Natural Treasures
of Australia

A Close-up look at the rich offerings in wellness from the land down under.


May 2012

By Allan Richter

If you want to take the pulse of a country’s health, make a beeline for the local supermarket. In the center of Brisbane, in the Australian state of Queensland, Trevor Allen took a break from setting out mangoes at Coles supermarket to give me a mini-tour of native Australian and regional foods and products. He pointed to local yogurt; passionfruit (a hard-skinned purple fruit with seeds like a pomegranate); and baby rocket (a peppery green leaf). Healthful, to be sure. Our tour took us to pavlova, a gluten-free angel cake whose high sugar content probably removes it from the “healthy” column. Likewise with Lemingtons, a sponge cake entombed in chocolate and coconut flakes.

Vegemite, a tart yeast extract spread would probably fail the test were it not for its vitamin B content. Heading outside along the Brisbane River brought more clarity: scores of joggers, restaurants serving organic food and groups doing boxing exercises in the botanical gardens. My 600-mile drive from Brisbane to Sydney confirmed why one global health group ranked the Land Down Under among the top five countries in terms of the years its citizens live in good health.

Tea Tree Oil:
Nature’s Medicine Cabinet

One balmy late afternoon in February, during Australia’s summer, Mirja Schnei­der was seated at a picnic table on the shore of Lake Ains­worth, slicing carrots and zucchini for the gas grill that her friend Evelyn Tschilar was firing up. The two Swiss tourists, both 26, had spent much of the day swimming in the lake on Australia’s southeast coast. They made sure they put the lake on their itinerary after reading in a travel guide about its rejuvenating waters, derived from the roots of the many shoreline tea trees, which leech tannins that tint the water brown.

Earlier the women swam in the Pacific at Seven Mile Beach, just 60 yards across the road from Lake Ainsworth and past some dunes. They tend to shower after an ocean swim to remove the salt, but they said swimming in the lake after the ocean sufficed. “I don’t feel like I need a shower. It feels good,” Schneider said, recalling when her mother applied tea tree oil to help resolve her childhood skin problems. Added Tschilar, “I feel fresh. I don’t feel dirty. My skin feels soft.”

There is something mystical at this bucolic spot where the Paci­fic’s salt air merges with the lake breezes, and the brown yet clear water gently laps the shoreline, providing a soft soundtrack for the skeletal tea tree roots that seem to clench and claw at the shallows.

Perhaps the unworldly ambiance of the place has to do with the aboriginal Dream­time, or legends, attached to this spot, and the unusually large bora, or aboriginal ceremonial ring, measuring some 40 yards across, that sits at the western end of the village. Indeed, aboriginal tradition appears to have played a big part in the area now called Lennox Head. According to the Dreamtime, three brothers who were Bundjalung aborigines, the indigenous inhabitants of the area, settled on Seven Mile Beach. When one brother thrust his spear into the sand the water that flowed from the hole became Lake Ainsworth.

It was the aborigines who first discovered the therapeutic benefits of tea tree oil. By crushing the leaves and binding the resulting pulp to wounds, these people found that they could clean infections and heal injuries sustained in the rugged pre-colonial coastal swamplands. They inhaled steamed leaves to help relieve colds and coughs, and steeped leaves in water they would apply to erase rashes or drink to soothe sore throats. Later, in 1770, the British explorer James Cook reached Australia’s coast, watched aborigines brew tea tree leaves and gave the plant its common name.

Tea Tree’s Modern Uses

Today’s tea tree industry, relatively young when stacked against those of other essential oils, is nonetheless maturing. Leading suppliers such as Thursday Plantation, Australia’s first tea tree oil producer, rely on a growing portfolio of scientific research that confirms early studies from the 1930s, when journals such as the Australian Journal of Pharmacy and the British Medical Journal lauded the disinfecting powers of tea tree oil, according to Cynthia Olsen, author of the Australian Tea Tree Oil Guide (Kali). In 1936, for example, The Medical Journal of Australia reported that tea tree oil successfully treated diabetic gangrene.

