New research has found that the Leptospermum genus, as presently defined, is not a single evolutionary lineage.
The research was funded by the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Honey Bee Products and led by researchers Dr Rachel Binks and Dr Margaret Byrne from the Western Australian Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, and Dr Peter Wilson and Margaret Heslewood from the Australian Institute of Botanic Science.
Leptospermum taxonomy has created its challenges across Australia during the many efforts to commercialise these species for honey production.
The CRC for Honey Bee Products said for those in the plant improvement game and meeting the challenge of planting honeybee gardens, understanding why certain species refused to hybridise with others was a major step forward.
Dr Wilson said the results suggested that either a much larger genus should be recognised, which would include the large genus Kunzea, or that several genera be recognised.
“The common name ‘Tea Tree’ has been applied to two different groups of plants in the Myrtaceae, the plant family that includes bottlebrushes, eucalypts and guavas,” he explained.
“The larger group of species given this name have been classified as the genus Leptospermum but there are species in this genus with woody, persistent fruits and others that lack this feature.
“A species in the first group, first named from New Zealand, is the one that is the source of manuka honey. However, the active component of that honey also occurs in the nectar of a range of Australian species.”
A joint paper by these two teams has now been published that recommends recognition of five genera in the group.
A follow-up paper is being prepared by Dr Wilson and Ms Heslewood that will make these changes.
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