Melaleuca quinquenervia
Cajeput (Melaleuca quinquenervia)
Image - Geoff Derrin - lic. under CC 4.0

Cajeput - Botany And History

The cajeput, sometimes rendered as 'cajuput' in British-English, is a species of Melaleuca, closely related to, but made distinct from tea tree (Melaleuca alternafolia, although in North America and its underlying areas, it is referred to as tea tree), and belongs to the same family as the eucalyptus tree (Myrtaceae). It belongs to a somewhat large genus, all comprised of trees or shrub-like plants which possess a distinctly white and spongy bark, notable for its tendency to flake off of the trunk of the tree, and renowned in the old days up until the present for its flexibility.

Unlike the tea tree, cajeput, which is also called the paperbark tree, grows to a relatively large size, often measuring some twenty five to forty metres in length if left to its own devices, and highly discernable for its large, nearly stark-white trunk with very noticeable papery flaking - a feature which is natural for cajeput, and which has earned it the name of 'white paperbark tree', and for its grey-hued to grayish-green leaves. Some species of cajeput can develop multiple trunks, with expansive branches characterised by wide-spaced growth patterns that seemingly spread to make the tree appear larger. It is also notable for its unique inflorescence, of either a carnation-pink, pale-pink, or purple hue, with prominent ivory-hued stamens, the whole of which is collec. Cajeputs also produce unique seeds, generally as tiny as a speck of dust, which is encased in a capsular growth found along the length of its stems. Depending on the variety, cajeput trees are either stiff in appearance, or may possess weeping foliage. Cajeputs grow naturally along riverbanks and creeks, and generally thrive in environments which possess moist, rich, nutrient-dense soils, although they are capable of surviving in poor soil, provided they receive ample moisture.

Cajeput is found throughout a diverse range of ecosystems, but occur mostly in North America, East and Southeast Asia, some parts of Europe, and Australia. The tree is highly notable for its aromatic foliage and inflorescence, although generally, the tree, from its leaves down to the very bark of the plant itself, is laden with an aroma not at all different from a combination of mint and cloves, or that of camphor. Because of its highly aromatic nature, the leaves, flowers, and sometimes even the bark and the twigs of cajeput trees are gathered and processed via steam distillation to obtain essential oil of cajeput, which is employed for a number of purposes, both cosmetic and medicinal. [1] Prior to the creation of athanors which made steam distillation and essential oil extraction possible, the leave and bark of the plant were typically dried and decocted, eliciting the same medicinal purpose when inhaled or drunk as do the essential oils, but is generally weaker than the latter. Nowadays, cajeput oil is among the most popular of aromatherapeutic oils, although it is more often than not confused for another essential oil which is derived from a close relative of the plant - the tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia). It must be noted that tea tree oil and cajeput oil are two entirely different essential oils, with their own distinct aromatic profile, although because they belong to a similar genus, they share a number of therapeutic benefits alongside their own inherent therapeutic properties.

Cajeput - Herbal Uses

The cajeput tree is a relatively well-known plant, and is nowadays most commonly cultivated for the production of cajeput essential oil. Prior to the growing popularity of steam distillation during the zenith of perfumery sometime in the early 1700 to mid-1800s however, the plant was essentially used for a number of different purposes, especially in countries where it is a native plant (i. e. Australia, Southeast Asia). Cajeput wood played a major role in the development of tools for industry and warfare, and items crafted from its soft, flexible wood can be found in the various aboriginal groups of Australia and a number of the First Peoples of North America. Because it is characteristically flexible and lightweight, while maintaining a significant amount of durability, it has been used by a number of cultures for the creation of shields, or as a choice material for the creation of canoes and small dug-out boats. In primitive cultures which built settlements, cajeput bark and timber made for ample material for roofing and building, while the dried remnants of building material were employed readily as firewood. The wood of cajeput, like much of the plant, possesses a slightly palpable aroma, although it is distinctly less intense compared to the foliage and inflorescence. This aroma is (or was) believed to make the wood unpleasant to insect pests, and to have made it an excellent fuel which burned hot and caught fire quickly. The trees itself are often planted in areas that are naturally prone to erosion for their deep roots which keep the ground held firm. Because they are a hardy plant that propagates quickly, some places have now even considered cajeput trees to be an invasive species. [2]

