$2.2 million research project to grow tea tree industry

Published in the February 2017 issue


Forest science researcher Dr Mervyn Shepherd with local industry representatives at the Southern Cross Plant Science tea tree trial site on the Lismore campus.

Southern Cross University will lead research aimed at boosting Australia’s tea tree industry, following the announcement of a three-year project worth a total of $2.2 million.

The lead organisation for the project, funded through the Australian Government’s Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Program, is the Australian Tea Tree Industry Association. The project will be coordinated by Dr Mervyn Shepherd, from Southern Cross Plant Science, part of the University’s Institute for Innovative Agriculture.

Dr Shepherd said the project, entitled Enhanced market agility for the Australian tea tree industry, was aimed at increasing Australia’s ability to access key export markets and ensure the long-term viability of the industry.

“Tea tree oil is an iconic natural Australian product and the industry is worth around $30 million a year. However, there are increasingly tighter regulations in key markets such as Europe, and the industry in Australia needs to ensure it can produce a quality product to meet these regulations,” Dr Shepherd said.

European Union regulations require tea tree oil that is being used in cosmetic products to have as low a level of methyl eugenol as can be achieved, while ensuring it remains a 100 per cent natural product that has not been genetically modified.

Dr Shepherd said it was imperative the Australian industry could respond with new low methyl eugenol tea tree oil as soon as practically possible.

The project will also develop techniques for clonal propagation to speed up the time it takes to get product to market. Currently the industry uses seedling cultivars.

“By using a cloning method we can increase the uniformity of plants and nearly halve the time it takes to release a new cultivar,” Dr Shepherd said.

“This is an exciting project which will provide new agility within the industry to meet future challenges, including the demand for ‘greener’ products.”

Tony Larkman, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Tea Tree Oil organisation, welcomed the project.

“This research will ensure Australia retains its place as the biggest supplier of the world’s tea tree oil. We know we have to work smarter and this project will really take our industry into a new phase,” Mr Larkman said.

“We have a long-term commitment to research and development and the use of cloning has been a long-held goal, enabling us to improve our product while retaining a product that is 100 per cent natural.”

Southern Cross University’s Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) Professor Geraldine Mackenzie said:

“We are delighted to be part of this important project, which builds on our expertise in plant science and tea tree in particular. This is an important export industry for Australia, and projects such as this are important to keep us competitive. Southern Cross University has close links with industry, and our research has global impact,” Professor MacKenzie said.

As well as tea tree growers, the project involves collaboration with specialists in plant propagation and researchers from the University of Sunshine Coast, Vitroflora Pty Ltd and Narromine Transplants Pty Ltd.


Southern Cross University has had a long-term relationship with the regional tea tree industry, which originated in northern NSW. The Analytical Research Laboratory within Southern Cross Plant Science has extensive expertise in the chemical profiling of a wide range of essential oils, including tea tree oil. Southern Cross University has also recently announced the establishment of the Centre for Organics Research, in a collaborative project with the NSW Department of Primary Industries.

The CRC Program supports industry-led collaborations between industry, researchers and the community.

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  1. Steuart and Hilary McPherson says:

    Hi we are A Certified Organic Tea Tree growers and distillers and are wondering if local growers are of interest to you in this project

  2. Jenny Wholohan says:

    Hi. Have you looked at Tea Tree grown at high altitude? I live on acreage in the Tinderry Mountains between Canberra & Cooma. It is practically a weed in our region, but wondering if it might have the properties you are looking for.

  3. Mervyn Shepherd says:

    Hi Jenny,
    good question to ask, and you are right there are often geographically based differences in plant species.
    There are only two species of “tea tree” that can be used as a source of tea tree oil that can be traded under standard defining tea tree oil (ISO 47230:2017), Melaleuca alternifolia and M. linariifolia, with almost all oil produced in practice from M. alternifolia.
    M. alternifolia isn’t known to occur south of Port Macquarie .
    As it turns out there some important chemical and adaptive differences between upland M. alternifolia and coastal populations.
    Pls refer to
    Shepherd, M., G. Ablett, R. Wood, C. Raymond and T. Rose, 2015 Ecotype variation in early growth, coppicing, and shoot architecture of tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia). Industrial Crops and Products 76: 844–856.
    Shepherd, M., R. Wood, C. Bloomfield and C. Raymond, 2015 Ecotypic responses to flood and drought in tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia). Crop and Pasture Science 66: 864–876.