Leaf of the Day: Australian Tea Tree

After Friday’s miserable weather, Saturday dawned bright and beautiful, far too nice to be slaving over a drawing board and we spent most of the day outside. Today was equally beautiful too and we walked for about 6 miles along the Econ Greenway for which I was rewarded with aching legs but a few nice Ear Tree pods, see previous post here.
But today’s leaf is from the wonderful Australian Tea Tree, Melaleuca Alternifolia, which is both pretty and useful. I walk past this modest little tree every time I go to Leu Gardens. It grows just by the path on the way down to the lake. I have to admit it is one tree I have put off drawing because the leaves are tiny and numerous but having written about the soapberry and its antibacterial properties, this seemed a natural follow on.

It is pretty and delicate with small needle like leaves growing the length of long swaying branches. In the summer it has correspondingly tiny white flowers and now the delightful seed capsules which are tiny too. This elegant branch has been in the fridge for a couple of days but if you crush the leaves you still get the gorgeous camphor like scent.
The beautiful flaking pale bark serves to protect the tree against fires because although it smolders, it seldom burns and so insulates the interior of the trunk from severe damage.

This is of course the Tea Oil Tree, native to New South Wales, Australia, which gives us the valuable and potent tea tree oil. If you google “tea tree oil” you get 395,000 hits and I don’t have time to plough through even half of them for this post. Suffice to say it is well known as a powerful natural topical medicine, the oils containing a cocktail of antibacterial, anti fungal and antiseptic chemicals. It was well known for centuries to the Aborigines in Australia who used an infusion of the crushed leaves as an inhalant to treat colds and for skin conditions and leaves would be sprinkled directly onto wounds. The commercial production of the oils was started in the 1920’s in Australia and like the soapberry, Tea Tree oil has been useful for the military as an addition to first aid kits in World War 2 and more recently as a treatment for soldiers in Iraq to help treat leishmaniasis, a disease caused by the bites of sand fleas.
Its most powerful action seems to be anti fungal , so useful for all manner of fungal infections. It can be found in beauty products, dental products, as treatments for head lice and insect bites, flu and colds, acne, MRSA, ringworm, athletes foot, dandruff, warts, and eczema. You can freshen up your home and get rid of musty pet and feet smells with spray made up with a few drops of oil in water.

Like all these things caution is advised! It is strong medicine and should not to be swallowed and usually should be diluted somewhat. There are some very good tips to make your own products on the Web and here is a simple page of uses which seem quite sensible and it isn’t selling anything. Go here.

I will be adding it to my Soapberry Suds liquid and I am going to try to make some shampoo too. I will report back.
Because of the small scale leaves they also make nice bonsai!

Images from the Australian Plant Index here

There is another melaleuca, Melaleuca quinquenervia a relative of the Tea Tree, which was introduced to South Florida in the early 1900s to dry up the wetlands but, like many other introduced species, it seems to have run amok in its new home and taken over vast areas of the Evergaldes and is now another on the pest list. They are locally known as punk trees due to the punky texture of the bark. This is a new use of the word “punk” to me, a Brit. I think it means corky or spongy. I am sure someone will let me know.

Now dried up sprig and tiny seeds of the tea tree.

My drawing today is a section of branch, about 15 inches long and a much enlarged version of the tiny seed capsules. They are like little cups with a crenelated edge and the seeds are held in the central reservoir. They are minute and spilled all over my paper as I was drawing them. There seems to be absolutely no correlation in nature between the size of the seed and the size of the plant/tree it grows into. I wonder why? The seeds of this tree are like tiny specs of dust, it is estimated that a kilogram (2.2 pounds) has two and a half million seeds. I think I need to try that bonsai..progress report in about 5 years.

The Australian Tea Tree