree of another name is still as sweet

The tree hanging over Shedden Road, long thought to be a eucalyptus, has been identified as a Melaleuca quinquenervia. The Eucalyptus Building, at the bottom left of the photo, was named after the tree. - Photo: Alvaro Serey

The George Town edifice known as the Eucalyptus Building may need a new name.

Local naturalists believe that a gigantic tree on Shedden Road that gave the building its name may not be a eucalyptus tree. Stuart Mailer, environmental programs manager for the National Trust, said the tree leaning over the road appears to be a Melaleuca quinquenervia.

Mr. Mailer said local naturalists made that determination after seeing the tree flower this summer.

“The irony is it isn’t a eucalyptus tree. Get used to Melaleuca Plaza,” Mr. Mailer said recently. “We haven’t yet had a botanist officially say we’re right, but there’s no doubt in my mind.”

The species – known more colloquially as a paper bark tea tree – is not native to Cayman, and Mr. Mailer believes the specimen on Shedden Road was brought to Cayman early in the 20th century.

The tree was thought to be a eucalyptus tree for decades, and Mr. Mailer said he has been told about local citizens making what they thought to be eucalyptus tea from its bark. But after seeing a similar tree behind Ugland House, Mr. Mailer began to believe that they had labeled the tree incorrectly.

“One of the names of this tree is ‘paper bark’ and if you go to Ugland House, around the back you’ll find huge slabs of bark,” Mr. Mailer said. “When you touch them, you can separate it. It will crumble into sheets of paper. It feels like a stack of paper in flower. It’s obviously swamp paper bark. In south Florida, it’s an invasive pest drying out the Everglades. It doesn’t seem to be doing much in Cayman.”

Mr. Mailer said he began taking pictures of the tree behind Ugland House for comparison with the one on Shedden Road, and he was convinced when the trees began to flower at the same time.

“The flowers were identical. Everything was identical,” he said. “Once you’ve seen them, you know.”

Mr. Mailer said that local naturalist Ann Stafford originally identified the species behind Ugland House as a Melaleuca quinquenervia but did not make the connection to the tree on Shedden Road.

The Shedden Road tree – swollen along its diameter and leaning at a pronounced angle – has been in place for decades near the road’s junction with Thomas Russell Avenue and North Sound Road, and Mr. Mailer said he can track its presence by a series of aerial photographs. The earliest photo Mr. Mailer has obtained is from 1958, and the tree is clearly visible in it.

“Going back and looking at the series from the 70s through the 60s back to 1958, you can see that same tree,” he said. “It is at least 60 years old, and in the picture, it doesn’t look a whole lot different. I can’t see the width of it, but I can see the crown of the tree. It was a big tree in 1960.”

Mr. Mailer is not at all certain of the tree’s origins, but he believes that it may have been brought to Cayman from Florida in the early 20th century and planted along Shedden Road.

“This is only a guess on my part,” said Mr. Mailer, separating facts from opinion. “I would suspect it dates to the 1920s or so, when there was a lot of trade between the southern United States and people bringing exotic trees back and forth when we had a shipbuilding industry. That’s just a wild guess. But I think it’s quite fast growing. And the evidence for that is that it’s significantly grown in diameter.”

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  1. I would like to clarify a couple of points regarding this tree. I was made aware of the name “Melaluca” by Joanne Mercille, volunteer curator of the National Trust herbarium. She informed me that the identification was given to her by former Botanic Park deputy manager, Mike Ferrero. I also understand that some people have always known this tree by that name. Secondly, the name “eucalyptus” is commonly used for this species in Florida, and as a common name it is not wrong, just not the actual scientific genus. The leaves (not bark) of this tree have traditionally been used in Cayman in preparing a herbal tea.