Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) is a botanical tree highly valued for its oil used in traditional medicine. It is considered as a “medicine chest in a bottle” with its effective antiseptic property. Before they end up in the bottle for consumption, tea trees are just small trees or shrubs with a fluffy appearance and papery barks. The cream-colored flowers and soft linear leaves are the distinguishing characteristics of the tea tree. Processed Melaleuca oil plays an important role in the treatment of skin problems and respiratory symptoms.
Of the many tea tree species, the most popular among aromatherapists is the Melaleuca alternifolia, but not to be confused with Leptospermum scoparium. The former is an Australian variety of tea trees, while the latter is a New Zealand Manuka. Melaleuca leaves are the source of tea tree oils, while the manuka is valued for the honey sourced from its flowers. But while tea tree is effective against skin diseases and bacterial infection, raw and pure tea tree oil are toxic. It should be cultivated and processed properly and should be kept away from children’s reach.
Short History Of Tea Tree
Long before the invention of penicillin, tea tree was already recognized as a potent antibacterial solution in the form of tea.
The name tea tree came from the notion of brewing the leaves of the trees. The infusion was not only used for drinking but also in treating skin infections.
The medical community began to explore and experiment on the effective properties of the tea tree. Studies yield effective antibacterial and antifungal properties that are not caustic or burning for the skin. They became a staple and effective treatment when the foot-fungus became widespread in 1923.
Today, the tea tree is an ingredient not only for beauty and antimicrobial products. It is also marketed as an active ingredient in mouthwash, toothpaste, deodorants, and shampoo. Some cleaning and disinfectant like toilet products and handwash also contain tea tree properties.
Where The Plant Is Found
Endemic to Australia, tea trees are abundant in the swampy areas and streams where they can get moist soil and full sun. It borders New South Wales and the coastal district of Queensland. Northern Australia hosts about 6.4 million hectares of its forest to different varieties of the Melaleuca.
Tea trees are also easy to grow in USDA hardiness zones 9 to 11. They may be grown indoors, though more tedious than the outdoors. However, they are preferred to be grown indoors when living in hardiness zones below 9 or 8.
Other countries like China, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Kenya also cultivate tea trees for commercial essential oil production.
How To Identify Tea Tree
Tea trees appear like low trees or high shrubs with a fluffy look. It is a member of the Myrtaceae family with many species. They may grow either as a high shrub or a low tree ranging from 4 to 7 meters tall, while some species can go as high as 35 meters. Aside from their essential oils, tea trees are also grown as fence or garden edging because of their attractive appearance.
- Leaf. Tea tree leaves are linear and are either arranged alternately or in whorls. It is smooth, soft, and narrow, with no more than 35mm long and 1mm wide in green or dark grey color. These leaves have glands where their essential oils are abundantly located.
- Flower. Many-flowered spikes with cream or white color bloom from the tea tree in spring and early summer. This mass of spikes gives it a kind of wispy appearance that lasts for only a short period.
- Roots. As a member of the Myrtaceae family, the tea tree has a taproot and is branched.
- Stem. A tea tree can grow like a big shrub or a small tree with flaky bark. Hence, it also earned the name paper-bark for its exfoliate stem.
- Seeds. Melaleuca seed capsules contain fine and tiny globular seeds. These seeds are contained in the fruit cup indefinitely until the plant dies or gets heated in a bush fire.
Tea tree is also planted for stabilizing embankment. It makes not only an attractive fence but also an excellent windbreak. Tea trees have about 300 varieties that are also an excellent source of other types of oils and honey. Some of the popular species of Melaleuca are: Melaleuca linariifolia and Melaleuca quinquenervia.
How To Grow Tea Tree
Tea trees enjoy moist, but well-drained soil and mostly a full sun. They are drought-tolerant, but not frost tolerant. Hence, it is ideal to grow them in places with a warm climate, or as a potted indoor plant in temperate climates. You can propagate tea trees from cuttings or grow them from seeds. Either way, it is an easy and low-maintenance plant that is fast-growing once it has established itself.
Growing Tea Tree from Seeds
The best seeds for planting a tea tree are those that are already 1 to 2 years old. Its germination is straightforward and does not require any treatment before sowing.
You can simply sprinkle tea tree seeds in a pre-drained mixture of peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, or coarse sand. Cover it lightly with perlite or fine sand, just enough to prevent air exposure yet allow sunlight exposure.
Make sure that your germinating tray receives at least six hours of sun. But you should provide a little light during midday by draping a light cloth over it. The tea tree seeds will germinate for about 14 to 30 days.
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You may transplant the tea tree seedlings once they are about 3-inches high and has a set of leaves. Mix half soil and half sand in a pot and dig a 4-inch hole. Plant a seedling into the hole and place it in a sheltered area outdoors. Water them with 2-inches water every seven to ten days when transplanting in summer. You should also provide a light shade for the new seedlings during their first summer. Tea trees are best for transplanting to their permanent position in autumn.
