Updated: Aug 9, 2021
I have been driving around our 1950s to 1970s neighborhoods for the past month looking to no avail for a quality specimen of this large shrub/small tree (this thumbnail was purchased from Shutterstock). Way back in the 70s, C. citrinus was the ready-made answer to drought, finding its way in gardens and parking lots alike. But now they appear to be gone, out of style, waiting for a rebirth in response to current droughts.
Actually, they have returned in a way. By contrast to the lemon bottle brush, as they are commonly called, its wee cousin, C. viminalis 'Little John,' has emerged as its replacement, for gardens and parking lots as it where, but also commercial landscapes and street medians. Its introduction into the California landscape has supported diversity, but there's still a call, I think, for our subject here.
C. citrinus is a low maintenance shrub that bees love. Called a bottle brush for obvious reasons, their bright red stamens are the aesthetic bang for the buck, and for the lemon, crush the leaves for a reminiscent scent. Tolerant of poor soils, heat and drought, yet still a showy display of flowers...what's not to love?
They are a mess, that is what's not to love. The stamens drop like a shedding Belgian shepherd (don't comment, I had one). Prolific growth means a lot of pruning if a specific shape is desirable. Allowed to grow, lemon bottle brush become small multi-trunk trees, single trunk with training...a lot of training. The more pruning they need, the likelier chance of a bee sting. Despite these negatives, I am voting for its comeback in support of pollinators and drought tolerant landscapes. For designers, C. citrinus can fill those background voids away from people, such as its use as a screen. Street medians to, where color is needed but there is not a lot of space. The wind and hustle of traffic will not even phase it.
Hardy, too. As it happens, I have been trying to kill one off for six years, and still it rises (leaf photos below). I would leave it if it weren't in the wrong place pressing up against the fence. I would even prune it after the bees have returned to the hive if it meant keeping an attractive specimen around...somewhere in the Bay Area. If you have one, please let me know!
Botanical Name: Callistemon citrinus
Callistemon: Greek, kallos, for beautiful, and stemon for stamen.
Citrinus: For the leaves lemony scent when crushed.
Common Name: Lemon bottle brush
Family Name: Myrtaceae
Positioning: Background, away from people sensitive to bees
Garden Themes: Drought/dry/Mediterranean/Australian, pollinator, coastal
Uses: Informal hedge, small tree, barrier
Type: Evergreen shrub or small tree
Form: Upright, arching vase, weeping
Size: 10'-15' as a multi-trunk shrub; 20'-25' as a standard (tall and wide)
Outstanding Feature(s): Flower, bark
Bark: Green to light gray as it matures, exfoliation
Leaf: Lemony scent when crushed
Color: Bronze new growth followed by medium dull green mature leaves
Flower: Summer. Bright red stamens on terminal inflorescence. Note: limbs will continue to grow beyond the flower and set new terminal flowers.
Fruit: Summer to Autumn or later. Woody capsules whorled on stems.
cultural requirements, tolerances & problems
Sunset Zones: 8,9, 12-24; H1, H2
USDA Zones: 8-11
Light: Sun to part shade
WUCOLS SF Bay Area Hydro Zone: Low
Texture: Sand, loam, clay
Moisture Retention: Well-drained
pH: Slightly acidic to highly alkaline
Tolerances: Heat, drought, poor soils, wind
Problems: Prolific bloom attracts bees and creates a mess
Branch Strength: Weak
Insects: Spider mites, scale
citations & attributions
Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. "Melaleuca citrina." North Carolina State University, Raleigh. Accessed on August 1, 2021, from https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/melaleuca-citrina/.
Norris Brenzel, K. (Ed.). (2012). The New Sunset Western Garden Book. New York: Time Home Entertainment, Inc.
Plant Finder. "Callistemon citrinus." Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis. Accessed on August 1, 2021, from https://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=282871&isprofile=0&.
SelecTree. UFEI. "Callistemon citrinus Tree Record." 1995-2021. Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. Accessed on Aug 1, 2021, accessed from https://selectree.calpoly.edu/tree-detail/238.
Water Use Classification of Landscape Species. "WUCOLS IV Plant List." University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Davis. Accessed on August 1, 2021.
Photos by TELCS.