Harvesting is done by coppicing the trees on a regular rotation every second or third year, so the trees range in height from half a metre up to about five metres.
The trunks are honey-coloured, with peeling, papery bark, and the leaves are soft and feathery, a medium, slightly olive green. In the big Australian plantations, harvesting is done with a machine, which cuts the trees right down near ground level. At True Blue they use a chainsaw and cut them higher, about a metre or less, and the trees have such vigorous growth they just keep on resprouting.
The best oil comes from the older growth. Tea tree can be harvested any time of year, so the Macbeths can harvest more or less on demand. Excess trunks and larger branches that are not distilled are chipped and then used as mulch around the tea trees and other trees on the property. The small branches that go through the distilling process are also used as mulch.
The Macbeths distil every 3–4 weeks, and less so in winter. Once harvested, the tea tree is left to wilt, then the small stalks that have the leaves on are chopped off for distilling.
Hand processing allows any insects, weeds and so on to be removed, making the oil a pure product. There has been some bad press about allergies to tea tree, but Margaret says this may in fact be reactions to weeds present because of machine harvesting.
The distilling process takes place outside. About 50 kilos of tea tree branchlets are loaded into a big metal pot and steamed for about an hour, yielding a minimum of 500mls of oil.
Water is heated by a boiler that is fired by wood from their own woodlot, and constantly monitored to maintain an even temperature. The water turns to steam, which is forced through the steaming pot, taking with it the oil vapours. Both the steam and oil vapours then condense as they run through a pipe to another metal container where the oil floats on the top, and is siphoned off through an overflow pipe, while the water is released through a lower “underflow” pipe.
The equipment is also used to distil for other organic growers, and plants so far distilled include lavender,
manuka, kanuka, lemonwood (tarata) and lemon verbena.
Products & markets
The main product is the pure tea tree oil, which conforms to international standards. The Macbeths also use it in other products, including soaps, and their TLC cream balm (tea tree, lavender and calendula). The aromatic waters, or hydrosols, that have been through the distilling process can be used as aftershave, skin toner or air freshener. They sell a household cleaner and disinfectant that is created by adding a few drops of tea tree oil to the hydrosols.
Most sales of True Blue’s products are to organic and health food shops, and a few gift shops on the West Coast. Recently there has been an increase in sales to organic dairy farmers who are using tea tree oil to treat their cows for mastitis, by injecting it into the udders. Lab tests have shown the oil to be very effective against the bacteria that cause mastitis, and as it is not an antibiotic the farmers do not need to quarantine their cows.
One farmer swears by it for worm control, and puts it into a drench for his cattle and sheep, mixing it with cider vinegar and garlic oil (garlic that has been infused in sunflower oil).
Autumn was a good time to visit; Margaret encouraged me to try the apples, cape gooseberries, plump feijoas and juicy figs. In the large free range chook area there were hazels, elders, tamarillos and the Australian lillypilly, which has a fruit that can be made into jams and preserves. A small flock of sheep roamed among the tea trees, keeping the grass down and adding fertiliser.
Then we came to the newest development: a planting of 500 feijoa trees. A Nelson orchardist was going to rip out his four-year-old feijoas because they did not do well in his area due to early frost. He asked the Karamea Growers’ Group, to which the Macbeths belong, if they were interested in transplanting them. Members of the group went and dug up 1800 trees and replanted them in spring 2005.
“Unfortunately, there was a drought in spring,” Margaret recalled. “It was hugely drier than expected, so the trees had a hard time and we’ve lost about thirty.” There was lots of new growth on the trees when I visited so they seemed to be picking up, and Margaret hopes they will start producing well in just a couple of years.
The six varieties of feijoa (Unique, Opal Star, Triumph, Wiki 2, Pounamu and Kakapo) will span the harvest season of April to June, and will be hand-harvested. In their natural habitat in South America, they ripen all year round.