The Eucalpyt: Medicine & Magic

On the 15th of December 1847 a young man arrived in Adelaide, South Australia and quickly fell in love with the flora of the fledgling colony. Trained as a pharmacist in Husum, Germany; Ferdinand von Mueller was also an enthusiastic botanist. During his early years in the colony he practiced his profession occasionally and tried his hand at farming but quickly abandoned both as they interfered with his botanizing.

A few years later he headed east and in 1853 was appointed government botanist by La Trobe. His enthusiasm for Australia’s endemic species knew few bounds. Between recommending the genus Acacia as a source of tannin for the processing of leather, finding gold in the Ovens valley and documenting as many species as he could, our hero joined the North Australian Exploring Expedition to the interior as botanist under the guidance of Augustus Gregory – an explorer who quietly went about his business, led successful expeditions, and unlike Burke and Wills never became startlingly famous, probably because he went where he was going and returned safely without losing so much as a horse.

On Ferdinand von Mueller’s return he was appointed founding director of the Royal Melbourne Botanic Gardens, establishing a herbarium and beginning to publish his extensive research on Australian plants.

He was a passionate eucalyptologist, wrote the first book on these beautiful trees (Eucalyptographia) and encouraged Joseph Bosisto to distil oil from the genus, being convinced of its antiseptic and disinfectant properties. It’s worth noting also that he was one of the first people to speak out against the wholesale clearing of the forests, recognising the damage being done to the land through such indiscriminate acts. Bushwalkers in Australia will be familiar with his dark side though…his enthusiasm for economically useful plants led him to introduce the blackberry to rural Australia, thinking it would provide a source of nourishment to wanderers. It has become a scourge instead.

Channelling his inner pharmacist, von Mueller, perhaps noting that indigenous Australians used eucalyptus leaves to cure ringworm, rheumatism and fevers, advocated placing a branch of eucalyptus under each hospital bed to promote freshness of air and enhanced hygiene as an assistant in the return of good health.

How right he was; Eucalyptus oil is a splendid disinfectant capable of vanquishing Staphylococcus aureus, killing mites and ticks and combating fungal infections. Even honeys from certain species of eucalypt are said to have healing powers.

Thinking about the magical properties of the eucalyptus and the anti-microbial properties of that other great Australian product, wool, suggests to me that the best coverings for beds, whether in hospitals or in homes, would be eucalypt-dyed merino blankets.

Von Mueller would have been delighted to know that Eucalyptus cinerea (one of the hundreds of species he authored) is not only a significant honey tree but also the source of a vibrant red dye, the aroma of which, when wafting from the winter dye cauldron, clears the nasal passages of the dyer and possibly even kills a few unwanted micro-fauna lurking about the studio.

ps. Check out this interview with author of this story and botanical alchemist India Flint for more information on her dyeing practice.

Before: Eucalyptus & silk
After: Vibrant red silk dyed with Eucalpytus leaves