There’s a lot more to this easily recognizable aromatic than meets the nose.
A member of the myrtle family, eucalyptus is generally identified by its strong signature scent and connection to Australian koala bears, known to feed ravenously on the tree’s leaves. So, it isn’t surprising to learn that earliest known botanical records indicate that eucalyptus was discovered and collected on the island of Tasmania, off the coast of the land down under, in the 1770s.
Since then, eucalyptus has naturalized and can be found growing on every main continent in the world, in both temperate and tropical climates. It’s considered one of the fastest growing trees in cultivation, and one of the tallest—some species grow up to 250 feet—though it can also be cultivated as a small shrub.
There are approximately 750 species of eucalyptus in the world today, and about 25 of them are commonly used in medicinal preparations. The most desired species for these purposes are those whose leaves are rich in eucalyptol, the primary component in eucalyptus essential oil. These include E. polybractea (blue mallee), E. smithii (gully ash) and E. bakeri (baker’s mallee).
For more than 200 years, eucalyptus has been integrated into the healing systems of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda. The practical use of the tree began with 18th-century aboriginal Australians, explains Katharine L’Heureux, founder and CEO of Kahina Giving Beauty. “The tree exudes a sticky blue, gum-like sap,” she says, hence lending the species its “gum tree” nickname. “Aboriginals used the substance to create their spears and fishing sticks, as well as treat their wounds and burns.”
Eucalyptus have been widely used to temper infectious outbreaks; in the mid-1800s, scientists started planting groves of eucalyptus trees in swampy areas to curb mosquito-spread malaria. “The groves ultimately transformed the marshes into dry lands, eliminating the mosquitos’ habitat,” relates Kim Manley, founder and creator of Kim Manley Herbals. In 1865, chief surgeon at King’s College London Dr. Joseph Lister (soon to be dubbed “the Father of Modern Antiseptics”) had the idea to utilize eucalyptus oil vapors to disinfect surgical rooms. It was found that the measure drastically reduced patients’ risk of death from infection.
Eucalyptus oil was utilized during World War I to control the spread of meningitis, and to hamper the 1919 influenza outbreak. In World War II, when French surgeon Jean Valnet depleted his supply modern medicines, he still managed to eradicate 70% of his hospital’s airborne staph bacteria by using eucalyptus oil spray.
It wasn’t long before eucalyptus became a presence in people’s medicine cabinets and on our drugstore shelves. “It came to be used for intermittent fever, bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, coughs and flu,” says Dr. Joelle Cafaro, herbalist and owner of Winchester, Virginia-based Heal 4 Real. We now see the ingredient listed on the labels of everything from cold medicines to skin creams to mouthwash, but this versatile botanical can still deliver the goods in its purest form. “Distilling the leaves and twigs with steam creates a refreshing, stimulating, uplifting and antibacterial essential oil, the vapors of which can be inhaled,” says Cafaro. “Or, the oil can be diluted with a carrier oil or cream, and applied to the skin for a similar effect.”
Eucalyptus oils are a go-to as a powerful antiseptic, and to have strong antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Although the lemon variation of the tree does not have an Environmental Protection Agency registration as an insect repellant, a 2011 study published with the National Center for Biotechnology Information Search reports that the waste distillate remaining after hydro-distillation of its essential oil was far more effective at repelling mosquitoes than the essential oil itself.
India’s Pharmacopoeia Commission, which sets the country’s official drug standards, has deemed eucalyptus a counter-irritant and a mild expectorant, notes Cafaro. She adds, “It’s officially recognized by the Chinese Pharmacopeia as an agent to sooth nerve pain, and the Ayurveda Pharmacopoeia recommends its topical applications for headaches and colds. In Germany, eucalyptus tea is a common prescription for bronchitis and throat inflammation, and in the U.S., it’s commonly used in decongestant lozenges and syrups, and as an inhalant in vapor baths.”
According to L’Heureux, eucalyptus remedies colds and respiratory issues by working on the nerve receptors of the nose and sinus pathways to release mucus. She adds, “Eucalyptus is also used as an anti-hyperintensive and calming natural sedative, and some say its scent can even curb food cravings!” Manley emphasizes eucalyptus’s aromatic uses. The scent, she says, is known to “increase energy, purify the body and balance emotions.”
Breanne Kallonen, a Toronto-based naturopath, warns that when improperly used eucalyptus can be dangerous or even fatal. “If not correctly diluted with a carrier oil, pure eucalyptus oil can cause drowsiness, severe diarrhea, changes in pulse rate, irregular breathing, constricted pupils, hypertension, compromised kidney function, coma and even death,” she says.
“Before adding eucalyptus oil to products or treatment protocols, always consult a doctor who is trained in botanical medicine.” It’s also a good idea to ensure that any purchased eucalyptus is organically sourced, to ensure that what you inhale and apply is free of any pesticides or herbicides.
Whether it’s diffused for aromatherapy, added to a massage oil to address aches and pains, blended in sugar and salt scrubs or simply rubbed across the chest to help soothe decongestion, eucalyptus is a popular, gender-neutral choice for spa clients. But there may be some uses you haven’t considered. Here are some lesser-known ideas:
- Let the properties of the plant roam the air. “Place bowls of eucalyptus leaves in your treatment rooms for purification.” —Manley
- Integrate in anti-inflammatory and antibacterial skin care. “Mix eucalyptus oil with equal parts peppermint oil and white vinegar, and apply to acneic skin.” —L’Heureux
- Add a few leaves to soaking tub water. “It relieves the pain of sprains, strains and muscle tension, and increases circulation to a given area.” —Kallonen
- Hang several branches in a shower or steam room. “The scent is uplifting and stimulating and, therefore, stress-relieving.” —Cafaro
Once your clients see all of the amazing healing properties of eucalyptus preparations, make them available for clients to bring home. Consider retailing eucalyptus-based sinus oils, chest balms, bath salts and room fresheners.
Hardy and fast-growing, eucalyptus trees have been both a blessing and a problem. Currently in California, where eucalyptus was introduced by the Australians during the Gold Rush of 1850, the ubiquitous Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus (E. globulus) is earmarked for reduction by the State’s Parks Department for its effect of displacing native species. “The tree has become quite pervasive,” says L’Heureux. “If they’re burned out or cut down, they just re-sprout.”
Eucalyptus are typically fostered to grow large trunks and low, easy-to-cut branches. “Well-cultivated trees and bushes can yield 100 pounds of leaves per year,” reports L’Heureux. “One acre can produce up to 35,000 pounds of leaf material, yielding up to 800 pounds of eucalyptus oil!”
Although their size and growing patterns will prevent most day spa owners from growing and harvesting their own eucalyptus trees, they do have their place; it just needs to be a large place. “Depending on the size of a destination or hotel spa’s grounds, eucalyptus could be a nice landscaping choice,” posits L’Heureux, adding that the beautiful trees also create a nice habitat for birds.
– By Katie O’Reilly