Sometimes when we are introduced for the first time to something we are not familiar with – an author, a singer, a type of food, a breed of dog – it suddenly starts appearing everywhere. The ubiquitous kawakawa plant was not so ubiquitous to me. I had not really noticed the lush green heart-shaped leaves nor recognised the plant by name until I received a pencil drawing of a kawakawa plant entwined with an intravenous fluid delivery system, drawn by artist Janet de Wagt to illustrate a poem in the book of poetry by New Zealand nurses that I was editing. This beautiful drawing, a delicate and powerful meeting of Western and Māori medicine, piqued my interest and I wanted to know more.
A few months after the poetry book had been published, I was listening to Radio New Zealand’s Critter of the week slot, where the speaker, Nicola Toki, discussed the looper moth and looper caterpillar. I learnt that this endemic moth is found throughout New Zealand. The green or brown caterpillars feed on young leaves of its favoured host plant, kawakawa, Piper Excelsum (Piperaceae), and other native trees and shrubs in native ecosystems, parks, gardens and forests.
The looper moth makes holes, lace-like patterns in the kawakawa leaves. I had already learned, from a previous conversation with a friend about Janet’s drawing, that the more holes, the better, as Māori reasoned that if the caterpillar can eat them and survive, then surely humans can. The leaves with the most holes have highest composition of rongoā.
Kawakawa was highly prized by Maori for rongoā, or 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. In 1824, French naturalist René Lesson described the use of herbal remedies in his medical journal, writing that Māori ‘drink only the juice extracted from certain herbs, which they call “rongoā”, meaning “tonics” or “remedies”. … [T]hey designate by the name of “tangata rongoā” those men who know how to prepare some remedies.’
Toki referred to the custom of kuia wearing kawakawa around their heads at tangi. Kawakawa is also thought to improve fertility, and is placed under the bed to increase the chance of becoming pregnant. The multi-purpose leaves are considered good for skin complaints, cuts and toothache. The kawakawa plant is related to kava, and thus has an anaesthetic effect, and one can eat the seeds. Kawakawa tea is also very popular these days, brewed from freshly plucked leaves or bought in a packet.
According to a 2016 Radio New Zealand National programme, more and more people are turning to traditional Māori medicine. Some doctors may be dismissive but there is an increasing acknowledgement that through collaboration and perhaps by combining both traditional and contemporary medical treatments, patients may benefit. Some patients have made the decision themselves, such as a 26 year old New Zealander who has cerebral palsy, cellulitis and other medical problems. In 2016, he explained that he mixes up a daily dose of kawakawa leaves, blended with honey and lemon.
He applied the rongoā learned from his kuia and collected plants from the bush and after a week of illness withdrawing from the mainstream medicines, was in good health:
The doctors thought I was crazy but I said to them ‘well you haven’t done anything, I’m going to give my way a go and until it doesn’t work, that’s when I’ll come back to you.”
This relationship between Māori and European approaches appears in a poem called “Variations” by Kim Chenery from Listening with my heart: Poems by Aotearoa New Zealand nurses. (This is the poem which inspired Janet de Wagt’s illustration of a kawakawa leaf and i-v delivery system.) Here, differences in how to manage a child’s illness reveal differing interpretations, potentially contradicting one another. A young woman has sought the nurse out, hoping for explanations of what they (the specialists) are trying to do to her child, as a translator or perhaps as a negotiator, the nurse is unsure and she questions the woman in the poem, coming to some form of understanding in the last stanza…
Lorraine Ritchie is a registered nurse who is currently working as a professional nursing adviser in the Southern region for the New Zealand Nurses’ Organisation (NZNO). Her employment background is primarily in aged care nursing. She has held various clinical, management and education and research roles and has a deep concern and passion for ensuring quality care of older people in NZ. She also holds a strong interest in Arts and health and is a published poet. She has recently graduated with a PhD on meaning and medication for older people.
- Listening with my heart: Poems by Aotearoa New Zealand nurses (Steele Roberts 2017) is edited by Lorraine Ritchie. Find purchase details here.
- Doctors embrace traditional Māori medicine