The Bundjalung nation has a legend of the beautiful Princess Eelamani who had to travel through the bushland of coastal New South Wales. The journey was perilous, so she asked the spirits of the earth for help. Rewarding Eelamani for her purity and devotion, they granted her the world's first Tea Tree seeds, to sow in the moist, fertile forest soil along her path.
As the Princess dropped each seed to the ground it sprouted roots and shoots that shot up toward the stars in the night sky. The trees were beautiful; lime green pointed leaves and diaphanous white flowers, with each gust of wind filling the Princess's nostrils with the trees' green, citrusy scent. Their white paper bark reflected the silver glow of the moon, like mother of pearl, illuminating a safe path for Eelamani. Over eons, the trees flourished and the descendants of Eelamani, the Budjalung people, learned of their magical properties. Just as the trees had kept Eelamani safe on her treacherous journey, they would protect the Bundjalung people from infection and illness.
Early European settlers observed the Budjalung crushing the Tea Tree leaves into a poultice to treat wounds, held down by strapping made from paperbark. The leaves were crushed to release their therapeutic oils to be inhaled for coughs or brewed into healing tisanes for sore throats and stomach ailments. Upon seeing this, Captain James Cook named the plant Tea Tree and his crew commenced using the leaves as a substitute for tea leaves as well as an ingredient in a bootleg beer recipe. In 1842, botanists named the species Melaleuca alternifolia, officially recognising the Tea Tree’s unique medicinal qualities.
Tea Trees grow most abundantly in northern NSW and Southern Queensland, an area traditionally named Bungawalbyn, which translates to “healing ground”. In the 20th century, Bungawalbyn Basin became the birthplace of the commercial Tea Tree industry, where several cultivars would be developed including Bush and Lemon-Scented. Tea Trees can reach seven meters and their pointed leaves remain green throughout the year. Its fluffy white spired flowers are pollinated by colourful native birds. Its precious essential oil is distilled from the plant's leaves and twigs.
Fragrance Profile of Tea Tree
The dominant fragrance notes of this clear essential oil are camphor-like and medicinal. There is a distinct bitter, earthiness reminiscent of Eucalyptus and a green, aromatic quality that subtly hints at menthol mintiness. Plants like cajeput, which have a similar odor, are closely related, both belonging to the Melaleuca species. In turn, Melaleucas belong to the Myrtaceae family, which includes myrtles, the bay rum tree, clove, and eucalyptus, and chemically, there are many similarities between their essential oils, but varying in concentration.
Tea Tree, A Natural Antimicrobial
Research into the therapeutic constituents of Tea Tree began with Australian chemist Arthur Penfold when he published his findings of its antimicrobial potential. Clinical trials have shown that it is effective in treating a broad range of infectious conditions. One of Tea Tree’s most important constituents is terpinene-4-ol, which is significantly antiseptic. It works by attacking the structure of bacterial cells, stopping them from growing, reproducing, and eventually killing them.
Anti-Inflammatory Ability of Tea Tree Oil
The European Medicines Agency suggests Tea Tree oil is an effective treatment for "small superficial wounds, insect bites and small boils" and can help with relieving itching and minor cases of athlete’s foot. A 2012 review found Tea Tree oil accelerates the wound healing process by reducing skin inflammation. Several randomised controlled studies showed a significant decline in acne inflammation with the application of 5% concentration Tea Tree oil gel, being over five times more effective than the placebo.
This article was written in collaboration with Australian Oils of Nature, the Sydney based essential oil supplier. If you are interested in reading more about any of the essential oils mentioned here, follow the links below.