While cajeput is primarily employed in essential oil form for the majority of modern medicinal applications, prior to the development of the means to extract essential oils, the highly aromatic parts of the plant were often gathered and employed as is, or otherwise infused or decocted and taken internally, or otherwise applied topically for the treatment of various diseases. Mild infusions of the leaves and / or bark of the plant were taken internally as a remedy for coughs, asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema. It was believed to help facilitate expectorations and soothe the inflammation of the larynx and oesophagus, which are very common symptoms that experienced by individuals who suffer from any of the above-mentioned illnesses. [3] Moderately strong decoctions of the bark or leaves were taken internally as a potent analgesic and diaphoretic, helping to reduce swelling and inflammation, as well as remedy fevers, or otherwise applied topically for a similar purpose. Very potent decoctions of the plant matter were employed chiefly as antibacterial and antifungal agents. [4] Generally applied topically or employed as a hair rinse, it was applied to remedy everything from scabies, to dandruff, eczema, fungal infections, flea and lice infestations, and even psoriasis. When taken internally, decoctions of the bark, flowers, or leaves (more commonly, a combination of the three) produced a powerful anthelmintic, believed and noted by a number of old herbals as being highly effecting for ridding the body of round worms and tapeworms. [5] The leaves and bark, when crushed and steamed, can be applied to the extremities, especially the joints in order to relieve pain associated with rheumatism, arthritis, gout, and fractures. [6]

With the advent of further advancements in the field of early medicine, the practice of decoction fell out of favour, as essential oils derived through distillation became the favoured means of application. Cajeput oil was once originally distilled in copper alembics, after having first been macerated overnight in rainwater or spring water, giving traditionally distilled oils a somewhat greenish hue, with the earliest and (still) most valued examples being created in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, where to this day, both traditional and non-traditional oils are distilled and released into the global market. The essential oil of cajeput however was not unknown to the Far East, with mention of the oil having been found in early Arabic herbals, which may suggest a brisk trade between the Southeast and the Far East prior to the Age of Exploration. Further improvement in the distillation methods which came about sometime during the mid to late 1700s in the west, where glass instruments eventually replaced metal ones, soon allowed for a pure, 'unadulterated' extraction that rendered a colourless oil which is thought to be far more superior than traditionally distilled ones. Such oils were eventually integrated into the world of perfumery, where it was (and still is) used for adding crisp, warm, and hot notes into fragrances.

The majority of cajeput oils which are produced nowadays are still extracted via steam distillation, although phosphorus pentoxide is often added as an additive, to help prevent the degradation of the oil. Some oils which are classified as 'low-grade' are often adulterated with other essential oils, often that of rosemary and camphor (these being as close to the original scent of cajeput as possible), and sometimes even turpentine or mineral oil. These low grade oils are most often employed for aromatherapy diffusers, although some are used in low-end medicinal liniments. Low grade cajeput oil is often discernable for it's off, slightly smoky hue (entirely different from the pale-greenish tinge found in some traditionally distilled oils) and for its lack of pungency, or for its weird aroma. Regardless of the means of extraction however, cajeput essential oil functions in much the same way as more dated decoction and infusions, albeit its employment is chiefly relegated to external applications, with a number of internal applications being viable but only for highly diluted preparations. Nowadays, a large number of East Asian and Southeast Asian analgesic ointments and liniments contain cajeput oil as among its primary ingredients - a practice which has a long tradition that dates back to the heyday of Traditional Chinese Medicine. In the west, cajeput oil which is derived from species that flourish in Australia are favoured by many alternative medicinal experts for its potent ability to help relieve pain, cure fungal skin infections, alleviate the symptoms of inflammation, and for being a very powerful antispasmodic, febrifuge, decongestant and expectorant. Diluted with wine or spirits, it was even for a time prescribed to remedy influenza, laryngitis, and some types of cholera, although its employment for the treatment of such illnesses were proved to be ineffective as a treatment, but that may help to alleviate some of the symptoms.

