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March a Good Time to Purchase Hearty New Zealand Tea Tree : The easy-to-maintain evergreen shrub is drought-tolerant and blooms almost year-round.


Covered most of the year by dainty, fruit blossom-sized flowers, the New Zealand tea tree is one of the best choices for gardeners in search of an easy-to-maintain shrub, according to local nursery staffs.

And right now is the best time to pick one up.

During March, nurseries and gardening departments stock up on the many varieties of this evergreen shrub--botanically, Leptospermum --while the plant is at its blooming peak.

For Southern Californians, there may not be a better shrub, said Hitoshi Fujii, a nurseryman at Ventura's Green Thumb International.

Although a native of New Zealand, the tree thrives in Southern California's moderate climate, Fujii said. "They do very well in dry weather," he said, "and you can expect them to bloom nearly year-round, except in midwinter."

The New Zealand tea tree--so named because its leaves were once brewed as a tea to prevent sailors from getting scurvy--are most commonly sold in one- and five-gallon containers, although the 15-gallon size is available at larger nurseries. Their blooms range in color from snowy white to variations of pinks and reds.

Because tea trees are in full bloom, now is a particularly good time to see exactly what you are getting, Fujii said. Sometimes the container label doesn't paint an exact picture: The "pinks" can actually be deeper in color and more rosy, while the "red" varieties can actually be more ruby and burgundy-hued.

The size of the plant also varies depending on the variety. The tea tree can range in height from a dwarf size of about two feet, all the way to a small tree of 25 feet or more. Many are as big around as they are tall. All varieties feature tiny, densely set, needle-like leaves that also differ in color--from dullish gray, green to reddish.

The tea tree is valued beyond its showy appeal for its usefulness in a landscape, said Kyle Puerner of Green Meadow Nursery in Camarillo.

"They are real suitable for hedges or screens," Puerner said. "Maybe there's a spot in your yard you want to screen out--like between your yard and your neighbor's. Some of these are tight, tall growing shrubs that would work well." Other types with a more stunted growth are best suited for ground cover, he said.

When choosing a tree, you need to think about the location where it will be planted. For example, if you've chosen a spot alongside the house, near a window, beware of these fast-growing plants--they could eventually obstruct your view.

"I wouldn't put it anywhere that it needs to be pruned," said Nancy Downs of American Wholesale Nursery in Simi Valley. Heavy pruning will only serve to lessen the plant's attractiveness, she said.

This is not the plant to hack away at with a hedge shear, though selective pruning can help slow the plant's growth. But Downs said it's best to leave it be. "You just want to give it all the room it needs," she said.

Following are descriptions of just some of the scoparium varieties--most of which produce double blooms--grown at Green Meadow Nursery and available at other nurseries and stores throughout the county.

"Ruby Glow": compact, upright six to eight feet tall, dark reddish foliage, profuse with deep red flowers.

"Pink Pearl": six to 10 feet tall, blush pink to white flowers.

"Snow White": compact, two to four feet tall, white flowers with green centers.

"Helene Strybing": six to 10 feet tall, this type features single, pinkish flowers that are larger than most others.

Maybe the New Zealand tea tree's best trait is its gardener-friendly reputation. It just doesn't take a whole lot to get these plants going, Fujii said. Beyond providing it a sunny spot where it will have good soil drainage, they can be pretty much left to fend for themselves, he said. In fact, too much water or over-feeding can actually harm the plant.


* Green Thumb International, 1899 S. Victoria St., Ventura, 642-8517.

* Green Meadow Nursery, 10825 Santa Rosa Road, Camarillo, 482-4822.

* American Wholesale Nurseries, 5000 Bennet Road, Simi Valley, 582-2800.

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