melaleuca alternifolia

Melaleuca alternifolia

The Tree of Health

The tea tree is an incredibly powerful medicinal plant, and beautiful too.

There’s a lovely, peaceful valley not far from the Grow to Eat offices, a dirt road wending its way through litchi plantations and horsey smallholdings. And if you drive around a particular corner you will find yourself driving alongside row after row of funny looking conifers that you can’t quite identify. If you were to stop and pop your hand through the fence and crush some leaves the air would become fragrant with a healthy scent that you might not be able to put your finger on.

These are the plantations of 1000 Hills Essential Oils, and the scent you’d be smelling would be that of the wonderful tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia).

Tea tree is something of a miracle, if the claims made about its oil’s properties are true. I visited Heather and Neil Mather of 1000 Hills Essential Oils to find out more. Tea tree oil can be used to treat a range of maladies, from fungal infections to wounds and rashes.

Since they got started with tea trees a few years ago, which happened by mistake when they bought a smallholding that had an existing tea tree plantation on it, they have learned how to grow and process the plant and to distil the oil from it. Heather has also developed a range of health products based on tea tree oil as well as the hydrosol.

Hydrosol is a by-product of the oil extraction process, and it is very useful with a wide range of benefits. Essentially it is a 3% concentration of tea tree oil in the water used in the still.

Heather produces a gel, a cream, the hydrosol, a lip balm, soap in handy little cotton ‘socks’, an insect repellent, a liquid soap and a foot balm, all of which are produced by herself on site. Contact details: Heather Mather 084 554 0418. See1000 Hills Essential Oils on Facebook.

Growing it yourself

Tea trees are attractive garden plants though their primary usage is the oil extracted from the plant. Melaleuca alternifolia is a quick-growing, evergreen tree or large shrub up to 7m tall with fine, thinly pointed pale green leaves. Small creamy-white bottlebrush-like flowers appear in summer. The trees grow well in coastal conditions but can also withstand light frosts. Fresh sprigs rubbed onto windowsills and kitchen counters help control flies and mosquitoes. It will thrive in any soil but it needs full sun and a deeply dug and well-composted hole in which to get established. The secret is to cut it back to knee height every two or three years, to keep it vigorous, tidy and attractive.

An easy-to-make lotion of leaves, sprigs and pieces of bark is a superb wash or spray for bites, rashes, scratches, heat rash, itchiness, fungal infections, acne and oily skin, and can be used as a rinse for oily hair and athlete’s foot.

Why is it called the tea tree?

No, this isn’t the plant that your Five Roses comes from. Apparently the tea tree got its name around 1770 when Captain James Cook was gadding about in the New World adding things to maps. He ran out of tea and started making an infusion of the leaves from Melaleuca alternifolia, after which it gained its now common name. The tea is said to be spicy and refreshing, but modern medical advice recommends against ingesting it!

Tea tree cream

The leaves have healing and cleansing properties and, as a bonus, they keep the mosquitoes away. To make a beneficial skin cream, simmer 1½ cups of tea tree sprigs in 1-cup natural aqueous cream for 20 minutes (use a double boiler), then strain out the sprigs and store the cream in a glass jar. Three teaspoons of vitamin E oil mixed into the cream will help preserve it.

Natural aqueous cream also makes a good base for herbal moisturising creams and scrubs for problem skin.

Health benefits of tea tree oil Tea tree oil is: Antifungal, Antibacterial, Anti-inflammatory, Antiviral

This means that there is a tea tree oil product for everything from scrapes to sunburn, fungal infections to sore throats, shampoo… The list is endless. Tea tree essential oil is generally for external use only but does make a good mouth wash when diluted, which shouldn’t be swallowed.

The Gardener