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Unearthing our Healing Heritage

This article was first published on 22 Aug 2018.

Horopito close up

Horopito close up

Photo by the Otago Daily Times

From the beginning of time we have depended on plants and trees not only for many of our raw materials and food but for the oxygen we breathe.  Iconic New Zealand native plants are in many of our gardens, loved for their texture, form and colour. But how much is known of their traditional medicinal properties?

For instance, did you know that pepper tree, horopito, has been known as nature’s own painkiller, chewed for toothaches?  Its inner bark mixed with oil was used to cure burns. Many different compounds, of antiseptic, anti-fungal and antibacterial significance have been identified in horopito. Preparations of Sophora tetraptera, kōwhai were used for colds and sore throats, or for bathing cuts, bruises and swelling.

When driving through the countryside we become aware of the wild native plant communities dotted between pasturelands. These patches can teach us of the importance of ecology and also nature’s practical uses for humans.  What could be more satisfying than digging deeper into our native gems not only for aesthetics but for conservation and understanding their medicinal value too?

Bush edges are where traditional medicinal plants often grow but specimens of horopito (pictured) and kōwhai can be seen in the native plant collection of the Dunedin Botanic Garden. Pepper tree is also planted in many areas around the lower botanic garden and kowhai forms a great display on the slope above Lindsay’s Creek south of the rock garden.