Many plants in the New Zealand bush make excellent tea.
Māori have been brewing plant teas for centuries, and have an extensive knowledge of the best brews and herbal remedies. European settlers also experimented with a wide range of native teas, searching for native substitutes to replace the Earl Grey and English Breakfast they had left behind.
In this section I have compiled all the plants I could find that have some historical record of being drunk as a tea or leaf infusion. Technically-speaking, these are all tisanes, the label of ‘true tea’ being reserved from plants derived from Camelia sinensis. Where apropriate, I have also fleshed this out with my own experience drinking native brews.
Kawakawa – Macropiper excelsa
Also known as the New Zealand pepper tree, Kawakawa produces a lightly spicy, refreshing drink. The ultimate herbal tonic, Kawakawa tea was an important Rongoā plant – used to treat stomach pain, worms, toothache and disease. Many of the leaves are riddled with holes from the Kawakawa Looper caterpillar. The leaves with the most holes are considered the best for making tea as they contain the highest concentration of medicinal properties.
Kūmarahou – Pomaderris kumeraho
Another key Rongoā plant, Kūmarahou tea was drunk to relieve all kinds of chest complaints such as coughs, colds, asthma and bronchitis. I find it a refreshing drop and one of the better native teas, although the bitter taste may take some getting used to. The plant is rich in saponins and produces a soap-like lather when combined with water, hence its english name Gumdiggers Soap.
Kohekohe – Dysoxylum spectabile
Kohekohe leaf infusions were used to treat colds, fever, stomach pain and sexually transmitted diseases. Mothers used to drink Kohekohe tea when they wanted to stop the secretion of milk. I found the tea exceptionally bitter, it tasted somewhat like hops. Kohekohe has been used to make beer and in my opinion that might be a better use.
Mānuka – Leptospermum scoparium
Mānuka & Kānuka produce some of our finest native teas, with a bitter aromatic flavour. Captain Cook brewed tea from their leaves as he travelled around New Zealand and bestowed on them the English name “Tea Tree”. Māori had been drinking the delicious beverage for centuries before this, using it to help soothe stomach pains. Mānuka is by far the stronger of the two, and it is very easy to overdo it and end up with a very strong medicine taste. A teaspoon of leaves is usually about right.
Kānuka – Kunzea robusta
Kānuka is much less bitter than Mānuka, and probably my favourite of the two. You can get away with piling big stems of Kānuka into the pot without spoiling the brew. Decocting it for a several minutes on the boil will bring out more flavour.
Horopito – Pseudowintera colorata
The other New Zealand Pepper tree, Horopito is packed full of antifungal compounds which leave a burning sensation in the mouth. It makes for a spicy, warming tea, and is certainly one of my favourites. Infusions of the leaves were known as “bushman’s painkiller” and were drunk to soothe chest complaints and diarrhoea.
Bush Lawyer – Rubus cissoides
Bush lawyer leaf infusions were used to treat sore throats, chest complaints, stomach aches and diarrhoea. I found the tea tasted rather bland – much more intriguing was a brew I made from the flowers which produced a subtle perfumey aroma.
Koromiko – Hebe spp.
The quintessential rongoā plant, Koromiko tea was used as a cure-all, treating stomach pain, diarrhoea, and disease. Koromiko leaves were dried and sent to New Zealand soldiers in both world wars. Typically the growing buds are used. Makes for a pleasant tea, that tastes to me very slightly of banana.
Karamū – Coprosma robusta
Karamū leaves were used as a substitute for china tea, and drunk for kidney and bladder troubles. As a tea, I thought it was passable, but wasn’t particularly excited about the taste. Karamū is in the coffee family, and the seeds may have potential as a coffee substitute.
Bidibid – Acaena anserinifolia
Often used by european settlers as a substitute for tea. Bidibid was drunk by Māori to treat bladder and kidney trouble and was used to feed babies when mothers could not suckle. I found the tea improved significantly when the leaves were hung out to dry, and tasted a lot like weak green tea.
Cabbage Tree – Cordyline australis
Boiled Cabbage tree leaves were used by Māori to treat diarrhoea and dysentry. I found the tea tasted a lot like grass, but was not altogether unpleasant.
Pūriri – Vitex lucens
Pūriri leaf tea was drunk to soothe sore throats. In this case the cure might be worse than the disease – I can’t recommend the tea, the taste and smell was remarkably similar to rubber.
Korokia – Corokia spp.
Boiled Korokia leaves were drunk to sooth a sore stomach, and were said to be highly effective. Corokia buddleioides is the best in my opinion, with a pleasant planty taste, and a yellow-green colour. Corokia cotoneaster wasn’t very exciting and tasted mostly like hot water.
Toatoa – Haloragis erecta
Another plant that was experimented with to produce a substitute for china tea. The botanist William Colenso believed the best indigenous tea was to blend toatoa, bidibid and Karetu. I have only tried the dried leaves and found the resulting brew tasted and smelt a bit like spinach.
Pukatea – Laurealia novae-zealandia
Pukatea bark contains various alkaloids including Pukateine which has similar properties to Morphine. Decoctions of the bark were held in the mouth to treat toothache and drunk to combat syphilis. Chewing the bark has a numbing effect on the mouth, and I found the tea to have a slightly similar effect.
This page is a work in progress – I will add more plants as I try them.
Comment below if you know any good native brews or have any thoughts on those above.
Disclaimer: Some natives teas could kill you (e.g. Tutu, Kowhai) so I recommend doing your own research and making sure you are 100% sure you have identified the plant correctly. If you don’t know what it is, don’t put it in your mouth.
Photo Credits: All images by Robert Vennell