Geographic variation in the essential oils and morphology of natural population of Melaleuca alternifolia (Myrtaceae)

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Lee, SL, Brooks, LO, Homer, LE, Rossetto, M, Henry, RJ & Baverstock, PR 2002, 'Geographic variation in the essential oils and morphology of natural population of Melaleuca alternifolia (Myrtaceae)', Biochemical Systematics & Ecology, vol. 30, no. 4, pp. 343-360.

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In recent decades, Melaleuca alternifolia has been grown in plantations for the commercial production of tea tree oil extracted from harvested leaf and stem material by steam distillation. Plantations are grown from seedlings raised from seeds collected from wild populations of this endemic Australian species. Considerable variation in morphology and leaf oil composition and yield has been observed and studies have demonstrated genetic and phenotypic heterozygosity between populations.
Here we examine the variation in leaf oil chemical composition (chemotypes) between geographically defined locations of wild populations of M. alternifolia and investigate the relationships between tree size, chemotype and geographic location.
Forty separate populations of M. alternifolia distributed amongst three river catchments (two in a warm moist coastal region and one in cool drier highlands) were studied. Total variation in tree size was significantly greater within individual sites than between them. However, the highland catchment populations exhibited significantly smaller mean tree size and a significantly different chemotype profile than the lowland populations. Contrary to the observation of lower genetic diversity, the highland catchment populations had greater chemotypic diversity. Furthermore, highly significant differences in population chemotypes were demonstrated between catchments.
The possibilities that these differences could be ascribed to either genetic divergence or to environmental differences are discussed.

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