In November 2012 Jerome Chopard presented "IMPROVED IDENTIFICATION METHODS FOR AUSTRALIAN TEA TREE OIL" to the IFEAT International Conference. More »»
Agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and building soil carbon in the tea tree industry will be the subject of a collaborative research program between Southern Cross University and the NSW Department of Primary Industries. More »»
Local agribusinesses and their industry associations are backing a scheme to train and recruit local people specifically for their industry. More »»
Lavender, eucalyptus and tea-tree oils have come under the microscope at Charles Sturt University's School of Animal and Veterinary Science, where PhD student Lynne Appleby is researching their effect on mastitis-causing bacteria. More »»
Flowers of Melaleuca alternifolia
Melaleuca is a member of the myrtle family of which there are well over 200 species, most of which are endemic to Australia. Depending on the species, they grow as shrubs or trees from between 2 and 30 metres tall. The leaves are evergreen, alternately arranged, dark green to grey-green in colour and ovate to lanceolate in shape. The bark is often flaky and exfoliate (hence the name ‘paper-bark’ for some species of Melaleuca). Flowers, which vary from white thorough yellow or even greenish to pink and red, are produced in dense clusters along the stem with fine, small petals and a tight bundle of stamens which mature to produce a small woody cup-shaped capsule 2 – 3 mm in diameter which is packed with tiny seeds (up to 50 000 per gram). Tea trees are named either from the brown colouration of many watercourses caused by the leaching of tannins from the leaves of this and similar species, or alternatively it has been said that Captain James Cook named the tea tree because he observed the indigenous Bundjalung people of eastern Australia use the leaves to prepare a healing tea.
Tea tree oil is normally extracted from Melaleuca alternifolia commercially, but it can also be extracted from M. dissitiflora and M. linariifolia. ATTIA members produce their pure Australian tea tree oil almost exclusively from M alternifolia which occurs naturally in a relatively small area of New South Wales, Australia and should not be confused with cajeput oil (extracted from M. quinquenervia), niaouli oil (M. viridiflora), kanuka oil (Kunzea ericoides), or manuka oil (Leptospermum scoparium).
In the early days (see History for more details) of the tea tree industry, the oil was manually harvested from natural stands of M. alternifolia and distilled in crude bush stills. Improvements in seed cultivars and increased worldwide demand for the oil led to commercial plantations being developed, initially from seed harvested from natural stands, but more recently using improved seed from the jointly funded ATTIA, RIRDC and DPI Tea Tree Breeding Program which has improved oil yields by up to 90%. This critical improvement has enabled the Australian tea tree industry to maintain a competitive edge while preserving the natural environmental balance to sustain and maintain future resources.
Closeup of a stand of plantation M alternifolia
The tiny seeds are germinated in specialist nurseries by either soaking the seed in aerated water for several days to soften the hard exterior coat before being diluted in a gel or alternatively by mixing the seed thoroughly with a diluent (usually fine sand) and planting them out into seedling cells to germinate.
Tea tree seedlings at 6 weeks
When they are about 2 – 4 weeks old, the seedlings are thinned to one per cell and grown for between 2 to 4 months to ensure they are vigorous enough to survive transplanting into prepared fields at planting rates of 25 000 – 35 000 trees per hectare depending on the climate and soil type.
Close up of tea tree seedlings at 6 weeks
Tea tree seedlings at 6 months - well grown and ready to leave the nursery to be transplanted into prepared fields
Seedlings are delivered and planted into specially prepared paddocks in 1 metre row spacings
Before being watered in
A closeup of a newly transplanted seedling
Once established, the trees quickly form a dense cover that often excludes weeds and over the next 12-14 months grow to a height of 2 to 2.5 meters before being harvested for the first time. The trees are robust and regenerate quickly after this first harvest. Trees are harvested annually. Yield improves over the next 2 – 3 years as the trees establish a strong network of roots and coppice post-harvest to form several shoots from the root stock.
Plantation of M alternifolia a few months after establishment
Flooding on the Clarence river near Ulmarra in April 2009
Tea trees are susceptible to damage from some insect pests and oil yields can be reduced by adverse events like prolonged flooding or drought. Flood damage varies depending on the depth and duration of inundation. There have been two recent flood events, one in January 2008 that caused widespread damage to a number of plantations which resulted in loss of many hectares of productive plantations and another in April 2009 which, while devastating to many communities, did not result in widespread loss or damage to plantations possibly because the flood occurred in winter when the water is cooler and also the flood waters receded relatively quickly.
Page last updated: 29 Jul 2010