Melaleuca viridiflora or Melaleuca quinquenervia
General Description / Cultural Significance
New Caledonia is comprised of dozens of islands off the eastern coast of Australia, each an important, biologically diverse, and complex web of ecosystems. The country’s geographic isolation, variety of soils, and range in elevation have brought forth uniquely evolved flora with a wide variety of endemic species. In fact, New Caledonia is considered to have the richest biodiversity per square kilometer of any area on earth. The east coast of the largest island, Grand Terre, is humid and fertile with abundant tropical vegetation while the west coast is dry and temperate with a dense presence of the native Niaouli, Melaleuca viridiflora. A shrub or tree which grows 10 to 15 meters tall, Niaouli is found in savannas, forests, and wetlands, most commonly on Grande Terre but distributed throughout many of the other islands as well. When the Niaouli tree blooms, its honey-citrus and herbaceous aroma can be smelled for miles. White fuzzy blossoms emerge and cover the tree, coloring tropical hillsides as if they were covered in snow. The tree’s twisted trunks are covered in corky bark which often peels off in thin layers, earning the nickname “Paperbark” tree.
New Caledonia has developed many traditions which incorporate the Niaouli into daily life. Traditional homes are constructed from the tree’s timber due to its strength and resistance to common wood-consuming insects. The trees are harvested by craftsmen and used while still green, hardening and drying into their strong shape with time. Niaouli wood is believed to be imbued with spiritual properties. Although a large percentage of the islanders are Catholic or Protestant, the belief in ancestral presences is common. To New Caledonians, negative spirits can inhabit individuals and cause illness, a condition healed by plants such as Niaouli which accompany invocations. During ceremonies and in the home, a common tea made from the leaves of Niaouli is drunk.
During the 18th century, agricultural workers in New Caledonia harvesting coffee and other cash crops chewed Niaouli leaves to produce a thick, salve-like substance from the tree. They then applied this to their irritated hands and body wounds to prevent infection while at work. This is how the healing properties of Niaouli were discovered by the rest of the world. Both before this discovery and ever since, Niaouli oil extracted from the tree’s leaves and stems has been used to treat respiratory problems and influenza. The oil has a sweet aroma with a strong yet cool and fresh flavor often compared to Eucalyptus. Niaouli oil is used to treat skin and digestive issues, candida, herpes simplex, hepatitis, and more. Modern research has proven the oil’s analgesic, anti-rheumatic, antiseptic, bactericidal, decongestant, and stimulant effects. When smelled through aromatherapy or as an ingredient in any health product, Niaouli has been shown to uplift mood and emotion. Unlike many similar essential oils, Niaouli oil does not irritate the skin. In fact, it is not only an ideal treatment for acne, but it is applied to the skin before radiation therapy in cancer treatments. The oil’s constituents help protect the skin from burning and stimulate healing in the event that the radiation causes burning. Some of the last remaining direct-fired stills, the traditional method of obtaining Niaouli oil, exist in New Caledonia today. Despite the plant’s medicinal potential, the high cost of labor to produce essential oil has caused the industry to dwindle.
Climate Change / Conservation Status
As a tropical island, New Caledonia is engaging with a plethora of threats in the face of climate change. The New Caledonian barrier reef is the second longest double-barrier coral reef in the world and is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its increasingly threatened marine species. Rising sea temperatures and cyclones which appear outside of the normal season are eroding the reef and coastal habitats. Fish are migrating to cooler conditions and more nutrient-rich waters, sapping the reefs of a key element to their ecosystem and removing an entire source of food and livelihood from the New Caledonian people. Predicted cyclone disasters will be catastrophic for New Caledonia’s inland environments–including those which the Niaouli calls home–, not to mention the damage they will cause to infrastructure development and the country’s limited economy.
Although the islands face dire and immediate climate-induced threats, New Caledonia has earned the unique title as one of the countries on earth with the cleanest air. This is based on a 2022 study which analyzed air quality across the planet using ground-based monitors. New Caledonia was determined to be one of only three countries on the planet that met the World Health Organization’s air quality standards. This status can be attributed to the country’s isolation, but it cannot be ignored that well-known air purifiers grow all across the islands in the form of Melaleuca viridiflora forests. Additionally, New Caledonia is famed for its low malaria levels, commonly attributed to the powerful insecticidal properties of the Niaouli. Unfortunately, this important tree has been threatened by deforestation for mining on Goro Vale and on the Bélep Islands. In the face of increased rainfall and flooding, Melaleuca viridiflora has adapted its root system to “breath” during long periods of submersion, and to spread and provide more stability during water logging. Despite these alterations, the tree is still unable to survive extreme inundation, an occurrence which will become more of a reality as heavier rainfall and rising sea levels bring water closer to the Niaouli. The tree is now cultivated in numerous protected areas across the islands as it continues to improve the lives of all New Caledonians, even as survival becomes increasingly strained due to climate change.
Paperbark Tea Tree
Bai shu yu (Chinese)
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