No one in the tribe cared for Kooboo the orphan. No one gave him food or even water when he was thirsting. And so Kooboo was always hungry and thirsty, for it was a hot dry land and people had to fetch water from far away. They stored it in pots made of tree trunks. And when they went hunting, they hid the pots.
One day poor Kooboo came upon a hollow gum tree. He was delighted to find the hidden water pots. Kooboo drank his fill; then Kooboo grew mischievous. He plunged into the water and splashed and played.
One by one he hung all the water pots on the branches of the gum tree. Then he sang a magical song. The tree understood and grew and grew till the branches with the water pots were high up in the air.
The people came home and looked for their water pots. They looked low and high. At last someone saw them hanging on the highest branches. They tried to climb up but Kooboo threw dry branches and laughed at them; for had not these people been cruel to him.
Then one man decided to climb the tree in a spiral. However many Kooboo branches threw, he could not hit him. He reached the boy and pushed him hard.
Kooboo fell to the ground but the magic turned him into a small furry bear-like animal. It scampered up the gum tree and since then no one saw Kooboo again. But people saw a furry little animal eating the leaves of the gum tree and never needing water.
That was how the koala came to the Australian land.
The locals call eucalyptus ‘gum tree’ for when the bark is cut, it exudes a gum or sap. Eucalyptus leaves are food for cute koalas and other possums, even though it can be poisonous to most animals.
White gum, blue gum, scribbly gum and stringybark – 75% of Australian trees are eucalyptus. There are over 600 species ranging from large trees to mountain shrubs. The tallest is the Mountain Ash (E. regnans) which can grow to over 100 metres. The eucalyptus is also one of the fastest growing trees.
The arid regions of Australia often have forest fires and the eucalyptus has learnt to live with it. In fact eucalyptus seeds can germinate only after they are roasted.
The trees burn like huge fire-crackers, sometimes exploding like a bomb; for the eucalyptus is literally a fuel-tank, storing rich gums and oils in its bark and leaves.
The eucalyptus is sacred to the aboriginals and appears in Dreamtime or Jukurppa stories.(Most of the knowledge is lost today as white settlers marginalized the local communities and much sacred knowledge died with the medicine men.)
When thirsty, Aborigine people chewed the tree roots for water. For rheumatics, steam pits were made lined with eucalyptus leaves over which they sat. They were also used to heal open sores and wounds and fungal infections. And infusions of eucalyptus leaves treated fevers. They were also smoked as cigarettes for coughs and respiratory problems – a process later learnt by the early white settlers.
In the 18th century Mary Gilmore reported in her journal how the immigrants had learnt much from Bush medicine including ‘eucalyptus beds and steam pits for cold and rheumatism’. And that the eucalyptus extract industry had come about by following local knowledge.
The Aborigines and later the immigrants used the eucalyptus to make plant dyes. Different eucalypts and plant parts gave different dyes. The Didgeridoo or the Aborigine drum was made of eucalyptus branches hollowed out by termites!
Its medicinal use and the belief that eucalyptus plantations discouraged malaria made it a popular tree in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Eucalyptus began to be grown in many areas of the world and its properties studied.
Eucalyptus contains phenolic compounds. The tannins in eucalyptus help to reduce inflammation, the falvonoid querctin is an anti-oxidant. It also contains terpenes which are useful as industrial oils – for separation of metals from ores. It is valued in the paper and plywood industries too and as a fuel.
The oil contains 80% cineole or eucalyptol giving it antiseptic properties. When exposed to the air, eucalyptol turns into a crystalline resin: it can check bad breath and so it is used in gargles.
Researchers at the University of Kiel, Germany found that a mix of the essential oils of peppermint and eucalyptus is helpful in headaches. They say that the decongesting effect is due to its action on the cold receptors.
Another study said apart from being an inhalant it helped to cure mild snoring!
Recent studies find that the leaves have some anti-diabetic, diuretic and anti-tumour action. Aqueous extracts increased insulin production and reduced blood sugar in tests on mice. However its safety and efficacy has yet to be established clinically.
Eucalyptus oil is mentioned in the Commission E monographs, British Pharmacopoeia and the pharmacopoeias of China, India and others. It is used primarily as a cold medicine – in inhalers as a decongestant, in rubs and vapor baths for respiratory and bronchial diseases, in gargles for sore throats. Vicks Vaporub is one of the most well-known and global brands using eucalyptus oil. Another is Listerine and Mentholatum. Apart from this hundreds of balms and cold medicines all over the world use eucalyptus oil.
Eucalyptus oil is added to ointments for insect bites and insect repellant sprays. It is also blended with other oils in pain balms.
Like many useful plants they are now grown all over the world’s tropical and sub-tropical belt and even in temperate regions. But the eucalyptus can suck up water from great depths and drain the soil. Being water guzzlers, they do dry out the land, sometimes drying it so much that other trees cannot grow!
But when you have a cold or are plagued by mosquitoes, relief is at hand in the eucalyptus oil bottle.
This is the second part of a series on Healing trees. I wrote about some key trees of the world – trees important in their native regions and the world. I am keen to publish it as I feel it provides a holistic view of the Man-Nature relation.