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How Māori Healers Transform New Zealand’s Bush Into a Medicine Cabinet

June 6, 2017

We went bush to learn about rongoā—the indigenous medical practices of Māori using New Zealand’s natural resources.

With both Pākeha and Waikato Tainui ancestry, Donna Kerridge knew from the time her children were young that she wanted to learn about rongoā. But it was a long time before she found people to teach her.

“From the time when my children were young, I always wanted to learn about natural health practices. But our old people will say things to me like, “what do you want to do that for? Why don’t you go be a real doctor? This stuff is old, why do you want to do it?” she says. “I couldn’t rationalise why, I just knew this was what I wanted to do. For a long time they wouldn’t teach me, would say no, that’s rubbish, these things will die out and you need to know the other stuff.

Eventually, she went to study medical herbalism, “It’s very science-based, but I realised there was more to it than what I was learning there.”

“Once I started learning, our old people started opening up. And I think in hindsight, looking back to when I was first asking, I probably wouldn’t have got it. I was young and impatient, and everything had to be black and white.

Donna took VICE for a walk through the bush to learn how Māori harness the properties of the plants around us.

Tōtara
One of the uses is the flaky bark, that we harvest in long runs. Traditionally, we’d harvest the bark, lay it in water until it was absolutely wet, and then use it to splint broken limbs. We’d wrap the broken limb in it, and as it dried it would create a splint or cast.
If it’s taken properly, the harvesting of the bark won’t harm the tree. We apply that to all things, because for us, the land is the first patient.

Koromiko, or kōkōmuka
This is used to treat dysentery, or diarrhoea. We just pick the very tips of the stems. Eat half a dozen of those, and that will stop diarrhoea in its tracks.
When our Māori soldiers were overseas, in the Māori battalion during the war, and were fighting in the trenches, they would live in the trenches, go to the toilet in the trenches, eat in the trenches, sleep in the trenches. Disease was everywhere. Our Māori women would go out to gather this plant, dry it, and send it to our men overseas.

Tūpākihi, or tutu
Farmers hate this, because it kills the stock. Once the plant’s in flower, you can’t harvest honey because a little insect comes to eat, and excretes a substance onto the flowers where the bee gathers from it. But we use it topically, for deep, deep bone and muscle ache. It gets in deep, like comfrey was used in the old days.

Harakeke
The roots and the hard end of the leaf we use for constipation: boil it up, and it loosens the bowels. It’s not suitable for pregnant women. The gel that you can gather from the inside of the leaf is good for burns, or for eczema. It soothes the skin. The outer leaves are the grandparents, then the parents, and the baby is the new shoot at the centre. We don’t harm the baby, and the parents care for the baby, but the grandparents are dispensable to the plant. It’s always about taking what we need, in a way that doesn’t harm the plant.

Kawakawa
Kawakawa has so many medicinal applications. It’s a cousin of the kava plant. We use it to poultice, both internal and topical. It’s an excellent circulatory stimulant, a painkiller, an anti-inflammatory. When we harvest it, we use the leaves with the holes made by the Looper caterpillar—partly because some say the medicine the plant exudes when it’s bitten is the same that heals us, and partly because we give the caterpillar its feed first. For a cough, it can be simmered and drunk as a tea—but not like an English tea. It needs to be cooled with a lid on before it’s drunk.

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