From the Bush and Beyond

At The Artery, a Sydney gallery of contemporary aboriginal art, photos of traditional bush plants hang above the labor-
intensive pointilist paintings—visual stories, really—in which they are depicted. The images are references to the totems that aborigines use in their ceremonies. Yams, for example, are a highly celebrated aboriginal food source. A photo of yam seeds hangs above “Wild Yam Seed Dreaming,” a painting by Jeannie Petyarra of a series of flowing white dots against a black background. There are photos of bush banana flower, bush tomato, bush melon and wild orange, each represented in art.

From the bush and beyond, Australia’s native plants have a wide range of health benefits. Jill Richardson, author of A Taste of the Bush and owner of an online shop of the same name, points to the anti-microbial, -bacterial and -fungal properties of lemon myrtle, with the sweet, pungent smell of lemongrass, as a popular ingredient in fish, chicken and desserts, as well as in many skin products and soaps. Tasmanian Mountain pepper has antioxidant levels three times that of blueberries, as does Dorrigo pepper and native pepperberries, Richardson says. All are easily dried and travel well.

Wattleseeds were used by aborigines 4,000 years ago and are popular today for their nutty flavor with hints of chocolate and coffee. Their uses, in smoothies, cakes, ice cream and more, are as varied as the species of acacia trees from which they come. Wattleseed is high in antioxidants, has 33% more protein than wheat and is gluten-free with a low glycemic index, says Richardson.

Also popular in Australian dishes are the peppery green baby rocket and beetroot. Both are used as a garnish, in salads and as burger accessories, and many Australians make a beetroot slaw. Like beetroot, a common Australian harvest that Americans will find familiar is macadamia, which has an oil high in omega-3s and mono-unsaturated fats, along with a high smoke point and long shelf life.

Such acclaim made tea tree oil a precious commodity during World War II, so much so that tea tree cutters and producers were exempted from war service until enough oil had been produced to fill Army and Navy first-aid kits in tropical regions.

Among more recent studies are those on using tea tree oil to stem the spread of Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a potentially fatal skin infection, in hospitals (Journal of Craniomaxillofacial Surgery 10/09) and against skin cancers. In one study, tea tree oil reduced the growth of aggressive, chemo-resistant tumors in mice (Cancer Chemotherapy and Pharmacology 11/10). The oil may also help fight melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer (Planta Medica 1/17/10 online).

In addition to its emerging uses, tea tree oil has a wide range of applications that include topical creams and antiseptic ointments to treat acne, dry skin and contact infections. It is in shampoo to combat dandruff, in deodorant to fight body odor and in toothpaste to treat gum problems and sweeten bad breath. Thursday Plantation has developed these applications and has seven or eight more in the pipeline, says Reece Ryan, production manager at the company’s Ballina facility, near Lake Ainsworth.

Evolution of an Industry

Thursday Plantation’s 130-acre Ballina farm is a testament to the industry’s early beginnings, its evolution and even its charm. Years ago, sheep used to graze on weeds in the fields but somehow left the tea trees alone. The property is home to a natural maze, and an onsite shop houses a small museum with old distillation equipment. Sculptures of inverted bottles on metal rods and other works by local artisans line a trail in an area of regenerated rainforest, where the company replaced scrub and invasive weeds with native plants.

“This was one of the original distillation sheds,” Ryan says, pointing to a hulking piece of old metal. Today, Thursday Plantation distills its oil in a carefully controlled antiseptic environment.

Having begun work at Thursday Plan­tation shortly after its launch a quarter-century ago, Ryan himself is one of the few living links between the industry’s early modern history and its broad acceptance today. “I remember the day I asked my father if I could leave school and come work here,” Ryan recounts. “He said, ‘You’ve got three months. If it doesn’t work out, you’re back to school.’ I was a 15-year-old kid; 23 years later I’m still here.”

