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Manuka Revealed: the story of an essential oil from New Zealand

In November and December of last year, my partner Tim and I were lucky enough to go to New Zealand as part of a family vacation with my parents.

I was delighted when I found myself wandering among Manuka bushes, a plant I only knew before as an essential oil from a bottle. What a discovery!

Now I have a deeper relationship with the plant, and know where that amazing essential oil comes from.

New Zealand is an incredible country, with spectacular scenery formed by the incredible uplift of the earth under the islands, and the glaciers that carved the land below those high peaks in the last ice ages. The place is also blessed with a ridiculous amount of rain and climate-moderating influence of the ocean, which keeps vegetation green and growing for most of the year. The northern parts of the country are at a latitude comparable to Southern California, whereas the Southern Alps on the South Island are not only tall and alpine, but more similar to Oregon or Idaho in distance from the equator. The biggest difference is the torrential amount of rain – some areas in Fiordland average 200-315 inches of rain per year, a far cry from our 10 inches of rain we get in Idaho!

Cameron and Tim starting their hike to Pandora Beach, New Zealand

We started our vacation by traveling to the northernmost tip of the north island, where Tim and I had a tramping trip (Kiwi term for backpack trip) that we wanted to do around Cape Rienga. My parents dropped us off at the trailhead and were off to do their own adventures for a few days. It started to rain as we said goodbye, excited to be going on our first backpack trip in this beautiful country. We hurredly donned our raingear, took photos, and we were off! We would find out in the course of our 6 weeks in New Zealand that it seemed to rain just about every day, but it wouldn’t be long before the sun would break through again.

Manuka bush tunnel in New Zealand

As we hiked down the dirt road towards our intended overnight campsite at a place called Pandora beach I noticed that both sides of the road were lined with a tall bush that ended in a flat-topped spray of branches, forming a kind of tunnel canopy over the road. The plants had many small needle-like leaves and occasionally beautiful white flowers intermixed among the branches. This plant was the main shrub covering most of the landscape, and was quite common throughout the northern parts of New Zealand. I found out later that this bush was likely Manuka or its close relative Kanuka, both native to New Zealand. Manuka nectar makes the world famous Manuka Honey, renowned for its antibacterial qualities, and a wonderful essential oil that I use in my Sweet Belly Farm herbal products.

Manuka flowers  - Photo by Phil BendleManuka (Leptospermum scoparium) flowers- photo by Phil Bendle, a resource from the Taranaki Educational Resource Research Analysis and Information Network.


 Manuka is part of the myrtle family, and is sometimes referred to as “New Zealand Tea Tree”. Although not closely related to the Australian Tea Tree, Melaleuca alternifolia, Manuka has many of the same benefits. Manuka essential oil is made by steam distillation of the leaves and twigs. It has antibiotic, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, antihistamine properties, among other healing benefits. Typically Manuka is used to heal all sorts of skin and whole-body ailments, from minor wounds, athlete’s foot, ringworm, dandruff and fungal skin infections, to bronchial infections, influenza, and stress.

When I first created Sweet Belly Farm's blends of herbal bath salts using Epsom and Dead Sea salts, healing herbs, and essential oils, serendipitously I tried adding Manuka essential oil to the Calm Calendula blend.  Originally I chose it for the earthy, strong smell, which grounds and compliments the airy smells of lemon and rosemary. Then I learned about its benefits for skin and infections, and knew it was a good choice to complement the healing effects of the other herbs and salts. Our skin readily absorbs plant compounds such as the terpenes in Manuka essential oil and the polyphenols in Calendula, so taking a bath in plant extracts is a very effective way to administer herbal medicine. Also, it feels great to lower yourself into steamy hot water that smells and feels amazing!

Sweet Belly Farm Herbal Bath Salts - Calm Calendula with Manuka essential oil  Inspecting the flowers of a Manuka bush in New Zealand

Having now experienced whole landscapes full of Manuka, I will always be able to conjure up the memory of the smell and shape of those lovely, flat-topped bushes. I also know how well it grows in environments like New Zealand, and can trust that using Manuka essential oil is a sustainable choice. I’m so grateful to get to know this ingredient better, and it inspires me to delve deeper into the other plants I meet along my herbal journey!

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