Kawakawa ( Macropiper excelsum) is one of the most important herbs in traditional Maori herbal medicine. It is still useful today for treating conditions due to its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. It is useful for stomachache, toothache and indigestion, and is also said to treat inflammation. A kawakawa poultice applied to the skin can treat eczema, rheumatism, bruises and abrasions. The seeds are used as a culinary spice.
Central North Island-based horticulturist Hera Turanga makes her own natural medicines. She says kawakawa was the first plant that opened her eyes to native New Zealand plants.
“Kawakawa has been used by our ancestors for many generations. It has a wide range of medicinal properties and purposes. It can be used for skin ailments, mouth or throat ailments, right through to healing body wraps. It is my favourite for making throat lozenges, with its great healing properties.”
Taken in its natural form, kawakawa has a peppery, bitter taste.
“It can be used in the form of a warm tea,” says Hera. “It’s amazing in smoothies.”
Kawakawa was and still is used in an animal fat base, although you can also use an oil or coconut base says Hera.
“You can add kawakawa to melted coconut oil, leave it to super slowly infuse and it makes the best body, face and hair oil.”
Kawakawa is endemic to New Zealand, growing naturally throughout the North Island and as far south as Banks Peninsula.
“Many of us who gather, use or grow kawakawa follow old-school protocols, done with traditional tikanga and karakia – gathering correctly and prayer. But everyone has their own way and harvests in different ways.
“One way I was taught is to pick from the north side of a plant, making sure it’s healthy. Do not pick kawakawa near the road because of car fumes, and pick leaves that have holes in them. These leaves are said to hold the highest healing properties.”
holey leaves concentrate the medicinal properties, a natural reaction by the plant to being eaten by caterpillars.