The potential uses of lemon myrtle have been recognised for over a century by European settlers, and the tree has long been cultivated in home gardens and small cottage-style enterprises. The leaves are used as a culinary herb, tea or spice. Alternatively, oil can be distilled from the leaves and used as a flavour agent for food and in a wide range of personal care products. Commercial production of lemon myrtle in Australia commenced in the mid-1990s.
The lemon myrtle industry is made up of approximately 60 small- and medium-sized businesses in northern New South Wales and south east Queensland; and one very large operation in northern Queensland.
Facts and figures
- Citral is the ingredient that gives lemon myrtle its distinctive lemon fragrance and taste
- Lemon myrtle essential oil contains up to 98% citral, which is considerably more than the citral content of other lemon-flavoured oils derived from citrus (3–10%), lemon grass (75%) and tropical verbena (74%)
- Lemon myrtle essential oil was first distilled in 1888 and reported as an essential oil extremely rich in citral
- During World War II a national drinks company, Tarax, used the essence of lemon myrtle to flavour drinks when natural lemon essence was in short supply
- Lemon myrtle is used in tea, herbs, spice and personal care products, and potentially as a food preservative and cleaning agents
Accurate information is not readily available for the native foods industry but a recent stocktake of the industry provides good estimates of industry characteristics, production figures and product value.
There are approximately 60 small and medium-sized businesses in northern New South Wales and south east Queensland who produce lemon myrtle to supply contracts for raw product, i.e. leaf or oil, to processors and larger manufacturers. These businesses will grow lemon myrtle in a single species stand, and they may also have stands of other native food trees. These operations vary from small, 1,000 to 4,000 lemon myrtle trees, to medium-sized, with 10,000–15,000 trees. The medium-sized businesses may buy additional harvested leaf from smaller growers and process it with their own harvest. Small and medium-sized growers may also form groups to process and market their lemon myrtle products.
There are some small businesses in the northern New South Wales area that have plantations of mixed species where lemon myrtle is planted with other trees such as anise myrtle, cinnamon myrtle, Davidson plums and sometimes round or finger limes, lemon-scented tea trees, riberries and other species. The concept was based on not creating a monoculture, which provides good pest and disease management, however machine harvesting is not possible and therefore production volumes are limited. This system suits an operation that value-adds and markets its own product.
In northern Queensland there is one very large operation, with over one million trees planted. This business grows, processes and markets its own material; and accounts for about 50% of Australian production.
Although lemon myrtle is an Australian native, it has established well in plantations in Malaysia and China. It is anticipated that product from these areas will have lower labour costs and provide strong price competition for Australian product in the future.