Tea Tree: The Protector

Every plant has a story; we are surrounded by flora that has their own pasts, their own connections to cultures, mythology and rituals.The much-loved Australian native Tea Tree is one such plant. Popularised in Australia for its therapeutic essential oil in the 1970’s, these plants have a secret life of their own which existed for many thousands of years before their modern day resurrection. There are many plants like this in Australia, and around the world, with stories that go far beyond the kitchen or the medicine cabinet.

Growing up I was lucky enough to get taken on many bush walks. As a kid with a wild imagination I would transport myself back thousands of years in time and pretend I was foraging with my clan to gather water and plants to take to my camp for making dinner.

I remember collecting rocks and feathers, but most of all, picking eucalyptus and tea tree leaves and crushing them in my hand, instinctively sniffing their unmatched scent. It smelled so good and somehow made me feel better. Little did I know that this was more or less how the leaves had been used for thousands of years.

The Australian native Tea Tree, Melaleuca alternifolia, is a unique plant found only in one region of Australia. It is one of the few native Australian plants that has survived a transfer over from Indigenous to mainstream culture. Traditionally, it was used to treat wounds as well as skin ailments and not surprisingly, the leaves were crushed and inhaled to alleviate colds and coughs. Today, the essential oil distilled from the leaves of the plant is prized the world over for it’s anti-bacterial and anti-fungal prowess.

Tea tree oil is an invaluable addition to any medicine cabinet as it has multiple uses and can replace many synthetic products. It is most commonly used as a natural antiseptic, with proven, powerful anti-bacterial properties making it perfect for applying on cuts and scrapes. Not only does it fight the infection but it promotes fast healing of wounds.

It also has anti-fungal properties, which help fight athlete’s foot and nail infections, as well as candida overgrowth. Tea tree oil has gained popularity over the past 40 years or so since steam distillation of essential oils became possible on a commercial scale. Of course, this is only a smidge of time compared to the thousands of years that the Bundjalung people of Eastern Australia used the leaves for various medicinal uses.

The trees are endemic to south eastern Queensland and northern New South Wales. There, they can be found in abundance along the shores of fresh water lakes where they stain the water a rich brown tint from the tannins produced in their leaves. So revered was the anti-bacterial potency or ‘protective’ quality of the plants that the tea tree lakes were reserved for women only and were sacred places used for child birthing ceremonies.

Some of these lakes still hold significant spiritual meaning to the local custodians of the land and are used for rituals today. If you are lucky enough to swim in a tea tree lake it leaves you feeling incredibly refreshed. You can recreate the experience by adding a few drops to your bath at home and soaking up the beautiful, natural vapours that steam up from the water.

Adding a few drops to an oil burner can have a positive effect on your mood; in aromatherapy, tea tree is said to have a calming and uplifting effect. The story goes that Captain James Cook observed the Bundjalung steeping the leaves to make a healing tea. Soon enough people were heading out to the bush with mobile, wood-fired distillation carts to hand harvest and steam distill the oils from the leaves. During World War II, tea tree, along with eucalyptus oil was a highly recommended addition to first aid kits.

Very often today, our only experience of a plant is superficial, removed from its natural surroundings. This is the case with pretty much all of the food we eat, flowers we buy and the natural medicine we seek out. How important is it to know the story of a plant? Some might say it’s not important at all. However, I would suggest that if not for the reverence and first hand knowledge of local gathers over hundreds and thousands of years who selected specimens for superior flavour, healing capabilities, or striking beauty, that food/flower/natural medicine would not be in your home today.

Although I can’t venture into the bush and harvest fresh leaves everyday, as I look at the little brown glass bottle of essential oil in my bathroom, I’m comforted knowing it’s ancestry lies not in a lab, but by a lake in northern New South Wales.