The Maori people have used the medicinal herbs of New Zealand for thousands of years to treat and prevent illness. According to Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, colonization by Europeans had a profound impact on traditional medicine in the region. This important aspect of Maori culture may have been lost, but a number of factors brought about a revival of the practice of Rongoa, or traditional Maori medicine, late in the twentieth century up to the present. Today, ethnobotanists and modern herbalists work with Maori tohunga ahurewa, or priestly experts, to record the ancient knowledge of medicinal plants in the region.
New Zealand's Most Common Medicinal Herbs
As the result of a few dedicated individuals, traditional herbal lore is being supported by scientific research. According to Te Ara, the Maori traditionally used over 200 plant species for medicinal purposes. Many of the most common of these medicinal plants have been studied scientifically, and many other possibilities are waiting to be explored. Some of the most commonly used medicinal herbs of New Zealand include the following:
Traditionally, this plant has been utilized for both medicinal properties and as a source of fiber. Several parts of the plant were used to create splints for injured arms or to stabilize sore backs, and midwives would use fine pieces of fiber to tie the umbilical cords of newborns.
Tohunga would often prescribe harakeke to treat intestinal parasites, This practice has been investigated by at least one study, using heifer calves as test subjects, and researchers found no difference in fecal egg counts between test subjects and untreated control animals. According to the Museum of New Zealand, the roots are useful to treat colds and headaches, while the leaves can be used to treat digestive disorders.
Kawakawa (Pepper Tree)
The pepper tree is one of the most widely used indigenous medicinal plants of New Zealand. Tohunga commonly prescribe this plant for the following maladies:
- Rheumatism: Leaves of the plant are heated or placed in a sauna-like steam bath, and the patient then inhales the vapors or rests on a specially designed heated bed of leaves and flax.
- Stomachache: Leaves and bark of the tree can be chewed or used as tea to treat stomach ache or dysentery.
- Toothache: Leaves are chewed or applied as a poultice
- Cuts: The liquid from boiled pepper tree leaves can be applied to a cut to speed healing and prevent infection.
- Sexually Transmitted Diseases: A more recent use for the plant, after the European colonization of New Zealand, Tohunga began prescribing steam baths using Kawakawa to treat many of the sexually transmitted diseases introduced by European colonists.
This well-known tree, a member of the myrtle family, may be cultivated for its ornamental value as well as for potential medicinal properties. Traditionally, Maori people would steep the bark of this tree in water and then use the resulting liquid as a lotion to treat skin disorders, speed wound healing and prevent infection. The liquid could alternatively be used as a beverage to treat digestive complaints.
Also known as New Zealand Tea Tree, this plant should not be confused with the narrow-leaved tea-tree, the source of tea tree oil. Manuka has a long history of medicinal use, from the ashes of burnt manuka being rubbed on the scalp to treat dandruff to a tea made of leaves or bark being used for dysentry and fevers.
In recent years, manuka has gained attention, not for the properties of its leaves or bark, but for a tea made from its nectar. Specifically, honey that the honey bees produce using nectar from the manuka tree has shown remarkale antibiotic properties. According to Oregon State University's Linus Pauling Institute, manuka honey actually outperforms pharmaceutical antibiotics against some resistant bacteria, including Escheria coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Heliobacter pylori.
Modern Medicine May Catch Up to Maori Healers
Much like the tropical rainforests of other regions, the temperate rainforests of New Zealand are home to an amazing diversity of plant species. While modern medicine has only begun to explore the potential properties of these plants, the medicinal herbs of New Zealand have already enjoyed a long and interesting history with Maori healers.