The Next Miracle Tree: Tea Tree and Its Relatives

A little medicine, a little marketing.

| February/March 1994

Any plant product that’s touted as “nature’s miracle healer” and “medicine chest in a bottle”, as tea tree oil is on the American market, garners more than the normal degree of skepticism from this herbal curmudgeon. So when I traveled to Australia in the fall of 1992, one of my goals was to unlock the mystery of the tea tree: what it is, where it came from, how it’s perceived Down Under, and what all the hoopla is about. Of all the claims made for this plant, which are supported by fact and which are commercial hype?

In Australia, “tea tree” has long been a generic term for the aromatic trees of the myrtle family (Myrtaceae), especially the genera Melaleuca and Leptospermum, which abound in Australia and whose leaves are popular in beverage teas. Soon after my arrival, I attended a wild aboriginal food extravaganza in Neilson Park in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. The indigenous haute cuisine, which included emu sausages, pippies (a clamlike shellfish), kangaroo jerky, roasted moths, and witchetty grubs (large moth larvae), was washed down with a delightful lemon-flavored tea made from the leaves of the lemon tea tree (L. petersonii).

In international commerce, tea tree has come to refer to just one species, M. alternifolia, a shrub or small tree that grows to 18 feet tall. Like other members of the genus, it has a papery bark. The leaves are alternate, as the species name implies, and they’re less than 1/8 inch wide and rarely more than 3/4 inch long, tapering to a point at both ends, which makes the tree look like a short-needled conifer. During the summer, the cream-colored flowers form in loose spikes that resemble bottlebrushes. The nearly exclusive native range of this subtropical species is an area of about 100 square miles in the northeastern corner of New South Wales (north of Port Macquarie) and in southern Queensland, generally in swampy or wet ground.

Myrtle family members are as ubiquitous in Australia as are pines in the northern United States or oaks in the South. Australian forests contain hundreds of species of Eucalyptus, sixty or more of Melaleuca, and about twenty of Leptospermum. Among the many aromatic plants in Australia, M. alternifolia is second only to eucalyptus in economic importance. It probably could be grown in other subtropical regions of the world, including the extreme southern United States, but Australia protects this valuable asset, and people have been jailed for attempting to leave the country with propagation material.

Selling the Cure: The Early Years

During the late nineteenth century, when patent medicines were in their heyday, the Ti Ta Volatile Oil Company of Brisbane marketed a product called Ti-Ta which they claimed “cures all diseases”. The only ingredients listed on the label were oils from “a tree, moss, and fern indigenous to Northern Queensland.” Ti-Ta enjoyed only a short commercial life, and it might not even have contained M. alternifolia oil, but it set the stage for future development of Australia’s “ti tree”, later called tea tree.

Although research on its effectiveness was limited and the results were not definitive (see “The Scientific Record”, page 50), the late 1930s saw an increase in the use of tea tree oil, primarily in Australia, as a disinfectant in soaps and as a topical treatment for parasitic skin diseases; a glass of water with a couple of drops of tea tree oil was considered an excellent gargle for relief of sore throats in the early stages of inflammation.

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