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Story: Rongoā – medicinal use of plants

Māori used a range of traditional methods to deal with illness. Plants such as kawakawa, harakeke (flax), kōwhai and mānuka were all important for healing, and so was a belief in the spiritual causes of illness. Today rongoā – Māori medicine – is seeing a resurgence of interest.

Story by Rhys Jones
Main image: A hue or calabash, for holding water, preserved game or medicines

Story Summary

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What is rongoā?

Rongoā is traditional Māori medicine. It includes herbal medicine made from plants, physical techniques like massage, and spiritual healing.

Supernatural sickness

Māori believed that some illnesses – called mate atua – were caused by evil spirits. If a person broke tapu (a rule), they could get sick. A tohunga (priest) could fix this kind of illness. He would find out what had caused it, remove the spirit and heal the patient.

Methods of healing

Other illnesses were believed to have physical causes. They were treated by methods such as:

  • herbal remedies – drinks, poultices or lotions made from plants
  • using heat to relieve pain
  • blood-letting (cutting the skin to make it bleed)
  • putting plant sap on wounds to help them heal.

Medicinal plants

Medicines were made from plants, including:

  • harakeke (flax)
  • kawakawa
  • rātā
  • mānuka
  • kōwhai.

Using harakeke (flax)

  • Flax leaves or roots were made into pulp, heated and put on skin infections such as boils.
  • The hard part of the leaf was used to splint a broken bone.
  • A bad cut was sewn up with flax fibre (muka).

Kawakawa

  • Kawakawa leaves and bark were used for cuts and stomach pains.
  • Kawakawa was used to make a steam bath. The leaves were placed on hot stones with water poured over. The patient sat on top.

Mānuka

  • Ashes from burnt mānuka were rubbed on the scalp to cure dandruff.
  • A tea made from the leaves was drunk for a fever.

European settlement and tohunga

When Europeans settled in New Zealand, they brought diseases with them, and many Māori became sick. Tohunga could not cure these new illnesses, so some people lost faith in them. Also, there were more tohunga who were not properly trained. In 1907 a law was passed to stop them working.

Rongoā today

Today there is new interest in many parts of Māori culture – including rongoā. People have turned to these traditional techniques to get help with difficult illnesses. Some healers combine Māori medicine with other methods.

How to cite this page:

Rhys Jones, 'Rongoā – medicinal use of plants', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/rongoa-medicinal-use-of-plants (accessed 19 November 2017)

Story by Rhys Jones, published 24 Sep 2007