Hue commune known for oil plant extraction to keep colds at bay

By Nguyen Dong, Vo Thanh   February 12, 2020 | 10:25 am GMT+7
Loc Thuy Commune in ancient Hue has cultivated cajuput trees for centuries to extract oil locals believe could help them avoid colds and aches.
The tradition started hundreds of years ago in the imperial citadel of Hue which cajuput oil makers in Loc Thuy commune, Phu Loc district are most known for.  The oil is praised for its health benefits, including treating cold, headache and skin irritation.  To make one liter of oil, 400 kilograms of cajeput tree leaves are picked and cooked for eight hours – all done manually. An evergreen shrub, the tree is scientifically known as Melaleuca cajuputi and can be found in Indonesia apart from Vietnam.

The tradition started hundreds of years ago in the commune in Phu Loc District, about 50 km southeast of Hue Town, home to the Imperial Citadel, a UNESCO heritage site.

The oil is praised for its health benefits, including treating colds, headaches and skin irritations. To produce one liter of oil, 400 kilograms of cajuput tree leaves are manually picked and cooked for eight hours. 

Pham Huu Suy, 41 (R) and his wife Truong Thi Phan, 38, residents of Loc Thuy commune in the province and cajuput oil makers go to cajeput gardens to buy the leaves after having personally picked out them.  Many locals cultivate the gardens near the forest or on a bare field near their houses.

Pham Huu Suy (R), 41, and his wife Truong Thi Phan, 38, residents of Loc Thuy Commune frequent cajuput plantations to hand-source leaves.

Many locals cultivate these trees, scientifically known as Melaleuca cajuputi, near the forest or on bare strips near their homes.

There are two types grown in the province. The ones on the right with smaller and longer leaves grown for the oil making are different from those on the left which are cultivated in many places in the country for forestry purposes.  A cajeput tree from where oil is extracted has a typical height of two meters. If leaves are cut from a particular tree on a yearly basis, its height won’t develop further.

Two types of cajuput trees are grown in Thua Thien-Hue Province, one with smaller leaves (R) for oil extraction, and one with bigger leaves for wood.

A cajeput tree from which oil is extracted has a typical height of two meters. Their height remains the same possibly because leaves are cut from trees on a yearly basis.

Many families make ends meet growing cajeput trees. Tran Van Chon from Loc Thuy commune said he sells a kilogram of the leaves at VND5,000 to oil makers.  Growing cajeput for oil making purposes is slower than growing the other type, but a plant can be harvested up to 20 years, so it brings stable and higher income in the long run, the 62-year-old said.  The trees also keep mosquitoes at bay at his house thanks to the scent. The trees are harvested twice a year.

Tran Van Chon from Loc Thuy Commune said he sells a kilogram of leaves at VND5,000 ($0.2) to oil makers. "Growing cajeput trees for oil is slower than growing the other type, but a tree can be harvested for up to 20 years, providing stable and higher long term income," the 62-year-old said.

The trees, which are excellent mosquitoes repellants, are harvested twice a year, he added.

The branches are cut and brought to a oil making facility. The house of Truong Huu Suy (second from left) functions like one.

Branches are cut and brought to an oil refinery, like that of Truong Huu Suy.

The leaves are placed inside a big pot which has the capacity of 200 kilograms of leaves. The workers use wet powder leftover from processing wheat to shield the rim of the lid to ensure the distillation is shut.

Leaves are placed inside a big pot with a capacity of 200 kilograms. Workers use stalks left over from wheat processing to seal the lid and ensure proper distillation.

After four hours, the first drops of oil surface which goes into a plastic bottle through a funnel. The workers later poke a hole in the bottle which allows the water to leak while the oil remains.

After four hours, the first drops of oil surface and poured into a plastic bottle via a funnel. Workers later poke a hole in the bottle to allow excess water to leak out, leaving only the oil.

The distilled oil is later placed in standardized bottles with labels for sale. The bottles vary in size, from 30 ml to larger.  Suy said ingredients to produce a liter of pure cajeput oil costs between VND1.8 and 2 million, not to mention labor cost.

The distilled oil is placed in standardized bottles with labels for sale. The bottles vary from 30 ml upwards. Suy said ingredients needed to produce a liter of pure cajuput oil are priced between VND1.8 - 2 million ($77 - 86), excluding labor costs.

An array of shops selling the oil line up National Highway 1A in Loc Thuy commune. Nguyen Van Manh, President of People’s Committee of Phu Loc district said no scientific proof shows the oil here is better than others but cajaput trees develop at slower pace than those grown in elsewhere so the oil is stronger and more fragrant.

An array of shops selling the oil line National Highway 1A in Loc Thuy Commune. 

Nguyen Van Manh, chairman of Phu Loc District People’s Committee, said no scientific evidence exists that proves the oil produced here is better than others, but as local cajuput trees are cultivated at a slower pace than those in elsewhere, local oil is stronger and more fragrant.

Cajeput oil is believed to prevent cold which prompts many buyers to the shops. Tuyen Khoa (R) owner of one of the shops said last Saturday alone she sold 300 bottles or 30 liters of oil. A liter costs VND2.3 million.  For the last three days demand for cajeput oil is high. Many customers from Hanoi, Da Nang, and HCMC bought hundreds of bottles to protect themselves from diseases, Manh said.  In recent months, the government has aided oil producers VND5 million for each hectare so they can meet the increasing demand.

Cajuput oil is believed to prevent colds, driving demand.

Tuyen Khoa (R), a show owner, said last Saturday alone she sold 300 bottles, or 30 liters of oil. A liter costs VND2.3 million ($99). "For the last three days, demand for cajuput oil was high. Many customers from Hanoi, Da Nang, and HCMC bought hundreds of bottles to protect themselves from viral epidemics," Manh said. 

In recent months, the government has aided oil producers with VND5 million ($214) per hectare to meet increasing demand.

 
 
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