New Zealand's sub-tropical flora comprises a unique collection of plants with exceptional healing qualities. One of these, Kumarahou, is well known to Northern Maori for its multitude of medicinal properties.
known as poverty weed, the native plant kumarahou is anything but an
ineffective weed. It is renowned for its medicinal qualities amongst Northern
Maori and has quite a history for the early settlers of northern sub-tropical New Zealand. Like
many other plants in Aotearoa/New Zealand, the flowers of the Kumarahou plant
are small and bloom in spring with golden yellow petals. The leaves have
prominent veins and soft, white tangled hairs on the underside. The
name ‘poverty weed’ actually comes from the shrubs ability to grow in poor clay
soils. Centuries ago, Northern Maori discovered that the Kumarahou leaves contain
rich healing properties, and these were well utilized for Maori Rongoa
(medicine) by the Tohunga who are the sacred healers.
Tohunga understood that each part of a plant had its own unique healing properties,
and these could treat a variety of internal or external ailments. The parts of
the plant needed for a remedy were picked according to strict Maori Tikanga
(protocol), for example at a certain time of day or night.
Kumarahou leaves were utilised in a number of quite distinct ways. The plant
was an important remedy for chest complaints and for this treatment the leaves
were picked and immersed in boiling water. This liquid produced from the boiled
leaves was then given for illnesses such as bronchitis, colds and asthma. While a
bath in this liquid extract was also a treatment for skin disorders, especially
for children. Traditionally this extract was kept in gourds and in later years
in bottles. It lasted a long time before deteriorating, unlike other decoctions
which did not last so long.
Maori often collected Kumarahou leaves for steam baths. A hot bath full of the
leaves was a treatment for kidney complaints.
Tohunga are the sacred keepers of Rongoa knowledge and this expertise and
understanding of the complexity of plants can be seen in the following remedy. Only
the soft white hairs on the underside of the kumarahou leaves was rubbed off
and boiled, and this solution was then applied to wounds as a soothing and
early colonists of 19th Century New Zealand another name for Kumarahou
was “Gumdiggers’ Soap”. Initially a lot of the land was densely forested, and little
had been cleared for farmland. There was not much farm-work for these early
European settlers so they found work digging for the gum of ancient Kauri trees
in the gum fields of the north. Many of these gumdiggers were Dalmatians which
is now a part of Croatia.
They were taught the secret of the Kumarahou’s yellow flowers from local Maori,
who showed them that when the flowers are rubbed together with water they
produce a soapy lather – and so the term gumdiggers soap arose.
is a versatile plant, with a long history of medicinal use, and of importance
for Tohunga today. It is one of New
Zealand’s valuable healing plants that present-day
skin care and herbal remedy companies are slowly rediscovering.