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What is a Tea Tree?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The term “tea tree” is actually used as a common name for plants in a wide variety of genera, with no real common traits. These trees grow around the world and produce foliage that is brewed into tea and pressed to yield naturally antibacterial oils. They are also used as firewood and as ornamental plants. The general uncertainty surrounding the term can get rather frustrating, especially there are significant differences between the species. It's often used for plants in the Melaleuca genus, which produce an oil used topically for its antiseptic properties.

The true tea plant is Camellia sinensis, which literally yields tea, the caffeinated beverage that is brewed from the leaves after they are specially treated. All true teas are made with the leaves of this plant, while hot beverages made from other plants are known as tisanes or infusions. Most people have consumed this beverage at some point, as it is immensely popular around the world.

People also use the term “tea tree” to talk about plants in the Melaleuca genus, which are native to Australia. These plants are characterized by prickly needles and bark that is often papery. The needles of the tree produce a highly aromatic natural oil that has antibacterial and antifungal properties. Native Australians have used the plant in medical treatment for centuries, and when early explorers first began adventuring in Australia, the tree was one of the first things they learned about. Captain Cook is responsible for the common name of the plant, because he and his crew used the leaves to brew a form of tisane.

Plants in the Leptospermum genus, which are native to Australia and New Zealand, are also sometimes called "tea tree." These trees also have needly leaves, and they produce some interesting compounds of their own. Another common name for plants in this genus is “manuca,” and consumers can find various products that include it on the market, especially in New Zealand. Kunzea ericoides, another New Zealand plant that was once classified in the Leptospermum genus, is also sometimes called “white tea tree,” in a reference to its abundant small white flowers.

Ornamental boxthorns are sometimes called tea trees, although these plants share nothing with the above plants except for the common name. These plants can often be quite pretty, with delicate flowers and lush foliage, but they are also rather savage plants, with nasty thorns that can make a tumble into a hedge very unpleasant.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By SarahSon — On May 24, 2012

Tea tree is an ingredient in more than one of the health and beauty products I use on a regular basis.

I have some tea tree cream that is made with pure Australian tea tree oil. This is an antiseptic cream that I use as a general first aid cream.

I also use a tea tree shaping cream for my hair to keep the style in place. I have never smelled a bottle of tea tree essential oil. I just know any product I have ever used that has tea tree in it, has always smelled good.

By Mykol — On May 23, 2012

I am a big tea drinker, so it is probably safe to say I have had my share of tea tree leaves in some kind of tea.

At my favorite tea shop, there is a wide variety of teas to choose from, and most of these leaves probably come from some kind of tea tree.

Until reading this article, I never realized there were so many different tea tree uses. I know there can be some great medicinal benefits from drinking certain kinds of tea, but never knew this was also used in so many other kinds of products.

By bagley79 — On May 22, 2012

@myharley - You are right when you say there are a lot of different uses for the oil that comes from the tea tree.

I have used pure tea tree oil to clear up a fungus I had on my toenails. I tried several other products before using this, and the fungus always came back.

After using the tea tree oil consistently for a couple weeks, the fungus went away and hasn't returned.

I know they also use tea tree oil in a lot of cosmetics and beauty products. I saw some tea tree shampoo for sale in the store, and the next time I need shampoo, I am going to give this a try.

By myharley — On May 22, 2012

Whenever I hear of tea tree, I think of the tea tree essential oil that I use for a variety of things. This oil has a lot of medicinal properties and has been used for many years.

I keep a bottle of this handy to use on just about any kind of minor scrape or cut we get. It works great as a natural antibiotic. Some studies have shown that it is effective at fighting infections that are resistant to antibiotics.

I just use it for minor wounds, and like to put it on a sunburn or insect bite. The tea tree oil scent reminds me of nutmeg and has a very pleasant smell to it.

My kids don't complain when I get this bottle out to use on them. They don't mind the smell of it, and it also doesn't sting when I put it on.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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