Through a twist of fate, Christopher Dean discovered the wonders of the tea tree oil and helped develop an industry pioneered by his stepfather, Eric White.
Through a twist of fate, Christopher Dean discovered the wonders of the tea tree oil.
THE Aborigines of Australia had used tea tree ( Melaleuca alternifolia) leaves for various ailments for thousands of years, but it was Eric White who pioneered the tea tree industry in the 1970s.
He grew his first crop in Bungawalbyn Swamp, near Coraki in northern New South Wales. In 1976, on a Thursday, he was granted a Crown lease and, Thursday Plantation, the world’s first commercial tea tree company, was born.
Before he could build his fortune on tea trees after three years of planting, harvesting and distilling tea trees in the harsh bush, his health failed.
In 1978, his stepson Christopher Dean was trekking through Africa and contracted a severe toenail infection. For five months, he failed to find a cure.
The London School of Tropical Medicine told him that his infection was incurable. The only solution was the surgical removal of the toenails and infected tissues.
Around this time, his brother Michael Dean arrived in London on business and brought a bottle of tea tree oil produced by White.
Within 10 minutes of applying the oil, the intense itching and agonising pain of the infection lessened. Within four hours, the swelling of the toes and redness subsided. Within four days, Christopher’s toes were completely healed.
Delighted by the extraordinary benefits of tea tree oil, Christopher rang home to convey his interest to rejoin his stepfather. Sadly, he learnt that White had suffered a major heart attack.
Christopher and his wife, Lynda, returned to Australia and moved to the wilds of Bungawalbyn to continue White’s legacy.
The remote tea tree plantation was 17km from the nearest mail and phone services. It had no power or running water and the land was regularly inundated and cut off, sometimes for weeks by floods. But Christopher was undeterred and continued White’s work with a passion.
A new dawn
The Deans produced tea tree oil from a traditional bush cutting method. They sold bottles of it at local markets and the people quickly discovered the oil’s benefits for a gamut of skin problems, including psoriasis, sores, eczema, rashes, cuts, burns and pimples.
Recognising that they could not do much to promote the tea tree oil without funds, the Deans who were instrumental in setting up the Australian Tea Tree Industry Association, lobbied the government to support research and raise awareness of the wonders of the Australian tea tree oil. The Australian government backed them with agricultural research and scientific studies on the applications of the oil.
In 1980, Thursday Plantation became the first commercial tea tree brand to gain worldwide recognition for the therapeutic properties of tea tree oil.
In 1988, Thursday Plantation bought degraded cattle and sugar farmlands to establish sustainable and ecologically-sound tea tree production. The Ballina factory distilled its first oil in 1989 and in 1990, scientists began work in the R&D laboratories.
Today, Thursday Plantation is part of Integria Healthcare, which has made a name for itself in natural healthcare.
Thursday Plantation was the highlight of a recent tour of Ballina which Integria organised for 20 media representatives and the company’s distributors from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia. Most of us were in awe as we came face to face with tea trees for the first time.
The tour covered visits to Integria’s head office in Brisbane Technology Park, Queensland. We also visited Byron Bay Lighthouse, joined the Byron Bay Whale Watching Cruise, visited Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary and went bargain hunting at DFO (Direct Factory Outlet), Brisbane.
The original property at Bungawalbyn which was under Crown lease had reverted to the government. Mostly, only wild tea trees were cut from this property, explained Malcolm Gardiner, site manager, Integria (Ballina) in an e-mail interview.
The property at Ballina was bought over and a full-scale plantation developed where Thursday Plantation and factory now stand.
At the same time, millions of trees were planted and a sustain- able industry is under way to reverse 200 years of deforestation of the tea tree.
Heartland of tea trees
In 2007, Christopher and Lynda Dean, Thursday Plantation founders, sold TP Health Pty Ltd to Integria Healthcare, said Gardiner.
Thursday Plantation covers 71ha but only 24ha is planted with tea trees. There are 20,000 trees per hectare.
“The trees are raised from seeds in a nursery until they are 15cm tall before they are planted in the plantation by machinery,” said Gardiner.
Tea trees can be harvested more than once a year. But generally, the single annual harvest produces the most economical returns.
This year, persistent late autumn rain delayed the late June harvest until early November.
Gardiner explained: “Whilst the trees are native to swamp land and are not affected by wet soil, our machinery needs relatively dry ground conditions to operate safely.”
The trees were flowering early this year.
“The locals believe that the flowering of the tea trees indicates the onset of a long, wet period. The north coast of New South Wales usually experiences a dry period during spring and a wet season in summer. However, this year, we have a very wet winter and a wet spring is forecast,” he said.
Thursday Plantation plans to harvest all the trees this month barring further delays due to the rains or machinery problems.
“The tea trees are cut as close to the ground as possible, about 30cm high, and then slashed (mowed) down to ground level. This causes the trees to ratoon, sending out multiple shoots which form a bushy growth. The majority of the oil is produced in the green shoots so a lush growth is desirable,” said Gardiner, who showed us how amazing and hardy tea trees are.
“We’re not fertilising the trees as they are native to very poor soils and produce a crop even without fertilisers,” he said. Also, tea trees have very few pest problems and are simple to maintain between harvests.
Yield varies greatly depending on planting density, soil type and rainfall, and ranges between 100kg and 250kg per hectare.
Thursday Plantation produces about 10% of the oil required each year to manufacture its products. The rest of the oil is sourced from local growers, mostly on the far north coast of New South Wales. The total annual production of tea tree oil is 450 tonnes for the whole industry.
Thursday Plantation products are sold throughout health food stores and pharmacies in Australia and internationally. n For more information, go to www.thursdayplantation.com.
Age-old remedy – P12
Flourishing: (clockwise from top) A bird’s eye view of Thursday Plantation in New South Wales; Pioneer of Australia’s tea tree industry Eric White; Tea tree leaves and flowers.