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Gardening with Gael - Native bush holds medicinal treasure


kawakawa plant 2-357Although the weather shows no sign of an approaching winter, this is the time to consider tonics that prevent the inevitable winter ailments. Thriving in a nearby established native bush area under the canopy is a plant that provides just that. The plant is easily recognised by the jointed branches and stems and the large aromatic heart shaped leaves. In the shade these leaves are a dark forest green. With exposure to sunlight the leaves lighten and in full sun they become yellow and less attractive.

An important shrub for our ecology, kawakawa has long been used by Maori for medicinal purposes, as a flavouring and as a tea. The stimulating properties of the leaves infused in water make a good tonic. Add lemongrass and ginger for more flavour.

I have never planted a kawakawa in my beach garden. I have never needed to. During the late summer the yellow flower spikes – which appear like small candles – are favoured by birds that spread the seeds among the bush and in the shaded areas of the garden. To my delight I have experienced kawakawa growing randomly on either side of a walkway, their supple branches arching overhead. They prefer semi-shade, full shade and a free draining soil. Sand seems to be ideal especially where established bush has created a layer of organic matter. Manuka in particular makes a great job of this as does pohutukawa, which seems to constantly shed leaves.

Also known as a New Zealand pepper tree, kawakawa grows throughout the North Island and the top of the South Island.

Every now and then a bush sprite enters my garden at the beach. Offering a karakia to Io and acknowledging with respect her tupuna she searches among the kawakawa for leaves that are large, dark green and are perforated with holes. The dark green shows the high nutrient value. The holes are indicators of a bug, the native kawakawa looper moth which eats the leaves and triggers a reaction in the leaf which increases its beneficial value. Taking only what she needs, the integrity of the bush is left intact. She believes that kawakawa is the direct link between Io the Maori god and humans.

A dream of her grandmother from the Tainui tribe and Ngati Paoa iwi who was experienced in harvesting kawakawa in the traditional way, inspired my bush sprite, Michele, to look for ways to help her daughter’s eczema. Working from her kitchen and using traditional Maori methods she extracted the oils from the kawakawa and made a balm for treating her daughter. The results were immediate. Soon she was treating other children with eczema, her balm demonstrating the same degree of success. Impressed with her results her doctor tried it as well. With encouragement from her local doctor Michele has now developed a range of products named after her daughter Frankie. Her kawakawa creations are now being sold all over the world.

We have a driveway through the bush on a southern slope. Here, the kawakawa naturalises along with wharawhara [astelia banksii],  houpara or five finger [pseodopanax lessonii] and mingimingi [coprosma propinqua], all plants which thrive in the dry sandy coastal situation. 

Kawakawa, the NZ pepper tree, has long been used by Maori for medicinal purposes. PHOTO/teara.govt.nz

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