Māori Medicine and Culture

History of Māori Tea

Māori Medicine

Rongoā Māori

In traditional Māori medicine, ailments are treated in a holistic manner. Rongoā Māori is the traditional Māori healing system. This ancient lore, including plant use, massage, and incantations, has been passed down through many generations.

In traditional Māori medicine, ailments are treated in a holistic manner with:

  • spiritual healing
  • the power of karakia
  • the mana of the tohunga (expert)
  • by the use of herbs.

Traditionally, knowledge of rongoā was considered tapu (sacred) and was passed on to a select few. A person was selected for training by a tohunga pu (expert) from the whare wānanga (house of learning). For Māori before European contact, forms of leprosy and tuberculosis might have been the only contagious diseases. Māori had no in-built immunity to diseases like the influenza, measles, and fevers that European contact brought.

Herbal treatments

Internal herbal treatments

Internal herbal treatments were given for:

  • respiratory ailments like asthma, bronchitis, and coughs
  • stomach, bowel, and urinary tract problems
  • menstrual and birthing difficulties
  • at least one form of tuberculosis.

External herbal treatments

External herbal treatments were given for:

  • fractures and wounds
  • boils
  • burns
  • eczema
  • leprosy
  • ringworm
  • warts.

Modern Mix-ups

Most of the information that is known about rongoā is from the writings of early settlers and missionaries who either discussed or observed the traditional use of plants. Different iwi have different names for the same plants. Alternatively, the same name can be used for different plants. Sometimes this caused confusion, with the use being applied to the wrong plant. For example, kahikātoa (another name for mānuka) was confused with kahikatea, a very different tree.

Scientific Research

Some of the information relating to the medicinal use of plants has been supported through scientific studies and the study of the use of related plants in other parts of the world. For example, kawakawa has relatives that are used medicinally in other countries of the South Pacific and has been the focus of scientific research.

Native New Zealand Tea Plants

Koromiko – Hebe spp.
Mānuka – Leptospermum scoparium
Kawakawa – Macropiper excelsa
Kohekohe – Dysoxylum spectabile
Horopito – Pseudowintera colorata
Korokia – Corokia buddleioides
Pukatea – Laurealia novae-zealandia
Bidibid – Acaena anserinifolia



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. TutuKowhai) 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.

Māori Culture

Key Words- relating to my project

  • Rongoā – is traditional Māori medicine – a system of healing that was passed on orally. It comprised diverse practices and an emphasis on the spiritual dimension of health. Rongoā includes herbal remedies, physical therapies such as massage and manipulation, and spiritual healing.
  • Whenua – The Māori word for land, whenua, also means placenta. All life is seen as being born from the womb of Papatūānuku, under the sea. The lands that appear above water are placentas from her womb. They float, forming islands.
  • Tangata whenua – used to describe the Maori people of a particular locality, or as a whole as the original inhabitants of New Zealand.
  • Pātaka – A Pātaka storehouse raised upon posts, pantry, larder. These buildings were considered semi-sacred, and while their height was meant to protect the kūmara inside from hungry rats, they also stored valuables such as weapons and cloaks.

Tiare maori: beloved flower of the Cook Islands

“Tiare maori is always picked in the evenings, just as the sun goes down, for this is when the flower opens”.

Like edelweiss is to the Austrians, so the star-like tiare maori (Gardenia taitensis) is to Cook Islanders. Tiare maori is often used as a metaphor in Maori poetry and song, to describe beauty, or a loved one. This flower with its gentle fragrance, is the most beloved of all flowers and has also come to symbolise purity, romantic love, love for homeland and a link to the ancient land of origin, ’Avaiki (Hawaiki).

The waxy-leafed plant, which belongs to the Rubiaceae plant family, a relative of the coffee plant, originated in Asia and arrived in the Cook Islands with the early Maori settlers. Tiare is the generic Maori term for flower, but this flower is the only flower called ‘maori’, which means ‘indigenous’ in the Maori language of the Cook Islands.

Five Powerful Native Plants

The many uses of harakeke

Phormium tenax

This flax has always been prized by Māori, who used it to make kete (baskets) as well as clothing and mats. Before a fishing trip, they would pull out a harakeke leaf – if it made a noise, the trip would be successful so a karakia would be said before heading off.

The amazing thing about harakeke – like so many of our plants – is that it has lots of medicinal properties. Its gel was often used to treat cuts and infections while its leaves could be wrapped around wounds like a bandage.  The finest of strands would even be used to tie umbilical cords.

The magic healing powers of kawakawa

Pepper tree/ Macropiper excelsum

This is the most widely used of all the native plants. Māori would use it as a good luck charm to conceive, and it is also used to remove tapu (bad energy) at meeting houses, among many other reasons.

It’s very well-known for its healing uses as well. Kawakawa is often used to help people suffering from colds or bladder issues, to treat eczema, and is high in magnesium and iron. Burning it even helps to drive away pestering insects! It also has a great taste – look out for kawakawa pepper.

The spiritual importance of kowhai

Sophora tetraptera, sophora microphylla

Kowhai (which also means yellow) is easily recognised by its yellow flowers and is very spiritually significant. Kowhai is said to symbolise personal growth and helps people to move on from the past with a renewed sense of adventure.

The bark of the tree can be used in a bath to help with bruising and has long been used by Māori to help with broken bones as well as itching, shingles, dandruff and gonorrhoea.

Connecting with mahoe

Whitey wood/ Melicytus ramiflorus

They say that mahoe helps to ignite passion of all kinds, including guiding us towards our destinies. Mahoe has always been very important both spiritually and physically, creating awareness and helping to connect the consciousness with ancestors. Its berries were also mixed with kauri gum to create the pigment for tattoos while its leaves could be boiled to help with menstruation and diarrhoea.

Seven gifts of patete

Seven finger/ Schefllera digitata

A huge favourite of our resident kōkako, Kahurangi, the patete is said to contain seven sensory gifts that are considered taonga (treasure). Patete helps us to tap into the extraordinary abilities of clairsentience, clairaudience, clairvoyance, clairknowing, clairgustus, clairconnectedness and claircommunication.

It can also be used for a number of different medicinal things such as helping to induce labour and was often wrapped around newborn babies to prevent nappy rash.


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