Redgum member Farida Iqbal explores the many surprising properties of eucalyptus oil. 

We mainly use eucalyptus oil to mop your floors. It smells fantastic. We get appreciative feedback from our clients. It’s nice to work with too. But it doesn’t just smell fantastic. It is a substance with many remarkable properties. It has fascinating origins in tree biology.

Eucalyptus oil has antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties. It scares away insects too. It deactivates viruses on surfaces and in the air. Scientists have no idea how, but they have demonstrated that it does. You can read about eucalyptus oil’s antiviral properties in scientific papers like this one:

It isn’t by accident that eucalyptus oil has these properties. Eucalyptus oil is part of the tree’s immune system. Eucalyptus trees have a remarkable arsenal of protective substances that also includes saponins and the red “gum” that Redgum is named after. (as an aside, this “red gum” is actually a resin). This is how some Eucalyptus trees are able to survive for so long. Some of the trees at the Djab Wurrung Embassy are 800 years old. If Eucalyptus trees are attacked by viruses, bacteria, insects or fungi, they fight back hard.

Human use of Eucalyptus oil dates back a long, long time. First Nations people burn Eucalyptus leaves as insect repellent. Used this way, it’s like incense.

Eucalyptus oil can be a somewhat aggressive substance. Have you ever seen a eucalyptus tree that had nothing growing at its base? No grass, no shrubs or anything around it for a metre or two? That’s because Eucalyptus oil doesn’t just repel insects and bacteria. It can also repel other plants. This gives the tree more room to grow. It’s kind of poisonous to people too. It’s fine as floor cleaner, but we can’t eat it. It’s a bad idea to make cups of tea out of Eucalyptus leaves, even though humans like to make cups of tea out of many other plants with aromatic leaves.

Eucalyptus oil has another interesting property. In the age of climate change, it is becoming increasingly tragic. Eucalyptus oil is flammable. Under the conditions in which the trees evolved, this is adaptive. It has helped the trees survive and spread in a dry, fire-prone continent. But Eucalyptus trees are not adapted to the levels of dryness that come with global warming. Hence the unprecedented bushfires of a few months ago that ravaged entire ecosystems.

Eucalyptus oil can disarm viruses in mid-air and it is also threatened by global warming. It is an oil that sums up so much about our troubled times.

Did I mention it’s also a nice smelling floor cleaner?