When did Leptospermum scoparium originate and when was it discovered?

  • Leptospermum scoparium (LS) exists in both Australia and New Zealand. Over time and as a function of different soil types, weather and pollinators etc., it is possible that the species may have evolved differently. Science needs to provide these answers. Speculating whether these differences exist does little more than stoke the flames of emotion of vested interests in both Australia and New Zealand. We know from research in New Zealand that the LS species exhibits considerable diversity with varieties tested in different locations demonstrating different levels of the precursor chemical dihydroxyacetone. Extensive research on this and related topics has been completed in New Zealand. Australian research on this topic is sadly lacking although new initiatives are adding to the knowledge base and it will take many more years of dedicated and focused work for them get close catch up to their New Zealand cousins.
  • It is impossible to identify exactly when the Leptospermum scoparium species evolved. Various academic sources (Couper, ’53,’60, Fleming ’75 Thompson ’89, Dawson ’90, Wardel ’91 et al) cite the species origin in Australia somewhere either in the Paleocene ~66-56 million years ago and/or the Miocene era ~23 to 5 million years ago. Subsequently, the species was dispersed to New Zealand where it adapted to certain specific soil specific environments. The species proliferated significantly following the forest clearing activities of the Māori, which began shortly after their arrival in New Zealand in 1250-1300.
  • Various sources suggest that the earliest arrival of Leptospermum scoparium in New Zealand most likely occurred during the Pliocene Era, ~5.333 million to 2.58 million years before present.
  • Ultimately we must rely on what the science tells us about the nectar and the resulting honey that is derived from the nectar of the species found in Tasmania and other parts of Australia versus that found in New Zealand. This research is yet to be undertaken and published. New Zealand has a deep and growing catalog of science and academic research on the topic spanning 37 years. Australia does not as its research on this and related topics has only recently begun in earnest.
  • Captain Cook’s first voyage (1768-1770) took him to New Zealand, which he circumnavigated before he sailed on to discover Australia. He was accompanied by the botanists Sir Joseph Banks and Dr. Daniel Solander on this first voyage. Banks and Solander collected ~350 species of New Zealand vascular plants on this trip. New Zealand Leptospermum scoparium is one of the plants collected by the pair on this journey1.


Included in this collection from New Zealand was a sample of Leptospermum scoparium, taken on October 10 1769. It is held in the National museum in Wellington NZ. Note the certification lower right. Additional samples from the Solander & Banks collection are available for viewing2


  • Given that Cook’s first voyage did not include visiting or landing in Tasmania, the samples of Leptosermum scoparium cannot have originated from there.
  • Cook was accompanied on his second voyage (1772-1775) not by Joseph Banks, but by Johannn Forster, the naturalist, and his son Georg Forster.
  • In 1776, Forster described Leptospermum in his book ‘Characteres Generum Plantarum’. However, it must be noted that on this voyage, Cook completely bypassed Australia, instead landing in New Zealand. Therefore, Forster’s reference to Leptospermum must relate to samples collected in New Zealand not Australia.
  • Given that the Forster’s voyage never landed in Australia and that their publication ‘Characteres Generum Plantarum’ chronicles their discoveries and samples taken where they did land, one must question the statements by the Australian Manuka Honey Association website and its implied assertions that the Foster’s work ‘Characteres Generum Plantarum’ references Australian variants of the Lepospermum species3 to the exclusion of New Zealand samples. It appears the AMHA has inadvertently published misleading information.
  • The samples collected in Cook’s first voyage were never published, but the specimens were retained. The Natural History Museum (UK) holds records of The Endeavour Botanical Illustrations. They list the following 9 entries for Leptospermum4 :
MYRTACEAELeptospermumattenuatumAustraliaFinished Drawing
MYRTACEAELeptospermumattenuatumAustraliaColoured Engraving
MYRTACEAELeptospermumericoidesNew ZealandFinished Drawing
MYRTACEAELeptospermumericoidesNew ZealandColoured Engraving
MYRTACEAELeptospermumfabriciaAustraliaFinished Drawing
MYRTACEAELeptospermumfabriciaAustraliaColoured Engraving
MYRTACEAELeptospermumscopariumNew ZealandFinished Drawing
MYRTACEAELeptospermumsquarrosumAustraliaFinished Drawing
MYRTACEAELeptospermumsquarrosumAustraliaColoured Engraving
  • Brown’s 1814 publication “General Remarks on The Botany of Terra Australis” references Leptospermum from both Australia & New Zealand5 .
  • J.R.Forst. & G.Forst are constantly credited as being the first to identify Leptospermum scoparium. They are in fact Johann Reinhold Forster and Georg Forster, the father and son botanists, who accompanied Captain Cook on his second voyage. This 17696 reference, suggests that Mānuka (Leptospermum Scoparium) was first identified from samples found in New Zealand, the year before Cook discovered Australia.
  • The International Plant Name Index in relation to the following entry ‘Myrtaceae Leptospermum scoparium J.R.Forst & G.Forst Char. Gen. Pl. 36.1775 (29 Nov 1775)’ carries the following remark7 : “There is no mention of Australia by the Forster’s. Base name for Melaleuca scoparium (Forster & G.Forster)…”
  • The Endeavour botanical illustrations8 shows Leptospermum scoparium from New Zealand as authenticated by J.R.Forst & G.Forst.

But this is a case where history probably doesn’t matter as we are less concerned about where or when or by whom Leptospermum scoparium was discovered.

What is relevant here is the manner in which the microclimates in which New Zealand’s Leptospermum scoparium has evolved over the millions of years and the extent to which that has influenced or changed the nectar produced by the plant versus its Australian counterparts.

By Mānuka Facts
Date June 1, 2018

  1. PJ Brownsey (2012) The Banks and Solander collections—a benchmark for understanding the New Zealand flora, Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 42:2, 131-137, DOI: 10.1080/03036758.2012.671776
  2. https://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/taxon/10636
  3. https://www.manukaaustralia.org.au/history/
  4. https://www.alecto-historical-editions.com/apps/omega-search/?type=product&q=leptospermum#filters%5Btags%5D%5BAustralia%5D=1&filters%5Btags%5D%5BNew%20Zealand%5D=1&index=products&limit=48&view=grid&q=leptospermum
  5. http://www.electricscotland.com/agriculture/robertbrown01.pdf @ pp18-19
  6. Manuka, Leptospermum scoparium J.R.Forst. & G.Forst., collected 8 October 1769, “ubique et copiose in Nova Zelandia” [abundant throughout], New Zealand. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (SP063725/B)
  7. http://www.ipni.org/ipni/idPlantNameSearch.do?id=138208-3&back_page=%2Fipni%2FeditSimplePlantNameSearch.do%3Ffind_wholeName%3Dleptospermum%2Bscoparium%26output_format%3Dnormal
  8. http://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/departments-and-staff/library-and-archives/collections/cook-voyages-collection/endeavour-botanical-illustrations/detail.dsml?IMAGNO=003106&index=adv&detailtype=more&js=off&sort=Family&Family=MYRTACEAE&index=adv&list=list&Speciesqtype=starts+with&Genus=leptospermum&IMAGNO=003106&Genusqtype=starts+with&beginIndex=0&listPageURL=listlist%2edsml%3famp%3bjs%3doff%26amp%3bSpeciesqtype%3dstarts%2bwith%26amp%3bsort%3dFamily%26amp%3bFamily%3dMYRTACEAE%26beginIndex%3d6%26amp%3blist%3dlist%26amp%3bindex%3dadv%26Genusqtype%3dstarts%2bwith%26amp%3bGenus%3dleptospermum