Medicinal and Aromatic Plants—Industrial Profiles


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BIOMASS AND OIL PRODUCTION
129
SUMMARY
Tea tree oil is produced from trees grown as a row crop. The cultural aim is to maximise the
oil concentration in leaves and the yield of leaf at harvest time.
The oil concentration follows a seasonal trend, with the highest concentration in summer
and the greatest amplitude between seasons in the cooler localities. Additional short-term
variation is superimposed on the seasonal trend and is more marked in plants with a high
oil concentration. The rapid recovery in concentration following a short-term loss indicates
that new oil is obtained either from direct synthesis or interconversion from another
chemical form. The oil concentration increases with increasing temperature and humidity,
but was not altered by irrigation on a site with subsoil moisture. The observed changes in
oil concentration are consistent with a double pool conceptual model where some oil is
held in a stable storage, and the remainder in an organ that is subject to gains and losses
of oil.
The yield of leaf is primarily determined by the total biomass yield of a tree. Trees grow
best at high temperatures, and the effect of water stress on growth is most marked in the
post-flush stage of growth. Growth is most efficient during 4–6 months after harvest when
a new canopy has developed and the shoots are relatively young. Timing a harvest to
synchronise this optimum growth stage with the best seasonal conditions for growth gave
the highest biomass yields.
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Table 3 Typical yields of tea tree under three growing conditions
*Representative oil concentrations are 30mg/g (low), 55mg/g (medium), and 80mg/
g (high). See text for explanation of plant fractions.
Copyright © 1999 OPA (Overseas Publishers Association) N.V. Published by license under the Harwood Academic Publishers imprint,
part of The Gordon and Breach Publishing Group.

G.J.MURTAGH
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Copyright © 1999 OPA (Overseas Publishers Association) N.V. Published by license under the Harwood Academic Publishers imprint,
part of The Gordon and Breach Publishing Group.

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part of The Gordon and Breach Publishing Group.

BIOMASS AND OIL PRODUCTION
133
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Copyright © 1999 OPA (Overseas Publishers Association) N.V. Published by license under the Harwood Academic Publishers imprint,
part of The Gordon and Breach Publishing Group.

