Plant of the Month

Tea Tree (Leptospermum scoparium)

The Tea Tree, or Manuka Tree (Leptospermum scoparium), is now in blossom at the Bloedel Conservatory! These tiny unassuming flowers are quite extraordinary. Not only are they beautiful, they also have tremendous healing properties!

The Tea Tree is a shrub or small tree in the Myrtle (Myrtaceae family). It is native to New Zealand, but can also be found in Tasmania and southeast Australia. The Māori people discovered long ago that this plant is beneficial for a number of digestive and respiratory ailments. The word manuka is derived from the Māori language ‘mānuka’. The Manuka flower nectar contains a particular chemical that, when mixed with an enzyme from pollinating bees, produces Manuka Honey back at the beehive.

Honey (in general) was originally used for medical purposes due to its antibacterial and anti-fungal properties, but was replaced by antibiotics and other forms of traditional medicine in the 1940s and 1950s. Recent studies have shown that wounds heal more rapidly with dressings that contained Manuka honey because of its high level of non-peroxide antibacterial components.

In January 2008 Professor Thomas Henle from the University of Dresden in Germany, identified methylglyoxal methylglyoxal (or MGO) as the active compound.1,2  This is now shown on products as MGO Manuka honey. What is unique about Manuka is that unlike prescription antibiotics, it is effective on a very wide range of bacterial and fungal infections. Research shows that Manuka does not damage cells, but actually stimulates the growth of cells to repair wounds!3

Manuka honey is also edible. It is darker and richer than clover honey and has a distinctive sweet taste. Manuka can be used for sore throats, indigestion, heartburn, peptic ulcers and other stomach/intestinal problems as well as to boost the immune system. Similar properties led the Māori of New Zealand to use parts of this plant as natural medicine. The Tohunga, or Maori medicine man, used the parts of the Manuka bush for treating fevers, colds, flu, stomach aches and as a sedative.4

Leptospermum scoparium flowers, photo Creative Commons

An interesting story was found in the journals of Captain Cook.5,6 Apparently, he used the leaves of these trees to make tea (and beer), and so named this tree: ‘Tea Tree’.  The name stuck! It was later found that it was effective against scurvy due to its high vitamin C content. There is another tree called a Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia), from which the leaves are used to make Tea Tree oil. This is gaining popularity for its antiseptic, antibacterial, anti fungal and antiviral properties. It is believed Cook also used the leaves from this tree when he journeyed to Australia, and also dubbed the Melaleuca as the “Tea Tree”.

Wood from the Manuka tree is very strong and is often used to make handles for tools, while the sawdust delivers a delicious flavour when used to smoke meats and fish.6 One last interesting fact about this incredible tree is that New Zealand parakeets or Kakariki (Cyanoramphus) have been known to use the leaves and bark of Manuka tree to rid themselves of parasites. Apart from ingesting the material, they also chew it, mix it with preen gland oil and apply it to their feather.4,6

Be sure to stop by the Conservatory and see this amazing little tree in blossom for yourself!



1. Mavric, E., Wittmann, S., Barth, G., Henle, T., (2008). Identification and quantification of methylglyoxal as the dominant antibacterial constituent of Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) honeys from New Zealand. University Dresden, Germany 2008-01-21.

2. The University of Waikato, Department of Biological Sciences, (2006). Waikato Honey Research Unit.

3. Biotechnology Learning Lab, (2007). Mānuka honey for wounds.

4. Grace, T. (2011). Healing Manuka Honey.

5. (2011). Leptospermum scoparium. – cite_note-0

6. Shop New Zealand, (2010). Active Manuka Honey.