Minyak Kayu Putih is found in every household in Indonesia in the form of ointments and liniments for all sorts of aches and pains. It is also used as a fragrance and freshening agent in soaps, cosmetics, detergents and perfumes.
It is produced by steaming and distilling the oil from the leaves of Melaleuca cajuputi. Here is a view of a traditional ‘factory’ distilling minyak kayu putih that I visited on Manipa Island in Maluku. The crushed leaves are boiled in a huge vat over an open fire and the vapour is distilled into the oil, which is used all over Indonesia as a cure for bodily aches and pains.
Melaleuca is almost entirely Australian in its distribution yet the first of its species to be formally described, was based on material from Ambon in Indonesia. Georgius Everhardus Rumphius, a merchant with the Dutch East Indies Company, compiled a detailed account of many of the plants growing in the Malesian (Wallacea) biogeographical region including what he named Arbor Alba which was published in 1741 in his Herbarium Amboinense. This important work has recently been translated into English and published with annotations (Rumphius 2011). His publication predated the accepted starting point for the scientific botanical nomenclature of flowering plants and the formal description of the species occurred in 1767 when the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus gave it the name Melaleuca leucadendra, after taking his descriptive data from Rumphius’ work. Called cajuputi oil by the Dutch it was exported to Europe from the Maluku islands in the first part of the eighteenth century because of its reputation as a panacea in the treatment of all kinds of diseases.
Tea tree oil, also known as melaleuca oil, is an essential oil that comes from steaming the leaves of the Australian tea tree. When used topically, tea tree oil is believed to be antibacterial. Tea tree oil is commonly used to treat acne, athlete’s foot, lice, nail fungus and insect bites.
In Australia Melaleuca is the third most diverse plant genus with up to 300 species as shown on this map of its distribution.
Thanks to the collision of Australia with Asia, the Melaleuca plants were rafted into the Indonesian archipelago on pieces of continent Australia that were sliced off. Along with cloves these are another product of Australia that Indonesia has been able to call their own.