Manuka Tree - History of the Manuka Tree

Leptospermum 06-230x153The following article is adapted from an interesting historical story that was told to me by Nicholas Murray-Leslie, proud owners of the New Zealand Coromandel Mountains Tea Tree Oil Company Ltd. in Whitianga. 

New Zealand’s unique geographically climate is home to some very unusual plants. One of the oldest species of these plants is called Tea Tree (Leptospermum) and has grown here for millions of years. It survives best in low, marshy ground but is so hardy that it can be found on high in mountain slopes; even snow-covered and wind driven and often by the coast. Today its hybrid forms are found in many countries around the world.

In its millions of years of development Tea Tree has been attacked by animals, disease and fungus, insects and predation, humankind, and even viruses. Through all these attacks, the surviving New Zealand Tea Trees have evolved their own system of defence. One of these defences is the development of aromatic oil carried in thousands of minute sacks underneath each leaf. This oil contains antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory and antiseptic qualities that not only help the Tea Tree to survive but also do the same for us.

Small white crystals surrounding the edge of each leaf can be seen with a microscope. These crystal sacks contain Leptospermone, an antibiotic which is one of the active factors in the oil and is also found in some Tea Tree honeys.

New Zealand Tea Tree is generally found in two varieties: Manuka and Kanuka. However there is a third. Traditionally the Kanuka variety is called the ‘king’. It can grow to about 30metres/100.2feet metres high. Some trees growing wild on the Coromandel Peninsula are over 150 years old and still flowering each year!

Birds frequently feed on their seeds carry them away and dropping some that soon create new life. Kanuka’s botanical name is Leptospermum ericoides, sometimes called the White Tea Tree. Then there is Manuka, the ‘Mother’, with slightly bigger flowers ranging in colour from white to strong pink. Many of today’s beautiful and most decorative hybrid Tea Trees have been hybridized from this original species. Now they appear in everything from groundcovers, upright and weeping shrubs to small trees. Flower forms are single to fully double ranging from white through every shade of pink to deepest garnet red and burgundy plus multi-tonal forms. They now are found in many parts of the world in both hemispheres and apparently spread widely through Tropical and South America all the way to China.

Often the original wild species are found in lower altitudes in damp areas, but the Manuka is just as prolific as the Kanuka and also grows side by side with it in mountainous areas. The Manuka does not grow as tall (usually 5m/16ft by 3m/9ft) and is identified by its rather prickly leaf and much bigger clusters of seeds. It can be a darker green and is botanically known as Leptospermum scoparium.

Leptospermum Sinclairii, the ‘Child’, is much rarer; found only on Great Barrier Island and growing no taller than one metre. All three are endemic to New Zealand (they only grow naturally here). Worldwide the versatile Leptospermum has adapted and changed into well over 100 distinct species and many hundreds of hybrids. But none are as helpful to Humans and versatile as the original New Zealand Tea Trees.

The New Zealand Tea Tree plant and oils should not be confused with the Australian Melaleuca alternifolia plant which is known as the Australian Tea Tree or Paper Bark. This is a completely different decorative small tree often grown commercially in man-made plantations. It has thin almost needle-like leaves and is a close relative of the Callistemon with short spikes of white Bottle Brush flowers. There are 200 species mostly native to the Australian region and nearby tropical islands. They have spread widely throughout the tropical zones and have become dangerously flammable weed trees in some regions like Florida where they are sometimes called ‘Cajeput’. The oil it produces is equally as aromatic and beneficial but its scent is somewhat sweeter and more commonly sold commercially than the New Zealand Tea Tree oil which is much sharper and stronger in scent with the hint of turpentine pine.

The name Tea Tree originated first with the New Zealand Tea Tree after it was given this name by the explorer James Cook when he visited New Zealand in 1769. The ship’s crew of the Endeavour were searching for ways to remedy scurvy and other disabilities. They soon discovered that Leptospermum made a medicinally helpful drink that tasted similar to tea and later found ways of using the plant as a cure for many medical problems. The early settlers continued to use Tea Tree and found many more ways of using it.

