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Promising plantation crop of medicinal value

By Our Agriculture Correspondent

TEA TREE, Melaleuca alternifolia, is a high value plantation crop, known for its oil-yielding leaves of high medicinal value.

A native of Australia, it is commercially grown in advanced countries such as the U.S. and Australia.

"India has plenty of suitable lands for commercial cultivation of Tea tree, and they should be tapped to their full potentials," says Mr. K.V.S. Krishna, a veteran tea planter of South India, specializing in high-value plantation crops.

"Tea tree, just like the Eucalyptus tree, belongs to the family Myrtaceae, and the oil extracted from its leaves are endowed with a number of medicinal properties.

It is a perennial crop of about 50 to 60 years of economic life, and it lends itself to quite a high density planting.

As many as 40 000 plants can be accommodated in well laid out rows in a hectare. Initially, the trees are harvested on a 12 to 24 month cycle. However, established plantations are harvested on 12 to 18 months cycle.

Yields as high as 20,000 kg leaves yielding 460 kg oil have been recorded in commercial plantations in California," says Mr. Krishna, who has extensively studied this high-value plantation crop.

The plant comes up well in high humidity regions and it can tolerate even damp area.

Sandy loams and deep friable loams are ideally suited for its cultivation.

In South India it is best to grow it in higher elevations of 900 to 1500 m. As the crop is highly susceptible to frost damage, it is better to avoid frosty belts, according to him.

While raising commercial plantations, special care should be taken to identify the right variety of proven performance, adaptability and high oil content.

The tree has a very dense branching habit and coppices readily after cutting. Re-growth of 2 metres in height yielded 40 to 60 per cent twigs with 60 to 70 per cent leaves.

Therefore, it is better to prune the plants when they are 1.5 m tall to get higher production of leaves, according to Mr. Krishna.

By adopting improved agronomic practices and value-addition to the oil, the profitability from the tea tree plantations can be made more attractive.

Positive cash flow from the crop can be expected from the second or third years of planting itself, according to him.

Tea tree oil is produced by distilling the leaves of established plants. Large commercial plantations were established following increased global demand for this medicinal oil in 1980s.

The oil is clear, colourless or pale yellow, and it contains a complex mixture of over 45 biochemical substances.

High quality tea tree oil should contain a maximum cineole content of 5 percent, and a minimum terpinene-4-01 content of 35 to 40 per cent, according to him.

Production of tea tree oil in Australia rose from 20000 kg in 1985 to 1,20,000 kg in 1993, and its demand has increased manifolds since then.

Its area around the globe has also been on the increase, according to him.

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