Unlocking the wild fragrance of Flinders Island.
You’ll find Kunzea ambigua growing in dense thickets along the coastal rim of south east Australia. A hardy native, this mid-sized spreading shrub is a true natural workhorse. Kunzea thrives in sandy soils and is adept at returning a vibrant green hue to areas that have previously been cleared. Favouring wild and windy habitats, it’s no wonder that Flinders Island has proven to be nothing short of a veritable Kunzea kingdom.
Unassuming to look at, Kunzea truly begins to come into its own during spring. It is then that sprays of pure white flowers adorn the plant, filling the air with wafts of sweet honey. It’s an aroma that hints at the treasure that lies deep within – a golden liquid rich in aromatic delight. It’s the very essence of the Tasmanian wilds, a fresh medicinal scent tinged with glorious overtones of eucalyptus alongside the faintest hints of citrus.
On a cool and drizzly afternoon, a wander into Ben Backhaus’s essential oil distillery proves almost magical. One is instantly cloaked in the warmest of honey-menthol welcomes. Hanging thick in the air is the distinctive Kunzea fragrance that seemingly fills your pores and warms your soul. Pure island magic.
An old dairy is the perfect framework for this contemporary bush pharmacy. “Back in the 1950s and 60s this was a working dairy,” explains Ben. “Whilst rustic, it’s providing us with a great base from which to create a whole new sustainable industry for the island. We like the fact it has its own history too – locals often come in and start getting sentimental, reminiscing about the old days – it ties this new business to the island’s past in a special way.”
Ben’s father Steve, an industry expert, devoted a lifetime to putting Australian essential oils on the map. “Dad worked in these circles for more than 30 years and along the way built an extensive global network,” explains Ben. “He was so excited when he first visited Flinders years ago and saw the native Kunzea stands. It was always his wish to retire here and do something special… he knew straight away how exceptional the island was.”
Steve’s foresight led to 50 acres in the middle of Bass Strait being carefully transformed into a well-tended Kunzea plantation. Nestled between the coast and a stunning mountainous backdrop is row upon row of striking Kunzea khaki. “We’ve produced over one million seedlings now,” explains Ben, speaking of the investment crafted alongside his father. “There are about 30 acres here under plantation at the moment. It’s certainly been a sacrifice to get it to this point, but it’s starting to get exciting now that there’s something really unique to show to the world.”
Spicy, woody and sweet notes of the Tasmanian bush dance in the air as Ben explains the phenomenal amount of research and development that sits behind each bottle of the Backhaus’s innovative product. Bush Pharmacy, the most southern native oil distillery in the country, is quietly carving a reputation for superior essential oils of unsurpassed quality.
With Steve sadly passing away recently, Ben has now firmly stepped into the driver’s seat – ably supported by local mainstay John Woolley. “It’s John and I working out here together now,” he nods. Whilst it’s clear Ben is missing having his father by his side, John’s enthusiasm sees this unlikely pair operating like a well-oiled machine. “John’s been fantastic and together we’re determined to continue to build Dad’s vision.”
Typically growing to a height of 2-3 metres elsewhere, the Kunzea on Flinders can reach a staggering 6 metres. “Growing conditions here are ideal,” nods Ben animatedly. “What’s even more exciting is the fact that we’re seeing that plants grown in different areas on the island yield different qualities in terms of their oil. You’d think they’d all be the same, but there is variation in the environment that appears to be reflected in the plant’s genetics. That’s pretty fascinating and something that could ultimately shape the future of our oil production.”
“The plants are slow grown. Things are pure and simple over here on Flinders.”
Kunzea has a unique composition, including a very high level of alpha-pinene, an organic compound that contributes to its woody, medicinal scent. The same chemical constituent is behind the distinctive fragrance of pine, rosemary, frankincense and wild orange, and is thought to support the function of the immune and respiratory systems. It is also said to have natural-occurring anti-bacterial properties.
Indeed, oral histories passed down through Tasmanian generations indicate that Kunzea has been used for centuries by the Aboriginal community. “We know that it’s been used for a variety of purposes over time,” says Ben. “It’s traditionally been applied as an insect repellent and used as a healing agent for a range of common ailments. Today, we see it incorporated into a whole range of different products, from those supporting the treatment of muscular aches and pains and insect bite inflammation through to products addressing cold and flu symptoms.”
Kunzea oil is most prized for scent. It is primarily sought after for aromatherapy use, with superior oils being the domain of high end essential oil brands. Aside from massage oils and oils for burning, it is finding its way into boutique soaps, creams and perfumes. “The big brands are just starting to seek it out now too,” says Ben. “There’s unlimited scope for it really which is going to make the next couple of decades very exciting for us.”
Extracting Kunzea oil is a process Ben, Steve and John have refined over the past five years. Freshly cut leaves and branchlets are collected and loaded into a huge still. Steam is then pumped into the bottom, serving to permeate the biomass and release the aromatic molecules into vapour – creating the best smelling workplace in the entire Furneaux Group. The vaporised plant compounds are then chilled with water from the local wetlands, with a condenser capturing the cooled vapour back into liquid form. The aromatic liquid by-product drops are then collected in a separator. As water and oil do not mix, the essential oil floats to the top of the water and can be readily siphoned off. The result is a precious litre or two of golden magic.