Ryan joined Thursday Plantation when it was run by two of the pioneers of the modern tea tree industry, Christopher and Lynda Dean. On a 1978 trek through Africa, Christopher Dean contracted a severe toenail infection. Five months of relying on pharmacists and doctors, as well as folk medicine and witch doctor recipes, yielded no results. The London School of Tropical Medicine advised him that the infection was incurable. The only treatment: surgical removal, followed by a severe caustic preparation to inhibit the infection’s return.

In the 1970s, Dean’s stepfather, Eric White, who was fascinated by the idea of a natural antiseptic, planted tea trees in northern New South Wales. Several years of hard work in the Austral­ian bush yielded oil from his trees. It was this oil that Dean ultimately applied to his foot; within hours, the swelling had subsided. Dean picked up where his father left off at Thursday Plantation.

Word of tea tree oil’s powers spread, not just to those who appreciated its health benefits but to those who would reap its financial rewards as well. Before long, the tea tree industry was a crowded field. “Every man and his dog got into it,” Ryan recalls. “Everyone decided, ‘I’ve got to get into this business.’ So when other people started getting into farming, suddenly you had this massive influx of oil.”

With the resulting oversupply, Ryan recalls, the price of tea tree oil dropped from roughly $90 a liter to about $12 a liter a decade ago (the current price is about $35 a liter). “All of these people who had gotten into it and planted their farms out were basically losing money and couldn’t afford to continue to manufacture,” Ryan says. Yet the mad rush into the business helped strengthen the industry by leaving the more robust players standing and shaking out many of the weaker ones.

Ensuring Quality

However, the transition also left smaller suppliers who, some in the industry worry, compromise on quality, putting the entire industry’s reputation at risk whenever a consumer who buys cheap tea tree oil is left with a rash rather than relief. That is why large players such as Thursday Plantation say they have put effort into maintaining stringent quality controls and surpassing regulatory requirements.

Back at Thursday Plantation’s Brisbane headquarters, Reg Lehmann, general manager of research development, leads a team to ensure that the level of terpinen-4-ol, the strongest antibacterial component in tea tree oil, exceeds the minimum levels required by the Therapeutic Goods Admini­stration, the Australian regulatory body equivalent to the US Food and Drug Administration.

Lehmann’s lab also tests oil samples at several stages of production well before shipment to stores. “It’s all about traceability,” Lehmann says. “Not just which farm, but which lot or patch that it came from, what day it was harvested and who harvested it—all those details.” In addition, Thursday Plantation derives its oil from Melaleuca alternifolia, with more potent output than that of the M. quinquenervia, the trees found around Lake Ainsworth.

One factor out of the control of Lehmann’s labs and others is the weather. After many Australians endured a drought for much of the first decade of this century, the past two seasons of La Niña rains have flooded large swaths of the country. The record rainfalls have hampered the tea tree harvest.

While Thursday Plantation’s Ballina farm was harvested on schedule, usually at the September start of Australia’s spring, some larger farms were still harvesting their tea trees well into the summer because of rain delays.

Still, tea trees are hardy plants that can tolerate wet weather and are often planted in low-lying areas that act as catch basins for rainfall. In late February, John Seccombe, general manager of a tea tree farm on the outskirts of Port Macquarie, was inspecting rows of tea trees as harvesting equipment rolled along the 630-acre farm. The plantation supplies tea tree oil to Thursday Plantation.

Seccombe found that the rains had not hurt the plants. “They’re really green, they’re fluffy. They're light in the wind,” Seccombe said with a smile. “There’s a real vigor to the trees.”

Tea trees can grow to 40 feet but are harvested at about 6 feet, before their trunks get too thick for blades to cut. At the smaller heights, the tea trees resemble Christmas trees, and their leaves look and feel like soft pine needles. The leaves are dotted with tiny oil sacs.

As Seccombe ran the branches through his hands, he was satisfied that the leaves had developed well. Leaves often appear on the end of a stem, leaving the rest of the stem bare, but this crop has yielded leaves that crowd the full span of their stems.