Scientific studies are continuing, today in universities and laboratories in New Zealand, United Kingdom, France and Italy, to probe the possibilities that wild New Zealand Tea Tree oil can be used for its medicinal and curative properties.

History shows that on July 13th, 1769, Cook and the Endeavour sailed out of Tahiti. On board were explorer and botanist Sir Joseph Banks and the expedition’s botanist Dr Daniel Solander.

The ship visited islands around Tahiti and then on August 9th the order was given and the compass set to sail south. So the little ship with about 100 people on board searched the Pacific for the distant and largely uncharted and unknown southern lands.

At 2pm on October 7th, Nicholas Young called from the masthead that he had seen land. This was the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Following the east coast on a north to north westerly heading the ship’s company then experienced various, often unfriendly, encounters with the Maori.

On November 5th they found safe anchorage in a well protected bay now called Mercury Bay and close to the Purangi River where they went ashore. The Bay gets its name as this was the place chosen for Cook to observe the transit of Mercury. It is now part of Whitianga, Waikato, Coromandel. The ship stayed in Mercury Bay for 11 days. The local Maori were friendly and traded with the ship. Cook was greeted by a local chief and shown the fortified Pa called Wharetaewa on the tip of the peninsula.

Inside the village they were shown edible roots and experienced the life of the local people. It may well be at this time that Cook and Dr. Solander examined and tasted the Manuka plant, which they later named Tea Tree. The plant was catalogued, drawn and printed in his account of his voyages, held in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. It is believed that the Maori of Mercury Bay may have explained their use of Tea Tree and other plants.
On this first voyage Cook made beer with the Manuka leaves and Rimu twigs. He also found a treatment for diarrhoea when the crew learned to chew the Manuka seeds. Some people living on the Coromandel Peninsula still do this today. Decoctions of the leaves were used to reduce fever and treat colds. Preparations of the bark were used as sedatives.

For diarrhoea they chewed mature Manuka seeds, inner barks of Totara and Manuka were boiled.  The liquid produced becomes sweetish and is used to reduce fever. An infusion of the bark of Kowhai and Manuka is drunk for internal pains and applied externally to pains in the back and side.

In following years the early settlers learned to used Manuka preparations to reduce fever, treat colds and for various skin diseases and pain relief. The Kanuka decoction was used in early medicine as a gargle for mouth ulcers and to treat cuts and burns. The leaves were put in hot water and the vapour inhaled for coughs and colds. The leaves were also used in vapour baths. A decoction of leaves is still used for urinary complaints. The Tea Tree’s white gum can be applied to scabs and burns and given to suckling infants. Kanuka can be taken by adults to allay coughing while an infusion of bark is used as a sedative. Sap drained from a length of the trunk is used as a blood and breath purifier. Leaves were boiled and the fluid produced was used externally to reduce inflammation and especially to relieve congestion of the breast.

Today knowledge has advanced to the point where a Boeing 747 carrying 400 people can cover the distance from Tahiti to Mercury Bay in six hours. At the same time, advances in medicine and science have shown how to extract many beneficial products from New Zealand Tea Tree and its’ counterpart in Australia.

The base of these products is the essential oil taken from the leaves of the Kanuka and Manuka by popping, the small sacs under the leaves. The oils are extracted at relatively low temperatures to retain the qualities of the plant.

The oils are made into products like soothing medical soap, which cleanses the skin by the actions of Manuka on the surface and the lighter density Kanuka oils working deep into the skin.

Now toothpaste is being developed along with other natural products for export to other countries where Doctors and Dentists have observed the benefits of the unique New Zealand plant. Tea Tree oil is often used as an air freshener and to eradicate foul odours. It is used for bathing and soothing tired and aching feet. The oil is useful in compresses and poultices. It is an essential oil in vaporisers and is frequently used to combat colds, coughs and sore throat. It makes an effective mouthwash plus is the essential ingredient in a wide assortment of creams, hair care products and lotions. There are few other plants in the world that are as beneficial to Humankind as New Zealand’s classic Tea Tree.

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