Culture & History
Despite being perhaps one of the more important native plants in New Zealand, for most of the 20th century mānuka was viewed as a noxious weed. Farmers especially loathed the plant, viewing it as a costly nuisance that prevented them from developing areas of hill country. When a black sooty mould fungus caused widespread devastation of mānuka it was seen as a cause for celebration and infected trees could be purchased to help promote the spread of the fungus.
With greater research and understanding however, mānuka has had almost a complete reversal in its relationship with the New Zealand people. Because of its ability to cope with harsh environmental conditions, they are an ideal nursery crop providing shade and shelter to more sensitive natives. Eventually, mānuka nurtures this next generation of plants into a future forest. Because of this ability it has been widely adopted for use in all kinds of conservation projects; improving ecologically degraded areas and promoting natural regeneration.
Mānuka & Māori: A Special Relationship
It must be said that not all New Zealanders were so hostile towards the plant – Māori have had a long relationship with mānuka and have found a staggering amount of uses for it; from food, to medicine, to war and all manner of tools and artefacts. In fact, the relationship between Māori and mānuka is even more significant when examining the historical distribution of the plant.
Like many of its Australian counterparts, mānuka has a fire ecology; where its life cycle is adapted to the extreme conditions of forest fires. When the woody capsules that contain mānuka seeds are exposed to intense heat and smoke they spring open, scattering their contents on the recently cleared ground. But fires were fairly rare in pre-historic New Zealand, and mānuka was unable to persist for very long in an area before being replaced by other longer lived trees.
When Māori arrived in New Zealand, they cleared extensive areas of bush using fire. Not only did this provide mānuka the opportunity to increase its range, but it also meant that the New Zealand bush became more flammable as mānuka has adaptations to promote the spread of fire. Today, it occurs almost everywhere in New Zealand: from low country to the mountains, from wetlands to dry hills, and extends from Cape Reinga to Stewart Island/Rakiura.
On Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery around New Zealand, his crew boiled the leaves of mānuka to make tea. European settlers also adopted the practice, and the common name “Tea tree” is still used for mānuka and the similar-looking but genetically-distinct kānuka (Kunzea spp.). Cook also brewed a beer using mānuka and rimu leaves and found it: “exceedingly palatable and esteemed by every one on board.”
Today, sawdust from the wood is commonly used to impart flavour when smoking fish and meat. Honey made from the flowers is recognised as a valuable food and health item and is a popular overseas export, with studies now underway examining its medicinal and antibacterial properties. Essential oils from the leaves are also used commercially and form the basis of a variety of medicinal and cosmetic products.
Mānuka was also an important medicinal plant of the Māori. Infusions made with the leaves were used to reduce fevers, and treat stomach and urinary problems. Gum produced from the tree was used as a moisturizer for burns, and to ease coughing. Decoctions from the bark were used as a sedative, a mouthwash, and to treat diarrhoea and fever.
The wood of mānuka has been extensively used by New Zealanders as it is hard and straight-grained. It has been used to make a vast range of tools, implements and structures; such as beds, houses, combs, paddles, canoes and spears. It was also valued as firewood, as it has adaptations to promote fire. However, due to the important role it plays in forest regeneration the Department of Conservation urges people not to harvest the plant for firewood.
What does mānuka mean?
The word mānuka is a unique name in Aotearoa used to refer to Leptospermum scoparium and occassionally kānuka as well. Linguistically it is related to the Polynesian word nukanuka which in the Pacific describes the Fijian Christmas tree Decaspermum fruticosum.