“Some years you’ll have a broader leaf, and other years you’ll have a thinner leaf,” Seccombe observes. “The composition of how the plant grows tends to look different depending on the season, how vigorous the growth has been, how good the season has been, or how bad the season has been. But having said the season’s been bad in terms of wet weather, as you can see from looking at the crop, it’s come home strong.”

Because tea trees are so hardy, they require little maintenance and are a relatively sustainable, eco-friendly crop compared to, say, corn or sugar cane, Seccombe says. One plus for tea trees, he observes, is that leaves drop and form a natural mulch. “It’s putting organics back in the soil,” he says. And tea trees have relatively few pests, one key one being the Pergo beetle, which resembles a brown and gray ladybug and aggressively eats tea tree leaves.

“The crop is planted once. It doesn’t take a lot of maintenance. You’re not disturbing the soil all the time, you’re not spraying the soil all the time,” Seccombe says. “On the other hand, you plant a corn crop and you’re constantly putting chemicals on the ground to prevent weed growth.”

Tea tree farming involves “minimal intrusion into the environment,” he says, and is efficient because tea trees are native to the area. “It’s not as if you’re bringing something new into the area, either. It’s designed to be here.”

While tea trees are considered a boon in their native Australia, they are a nuisance elsewhere. In Florida, for example, M. quinquenervia is considered a threatening invasive species. First brought to the United States in the early 1900s for erosion control, melaleuca is listed as a federal noxious weed by the US Department of Agriculture. In the Everglades, melaleuca has overtaken all other vegetation in many spots.

Seccombe says his oil distillation process uses a closed-loop system that keeps any foreign substances out of the local environment, where oyster farming is a big industry. The system also runs with drinking-quality water that is reused.

After they are harvested, tea tree leaves are placed in two bins, each weighing 12 tons. Steam from a boiler enters the bins at roughly 140 degrees C for up to 2½ hours, bursting the oil sacs on the leaves. A vapor of oil and water emerges, and a condenser collapses the steam into liquid, which goes through a separator to isolate the oil. The oil is weighed, put into a vat and settles for several days, and the water is returned to the boiler.

The evolution of the size of Seccombe’s holding bins is testament to the rising demand for tea tree oil. He started with 3-ton bins, upgraded to 6-ton and now uses the two 12-ton bins, the maximum weight roads can handle for transport.

Much of the demand, at least in Australia, is based on a rising appreciation for the culture of the first people to recognize the benefits of tea tree oil, the aborigines, observes Jerome Chopard, director of Newell Palmer Securities PTY Ltd., a Sydney-based investor in Seccombe’s plantation and other tea tree farms.

“There’s been a growing appreciation over the last 20 years of the aboriginal people. It started with their art and music, their Dreamtime storytelling, then their bush food. It’s become an easy decision to support this,” Chopard says of tea tree oil. “We found it is one of the most examined essential oils in the world.”

 

Caring for Koalas at Risk

The Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane lays claim to housing the oldest koala to have survived in captivity, an animal named Sarah that died in 2001 at age 23, the equivalent of 161 human years. Attesting to the feat is a Guinness World Records certificate hanging on an office wall at Lone Pine, a sprawling zoo that houses native Australian animals like the platypus and wombat, and where visitors can have their picture taken cuddling a koala or feeding kangaroos. It is a safe, picturesque environment that shields those inside from a wilder world that is proving dangerous for koalas.

Up and down Australia’s southeast corridor, the most populated area with koalas, the territory that these animals and people call home is increasingly overlapping as human development sprawls farther. As a result, koalas are being brought into animal hospitals, such as the one that Lone Pine houses. Most frequently the animals are the victims of dog attacks and run-ins with cars.

As they lose their habitats, including the eucalyptus trees on which they feed, and are squeezed into smaller spaces, the koalas are becoming more stressed. In turn, more animals are falling victim to chlamydia, a bacteria known for causing venereal disease in humans. The disease can cause blindness, making it difficult for koalas to find food and starving them.

