Pharmacological and antimicrobial studies on different tea-tree oils (Melaleuca alternifolia, Leptospermum scoparium or Manuka and Kunzea ericoides or Kanuka), originating in Australia and New Zealand.
Three different species of Myrtaceae growing in Australia and New Zealand are known as 'Tea-tree': the Australian Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia), the New Zealand Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) and Kanuka (Kunzea ericoides). All three essential oils are used by aromatherapists, although only Melaleuca has been tested for toxicity, and its antimicrobial effects studied. The pharmacology and antimicrobial activity of the three 'tea-tree' oils was determined using guinea-pig ileum, skeletal muscle (chick biventer muscle and the rat phrenic nerve diaphragm) and also rat uterus in vitro. Differences were shown between the three essential oils in their action on smooth muscle: Manuka had a spasmolytic action, while Kanuka and Melaleuca had an initial spasmogenic action. Using the diaphragm, Manuka and Melaleuca decreased the tension and caused a delayed contracture; Kanuka had no activity at the same concentration. The action on chick biventer muscle was, however, similar for all three oils, as was the action on the uterus, where they caused a decrease in the force of the spontaneous contractions. The latter action suggests caution in the use of these essential oils during childbirth, as cessation of contractions could put the baby, and mother, at risk. The comparative antimicrobial activity showed greater differences between different samples of Manuka and Kanuka than Melaleuca samples. The antifungal activity of Kanuka was inversely proportional to its strong antibacterial activity, whilst Manuka displayed a stronger antifungal effect, though not as potent as Melaleuca. The antioxidant activity of Manuka samples was more consistent than that of Kanuka, while Melaleuca showed no activity. The variability in the Manuka and Kanuka essential oils suggests caution in their usage, as does the fact that the oils have not been tested for toxicity.