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Traditional uses for native plants

At the heart of rongoa, or traditional Maori medicine, is a relationship with the land.

Whether it’s a day spent creating weed mounds or planting out young seedlings, gardeners know it’s hard to beat the feeling that comes from being close to the soil. Rongoa Maori, the medicine produced from native plants, embraces this feeling. The spiritual connection between people and plants is expressed in the belief that both are offspring of Tane, the god of the forest.

Charmaine Wiapo. Photo/David White

When I set out to learn more about the traditional uses of indigenous plants, I imagined I’d be focusing on the secret chemistry of each plant. However, Charmaine Wiapo, project manager of Ngati Whatua’s Native Bush Care and Nursery at Orakei, Auckland, who runs numerous projects reconnecting both iwi and the broader community with the land, explains the heart of rongoa begins not with what we take from the garden but with our first steps in having a relationship with the land.

Before planting, for example, it’s traditional to have a karakia, asking permission and giving thanks before breaking into the soil – opening Mother Earth. The path to health begins at this point. Simply taking traditional medicines in a tincture without any knowledge of their origins will provide only half a cure or a remedial tonic.

The process of healing involves a holistic approach, which includes the knowledge of and respect for the plants used in the remedy and a wholehearted connection with their cultivation and harvest.

There’s a spiritual element to this approach, but it’s backed by numerous studies that show gardeners have superior immunity and that connecting with green spaces reduces stress and can aid recovery from illness, or the dis-ease that can be generated by unbalanced lives, whether mental, physical, emotional or spiritual.

In a truly organic way, rongoa is involved with the basics of life: the seasons, the weather, the alignment of the stars, the phases of the Moon and the land’s shifting moods. Knowledge of plants provides stories that tie us to the land, offering the opportunity to bond in a shared culture.

Before using plants for medicinal purposes, ensure you correctly identify them and their uses and understand how they grow. Ideally, you should use your own knowledge but seek the advice of a medical professional, especially if other medications are involved or your illness is chronic. It is also important to select healthy plants. If in doubt, seek advice from those more knowledgeable than you.

Macropiper excelsum
Kawakawa is one of the few plants that will happily grow lush and strong beneath the branches of an old tree that fills the shadow line. It is also a healing plant with antiseptic qualities. Traditionally, the leaves were chewed to soothe toothache or placed over open wounds. They can also be made into a peppery and refreshing tea: first, bring water to the boil, then add washed leaves to the pot and simmer for at least 15 minutes. Adding thyme and manuka honey will give the flavour more punch.

An antiseptic cream can be made from the berries, which are 10 times the strength of the leaves, but they can only be harvested in January. To preserve the berries for future use, blend with manuka honey. Water can be added to this to make a drink, or the cream can be applied directly to a wound.

Corynocarpus laevigatus
Common in the landscape, karaka produce fruit the kernels of which contain a powerful poison. The leaves, however, can be used to draw out infection, especially from boils. Bind the leaves to the sore, with the dull side against the skin. (The top of the leaf is the shiny side.)

Hebe stricta
Koromiko is popular for revegetation, but its new leaf tips can also be used to soothe stomach aches. New Zealand has many hebe species, so make sure you correctly identify the plant before nibbling any tips. Essentially, koromiko is a “cleanser”, so shouldn’t be taken in large doses. In the past, it was often taken after birth; it is not recommended in early pregnancy.

Coprosma spp
All the coprosma species have edible berries that are full of vitamin C. For the sweetest berries, always pick straight after rain – you’ll need to beat the birds to them.

Coprosma makes great hedges, particularly Coprosma repens, which has a glossy green leaf that responds well to tight clipping.

Acaena microphylla
An attractive and hardy groundcover, piripiri can be used for a milder peppery flavour. It has round flowerheads with an almost relish-like flavour.
Sometimes the leaves are used as an ingredient in gourmet condiments or dips. At home it can be used in a similar way: roast with pumpkin and sunflower seeds with a little tamari and olive oil for a nice addition to a salad or as a topping for roasted kumara. This plant is best grown in gravelly soil in full sun.

Phormium tenax
Harakeke (flax) roots can be boiled and the resulting liquid drunk to ease constipation. Be warned, though, that a teaspoon is all you need; any more may result in a long cycle of cleansing. The sticky gel at the base of the flax can be rubbed onto cuts to clean and promote healing.

Pseudowintera colorata
Horopito is our strongest pepper and matches well with kaffir-lime leaves. With its pale-green and red-splodged foliage, it makes a great landscape plant. It prefers an open sunny site, but is otherwise hardy.

Send questions to: goodtogrow@xwd.co.nz