TEA TREE (Melaleuca alternifolia – Myrtaceae)
The tea tree is small, growing to 7 m (23 ft), with small, soft, narrow leaves and cream, showy, bottlebrush-like flowers which produce small, closely-set woody capsules on the branches. It is a paperbark tree closely related to the M. leucadendron which produces cajuput oil and M. viridiflora, which produces niaouli. The tea tree flourishes only in a relatively small area of New South Wales, one of some 34 species of Melaleuca unique to Australia. Long used as a bush remedy by the early white settlers of the continent, it was not until after the First World War that any serious study of the oil and its application to orthodox medicine was begun, but from the 1920s until the Second World War, its fame grew. It was supplied to the Royal Australian Navy and to the Army in 1939 but after that, the output diminished. The tree grows in fairly dangerous environments for it thrives in dense thickets in marshes also greatly loved by spiders, snakes, mosquitoes and other biting and poisonous creatures. At this time chemical drugs, too, superseded the natural remedies until in the 1970s tea tree oil once again returned to the medical and commercial forefront. It has now become a major industry in Australia, and a major force in healing.
TEA TREE ESSENTIAL OIL
Description: This is steam distilled from the leaves and terminal branchlets of the tree. A bush still of 1600 litres (350 gallons) capacity holds half a metric tonne of fresh leaves, takes 2 – 3 hours to distil, and yields 7 -10 kg (15 -22 lb) of oil.
This is colourless to pale yellow, is clear and mobile, and smells firm and spicy, characteristically myristic or nutmeg-like, a masculine sort of smell.
The principal constituents: Terpenes (50 – 60 per cent), cineol, sesquiterpenes and sesquiterpenic alcohols.
In 1933 the British Medical Journal reported that the oil was a powerful disinfectant, non-poisonous and non-irritant, and in 1930 the Australian Medical Journal reported astounding results gained in general practice, ranging from rapid healing of septic wounds to scar regeneration:
, … a striking feature being that it dissolved pus and left the surfaces of infected wounds clear so that its germicidal action became more effective and without any apparent damage to the tissues. This was something new, as most germicides destroy tissue as well as bacteria.’ (E.M. Humphrey)
In 1955, the United States Dispensatory reported that tea tree oil was actively germicidal – with an antiseptic action eleven to thirteen times that of carbolic acid.
As a germicide, it was tested in Australia in 1980 in a solution of only 4 parts essential oil to 1000 parts water. Against virulent organisms such as Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans, the results were, at 7, 21 and 35 days, no growth detected for any organism. (As a result of this, tests are now being carried out on the virus responsible for genital herpes and the potent typhoid bacillus.)
As a bacteriostat, results from a skin sterilization trial conducted in 1983 by and at the Associated Foodstuff Laboratories of Australia, were amazing. Using swabs, the bacteria count on unwashed hands was over 3,000 per 50 cm (20 in); the count on hands after washing in distilled water was over 2,000 per 50 cm (20 in); after washing in tea tree oil, the bacteria was less than 3 per 50 cm (20 in), the bacteria actually not detectable. Think how effective a single drop could be, simply added to dish washing-up water.
The oil also has an application in burn treatment, gynaecological conditions such as trichomonal vaginitis, skin ailments and ear, nose, throat and mouth infections. The potential use of tea tree oil could extend to baby care, hospital, dental and domestic products, and veterinary medicine and indeed commercial companies are now exploring many of these avenues.
I have used the oil very successfully in curing a septic finger (see page vii), and it has proved very effective in inhalations for colds and ‘flu, for skin abrasions, and for acne, applied on a cotton bud. As first aid, it is better than anything else I know.
(See also abscesses and boils, anthrax, athlete’s foot, bronchitis, chest infections, chilblains, cold sores, cuts and wounds, fever, folliculitis, hayfever, headaches, impetigo, mouth ulcers, neuralgia, pneu¬monia, sinusitis and stings and bites.)