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Rongoa Maori - Plants and Shrubs Used for Medicinal Purposes

HUAINANGA Chenopodium album Fat hen, Lamb's quarters:

A common garden weed in New Zealand, brought here from Europe.

It is an annual, about a foot high, with soft green leaves, and a small white flower head at the top of the plant.

The Maori soon found a use for it. They gathered the tops of the plant, boiled them; and ate them as a vegetable spinach.

For boils and blood troubles they drank the water three times a day.

Recommended Books:

Te Rongoa Maori MedicineTe Rongoa Maori Medicine
Pip Williams spent his life observing and recording the use by local Maori of native plants for medical purposes. This book brings together his observations on 43 New Zealand plants and the health problems they were used to treat, colourfully interspersed with anecdotal evidence and beautifully illustrated with watercolours and engravings. Much of the information was told to the author by kuia and kaumatua over 40 years ago.


A Field Guide to the Native Edible Plants of New ZealandA Field Guide to the Native Edible Plants of New Zealand
Plant Heritage New Zealand looks at the unique characteristics of New Zealand's plants, and what makes them so special. It delves into the origins and evolution of the plants, how they have inspired songs, poems and works of art, Maori myths, stories and proverbs associated with them, and their many uses as a natural resource. Part 2 presents a selection of the plants and looks at classification, names, botanical description, traditional and modern uses, cultural heritage and significance to Maori. Tony Foster's stunning photos highlight the beauty of the plants, as well as helping with identification.

Please visit our Rongoa - Medicinal Plants Books section for more useful books.
Check out our great selection of English-Maori dictionary.

KAREAO, KAREWAO, PIRITA Ripogonum scandens Supplejack

The Maori name can be interpreted as "twisting rope". This climber belongs to the sarsaparilla family.

It starts life in an odd way, with a slender, upright but sappy stem, the top of which waves about in the air until it finds a support.

Clinging to this, it begins to climb upward until it reacbes the sunlight, and not until then does it develop branches, with blunt-ended leaflets coming in pairs from the stems, and at the tip of these are the. flower clusters, which develop into bright red berries.

They are harmless and edible, but tasteless and dry, as most of the berry is full of seeds. They flower from December to February.

The climbing vines, which usually hang from tree tops, can impede and entangle anyone who. tries to walk through a thicket of them, but as children we loved them! Take a grip of the lower end of a vine, give a tug to see if it holds firm, run back with it, and take off! It will carry you safely over to the far bank of a narrow stream or creek bed and up the further side.

Like sarsaparilla (made from the rhizome of Smilax officinalis), supplejack is diuretic, tonic and alterative, and a decoction of the root was used as a substitute.

J.C.E. Baber wrote in 1886 that "a strong decoction of the root has a scent and flavour like sarsaparilla, is sweetish and certainly soothing to a sore throat."

Maori women taught early settlers how to prepare this. It was a favourite medicine of the early herbalists in this country.

The liquor was made by skinning the underground root stocks, beating them to a pulp, steeping them in water, then straining off the liquor for use as this medicine.

A decoction made by boiling the roots in water was helpful in cases of rheumatism, fever, general disability, bowel complaints and skin diseases. The juice of young shoots was rubbed on the skin for the "itch".

The stems were bruised and the juice applied for venereal disease. Supplejack has been proved as a haemostatic.

If the crushed root is applied to a wound, it halts bleeding. Another method was to burn the end of a twig and apply this to cauterise a wound (Adams), or break off a young shoot, and apply the juice which exudes from it to a wound for the same purpose.

Both these methods were employed when a dog was gored by a wild pig.

The vines had other uses. From them the Maori people made woven baskets to hold food and to wrap round gourds, so that they could be hung up.

The vines were beaten to make them soft and pliable and then loosely woven into a frame to hold babies when learning to walk.

There is no indication in anything I have read that the leaves or fruit were used at all, though it is logical to assume that the leaves at least would have been used in a steam bath for rheumatism.

" The thin vines of this plant were used extensively for binding and pulling purposes" (William Parker).

When flax was not available, they were used for tying together bundles of firewood, for children's swings, and for towing small canoes, and for pulling small logs along a track.

KOHERIKI, KOHEPIRO Gingidium rosaefolium - Rose-leaved anise, a herb

This belongs to the carrot family - a small plant only twelve inches high with flowers in umbels, fifteen inches tall, and the leaves come from the base.

This variety, which grows as a mat, is mostly found on river beds of the North Island. Colenso wrote this of it: "The aromatic leaves are used as a diuretic and remedial in syphilitic cases."

KOHERIKI, KOHEPIRO - Gingidium montanum - Maori anise, a herb

This variety has the same habit of growth but the leaves, which also come in opposite pairs from the base of the plant, have a lavender-blue sheen.

It grows from the middle of the North Island to Southland in moist tussocky hill country.

Once abundant, it has been eaten down by sheep until now it is found only in places not accessible to stock.

Both varieties have a strong anise scent. The leaves are used as a diuretic and the liquor was drunk by early settlers for dropsy (Colenso).

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