Saturday, July 18, 2009

An Important Plant

Waitangi, Northland. April 2009 Ajr
Kawakawa, Macropiper excelsum or more commonly, the pepper tree, is not to be confused with Horopito, Pseudowintera colorata, which is also commonly known as the pepper tree. Horopito has peppery-tasting leaves but Kawakawa is the one that belongs to the true pepper family - the Piperaceae. Kawa in Maori means bitter, hence the tree’s name in reference to its bitter-tasting leaves. I took this photograph of Kawakawa on a walk through the Waitangi Treaty Grounds on a guided tour with leading guide, Wil Napier, who explained that traditionally, Kawakawa was often used by Maori in an infused tea to flush out the kidneys; or as a treatment for colds and coughs. In fact it had a number of uses in rongoa (traditional medicine). The leaves could be chewed to soothe toothache, stomach problems and indigestion; and the yellow summer berries could be eaten as a diuretic. Tossed on a fire its leaves would create an insect repellent; and leaves were placed over boils, bruises and cuts to accelerate healing. The leaves are also strongly associated with Maori tangi (funerals) and were traditionally used as part of the embalming process. The adornment of greenery is a traditional (and still common) way of expressing mourning for Maori and at a tangi you’ll usually see kuia (older women) wearing kawakawa taua (wreaths) on their heads. The tree’s multiple uses now also include inclusion in a number of commercially available tonics, skincare products and healing balms. Two More Facts: The Kawakawa is closely related to the Polynesian kava plant; and its heart-shaped leaves are frequently filled with holes made by the looper caterpillar (Cleora scriptaria).

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