Tea tree oils, extracts, lotions, shampoos, decongestants and other products are ubiquitous in the cosmetic and self-care industries. Even so, few of us living outside of Australia really stop to think about the plant from which this camphoraceous essential oil is derived.
The tea tree—aka, the narrow-leaved paperbark or snow-in-summer—is more scientifically called Melaleuca alternifolia. As mentioned, it’s an Australian native, the leaves of which have been used by indigenous peoples as an herbal medicine for thousands of years. Though toxic if ingested, the oil extracted from the leaves can be safety used on the skin surface to fight ailments such as:
- fungal infections, like athlete’s foot
One study even showed that tea tree oil has an inhibiting effect on the pathogenic bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause a number of infections.
For the budding herbalist, tea tree is an excellent plant to have around the house. Like an Aloe vera in the kitchen window for the treatment of burns, a tea tree plant can provide a useful home remedy for a number of skin complaints. The essential oil can easily be extracted with steam, oils and fats, or with solvents like alcohol.
In their natural range, tea trees grow in water-saturated, riparian or swampy soils. Therefore, in cultivation, they require more or less constant access to water in order to thrive. Temperature-wise, they are reportedly hardy in USDA zones 8 to 11, meaning their lower cold-hardiness limit is around 10 degrees F.
Don’t be deterred, however, if you cannot cultivate tea trees outdoors in your climate: Provided a heavy, lime-free soil that is low in nitrogen (read: lay off the fertilizer), tea trees can thrive in a large pot in a sunny window, as long as they are watered frequently.
Beyond their usefulness, they are attractive and aromatic trees. Their delicate thin leaves give the appearance of a conifer, which makes a spray of silky white blossoms all the more surprising. Often times, young trees can be found among the tropicals at a nursery. Barring that, seeds are available for purchase online.
I grow my little tea tree sapling alongside a bay laurel (Laurus nobilis). Provided frequent pruning of both foliage and roots, useful little trees like these don’t have to become larger than a bonsai in a kitchen window.