For the early Polynesian explorers, the first glimpse of the New Zealand coastline must have been a staggering and bewildering sight. A vast, cold and mountainous landscape, populated with a bizarre assortment of plants unlike anything they had ever seen. In the midst of this unfamiliar forest, the heart-shaped leaves of Kawakawa would have been a welcome sight. The plant bears a striking resemblance to its close cousin – Kava – a powerful sedative which is highly admired throughout the Pacific. While it lacks kava’s intoxicating properties, kawakawa would come to occupy an equally vital role in the Māori world.
For many, the relationship with the plant began at conception – where Māori parents would sometimes place a sprig of kawakawa under the bed during intercourse as a good luck charm. From there it was an ever present symbol throughout life: used in birthing and naming ceremonies, and used to bless food, sacred ground and war parties before battle. Kawakawa also took on an important role at the end of life as well, as mourners of the dead would carry the leaves and wrap them around their heads as a sign of their loss.
Perhaps the most important use of kawakawa however, was for medicine. Kawakawa is one of the most important plants in Rongoā and used for almost every possible ailment. The leaves could be steeped or boiled in water, producing a refreshing tonic which was considered an aphrodisiac. The beverage was drunk as a treatment for gonorrhea, worms and problems with the chest, kidney and bladder. Baths of kawakawa leaves were used to treat all manner of skin complaints, and cuts and wounds were often wrapped in kawakawa bandages. The bitter, peppery leaves produce a mildly numbing sensation in the mouth like that of Kava, and were often chewed to cure toothache and sore throats. Māori mothers would even rub the leaves on their breasts to help wean their children off breast milk faster.
The uses of Kawakawa extended beyond medicine as well. The leaves contain a potent insecticide which protects them from hungry insects. Māori gardeners would burn rows of kawakawa branches amongst their kūmara plantations, to help ward off bugs that might damage the crop. One insect however is unaffected by this defence. The Kawakawa Looper Moth has adapted to the insecticide and has made kawakawa its preferred host plant. The caterpillars of the Kawakawa looper are responsible for the leaves which are often seen riddled with holes and bite marks. Māori believed that the leaves covered in holes were the best for Rongoā, as they had the highest concentration of medicine. There may be a scientific basis behind this tradition, as leaves that have been attacked are triggered into changing their chemical composition.
The value of kawakawa was not lost on European settlers either, who were quick to experiment with which native plants could be used to make tea. One writer in the 1800s even boasted that between mānuka and kawakawa tea, New Zealand could forgo Chinese tea altogether. Other settlers used the leaves to brew beer, and the result is said to be most refreshing. Kawakawa has begun to enter modern culinary use as well, where it has been used in sweet and savoury dishes and takes on peppery, basil-like tones. The orange-yellow fruit were eaten by Māori and are sweet and delicious with a taste that is reminiscent of paw-paw. Care must be taken when eating them not to crush the small peppery seeds as this releases a pungent aroma which can spoil the taste. Kawakawa is also a close relative of black pepper, and the dried fruit can be roasted to make peppercorns.
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