Tea Tree: One of Australia’s Oldest Bush Medicines

Tea Tree

When Aboriginal people did fall sick, they used plants in a variety of ways to quell their ills. 

Some plants, like goat’s foot, were crushed, heated and applied to the skin.
Others were boiled and inhaled, and occasionally drunk. There were also saps which were directly smeared on the skin, and barks that were smoked or burned.

Professor Joanne Jamie, a medicinal chemist from Macquarie University, in Sydney has compiled a database on Aboriginal plants.
Many of those plants, she found, contained anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory compound that are known to western medicine.

“When plants are used in a customary way, there is a far greater success rate in them having biological activity,” she says.
“The plants that were used by the Aborigines are very likely to be useful to us.”

tea trees - Tea Tree

What is not widely known is that tea tree oil has likely been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years.
Numerous Aboriginal communities along the east coast of Australia have a long history of using tea tree as an antiseptic for skin conditions.

The leaves were crushed and applied as a paste to wounds and skin abrasions.
Oils from the crushed leaves were also used to treat sore throats and coughs.

One of the most common Aboriginal bush medicines Tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia)
Bundjalung Aboriginal people from the coast of New South Wales crushed tea-tree (or paper bark) leaves and applied the paste to wounds as well as brewing
it to a kind of tea for throat ailments.

The first recorded account of tea tree being used for medicinal purposes was in 1770, when Lieutenant James Cook used the leaves to treat scurvy among his sailors.

When the Bundjalung people were displaced by the expansion of nearby urban centers of Lismore and Ballina during the 1890s, a group of
Aboriginal people from Coraki were relocated to a reserve at Cabbage Tree Island at the mouth of the Richmond River at Ballina.

The prevalence of tea tree (also known as ‘cabbage tree’) in this region proved lucrative for local landowner Hugh James.

Several Aboriginal people worked on Hugh James’ properties, harvesting large quantities of paper bark from the tea tree for the production of distilled tea tree oil.

Crushed tea tree leaves were used by the Bundjalung people to obtain the oil for everything from colds and coughs to the treatment of cuts and
infections.

The oil from the crushed Tea Tree leaves was also used for the treatment of other skin ailments, including relief from Dermatitis, Thrush (Candida),
psoriasis, respiratory ailments, and many other similar topical treatments.

Lemon Tea Tree Oil, although only occurring in small tracts of coastal swamp land, was revered by the Aboriginal people for its strong insect repelling properties.

With modern science we now know that Lemon Tea Tree contains citronella, a proven insect repellent, but the Aboriginal people knew this only by instinct.

In the 1920s, scientific experiments proved that the tea-tree oil’s antiseptic potency was far stronger than the commonly used antiseptic of the time.

Since then, the oil has been used to treat everything from fungal infections of the toenails to acne. By the 1930s and 1940s, tea tree oil was widely celebrated
as an antiseptic treatment. During the Second World War, Australian soldiers were issued with tea tree oil in their first aid kits.

Widely used as a distilled essential oil in alternative remedies today, the production of tea tree oil (melaleuca) is one of the oldest agricultural industries
still in operation in the Ballina region of northeast NSW. The Melaleuca alternifolia tree is native to northeast NSW and southern Queensland.

The Melaleuca alternifolia tree is native to northeast NSW and southern Queensland.

The Macleay Museum in New South Wales holds a significant collection of objects representing the rich diversity of Aboriginal cultural knowledges relating
to Australian history.

The collection includes nine artefacts that embody the historical period when Indigenous knowledges about the medicinal properties of tea tree were transformed into modern commercial applications. Matt Poll explains how it happened.

The artefacts include three spears, three boomerangs, two clubs and a shield. They were donated by the family of Hugh James and provenanced to the Coraki/Ballina area of northern NSW, one of the first regions where large-scale distillery of tea tree oil took place.

The development of the tea tree oil industry essentially transformed Aboriginal peoples’ knowledge of the medicinal use of this plant into a commercial operation.

Modern law acknowledges the importance of protecting intellectual copyright of knowledges communally owned by Aboriginal peoples. However, the medicinal use of tea tree oil is one of numerous cases in Australian history when the Aboriginal knowledges specific to Australian floras were used – without attribution
– by non-Indigenous people to develop commercial applications.

Widely used as a distilled essential oil in alternative remedies today, the production of tea tree oil (melaleuca) is one of the oldest agricultural industries
still in operation in the Ballina region.

Tea Tree

Tea Tree

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