a sideline in organic oil production.
TEXT: TERRY MOORE PHOTOGRAPHS: JULIET NICHOLAS
Published in the July 2004 Issue of New Zealand Gardener
Fate was smiling upon Margaret Macbeth back in 1996 when she was desperately seeking seeds of Melaleuca alternifolia (Australian tea tree) with which to start a small oil business.
Seeds were proving hard to obtain from Australia and no-one in New Zealand was growing the plant.
While visiting Christchurch she ran into a school friend whom she hadn’t seen in 20 years. The friend had some melaleuca seeds and was looking for someone to grow them!
This happy coincidence has allowed Margaret and her husband Hamish, after much hard work, to fill a niche market for organic melaleuca oil.The couple had been working their farm in Karamea for 10 years when they discovered melaleuca while looking for an oil-producing crop that was suited to their high rainfall and temperate climate. “We chose melaleuca over manuka as our local manuka is not active in terms of its antibacterial properties,” says Margaret.As the first seeds went into the ground, they applied for BioGro certification so that by the time the oil was produced it could be certified organic. That first harvest, in March 1997, produced only a few litres of oil, but the quality was excellent and the couple were encouraged to increase their endeavours. These days around 50 litres of oil is produced.
Margaret has this advice for people considering growing an oil-producing crop:
– Oil is a bit like wine: the oil will carry characteristics of the place where the plants are grown.
– Aspects such as soil, shelter, the lie of the land, heat, rainfall, time of harvest and how closely the plants are grown together will all influence the quality of the oil produced.
– Ensure the plant variety you grow produces a known oil type, eg, rosemary grown here
produces an oil that is nothing like the European one.
– To keep maintenance down, choose a crop that is naturally suited to your climatic conditions.
Harvesting by hand is made more pleasurable, Margaret says, because the leaves are fragrant, “in a pungent, antiseptic kind of way”. The harvest is taken to a barn where the material is hand-stripped from the main trunks into lengths that can be fitted into the distillation unit.It takes around 50kg of leaves and twigs to produce 500ml of oil – a one per cent return that is considered good compared with many other plants.
Distillation was initially done by a friend using a wood-fired boiler, but by 2000 the couple had their own woodfired distillation unit – a boiler made in Westport and a stainless steel distiller commissioned from a Nelson company.
The essential oil is sold under the True Blue Organics label and is also added to a small range of products such as soap and cream.
“As the only organic grower of melaleuca in New Zealand, we have filled an important gap in the market and there is exciting potential for growth,” says Margaret.