John describes a typical day’s work. “To give you a bit of idea, if we spend two hours cutting plants, it will take another three hours to run through the extraction process.” He continues, “Some days are better than others. It all depends on the yield of the particular plants we are working with. Kunzea is quite low yielding… blue gum on the other hand will produce four times the amount of oil for the same volume of biomass.”
“Five cubic metres of Kunzea biomass equates to four to five kilograms of oil,” says Ben.
Whilst building its reputation on the back of its Kunzea expertise, Bush Pharmacy extracts oils from a range of other natives too. Coastal tea-tree and manuka are popular, alongside blue gum and southern rosalina. Each fragrance is unique, as is the length of the distillation process. “Each species is different, and there can be variations within species too,” nods Ben. “For example, each species will require different periods of steaming as they all release their aromatic compounds at various points.”
“We generally harvest annually,” explains John when asked about the intricacies of the plantation. “In saying that, we work when we can. On Flinders it can get pretty wild, and we have to harvest when it’s relatively calm and when the plants are dry. That means we work around what Mother Nature throws at us. It’s just part of living out here.” He goes on to explain, “The island philosophy and ingenuity are second to none. What we’re doing here is all very new, so if we need a special piece of equipment sometimes we just have to make it ourselves. You don’t grow up here without leaning to be resourceful.”
Ben and John harvest both from the Kunzea plantation and from wild locations around the island. “The equipment we have now has allowed us to access more remote sites and to deal with boggy conditions,” says John. “It’s quite unique to find stands of Kunzea alone, usually it’s interspersed with other species. It’s just another unique element that we find here on Flinders.”
Standing amid a squalling Flinders weekend, Ben’s heartfelt passion and energy for working with natural products is clearly evident. “We’re always learning, building our database and refining our production techniques,” he nods. “By taking samples from the island’s unique locations and selecting seed from those same locations we are looking to emulate superior oil quality. We’re working hard to define the standard for Kunzea oil. And of course to develop full bodied, consistently high quality oils that can be produced in commercial volumes. The past five years have been about constant reinvestment in the business.”
“We take a lot of pride in working sustainably to produce natural products that are of the highest standards,” says Ben. “I also love the community, working outdoors and being in places that other people don’t get to see. It’s unbeatable.”
With the elements able to wreak havoc in an instant, Bush Pharmacy has invested significantly in a hothouse that would spark the interest of any engineer. Whilst nestled in behind protective stands of coastal scrub and a collection of old farm buildings, it’s been specifically designed to withstand 130km/hr winds. “We sometimes open the door at either end to funnel the wind through,” explains John. “People often comment that what we’re doing is unorthodox, but it’s just what we need to do to work with the environment rather than against it.”
Sitting within are over 30,000 cells, each carrying a precious collection of seedlings. “Kunzea might be a prolific seeder but it doesn’t strike easily. We have to let them sit, protected in the greenhouse, for four to five months before being planted out.” Ben adds grinning, “It’s rather infuriating that billions of seeds are released in the wild, but in reality it’s actually quite a difficult plant to cultivate.”
“Sometimes a new variation pops up… a broader leaf for example. When we see things like that it creates new opportunities. Perhaps double the leaf will equate to double the oil?”
“Kunzea ambigua is a prolific seeder,” explains Ben Backhaus. “The wind can blow those seeds hundreds of metres… it’s a very resourceful plant. In addition to the stands growing in the wild, we commonly find Kunzea around the edges of farms doing its best to regenerate those cleared areas. Ironically, the resource we are keen to harvest is considered a weed to farmers here on Flinders. This generally works pretty well as they are more than happy for us to come in and grab some off their property.”
“Kunzea… it’s basically everyone’s worst nightmare except for ours.”
Bush Pharmacy has been quick to utilise the discarded biomass out on the farm. “The by-product makes a fantastic mulch,” says John, jumping into the tractor to move the latest load. “It packs down really well for horticultural use. We use it out on the paddocks to help enrich the soil and the locals also call in to grab a load for their gardens. Nothing is wasted.”
This unique cross between science, innovation, agriculture and sustainability is in safe hands with this intelligent and well-spoken young man. “I’m proud of how far we’ve come to date, but there’s a lot more yet to come, particularly in terms of exploring the efficacy of these oils. At this point I’m remaining focused on understanding the plants, getting the best out of our processes and ensuring what we’re doing is sustainable. Yes, it can be a struggle, but I’m determined that it will be worth it. What we are building is something special.”
Speaking of the bringing a new industry to Flinders, Ben says, “I think most islanders are all for balanced, considered and sustainable change and for things that help the whole community. My mindset has totally changed since moving here…I know that what I do can help lift others up too. The businesses here are intertwined… everyone here has a part to play in the future of Flinders Island.”
“I was looking for a journey I think,” Ben muses. “Some sort of path to follow… and this has certainly been that. I’m really enjoying the R&D and exploring the opportunities. It’s a lifestyle choice too, you either like it or you don’t,” nods Ben. “Flinders can be an expensive choice in terms of lifestyle, but that’s the price you pay for living in paradise.”
“I find myself smiling all the time,” finishes Ben. “I’d actually be unsure if this would succeed if we weren’t on Flinders, but over here people have been just so forthcoming and supportive. I think it’s just part of my make up to try and do things myself, a bit like Dad did. Everyone helps everyone here and I think that’s the part I love about it the most.”
Bush Pharmacy’s range of beautiful essential oils are sold through Essential Oils Tasmania.