The Aborigines of Australia considered eucalyptus a “cure all,” an opinion that the world at large has come to share, based on the demand for eucalyptus products for medicinal, aromatic and industrial uses. It is, therefore, fortuitous that the harvesting of eucalyptus leaves is said to enhance the regrowth of the trees. In Greek, eucalyptus means “well-covered,” a reference to the cap that protects the eucalyptus flower bud. This could also apply to the many uses of the plant itself.
A German-born botanist, Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, was director of the Botanical Gardens in Melbourne, Australia from 1857 to 1873. Among the plants he studied was the eucalyptus tree. The suggestion that eucalyptus might be used as a disinfectant in fever districts apparently came from von Mueller. Subsequent experiments proved him right, and the rest is eucalyptus history.
The eucalyptus tree is native to the Australian bushlands where there are over 300 species, many of which were transplanted worldwide with different degrees of success. The tree is tall, normally growing to between 300 to 480 feet in height, and thrives in moist and rich soil. In 1857, eucalyptus seeds were first taken to France and were subsequently shipped to Algiers where they were planted in a malaria-infected and unhealthy area. According to one account, the deep and powerful roots of the eucalyptus trees absorbed the moisture, transforming the area into a dry and habitable place within about five years.
Early records indicate that the first commercial production of eucalyptus oil took place in Victoria, Australia in 1851. It was exported to England in 1865, and worldwide by the 1900s. Eucalyptus oil was evidently used to contain an outbreak of meningitis during World War I. Today, eucalyptus-producing countries include Australia, China, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, Russia and Chile. Eucalyptus products are in demand worldwide for their antiseptic, analgesic, deodorant, expectorant and vermifuge (antiparasitic) uses.
Eucalyptus oil has a broad spectrum of medicinal uses contributing to its international popularity. It is prescribed for a wide variety of respiratory conditions including asthma, bronchitis, coughs and flu. Chinese medicine suggests eucalyptus to clear lung phlegm. Respiratory applications include direct inhalation, diffuser, vaporizer, massage, compress and bath. Eucalyptus oil is said to stimulate the nervous system, countering depression and lethargy, and to relieve muscle pain. One of the less publicized uses of eucalyptus oil is for scalp massage. Applied directly or mixed with shampoo, it is said to stimulate blood flow to the hair and revitalize it.
Eucalyptus oil also has numerous uses as a cleaning agent. It can be applied to washcloths so that the vapors are released in the hot water. It acts as a skin moisturizer when added to a bath, jacuzzi, spa or hot tub. It is a refresher for bathroom and kitchen tiles, sinks and porcelain, carpets and air conditioning filters. Outdoors, it is an insect repellent and can be used as an ingredient in garden spray to keep bugs away.