Monday September 3, 2012
Tea tree: Goodness in a leaf
Early in the morning, Charity Wanjama and Catheline Kina are busily stripping tea tree leaves from freshly-plucked branches which yield the prized essential oil.
Once distilled, the oil will make its way to a variety of formulations or sold as pure essential oil, which would eventually end up in pharmacies, beauty retail stores and households around the world.
A hardy member of the myrtle family, Melaleuca alternifolia can grow up to 7m tall. The delicate, narrow leaves are rich in aromatic oils. Left undisturbed, the stalks bear fluffy white flowers on their tips in spring time.
The Australian aborigines have long known of tea tree’s potent and highly effective uses. Traditionally, they crushed the leaves to treat skin infections. Today, tea tree oil is renowned for its antibacterial, antifungal and antiseptic properties. It’s also prized for treating acne and respiratory problems.
While the tree is native to Australia, the Kenya Organic Oils Farmers Association (Koofa) has successfully cultivated a premium grade of organic tea tree that offers a lifeline to impoverished communities.
The farms are scattered around the small town of Naro Moro at the foothills of Mount Kenya, accessible after hours via a bumpy dirt track.
At James Munyiri’s farm, slender tea trees thick with leaves await harvesting. This new crop won’t yield as many leaves as the older ones which have been cut back close to the ground. Eventually they will regrow more stems. Baby seedlings are neatly spaced between 1.5ft and 2.5ft (0.5m-0.8m) to allow space for growth.
Organic composting, which includes farm waste and natural manure, are used in place of fertilisers. Mulch is employed to trap water in the soil.
“Nothing of the tea tree is wasted,” says Munyiri. “We use the main branches for firewood or to support our beans. Smaller stems are processed along with the leaves. After distillation, the leftover plant fibres are used on the crops as mulch.”
At Earthoil’s distillation plant near the Nanyuki airstrip, trucks haul in piles of freshly harvested tea tree leaves in numbered jute sacks that can be traced back to the farm.
Macadamia nuts are used to run a boiler for the delicate three-hour-long distillation process to extract the volatile oil from the plants. The first hour will yield most of the oil, followed by higher quality oil.
Work goes on around the clock at this production plant to ensure that the precious plants are processed immediately upon harvesting to maintain optimum quality.
The result is the valuable, colourless oil that slowly drips out from what is essentially a giant kettle.
Tea tree oil has over 60 components and is among the most important natural antiseptics to earn a place in every First Aid kit. It is useful for treating wounds, cuts, stings, burns and skin infections.
The essential oil is also excellent in treating smelly feet, head lice, acne and cold sores. However, while the oil is skin-friendly, it is toxic when consumed.
The Body Shop counts its tea tree oil range as a perennial bestseller beloved by customers through the years. It is especially in demand as a treatment for acne-prone skin and a quick antiseptic for cuts and wounds.