Manuka is a very productive shrub-like tree and often, it is among the first plant species that regenerated on any cleared land. Usually, the manuka tree grows up to a height of anything between 2 meters and 5 meters (7 feet and 16 feet), but some trees can also be seen growing up the height of a moderate-sized tree - up to 15 meters (49 feet). This is an evergreen plant, having crowded branching and produces small leaves that measure anything between 7 mm and 20 mm in length, while they are about 2 mm and 6 mm in width. The leaves of manuka tree have a small spiky tip. Usually, this plant produces small white flowers, but occasionally some plant may be seen producing pink flowers having five petals each and measuring between 8 mm and 15 mm (seldom up to 25 mm) across.
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Often people mistake manuka trees for another species called kanuka, as both resemble each other closely. The simplest way to differentiate between the two species while they are in the field is by feeling their foliage. While the leaves of manuka are prickly, those of kanuka are soft. The wood of both species is tough as well as hard.
There are about 79 different plant species in the Leptospermum genus. Nearly all these species are found all over Australia, while just one of these species grows naturally in New Zealand.
The manuka trees of Leptospermum scoparium are the source of the globally reputed manuka honey. This tree is often referred to as the tea tree of Aotearoa New Zealand (the Maori name for the country). This is an undersized aromatic shrub that is evergreen and indigenous to all the three islands that comprise New Zealand. The native Maori community of New Zealand has been traditionally using the manuka tree for therapeutic purposes for more than eight centuries now.
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In spite of being among the more significant indigenous plants in New Zealand, manuka has been considered to be a toxic weed for the major part of the 20th century. In fact, the farmers particularly hated this plant and considered it to be a very expensive nuisance that hindered the development of the hilly areas of their country. Surprising enough, when a black dirty fungus destroyed the population of manuka considerably, people celebrated the occasion. In fact, they also sold the infected manuka trees to others with a view to help them encourage the fungus to spread in areas where there were healthy manuka trees.
However, following further research undertaken to examine the benefits of manuka and better understanding, there seemed to be a near complete reversal in New Zealanders' relationship with this species. As manuka trees possess the aptitude to endure the ruthless environmental conditions, they became a perfect nursery plant that not only provided the more sensitive natives with shade as well as shelter, but also served several other purposes for the local inhabitants. In fact, manuka is often cultivated to look after the next generation of plants and help them to develop into a future forest. As this plant possesses the ability to take care of smaller plants of other species, it has been adopted extensively for use in various types of conservation projects that aim at improving the areas degraded ecologically and also promote regeneration naturally.
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Often, the timber of manuka trees was used for making tool handles. When the the sawdust of the tree's wood is employed for smoking fish and meats, it imparts a delectable flavour. In New Zealand, this tree is cultivated for manuka honey - produced by honeybees with the nectar they collect from the flowers of this species. In addition, the tree is also used by the pharmaceutical industry. Manuka trees are also cultivated for the oils yielded by them as well as wood carving.
It has been documented that during Captain James Cook's discovery voyages around New Zealand, the crew of his ship boiled the manuka leaves to prepare a tea. Even the early European settlers in New Zealand followed this practice and they called the manuka tree by its common name tea tree. This term is used even in present times to refer to manuka trees as well as the Kanuka (botanical name Kunzea ericoides), whose appearance resembles that of manuka, but is genetically entirely different. It is said that Captain Cook also brewed the leaves of manuka and rimu to make a specific type of beer. According to records, the crew found this beer extremely pleasant. Hence, it was highly valued by them.
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The Maori people of New Zealand used the L. scoparium or manuka traditionally as food, medication as well as timber. Sometimes, a sugary gum is found on the branches of this tree and it was administered to infants or used as a remedy for cough in adults. Infusions prepared from the leaves and bark of the manuka tree were employed for treating a variety of ailments, while the wood of this tree was used to make implements. This tree (as mentioned above) assumed the common name tea tree as Captain Cook used its leaves to make a tea when he arrived in New Zealand for the first time in 1769.
Currently, the sawdust of manuka tree is widely employed to enhance the flavour of smoked fish and meats. The honey made by bees from the flowers of manuka is known to be a very valuable food as well as a health item. It is collected for exports. Currently, several studies are being undertaken to examine the therapeutic as well as antibacterial properties of this honey. Essential oils extracted from the leaves of L. scoparium also have commercial uses. It forms the basis for various therapeutic as well as cosmetic products.
Products from manuka tree are highly effective as antibacterial agents, especially for a limited gamut of bacteria and are available extensively throughout New Zealand. The Maori people of New Zealand used the manuka as a natural remedy for various conditions owing to this property of the species.
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Similarly, the Kakariki parakeets or Cyanorampus as well as employ the manuka and kanuka leaves and bark to eliminate parasites from their body. In addition to using the substances internally, they also chew the leaves and bark of these trees and blend them with the oil extracted from preen gland and apply it topically onto their feathers.
As discussed above, the manuka honey, which is produced by honeybees with nectar collected from the flowers of this tree, possesses a distinct flavour and its taste is richer than clover honey. In addition, manuka honey also possesses potent antibacterial and antifungal attributes. In fact, the best quality manuka honey having highly potent antimicrobial attributes is obtained from the hives that are found in wild and uncultivated regions having plenty of manuka bushes. Despite their overwhelming therapeutic properties, as of now very few scientific studies have been undertaken to prove the efficiency of this honey as a potent antimicrobial agent.
There are various different sources from which you can easily obtain manuka oil, which is being promoted as a substance that is effective for one's complexion, for use in aromatherapy, use in the form of an antibiotic, and treating several other medical condition, particularly those that affect the skin.
For the Maori community in New Zealand, manuka formed a vital medicinal plant. Infusions prepared with the leaves of this plant were used to treat fevers, stomach disorder as well as problems related to the urinary tract. The gum produced by the tree branches was also employed by these people in the form of a moisturizer for treating burns as well as to alleviate coughs. Decoctions prepared with the bark of the tree were used in the form of a mouthwash, taken internally to treat fever and diarrhea and also as a sedative.
The Maori in New Zealand used the wood of manuka (L. scoparium) in the form of firewood and they still value this highly as firewood. The timber of this tree was also used for various other purposes by these people.
People in New Zealand have been using the wood of manuka tree extensively, since it is straight-grained as well as tough. This wood has been utilized for making an assortment of implements, tools, and structures - for example beds, combs, houses, paddles, spears and canoes. In addition, they also valued this wood as firewood, since it possesses the ability to promote fire very easily. However, the local Department of Conservation has now been urging people not to harvest the manuka shrubs for firewood, because it plays a vital role in regenerating forests.
The antiseptic and anti-bacterial attributes of manuka tree are familiar both in folk medicine and science. However, no compound enclosed by this oil has been proved to be responsible for all its therapeutic properties. In fact, the chemical called methyglyoxal (MGO) is known to be responsible for most of the antimicrobial attribute of the manuka tree. The presence of this chemical has resulted in the development of a evaluation system for rating products on their MGO content proportion. A considerable part of scientific research on manuka tree's anti-bacterial properties has concentrated on the manuka essential oil, which incidentally does not contain MGO, it is expected that several other compounds present in manuka tree are responsible for its antibacterial activities.