Modern scientific analysis confirms the coming of age of the Manuka plant (New Zealand tea tree) as one of the world’s great medicinal botanicals. To many, it may seem strange that in an age where technology appears to rule the world that we are in a sense, turning back the clock by promoting a range of totally natural skincare products. But when you think about it, most of today’s prescription drugs are no more than synthetic reproductions of natural plant compounds that have served the human population well since the beginning of time.
Background to the development of medicinal Manuka
Today, there is a renewed interest in botanical solutions for a wide range of human ailments, particularly skin conditions, as the complex botanical compounds are becoming better understood, along with the realization that in many cases they can offer a more balanced solution than their synthesized derivatives. New Zealand’s geographic isolation for possibly two hundred million years has yielded a large number of endemic plants that are not found anywhere else in the world. It is estimated that 85% of the flora of New Zealand is endemic in contrast to the British Isles where there are virtually no endemic plants at all. Some of these endemic New Zealand plants have strong medicinal properties, and although identified and appreciated by the early settlers, they have only recently been fully understood through scientific study. One such plant (of many that have medicinal properties in New Zealand) and the main subject of this website is the outstanding Tea tree or Manuka plant.
New Zealand Tea Tree or Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) is a shrubby bush that can grow to a height of six metres in sheltered stands, or in open spaces as a lower more bushy form. Early in New Zealand’s history of European settlement, large areas of native forest were cleared, the valuable timber recovered for industry and housing and the remaining branches burnt before being sown in the grass for sheep and cattle to graze on.
Not all of the land that was cleared was suitable for farming, and after the initial flush of growth of the newly sown grass, the fertility that came from the ash of the burn gradually diminished and much of the grassland began to revert to native species again. More arable areas survived for farming with the introduction of superphosphate topdressing, but many of the areas that were remote and hilly could not be fertilized economically. In many parts of New Zealand, one of the first species to repopulate these areas was the Manuka tea tree plant. In time and left alone the Tea Tree or Manuka stands will eventually give way to the towering forest trees again. Trees like the giant Kauri, Totara, Kahikatea, Rimu, Miro, Matai, Rata, Tawa and Rewarewa.
Farmers battled to eradicate Manuka to preserve grazing land
For many years farmers in these remote regions employed men termed ‘scrub-cutters’ to slash the young Manuka re-growth in order to retain the pasture land for their grazing animals. During years of depressed farming returns and increasing wages the scrub cutting had to be reduced to the point where some farms now have large areas that have reverted to Manuka. In times of depressed wool and meat prices, farmers tended to look at other ways to diversify their income stream and they began to look at the Manuka tea tree plants that were now growing wild on their farms. The valuable essential oil production of Australian Tea Tree was already known as was its distant relationship with the New Zealand Tea Tree or Manuka plant.
But it was not until the 1980’s that scientists began looking more closely at New Zealand Tea Tree, and trial extractions of its oil were made. What scientists discovered when they tested this new oils’ effectiveness against a range of micro-organisms was amazing, it was up to 30 times more effective against gram-positive bacteria than the already acclaimed Australian Tea Tree oil. It was also found to be highly effective against a range of fungi which commonly infect the human skin. This was an important discovery as it meant that Manuka oil could now be added to skincare formulations at a much lower rate than Australian Tea Tree oil and still be more effective against a range of micro-organisms. Minimum inhibitory concentration comparisons are reported in the section of scientific studies.