Growing Tea Tree from Cuttings
Melaleuca is also propagated from cuttings, which is more reliable than seed growing if you already have an existing plant. Cut about 75 to 100 mm of the plant with the leaves removed from the lower half portion. Remove a slice of the bark and soak this in a rooting hormone solution to encourage rooting.
Taking Care of Tea Tree Plants
Here are some important tips for growing a tea tree plant successfully.
- Tea tree thrives in full sun and little shade.
- They grow in either acidic or neutral soil as long as it is moist.
- Water the plants regularly during the hot summer.
- Irrigate the plants daily if planting on a pot.
How To Harvest Tea Tree
Tea tree has no other edible parts. Its usefulness is limited to the oil extracted from its leaves and twigs. Tea tree oil is the primary reason why tea tree is cultivated, and the secondary reason is for its ornamental value. That is why tea tree is often planted in wide plantation fields for higher product yield.
The tea tree leaves to be used in production are harvested once the plant is about two meters high. It is also pruned and gathered every 12 to 18 months to encourage new plant growth.
When harvesting tea trees, timing is important so as not to hamper future yields. The best time is when the lower leaf starts to drop off, and the stem is not yet too thick. It is also necessary to gather tea tree leaves during warm seasons instead of wet or freezing months.
Tea tree growers mechanically harvest them using a forage harvester to cut off the aerial growth. The forage harvester also chops the gathered parts to make them ready for steam distillation and oil extraction.
What Tea Tree Is Good For And Natural Remedies Made From It
Traditionally, crushed tea tree leaves were used for treating skin infections by applying them to the area with a warm mudpack. Its wood was also useful to the aborigines in making rafts and timber for roofing.
Until now, tea tree forests have had prominent roles in coastal areas. They serve as a natural trap for debris and in the prevention of soil erosion. They also serve as a habitat for aquatic animals, just like mangroves.
The tea tree foliage is also valuable in pharmacological and medical fields. Tea tree oil has potent antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties. It makes tea tree oil a significant ingredient in most cosmetic, health care, and animal care products.
Tea tree oil’s best uses are for treating the following conditions:
- Skin conditions (Acne, psoriasis, carbuncle, fungal infections, blemishes, warts, etc.)
- Mouth and gum problems (Gingivitis, bad breath, canker sores)
- Hair fall problems
- Respiratory symptoms
- Body odor
- Insect bites
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What Parts Of Plants Are Used For Remedies
The tea tree leaves and young twigs are the most valuable part of the M. alternifolia. Traditionally, it is crushed and inhaled to clear breathing and alleviate respiratory symptoms. Steam distillation of its leaves produces the popular tea tree oil that is bottled and sold commercially.
Tea Tree Rejuvenating Bath Blend for Sore Muscles
- 1 cup Epsom salt
- ¼ cup Himalayan salt
- ¼ cup baking soda
- 10 drops tea tree essential oil
- In a mixing bowl, combine the Epsom salt and Himalayan salt and mix thoroughly.
- Add the baking soda and mix well.
- Add the drops of tea tree essential oil into the mixture and mix until well combined.
- Pour the finished product in cool and dry canning or mason jars.
How to Use the Remedy
Add about ¼ to ½ cups of the mixture to a warm bath. The proportion depends on the size of the bath. Completely dissolve the salts in the water to avoid slipping. You can use this rejuvenating bath to relieve sore muscles, congestion, and inflammation.
Store in a cool and dry place. With the addition of tea tree essential oil, this bath soak will last for up to 3 months.
What Plants Resemble Tea Tree
|Flowers||Many-flowered spikes; wispy and fluffy; cream or white-colored||Spike cluster; wispy; white or cream-colored|
|Leaves||Alternate; linear; 1-35mm long, under 1mm wide||Alternate; linear; 55 to 120mm long|
|Scent||Crisp and earthy scent||Camphor-like aroma|
|Size||4 to 7 meter tall||8 to 15 meter tall|
|Stem/Trunk||Paper-bark trunk||Paper-bark trunk|
Warnings And Cautions:
Tea tree is a safe topical solution when applied to the skin. It is also safe for breastfeeding and pregnant women and children. However, experts warned against using pure and raw tea tree oil. It may cause allergic reactions, skin irritation, or contact dermatitis. To test product tolerance, apply a small amount of tea tree oil to the skin before using it.
The tea tree plant and its essential oil are inedible and toxic. It is, therefore, not safe for oral consumption. Ingestion of essential oil can cause serious side effects like confusion, rashes, or even coma.
Avoid using tea tree oil near the eye as it can damage the mucous membrane. When using essential oil or any alternative, it is best to consult your doctor, especially if using it with conventional medical treatment.