Original paper

Do Melaleuca ericifolia SM. leaves suppress organic matter decay in freshwater wetlands?

Bailey, Paul C.E. Watkins; Morris, Kay L.; Boon, Paul I.


Essential oils of paperbarks, Melaleuca spp., have been shown in laboratory studies to inhibit bacterial activity and slow the rate of cellulose decay. Field (Gippsland Lakes, south-eastern Victoria, Australia) and glasshouse experiments were conducted to test the hypothesis that leaves of Melaleuca ericifolia Sm. (the swamp paper-bark) suppressed the decay of leaf litter under conditions existing or mimicking those in natural wetlands. Under field conditions, neither brown nor green M. ericifolia leaves, at loadings that would normally occur in a typical paperbark wetland and over a range of leaf-mass ratios, significantly affected the decay rate of two common freshwater macrophytes, Triglochin procerum (water ribbon) and Phragmites australis (common reed). In contrast, glasshouse experiments showed that Melaleuca ericifolia leaves (both intact and ground, and both brown and green) suppressed decay of T. procerum when placed in moist conditions on the sediment surface. However, no inhibitory effect was observed when leaves were flooded. Purified, commercially available Melaleuca essential oil (extracted from Melaleuca alternifolia leaves) decreased the rate at which T. procerum leaves decayed under glasshouse conditions by as much as 43 %. As with entire leaves, the inhibitory effect of purified Melaleuca essential oil was greatest when the leaves were placed in moist, but not submerged, conditions. Experiments designed to test the possibility that the inhibition was due to a simple, physical (coating) effect rather than metabolic inhibition of microbes showed clearly that the effect was not due simply to the hydrophobic nature of essential oils. This study indicates that M. ericifolia leaf litter in freshwater wetlands probably exerts only a small effect on the rate at which leaves from other wetland plant species decay. Any inhibitory effect is likely to be greater after water levels drop (e.g., seasonally in a Mediterranean climate) and remaining leaf material is left moist on the surface of water logged sediments than when material is totally submerged, as during the wetland's high water phase.


decompositionessential oilsgippsland lakesphragmitestriglochin