Rongoa is the Māori term for medicines that are produced from native plants in New Zealand. Use of these medicines prevented many sicknesses, and provided remedies for the sick.
In traditional Māori healing, diagnosis involved a holistic approach that included mind, body and spirit - mauri (spark or life force), wairua (spirit), and tapu (natural law). Whakapapa or genealogy was also considered.
Tohunga, the medical practitioners of the Māori world, passed their knowledge down through the generations, and modern Māori healers still use many of the concepts and practices.
Tapu and noa
Tapu and noa are concepts concerning the prevention of illness in the community or individual through obeying the natural law and order of the Māori world.
Tapu - considered the strongest force in Māori life - dictates safe or unsafe practices in many aspects of life, relating to sacred objects, places or people, practices and prohibitions. Transgressing tapu could result in sickness, mental illness or death.
Noa is the complimentary action through karakia or blessing to lift any restriction or appease any breach of tapu on a person, place or thing.
The connection between the elements and sickness or medical problems was the key to the craft of the tohunga.
Skilled in the use of healing herbs and plants found in Aotearoa, the tohunga made rongoā or tonics, preparations and prescriptions, used mirimiri or massage, karakia or incantations and prayer, and wai tapu - water therapy, including suffusions, steam and heat applications.
The 18th century scientist Joseph Banks, who travelled with Captain James Cook, observed that Māori were in good health and appeared to suffer from few diseases.
Rongoa Māori today
Today Rongoa Māori is taught within communities, and more formally through continuing education courses.
There is a growing interest in Rongoa Māori, according to Rob McGowan, a Waikato University community education officer in Tauranga who runs workshops on traditional Māori medicine.
Lack of knowledge about the bush and the plants required was the biggest obstacle for most people learning about the medicine, McGowan said.
Students also had to learn how to collect plants properly so they did not damage trees, before learning about preparing the medicine. This all had to happen within the context of tikanga (customs) that applied to Rongoa Māori, he said.
McGowan’s courses are held in the bush, working with the plants and observing the practices that are important to traditional healers. He aims to give participants a good foundation towards developing an understanding of Māori medicine.
Native healing herbals
Remedies are produced by companies like Native Healing Herbals which has a range of therapeutic creams and balms, using the principles of the tohunga, and using a form of reiki or hands on healing energy.
The company says all herbs are wild picked according to moon phases, and karakia is said before harvesting of native plants and herbs and at completion of balm making.
All preparations are GM free, and produced by hand in small batches with no contact with plastics to avoid chemical leaching. No chemicals, perfumes or artificial ingredients are used.
Common NZ plant species used for medicine
Harakeke (NZ flax)
- Flowers: Vary from yellow to red to orange.
- Rongoa: The sticky gum is used as an external treatment for
boils, toothache, wounds, burns, eczema and scalds. Leaves can dress
broken bones. Juice from the root disinfects wounds,
and a root poultice treats intestinal worms, ringworm and constipation.
- Other uses: Harakeke is widely used for weaving mats, clothing,
kete / bags, kono / bowls. Historically New Zealand exported large
amounts of flax for fabrication into durable marine ropes.
- Harakeke is made into bird snares, fishing lines, woven sails and
toys / instruments for children. Root juice was used as ink, and the
gum for letter seals. Flower stalks made floats and rafts, and nectar
sweetened drinks and food. Today flax derivatives are sold in many
different forms such as oil, soap and cream.
- Flowers: White or light blue / late summer.
- Rongoa / medicinal qualities: Young leaf tips are chewed for diarrhoea and dysentery. Used extensively in WWII for this purpose - dried leaves were sent to New Zealand soldiers overseas. Active ingredient is phenolic glycocide.
- Koromiko leaves can treat ulcers, sores, headaches, kidney and bladder troubles; be used as a pack on babies for skin sores.
- Other uses: Koromiko produces little wood but is known for its toughness and elasticity. Branches give off good heat when burned.
- Flowers: Large, drooping bright yellow flowers in bunches / spring. Forms into distinctive hard brown seed pods.
- Rongoa: All kowhai parts - bark, inner bark, flower, leaves, juice - can be used as rongoa. The tree has toxic alkaloids so careful preparation of rongoa must be observed.
- Bark-infused liquid treats internal ailments, colds and sore throats. It is also used on cuts, bruises and swelling. Boiled and crushed bark treats sprains, alleviates broken limbs, bruises, infected skin, wounds and skin diseases. Kowhai ashes are used to treat ringworm.
- Other uses: Yellow dye is extracted from the petals. Wood is highly durable and can be used for fencing. Flowering marks the time for planting kumara.
- Flowers: Piercing, flame-coloured pom-pom shaped blooms.
- Rongoa: The pohutukawa was highly respected and usually the tohunga extracted and made the rongoa giving it a tapu status. When infused, the inner bark treats dysentry and diarrhoea (contains ellagic acid). The nectar of the flowers helps alleviate sore throats.
- Other uses: Honey is produced from the flowers. Essential oils can be extracted from the inner bark. Wood is hard and durable, and used for making boats, paddles, weapons and eel clubs.
- Flowers: Outer dark pink petals fading to very light towards the centre.
- Rongoa: Infused puriri leaves treat ulcers, sore throats and are used for bathing sore muscles, backache and sprains. Medicinal quality of the leaves has resulted in a patented germicide.
- Other uses: Bark produces yellow and brown dyes. New Zealand’s strongest and hardest wood, puriri makes durable objects such as paddles, spades, handles, bridges, fencing. It also can be used as a perfume.
Iconic New Zealand native plants
Māori medicine gardens for marae