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Published: 4 Jun 2019

We all know tea tree oil – a natural antibacterial oil native to Australia.

But what about the oil from Tassie native kunzea? Though lesser known than tea tree, kunzea has been used topically by Aboriginal communities in Tasmania to relieve irritated skin and muscular aches and pains for thousands of years.

Kunzea ambigua – sometimes known as tick bush – grows well in Tassie’s native bush. Chances are if you haven’t noticed its white blossoms, you’ve gotten a whiff of its gentle, aromatic fragrance.

Kunzea is the active ingredient in many Australian anti-inflammatory creams and balms, soaps and body sprays. Kunzea honey is also on the market and the bush’s leaves are used in cooking – a natural flavour enhancer perfect for a succulent, mid-winter roast.

There is such a high demand for the oil that Tasmania can’t currently produce enough to meet the market’s needs.

“Internationally, there’s a big demand for kunzea – they can’t seem to get enough,” Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) Researcher Chanjoo Park said.

For her PhD, Ms Park is investigating growing techniques that might encourage kunzea to produce more of its special oils with even higher quality.

“The amount of oil we can currently extract from kunzea leaves and twigs is low, but the quantity available can be affected by nutrients, type of cultivar, seasonal variation and even the pruning style,” said Ms Park.

Ms Park is using science to find the answers to a long list of questions:

Do kunzea plants produce more oil if they’re left as a shrub or trimmed down like a lawn?

What is the optimal length of time to distil kunzea oil and should it be distilled under pressure?

How do seasonal changes affect the oil’s yield and chemical compounds?

What are its antifungal and antibacterial properties?

What’s the better fertiliser for kunzea – nitrogen or phosphorous – and how should it be applied?

The research is the first project to stem from a new partnership between TIA and Essential Oils of Tasmania (EOT). TIA and EOT have just signed a three-year Memorandum of Understanding to boost research for the Tasmanian essential oil and plant extracts industry.

“We’re all about innovation in the essential oils industry and celebrating the unique wonders of Tasmania’s native plants, so this new kunzea project is very exciting,” said Simon Wells, CEO of EOT.

“Not only will the research confirm the health benefits of kunzea and help us communicate those to the world, it will also contribute towards more efficient kunzea production and reduced processing costs.

“It’s fantastic to have a TIA food and plant scientist with a new-found love of kunzea leading the project.”

Ms Park, originally from South Korea, completed her Master’s in food and nutrition, looking at whether Mexican sweet potato has similar anti-diabetic effects to stevia.

Before arriving in Tasmania, she had only ever heard of rose, lavender and tea tree oils.

“When I experienced the smell of kunzea oil, I was mesmerized by its unique fragrance and yellow colour,” Ms Park said.

“It’s fascinating research and there is so much potential. I think Tasmanian kunzea oil will soon be world famous, on par with Australian tea tree oil.”

Project updates available here