Say “tea” and people immediately imagine, well, not necessarily the same thing that I’m imagining. Same with “tea tree.” Or even “tea oil.”
The word “tea” is often applied to herbal brews, which are perhaps more accurately called tisanes. However, the Oxford English Dictionary does say the word “tea” can be:
used as a general name for infusions made in the same way as tea. . . . usually from the leaves, blossoms, or other parts of plants; mostly used medicinally, sometimes as ordinary drinks.
Therefore, back in the 1700s, as the stories go, when Captain James Cook (or sailers?) steeped leaves from an Australian plant, he was making “tea.” So, justifiably, the tree from which he obtained the leaves could be called a “tea tree.”
Cook apparently harvested leaves from a member of the myrtle family, Myrtaceae, which includes clove, guava, allspice, and eucalyptus, among others. Growing as shrubs or trees, myrtle family members all have essential oils.
Unclear is exactly which tree Cook used because the “tea tree” from which essential oil is currently extracted, Melaleuca alternifolia, is toxic if ingested in a high enough dose, whereas Cook supposedly saw Indigenous Australians making and drinking tea from the tree’s leaves.
In this example, the account is related more as fact rather than story:
Captain James Cook named the tea tree because he observed the Bundjalung people of eastern Australia use the leaves [of Melaleuca alternifolia] to prepare a healing tea and it is reported that his men used the leaves first to make a tea and then to brew a type of beer! (Australian Tea Tree Oil 11/5/2015)
But the leaves from this particular tree were mostly used then, as now, topically, or they were crushed and the oil inhaled.
We know that Cook did not harvest leaves from a true tea plant, Camellia sinensis, because none existed in that location. And now we have the unfortunate circumstance of “tea tree” meaning an actual tea tree (because tea plants can grow into trees) or a type of myrtle. It’s helpful that C. sinensis is usually referred to as a tea plant whereas the words “tea tree” are usually accompanied by “oil.”
So, tea plants/trees yield the leaves that are produced into black, oolong, green, white, or yellow tea, whereas the tea tree‘s leaves are used to extract an essential oil (tea tree oil) that is poisonous when ingested yet can be applied topically for medicinal purposes.
However, to muddy the waters, there’s also “tea seed oil.” Made from Camellia oleifera seeds, this oil is produced mostly in China and because it’s edible, it’s used both for cooking and in traditional medicine (ingested and applied topically). C. oleifera, like C. sinensis, belongs to the tea family, Theaceae.
And in another twist, a member of the myrtle family is being touted as making an incredible lemon myrtle tea. This could’ve been what Captain Cook brewed (or should’ve brewed!) because according to Food Processing, this herb has long been used by Indigenous Australians.
Australian Native Products hopes to bring their lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora) tea to the international market once the pandemic allows. CEO James Gosper’s descriptions of the tea are compelling:
Lemon myrtle has more than 10 different antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds — more than many other herbal teas. In fact, it has similar antioxidant properties to black tea, but without the caffeine. . . . Lemon myrtle leaves have an incredibly aromatic and complex lemon flavour profile. When dried into a tea, the flavour becomes a full-bodied, refreshing citrus tea. (Food Processing 6/1/2020)
Lemon myrtle leaves have been used commercially for over a hundred years, and during WWI, were used to flavor lemonade. The leaves can also be steam distilled to produce essential oils.
But then there’s yet another small tree in the myrtle family, Leptospermum lanigerum, or woolly teatree, also long used by Indigenous Australians—and apparently brewed as a tea by Captain Cook’s crew for disease prevention. In fact, the Encyclopedia Britannica says “tea tree” refers to many species.
To sum up:
- “tea” has myriad meanings
- “tea tree” can refer to an actual tea tree or to a number of non-tea trees
- “tea oil” can be a toxic essential oil from a non-tea tree (tee tree oil) or be an ingestible oil made from a tea-family plant (tea seed oil)
- the tea tree moniker that’s often attributed to Captain Cook may not refer to the tea tree that’s now used to make essential oil, but may refer to something else, such as lemon myrtle, which actually does produce good tea, er, tisane. . . .
–”About Australian tea tree oil,” Australian Tea Tree Oil, 11/5/2015.
–”Australian native tea plans to go global,” Food Processing, 6/1/2020.
–Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed 6/4/2020.
–”Lemon myrtle,” Australian Native Food and Botanicals, accessed 6/4/2020.
–”Tea,” Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 1989.