135
7. TEA TREE BREEDING
GARY BAKER
Wollongbar Agricultural Institute, Wollongbar, NSW, Australia
INTRODUCTION
Australian tea tree oil from the leaves of Melaleuca alternifolia (Maiden and Betche) Cheel
is an important commercial product due to its antimicrobial properties. Oil production has
expanded in recent years to meet increased demand for the oil from both Australia and
overseas. The oil is distilled from leaf material harvested from natural stands and plantations.
Production from natural stands is limited to about 10% (30 tonnes/year) while expansion of
the industry is reliant on plantation production.
The economic viability and continued expansion of plantation (
Plate 1
) production in
Australia is very sensitive to yield and oil price (Reilly 1991). Increasing oil production
from both within and outside Australia has the potential to reduce oil prices. For producers
to be competitive with potentially lower oil prices, productivity and profitability will need
to be improved. Currently, productivity in the industry is considered below potential. A
significant contributing factor is seed quality, as plantations are established largely from
seed collected from a limited number of wild trees with only rudimentary selection for oil
quality.
There is ample justification, therefore, for efficient breeding programmes with resources
adequate to provide progressive, economic gains in oil yield and quality.
GENETIC RESOURCES
The Australian tea tree oil industry is based on the terpinen-4-ol rich oil distilled from the
leaf of M. alternifolia (
Plate 12
). In addition to M. alternifolia, populations of M. linariifolia,
M. dissitiflora and M. uncinata also produce terpinen-4-ol rich leaf oils which fall within
the specification of the Australian Standard AS 2782–1985 (Standards Association of
Australia, 1985) for oils of this type (Brophy et al. 1989; Brophy and Lassak 1992).
Tea tree oil is a complex mixture of mainly monoterpene and sesquiterpene hydrocarbons
and alcohols. Brophy et al. (1989) identified 76 constituents in the oil, with the active
constituent thought to be terpinen-4-ol (Southwell et al. 1993) and possibly also 
γ-terpinene
(Lassak and McCarthy 1983). Williams et al. (1988) have shown that an increasing ratio of
terpinen-4-ol to cineole increases the antimicrobial activity of the oil.
Natural Stands
Melaleuca alternifolia (family Myrtaceae), commonly known as Australian tea tree, is native
to eastern Australia. Its natural distribution is mainly confined to the coastal watercourses
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GARY BAKER
136
of northern New South Wales (NSW) and the ‘granite belt’ of southern Queensland (Figure
1). Isolated populations extend south to Port Macquarie and northwest to Stanthorpe, 31°30’S
and 28°30’S respectively (Butcher et al. 1994). The majority of natural stands grow in the
flood plains of the Richmond and Clarence river systems. The range of altitude of M.
alternifolia is 1–60 m in NSW for the two river systems and up to 800m in southeast
Queensland where the species is found near Ballandean and Stanthorpe.
The species grows in warm subhumid conditions. In this climatic zone, the mean daily
maximum temperature during mid summer is 27–31 °C and the mean daily minimum
temperature during mid winter is 5–7°C. Frosts occur infrequently, on average 1–3 per
Figure 1 The distribution of Melaleuca alternifolia (after Byrnes 1986)
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TEA TREE BREEDING 137
year. The Ballandean-Stanthorpe area has, however, an average of 51 frosts per year. Rainfall
for the Richmond and Clarence catchment areas ranges from 1000 to 1600mm annually.
Rainfall occurs predominantly in summer with a relatively dry spring.
Native stands are generally found on soils with a pH (measured in water) of 4.5–5.5
(Colton and Murtagh 1990) and a soil texture that ranges from sandy clay loam to heavy
clay loam (Small 1981). These soil types in the watercourses and low lying areas of northern
NSW are often swampy. M. alternifolia is tolerant of long periods (1–3 months) of inundation
and even short periods (less than a week) completely immersed in flood waters (Colton and
Murtagh 1990).
The natural form of M. alternifolia is a single stemmed paper bark tree with a clear bole
for one to two thirds of the tree height (up to 15m). Branch habit is mainly ascending and
the crown broad (
Plate 2
).
Commercial quantities of oil from natural stands of M. alternifolia have been produced
for over 50 years. Mature trees are harvested manually, leaving stumps about one metre
high. Branches are trimmed and the foliage is taken for steam distillation. The cut stumps
coppice vigorously (
Plate 9
) and the new regrowth is then harvested on a regular basis. The
annual oil production of about 30t from natural stands is limited by the restricted distribution
of M. alternifolia, the small size of individual stands and poor accessibility of the resource
particularly in the wet season. Oil production from stands in state forests is also dependant
on licences issued by State Forests. Any restrictions to these licences will reduce future oil
production from natural stands.
Plantations
The expansion of the Australian tea tree oil industry from natural stands to plantation
production commenced in the 1980’s to meet the increasing demand for tea tree oil from
both overseas and domestic markets. By 1992/93, plantations of M. alternifolia were
supplying approximately 70% of the market (Butcher 1994) and by 1996/97 the proportion
is closer to 90%. Together with increasing the supply of oil, plantations were established to
improve the productivity and profitability of oil production.
The selection of suitable areas to establish tea tree plantations was initially confined to
the natural distribution of tea tree. It was assumed intuitively by growers that tea tree grown
in plantations would require similar conditions to that required by the natural stands. More
recently, however, plantations have been established both north and south of the North
Coast of NSW. The warmer conditions north of NSW, has basically meant an extended
growing season for tea tree while the use of irrigation enables the establishment of plantations
in drier areas. High yields in areas outside the North Coast of NSW (Drinnan 1996), suggest
that M. alternifolia should now be considered as a more widely adapted plant than first
thought.
Most of the established plantations are however, of limited value as a genetic resource
for a breeding programme because their genetic history is unknown or they were
established from a very narrow genetic base. This occurs when the pedigree of the seed
used to establish the plantation is unknown. Even today seed for plantations is often
collected from a limited number of trees within a stand and often using only rudimentary
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