Story: Rongoā – medicinal use of plants

Page 3. Common medicinal plants

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More than 200 plants were used medicinally by Māori. Harakeke (flax), kawakawa, rātā and koromiko had many recorded uses.

Harakeke (flax)

  • The leaf or root was pulped, heated and put on boils.
  • The hard part of the leaf was used as a splint.
  • Umbilical cords were tied with scraped flax.
  • Sore backs were heated by the fire and then strapped up with a flax belt.
  • A bad cut was sewn up with muka (flax fibre), using a sharpened stick.
  • When someone had tutu-tree poisoning, a flax gag was crammed in their mouth to stop them biting their tongue – or their throat was brushed with flax on the end of a stick to make them vomit.
  • The juice of the root was used to kill intestinal worms, and as a purgative.

Kawakawa (pepper tree)

  • Kawakawa leaves were used in a steam bath for sexually transmitted diseases (introduced by Europeans).
  • The leaf and bark were used to heal cuts, wounds and stomach pains.
  • For toothache, a kawakawa poultice was applied, or the leaves were chewed.
  • The leaf and bark were a remedy for stomach ache, and the root was chewed for dysentery.
  • Kawakawa was used in the umuroa, an oven or vapour bath for those with rheumatism or other complaints. Stones were heated by fire and and water was poured over. A thick bed of kawakawa leaves was put on the stones, followed by kete (flax baskets). The patient sat on top. Other leaves could also be used, including koromiko, mānuka, kāretu, karamū and poroporo.


  • The bark of the rātā tree was soaked in water, which was then applied as a lotion.
  • A poultice of bark was put on sores, wounds and abscesses.
  • The inner bark was steeped in water and drunk for diarrhoea and dysentery.
  • Rātā nectar, collected by tapping the flowers against the inside of a calabash, was taken to cure a sore throat.


  • Tender leaves were bruised and applied as a poultice for ulcers and veneral disease.
  • Wet branches were thrown on a fire with whau and karamū, to make a steam bath treatment for broken bones.
How to cite this page:

Rhys Jones, 'Rongoā – medicinal use of plants - Common medicinal plants', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

Story by Rhys Jones, published 24 Sep 2007