What are medicinal natives?
When talking about the medicinal properties of New Zealand natives, you will frequently see it called Rongoā Māori. This translates as Māori Medicine and provides a great foundation for understanding the medicinal uses of our native plants.
For the purpose of explaining this topic and doing it justice we will use a foundation of Rongoā Māori, as it provides the perfect context. Note this is not a comprehensive guide to Rongoā Māori and the author does not claim to be an expert. For further information about the source of this knowledge and its whakapapa please see under ‘References’.
Rongoā Māori roughly translated, is an understanding of the medicinal properties and healing capacities of New Zealand’s native plants and trees. How to identify, prepare and use them.
In New Zealand native trees and plants have been used by Māori for hundreds of years. The majority of the information we have about them comes from this vast well of knowledge as well as a more recent scientific understanding. To respect this knowledge it is important to open our minds and understand that it is a different healing modality to western medicine. That not only encompasses the Tinana (body) but equally the Wairua* (Spirit) and Mauri** (life force) of a being.
When using natives medicinally they work best when we understand that if there is an imbalance in the wairua or mauri of an individual it will manifest in the body as an illness or ailment. In other words, they are used for treating the cause of the illness not the symptoms. In the past Iwi (tribes) would have had a Tohunga (Priest) who also acted as the Kai Rongoā (doctor) (Paul, 1987). The tohunga would administer karakia (prayers), cleansing techniques to release bad spirits and of course native herbal medicines to heal the patient of their illness.
When Europeans arrived in Aotearoa, attempts were made to banish Rongoā Māori under the Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907, in favour of western medicine. Fortunately this was repealed in 1962 (Jones, 2007). Since then an awareness has been growing around the importance and effectiveness of using Rongoā Māori in collaboration with Western Medicine.
Using native plants medicinally underpins a holistic understanding of humans’ relationship with our Whenua (land), our environment, rakau (trees) and manu (birds). It is our disconnection from this that causes illness. The native plants are messengers that remind us of this relationship and remind us to slow down.
To borrow the whakataukī (proverb) from Rob McGowans Tiwaiwaka movement:
“Ka ora te whenua, Ka ora te Tangata” – When the land is well the people will be well.
Like most native plant practitioners will tell you – if you want to learn about it and heal yourself then go spend time in the ngahere (bush) with the rakau. They will tell you everything you need to know.
* Wairua: Spirit, Soul Essence ** Mauri: Life essence, Vital Spark
How to harvest and dispose:
Harvesting, preparing and consuming native plants shouldn’t be taken lightly. Firstly there are native New Zealand plants that are poisonous that can and have killed people. Secondly the knowledge of using these plants sits within the wider context of Mātauranga Māori (Māori Wisdom). Knowledge that has been disrespected and abolished for years and is only coming back now. So yes it is important that we share this information to keep it alive but more important that we share it respectfully and don’t exploit it.
The three I’s
Intention: This is the most important aspect of using our native plants – your intention. Why are you harvesting from the plant? How much do you need? What are you going to use it for? There is a big difference between stripping a forest of Kawakawa to turn it into pharmaceuticals and taking a few leaves to help your tamaiti (child) with a tooth-ache. On an individual level when you enter the Nga here do so with a soft heart and an intention to take only what you need. In most cases this is only a few leaves or a branch. Then always thank the plant you have harvested from. Maybe even give back by doing some weeding or picking up some rubbish from where you are harvesting. Lastly, always give your spent leaves back to the earth so as to complete the cycle. Lastly, never harvest when it is raining. This is the tree’s time to cleanse and replenish.
Identification: Are you 110% sure that this is definitely the plant you think it is? If there is any inkling that it isn’t then don’t touch it. There are several poisonous plants in New Zealand that can kill you. A major part of using native plants is learning to correctly identify our plants and trees. Take a guide book with you or take a photo and send it to a friend who knows more than you. Always fall on the side of being cautious.
Intuition: Before you enter the ngahere, stop, close your eyes, take a breath and listen. What can you hear? What can you feel? Does it feel right to take from the plants right now? Are you next to a busy road? Maybe it’s best not to harvest from this area due to run-off. Look at the plant, does it look healthy? Is this a place where pesticides are used? The best tool you have in the ngahere are your senses. So when you head out take the time to tune into them and be present with the process – whether that be harvesting, preparing or using.
Below is a list of natives – each section shows how to identify and use the plants – but always remember the three I’s.
There is no substitute for being out in the ngahere among the trees and birds to learn about using our native plants and trees. People who have spent significant time with the trees have compiled incredible resources for guiding you on your journey which you will find below:
Whakapapa: All of the information found on this page and in the beginners guide was compiled by Dylan Steeples from CVNZ. He has been studying and learning about the medicinal uses of our native plants since 2017. He was taught by a student of Houhepa Delamare, well known for his teaching around this topic, at Te Wananga O Aotearoa. He does not claim to be an expert in this field but with the blessing of his teacher, he is passionate about sharing this knowledge as a vehicle for connecting people with the environment. All other resources that have informed his learning have been listed below. If you want to contact the author about any concerns or questions you have then please email him at [email protected]
- Maori Healing and Herbal – Murdoch Riley
- Rongoā Māori – Rob McGowan – http://www.titokieducation.co.nz/Rongoa-Maori-Handbook/
- Field Guide to New Zealand Native Trees – John Dawson & Rob Lucas
- A Field Guide to the Native Edible Plants on New Zealand – Andrew Crowe
- Nga Taonga o te Ngahere – Tom Paul
- T.E.R.R.A.I.N: Great site for searching for plants: http://www.terrain.net.nz/friends-of-te-henui-group/hebes/hebe-stricta-koromiko.html?mact=Search%2Ccntnt01%2Cdosearch%2C0&cntnt01returnid=1553&cntnt01searchinput=horopito&submit=Submit
- We Love Rongoā: Great for finding uses of native plants: http://weloverongoa.co.nz/glossary/
- (Jones, 2007) https://teara.govt.nz/en/rongoa-medicinal-use-of-plants/page-5
- (Paul, 1987) Nga Taonga o te Ngahere
- Links to Tiwaiwaka Movement: https://bit.ly/3bvRGBQ – Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tiwaiwakanz