Anyone who has been in a room with eucalyptus branches knows the sensual power of this hardy evergreen. Eucalyptus trees make up about seventy-five percent of the tree population in Australia, and there’s a long history of eucalyptus oil being used medicinally on the Australian continent. The therapeutic qualities of the land down under tree are obvious even before eucalyptus oil is steam distilled from its leaves.
Trying to establish the exact date when humans discovered the benefits of eucalyptus is a monumental task, but petroglyphs on cave walls date back thousands of years, and they show signs of the tree that became a healing ally of the Aborigines. The Aborigines have inhabited Australia for over 125,000 years, and their connection to nature gave them the innate ability to use what surrounded them to enhance the family unit in one way or another.
How and why the Aborigines first used eucalyptus is a mystery, but seeing the koala bears chew on it all day long must have stimulated their inquisitiveness. Koala bears never eat anything but the leaves from the eucalyptus, so that certainly instigated a trial-and-error type approach to using the oil for a variety of reasons. Eucalyptus became a medicine for the Aborigines once they discovered that chewing the leaves gave them relief from muscle pain, and when they applied oil from the leaves on skin wounds the pain also subsided.
Eating the leaves was not an option once they realized that large amounts of eucalyptus oil caused diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps, dizziness, and shortness of breath. These indigenous people quickly learned that the oil served them better when it was inhaled or when it was rubbed into the skin. They discovered that pure eucalyptus oil is a natural insect repellent.
The Western history of eucalyptus oil began in 1788. That’s when John White, the Surgeon-General of the First Fleet, landed in Australia. He immediately noticed the tree since it was almost everywhere around Port Jackson, which is where Sydney now stands. The French botanist L’Heritier named the tree eucalyptus that same year. Dr. White distilled the leaves, and the fleet called it ‘Sydney Peppermint.’
The Medicinal Value Of Eucalyptus Was Identified In England
Governor Philip sent a sample of eucalyptus oil back to England so it could be tested. The English found the oil much more efficacious in relieving colicky complaints than peppermint, and the fact that it was less pungent and the aroma was more soothing made the oil an instant hit in some medical circles in England.
Even though the English discovered eucalyptus at the end of the 18th century, the oil was not exploited until the middle of the 19th century. Joseph Bosisto, a young Yorkshire pharmacist, arrived in Adelaide in 1848 searching for gold, but found eucalyptus instead. After Victorian botanist Baron Ferdinand von Mueller encouraged him to investigate pure eucalyptus oil as a potential antiseptic, Bosisto built a small facility to test the chemical and medicinal properties of the oil, and discovered that the chemical compounds could interact with body cells and produce some healing benefits.
Bosisto began selling eucalyptus oil locally for a variety of conditions like asthma, muscle pains, congestion, and other issues, and in 1865 he began exporting the oil to England. Two Englishman saw the potential of trading the oil and their firm, Felton Grimwade & Co became the distributors for Bosisto’s Oil of Eucalyptus. Bosisto’s oil was the only Australian substance in the British pharmacopeia at that time.
The word spread and by 1885 pure eucalyptus oil was being shipped to England, Germany and other countries in Europe. By the turn of the century the oil had reached the shores of the US, India, China, South Africa, Canada and New Zealand. The demand for pure eucalyptus oil grew with the onset of World War I, where field medics used the oil as a painkiller and antiseptic, especially to control outbreaks of meningitis. Eucalyptus oil was also highly sought after as a medicine during the deadly 1919 influenza pandemic. Today, some major eucalyptus producers are Spain, China, South Africa, Portugal, Chile, Russia, and of course, Australia.