This article was published in the Titirangi Tatler, September 2010
Macropiper excelsum: The Good Health Tree
Genus - Macropiper: Macros = Greek for large, Peperi = pepper.
Species - excelsum: Excelsus = Latin for eminent, superior or lofty
Kawakawa, NZ Pepper Tree
Winter ills and chills have debilitated many of us over the last few months and we resort to all manner of vaccinations, prescription drugs, herbal remedies and probably some patent quackery.
Yet growing at the back door in most Titirangi homes is a remedy that perhaps has as much justification as most of the chemicals bought over a counter. There is a long Maori tradition of kawakawa being used as a medicine and general tonic. Taken as a preventative rather than a cure, kawakawa is a natural and soothing alternative to the strong pill and injection remedies provided by modern medicine. Take as an infusion by treating a leaf like a tea bag and leaving for a few minutes in boiling water. The resulting liquid is refreshing, with a slightly tingling taste sensation. Maori often wear leafy twigs of kawakawa at a tangi, chew the leaves to reduce tooth ache and place leaves on a fire to create an insect repellent. Kawakawa is a relative of both the Asian plant that produces black peppercorns, and the Polynesian species from which kava is made.
Kawakawa is a small tree or shrub to 4m tall with aromatic, heart-shaped leaves. The brown-red jointed branches resemble slender bamboo stalks. The frost-tender, dark-green leaves have a matt surface and are frequently eaten by the caterpillars of a native looper moth, resulting in 'uniquely perforated' foliage. The flower spikes are unisexual and are shaped like slender candles 5 -10cm long. Individual flowers are minute and close-set, developing into an edible, fleshy orange fruit on the female spikes.
Kawakawa occurs naturally throughout the North Island and northern half of the South Island, growing on coastal cliffs, sand dunes and deep within lowland forests. It prefers a cool, moist but free-draining soil and grows best in a semi-shaded and sheltered position. Suitable as a tub specimen, it requires a rich soil for healthiest growth.
There are other native species of Macropiper growing on off-shore islands, and these can be recognised by their glossier leaves and green rather than brown-red stems. As hybrids can occur between them all, it is preferable to plant only the naturally-occurring species in a particular area.