When diluted in a carrier oil (one's choice of coconut, jojoba, almond, or olive oil), and applied topically, it can be employed as a potent analgesic, a great disinfectant, a powerful anti-fungal agent (similar to its sister oil, tea tree oil), and an invigorating massage oil. This mixture also serves as a powerful chest rub and a remedy for minor fevers, coughing, and bronchial congestions. A similar effect can be elicited by diluting a small amount of un-cut (pure) essential oil into a basin of hot or steaming water, and subsequently exhaling the fumes. Very weak mixtures of cajeput and water may even be spritzed on the skin, or otherwise on plants or the surrounding environment in order to repel insect pests, as it is a naturally occurring insecticidal substance. While cajeput can be toxic to pets in very large or undiluted dosages, if employed very minutely, it can even be used as a natural remedy for ticks, lice, and fleas. [7] This remedy has origins in Aboriginal folklore, as it was said that bathing in water boiled with cajeput leaves was said to make fleas and other parasites simply fall off. Other miscellaneous uses for cajeput oil include its inclusion in solutions that are prescribed for the treatment of fin fungal infections in some tropical and sub-tropical species of fish. Various concoctions of varying strengths are available, with lower concentrations of the compound generally being employed as a both a fungal preventative and a fin-growth enhancer. [8]

Cajeput - Esoteric Uses

In spite of its long-standing history of use in both the East and West, very little western folklore is associated with cajeput, as the East held a far longer grip-hold on its general and esoteric applications than the West. In Australian Aboriginal cultures however, cajeput is a highly-employed cure-all, with its magickal properties being inextricably associated with that of its general healing properties. In countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam, cajeput trees are revered and considered trees of protection. [9] Esoteric applications within the field of Western magick usually places cajeput oil as a cleansing, purifying, charging, and healing oil, and is said to not only remove and ward off negative energies, but to help hasten healing as well. Cajeput oil can be employed (at least within the realm of Western spellwork) to help break hexes, as well as compulsive habits, or to increase the energy of empowered tools. It is believed that inhaling cajeput oil readily enhances the willpower and one's innate focus - a highly important asset for any spellwork. [10] Some shamanic and neo-shamanic practices have also been known to burn cajeput leaves and bark as a type of cleansing and purifying incense, although such practices tend to be rare, occurring only (at least historically) in a handful of tribes of the North American First Peoples, and even then, is uncharacteristic.

Cajeput - Contraindications And Safety

In spite of the long-standing employment of cajeput in traditional and tribal medicine, its liberal employment may be dangerous, as it is a known skin allergen. Both very potent decoctions of cajeput and the essential oil itself should be employed only sparingly, and not without a prior skin-test to guarantee no possible adverse reactions. Some traditional practices suggest the inhalation of cajeput vapours (derived from either a steaming decoction, or from a steam-diffused essential oils), but these may cause asthma attacks in some highly sensitive individuals, even if it has been traditionally employed to remedy just that disease. Parents are advised to keep the employment of diluted cajeput oil and other preparations containing the substances to the middle to lower extremities, taking extra care to not apply it to the face directly without further dilution lest it cause an allergic reaction. Similarly, the employment of oral remedies containing cajeput should be kept to a minimum, and are not to be used on children below the age of ten.

As a general rule of thumb, pregnant and nursing women as well as very small children are advised to steer clear of cajeput oil and remedies which contain it in significant amounts. There has been as yet no known drug interactions, either natural or synthetic, associated with the use of cajeput oil, but individuals who are under anti-asthmatic and anti-epileptic medications are advised to employ remedies containing cajeput to a bare minimum, and not without the corroboration and advise of an expert herbalist or physician.

Cajeput - Other Names, Past and Present

Chinese: bai qian ceng
Japanese: kayapute (onomatopoeia of the English word 'cajeput')
Sanskrit: kayaputi (onomatopoeia of the English word 'cajeput')
Hindi / Arabic: kajaputi (adaptation of the Indonesian 'kayuh puti')
Indonesian: galam / kayu putih (lit. 'white wood')
Malay: gelam
Thai: samet-khao
Khmer: smach chanlos
Vietnamese: caay trafm
Spanish: cayeput / cajeput / aceite de cayeput / aceite de cajeput
French: cajeputier / cajeput / cajoupouli / caia-pouti / huile de cajeput / essence de cajeput
English: cajeput / cajuput / (the two gleaned from both French and Indo-Arabic etymological origins) paperbark tree / white bottle brush tree / punk tree / white tea tree / swamp tea tree / white wood / tea tree (not to be confused with true tea tree, Melaleuca alternafolia, of which it is a very close relative)
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Melaleuca quinquenervia / Melaleuca leucadendra


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Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt.

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