The Benefits, Uses, and History of Tea Tree Oil & The Tea Tree Plant
Brace yourself with the refreshing, cleansing power of this small tree, native to Australia.
Plant name (Latin): Melaleuca alternifolia
Plant family: Myrtaceae
Native region: Australia, particularly Queensland and New South Wales
Growing habit: A small, shrub-like tree with a bushy crown and papery bark
Parts used: Leaves and twigs
Essential oil extraction method: Steam distillation
About Tea Tree Oil
The tea tree is native to Australia and have been widely used in alternative medicine for more than a century, and as traditional medicine even longer. While you shouldn’t follow Captain James Cook’s lead and make tea from the leaves--it can be poisonous if taken internally--tea tree essential oil has many uses in cleansing, soothing irritated skin, and encouraging deep breathing. And if that isn’t enough, Meghan Markle is a fan, carrying this simple cure-all wherever she goes.
Why Use Tea Tree Oil
Pungently fresh, tea tree balances skin with its refreshing and clearing properties. Beneficial for soothing irritated skin and encouraging deep breathing.
How and Where the Tea Tree Grows
The tea tree is a small tree that grows to a height of about 20 feet, with a bushy crown and whitish, papery bark. Just like birch and aspen trees, the bark of a tea tree appears to peel off in continuous strips. The soft leaves look almost like needles: they can be up to an inch long but are usually only a millimetre wide. The leaves are arranged alternately along either side of the branches, a growing habit that gives tea tea its scientific name: alternifolia is a botanical term meaning "having leaves that alternate on each side of a stem. Tree trees flower briefly in spring or early summer, forming masses of spikes in white or cream, making the trees appear fluffy with bloom.
Tea trees are native to Australia, and are found particularly in New South Wales and Queensland. Tea trees like to grow along streams and in swampy places.
The name “tea tree” is given to several plants in the melaleuca family, but the Australian tea tree industry is centred around the variety known as melaleuca alternifolia. The tea tree essential oil industry started in the 1920s, when the healing qualities of tea tree oil began to be recognized by newcomers to the region, and large commercial plantations started in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s. Since the 80s, several tea trees have been cultivated for their oil in a few parts of the world, including Tunisia, Egypt, Malaysia, Vietnam and the United States.
Tea Tree in All Its Forms
Tea Tree Essential Oil
Used in aromatherapy to relieve symptoms related to acne, herpes, warts, insect bites, colds and flu. Is sometimes referred to as 'liquid sunshine' for its ability to brighten your mood and your outlook.
Tea trees are considered easy to grow outdoors in plant hardiness zones 9 through 11, and can be grown indoors with some care and attention. They may not flower when kept indoors, because they rely on insect pollinators. If you live in an appropriate zone, you can move your potted tea tree to an outdoor area during warm weather to attract bees and encourage the plant to produce flowers. Remember that tea tree leaves and twigs produce a powerful oil and should be kept well away from children and pets.
Tea Tree Oil in Ayurveda
In Ayurveda, tea tree oil is thought to have cooling and moisturizing properties, and is equally effective on all three doshas. It is considered to be very beneficial for the skin, respiratory system and nervous system. Within Ayurveda, tea tree oil is thought to:
- Benefit the skin and hair with its cleansing properties
- Benefit the respiratory system
- Calm, soothe and encourage the mind when affected by stress, fear or fatigue
The Symbolism of the Tea Tree
The scientific name for tree tree plants, Melaleuca alternifolia, comes from a Greek and a Latin source. Melaleuca comes from a combination of the Greek ‘melamelas’ (black) and ‘leukos’ (white), referring to the characteristic black trunk and young white branches. The Latin word, ‘alternifolia’, is a formal biological term meaning having leaves that grow on alternate sides of stem.
Tea tree plants have an important place in Australian Aboriginal myth. In 1995, Dr. Alan Twomey described an important myth of the Bundjalung people concerning the tea tree. In the myth, Princess Eelemani has to undertake a long journey on an unknown trail through the bushland of coastal New South Wales. She worried that she might not be able to find her way back to her family and her true love. Eelemani spoke to the gods, and was rewarded with special seeds to sow along the trails.
When she scattered the seeds, they grew instantly, seeking the sunlight above. The papery, white bark was different than any of the other trees. At night, the white tea tree bark reflected the moonlight, marking the trail, and helping to protect and guide Eelemani. She felt very safe, and thanked the gods for their generosity and care. Over time, the Bundjalung people discovered that Eelemani’s trees could help protect them, as well, against things like skin conditions.
The History of the Tea Tree
Tea trees have been known and used by the Bundjalung people of Australia for years and years. They became known to the other cultures when Captain James Cook observed the Bundjalung making healing herbal infusions with the tea tree leaves. Cook and his crew used tea tree to brew tea and beer (neither are recommended, as taking tea tree internally can be poisonous).
The Science of Tea Tree Oil
Commercial tea tree oil production began in Australia in the 1920s, after chemist Arthur Penfold began to study its qualities. Penfold, a chemist and museum curator, was interested in the medicinal properties and commercial potential of various essential oils gathered from Australian plants. Penfold found that tea tree essential oil was 13 times stronger than carbolic acid, a commonly used disinfectant in the 20s.
By World War II, tea tree was a popular remedy, and Australia soldiers carried it in their first aid kits. The development of antibiotics caused interest in natural remedies to wane for a time after World War II, but by the 1970s, interest in natural products was growing around the world, and large-scale commercial production of tea tree essential oil began.
Today, tea tree continues to be one of the most popular essential oils, both as an inhaled oil and in topical applications when mixed with a carrier oil.