At the Koala Hospital & Study Centre in Port Macquarie, volunteer Mick Feeney brings bunches of eucalyptus leaves to outdoor pens where sick and injured koalas recuperate before they can be returned to the areas in which they were found. “Our credo is rescue, rehabilitate and release,” says Feeney. He shows an adult male nibbling on leaves that was brought in one month earlier with chlamydia, was treated and is almost ready for release. In the branch of a nearby pen is an elderly koala with teeth too ground down to chew on eucalyptus, a source of water and low-grade nutrients for koalas, so the hospital is feeding it soy milk.

At the hospital, which receives between 200 and 300 koalas each year, those with worse cases of chlamydia—loosely called wet bottom for the large brown patches on the rears of afflicted animals—are kept inside, where their branches are lined with white towels. Hospital staff check and change the towels daily to monitor discharge as antibiotics do their work.

In addition to the help the koalas receive from animal hospitals, the government is conducting more comprehensive koala population studies and identifying safety zones along roads, where cars are urged to slow down in populated areas. Efforts are underway to restore the koalas’ food sources. Lone Pine and the Port Macquarie hospital, for example, both plant scores of eucalyptus trees to reintroduce to koala habitats. Koalas feed on only 60 of Australia’s 800 species of eucalyptus.
In some areas, gated pet-free housing communities are popping up where fences between yards have two-foot cutaways so koalas can roam from one place to the next. Says Feeney of the communities’ human residents, “These are people with a holistic view of the environment.”

 

A Didgeridoo’s Boon to Breathing

With its origins among the aborigines of northern Australia, the didgeridoo is an exotic instrument made all the more striking when adorned with aboriginal designs and images of lizards or kangaroos. It is a roughly six-foot tube of hardwood, typically eucalyptus, that has been hollowed out by termites. More advanced players can mimic the calls of the kookaburra bird and a variety of animal sounds such as growling and croaking. It can bring to mind the raucous percussive symphony of cicadas on a humid summer night.

To Sonny Iravani of Sydney, the didgeridoo is all those things. It is also a way the 19-year-old, who has been playing the instrument since he was 6, trains his breathing and maintains his respiratory health. Iravani credits the circular breathing technique needed to play the instrument, which is no easy feat because it requires doing three things with your breath at once: pushing breath out to play the instrument, storing and holding some breath to be expelled next, and getting more breath in line by inhaling through the nose.

“You’re getting the perfect amount of air in so you’re not hyperventilating,” says Iravani, adding that the technique helps his breathing when he plays futsul, or indoor soccer. During such active sports, players can get bloated with gas from inhaling too much air too quickly.

The extra breathing and lung activity involved in playing a didgeridoo increases the oxygen supply to the body, while short, sharp breaths through the nostrils help clear nasal cavities of excess toxin-carrying mucous, among other health benefits, says Alastair Black, a didgeridoo player and author of Didgeridoo: A Beginner’s Guide. The use of the diaphragm in various rhythms has a similar effect on the intestines as some yoga exercises aimed at helping the body assimilate food and eliminate waste. The active use of the diaphragm, he adds, can even help tone the belly.

Despite their size difference, playing a didgeridoo is probably similar to playing a flute in that they both are more difficult than playing other wind instruments that require circular breathing and in which a reed is used, says Mia Olson, a Berklee College of Music professor and author of Musician’s Yoga: A Guide to Practice, Performance and Inspiration (Hal Leonard/Berklee). A reed can act as a stopper to help a clarinet or oboe player hold air in. “In a flute you don’t have anything in your mouth that provides that resistance,” she says. “With a reed in your mouth, it’s much easier.”

Iravani, the 19-year-old, says he practices his didgeridoo up to five times a week. But that doesn’t bother his parents. His father Sasan, owner of Gifts at the Quay in Sydney, has three didgeridoos he’s been playing for more than a decade. “It’s meditation,” Sasan Iravani says. Wife Nazee concurs. “I love it,” she says. “I relax.”

 

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