Rongoa Maori: Ancient medicine with modern health benefits

The South Pacific nation of New Zealand is the ancestral home of the Maori, sea-faring settlers from the eastern Polynesia. With its unique flora and fauna, New Zealand offers a large array of plants found only in that region, many of which became part of the Maori traditional system of medicine known as Rongoa Maori.  This system is a holistic approach to body, mind, spirit and tapu – or natural law. According to the principles of Rongoa Maori, true healing puts the body, mind and spirit into harmony, according to the immutable principles of natural law.

Arriving in large canoes in 1250, the Maori settled and flourished in New Zealand, known to the Maori as Aotearoa. As they became familiar with that environment, the Maori learned about the various plants on that country’s two large islands and figured out how to employ those plants for a broad variety of health purposes. When Europeans first arrived in Aotearoa in 1624, they began an all too common practice – driving the Maori out of their homelands, appropriating vast areas of Maori tribal land, and marginalizing the indigenous Polynesians.

New Zealand, a name given by the British, remains the home of the Maori, whose culture has been badly battered by the settlers who today make up most of New Zealand’s population. Yet Maori tribal tattooing, weaving, art and dance remain important parts of New Zealand culture, and so does Rongoa Maori. Today, one of the bastions of Rongoa Maori preservation is the 64 hectare Auckland Botanic Gardens in Manurewa, South Auckland. There, director Jack Hobbs and his team are preserving and protecting plants whose roots run deep in Rongoa Maori.

The Auckland Botanic Gardens offers a spectacular array of edible plants, beautiful perennial flowers, threatened native species, palms, and a wide range of botanicals whose leaves, flowers, stems, barks, seeds and roots are part of the rich Rongoa Maori tradition. The various areas of the garden provide suitable homes to plants of varying types, from field plants to those that flourish in woods.

The Maori used flax extensively for fiber, and the Auckland Botanic Gardens features a large selection of the plants, whose blade-shaped leaves yield fiber for cordage, clothing, and weaving of all types. Experts at the gardens show visitors how to strip the long blades of the flax plant, to twist the long natural fibers, and to make slender cordage of great strength. Though the New Zealand flax fiber industry has crashed, the plants are common ornamentals, most commonly used to line roadways.

But it is the well-preserved natural pharmacy of Rongoa Maori that is one of the Gardens’ key attractions. For researchers, having so many beneficial native plants available in one location makes the Auckland Botanic Gardens a treasury of traditional healing. One of the plants featured there is Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium), a shrub whose small leaves yield an essential oil that is widely used to heal cuts, infections, burns, scrapes, sores and topical problems of all kinds. Anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial, Manuka has been intensively studied by scientists for its first aid applications, for which it is highly effective.

The Auckland Botanic Gardens is home to several totara trees (Podocarpus totara), which yield the extremely valuable compound totorol, a much sought-after agent used in cosmetics. The same compound also keeps the wood of totara from rotting, which has made that a highly desirable wood for building, resulting in devastation of that species.

The yellow-blossomed Kumarahou (Pomaderris kumeraho) has long been used by the Maori as a blood purifier and liver tonic – and to treat respiratory disorders including bronchitis, cough and chest congestion. The fresh leaves of the small shrub are applied to wounds, while the respiratory remedy is made by boiling the leaves in water.

The small shrub Horopito (Pseudowintera colorata) demonstrates greater ability to kill Candida albicans yeast infections than Amphotericin B, a drug developed for the same purpose. The active compound polygodial shows great effectiveness in killing various yeasts and fungi. The leaves of horopito have a sharp, peppery taste. The Maori also chewed the leaves of the plant to relieve toothache, and they made a tea of the leaves to quell diarrhea.

Today, as beverage, food, cosmetic and nutraceutical companies are seeking more natural agents for health purposes of all kinds, the world’s treasures offer an extravaganza of benefits. With hundreds of traditional Maori medicinal plants in one place, along with staff and scientists who know the plants’ compounds and uses, The Auckland Botanic Gardens offers an opportunity for those seeking valuable botanicals to dive deeply into Rongoa Maori, to discover healing treasures from antiquity whose uses are highly relevant today.

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide.  His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at