Rongoa New Zealand

Information for students of Rongoa Maori

Archive for the ‘About Rongoa’


Tena koutou katoa -I feel very grateful to have spent last weekend with Pa Ropata and Donna learning about our Rongoa. This is a summary-blog-about what I learnt and what was shared. Nga mihi nui ..He taonga tuku iho…


Traditional Maori medicine I had the great privilege to spend a weekend on one of Pa Ropata’s Rongoa Waananga in an area called Whare Tangata , Ngamanawa, Bay of Plenty.

Our group of twenty four climbed through pristine bush on Maori land especially preserved for the perpetuation of Rongoa.

Before white man came to Aotearoa(NZ) the ngahere (bush) was our main food source ,our medicine and our source of wellbeing. Maori have always maintained kaitiakitanga (guardianship)of our native flora and fauna knowing that the forest of Tane is our tuakana . The trees preceded us – the human race . This Rongoa matauranga was passed down by our ancestors so as custodians we endeavor to protect and perpetuate this taonga for our wellbeing and pass on to future generations so they in turn will benefit from Rongoa Maori for their wellbeing.

The ngahere becomes our teacher. When we go there we find stillness and presence . Our senses open and our mauri is nourished by the mauri of the whenua, trees, plants and birds. The roots , barks, leaves, flowers and berries of our native trees are our Rongoa.

Traditional healers in every generation go to the ngahere for their own wellbeing and for collection of medicine supplies to perpetuate their spiritual and cultural knowledge to play a key role in their communities. They understand,respect and care for the habitat and life cycles of the native flora and fauna.

With commercialization, rodent and possum infestations and unsustainable practices our ngahere of Aotearoa is in great danger. Only 23% of native bush remains covering our land mass compared to an original 80%.

As tangata whenua, the indigenous Maori people of New Zealand and all people who now live here we have to respect, nurture and love our whenua and all the progeny of Papatuanuku(Earth Mother). We need to ensure our government, communities and decision makers are actioning and resourcing and prioritising environmental sustainability for our health and wellbeing and perpetuation of Rongoa Maori for future generations.

Nau e IO ee


Intro to Rongoa Maori



Please click on this link to read this article;

 Introduction to Rongoa 2012



Rob McGowan NZAMH Conference; 29-30th May 2010

New Zealand Association of Medical Herbalists AGM Conference; 29-30th May 2010

Paper presented by Rob McGowan

 Growing the connection between Rongoa Maori, traditional Maori medicine and New Zealand herbal medicine.

Some years ago it seemed to me that one of the big challenges facing New Zealand herbalists was to learn to incorporate New Zealand plants into their practice. In my understanding of traditional medicine one of the key principles is to use what the land provides. Time and time again I have heard traditional healers from many cultures insist that everything one might need to be well was around you.

 That seems very sensible and practical, yet not to many years ago it seemed that the majority of New Zealand herbalists used only plant material from species that belonged to other lands outside of New Zealand. Even those herbalists who made their own preparations used species exotic to New Zealand. What made that even more difficult to understand was that some species that were very much used were threatened with extinction, sometimes caused by over harvesting, even though in some cases there are effective alternatives readily available amongst New Zealand’s indigenous flora. A further factor was that it was also, and remains, often difficult to source from overseas, good quality material, even for more common species

 That was the situation not many years ago. There has been solid progress made in addressing that challenge in recent years. There is a much greater awareness and understanding of New Zealand native plants and their medicinal uses, and this is gradually finding expression in New Zealand herbal medicine. Furthermore more and more people are on the journey of learning about rongoa Maori, traditional Maori medicine.

 However there is a difference between traditional Maori medicine and plants used traditionally by Maori for medicine. The focus is very much on the latter, on the plants traditionally used, their properties, preparation and uses, rather than the whole complex of knowledge and practice which is at the basis of rongoa Maori. Sometimes there is much enthusiasm for learning the traditional uses of plants, but much less for the tikanga – the protocols and practices surrounding those uses.

 That is understandable, given the cultural differences between peoples, and the practical nature of herbal practices, focused as it is on providing healing and comfort to people. But the focus of traditional medicine, regardless of culture, is the healing of people, not just the healing of the sicknesses that may trouble them at a particular point in time, and this happens within the context of the community in which the patient lives and belongs. It is within this broader context that is found the foundation of traditional medicine, not just in New Zealand, and it is this broader context that to me is most urgently in need of attention.

 Wai 262:

That does not appear to be happening at the moment. There is much attention on the commercial possibilities of plants used traditionally as medicines. Again that is not confined to New Zealand. Even Wai 262, the Flora and Fauna Claim at present being considered by the Waitangi Tribunal, to a large extent focuses on ensuring that the commercial potential of New Zealand’s flora and fauna is not captured by non Maori, and non New Zealand commercial entities, to the detriment of Maori and New Zealanders as a whole. The feeling is that Maori, like most indigenous peoples who have been colonized, have lost much or most of their resources to the extent that they no longer are able to provide for themselves a reasonable standard of living, and that it is critical that they secure effective control over what little remains.

 Much of the discussion, and much of the draft response from those acting on behalf of the Crown, focuses on Intellectual Property Rights and finding a pathway through the intricacies of commercial law to ensure that the concerns of the Treaty claimants are met in a fair and practical way. It is worth noting that the Wai 262 claim is likely to provide a significant contribution internationally, to the development of law surrounding the Intellectual Property rights of indigenous peoples.

 However I think that in focusing on Intellectual Property rights both the claimants and the Crown are paying insufficient attention to an even more important dimension. That dimension is not about ownership but kaitiakitanga, guardianship (that in itself an inadequate translation but sufficient for now). The major health crises facing the human race is not the plethora of diseases that inundate the world’s medical resources but the health of the planet itself.

 How can we expect to be healthy when the world itself is increasingly unhealthy; when the water we drink needs to be made safe by the use of chemicals that in themselves contribute to the decline of health, when the air we breath is far from pure, when the soils in which we grow our foods are increasingly demineralised and lack many of the nutrients we need, and even the best of foods, because of the contamination of groundwaters and rainwaters as a result of human activity, is laced with a  mix of chemicals that in time, can erode health. The concern of the kaumatua behind Wai 262 was not so much the danger of losing commercial opportunities, but the damage that commercial exploitation can do to New Zealand’s flora and fauna.

 The first patient for the traditional healer is to heal the land itself. It is interesting that so many traditional cultures regard the earth as Mother; in the Western World we talk about “Mother Earth”. Maori refer to her as Papatuanuku, and is at the beginning of all whakapapa/genealogies. If the Earth is healthy and well, she can care for us, can provide for us, can keep us well.

 The biggest concern of the Wai 262 claimants is not that other peoples may reap the benefits from exploiting the flora and fauna of Aotearoa, but that they will damage those taonga, the treasures that our land provides, to the extent that they will lose their power to keep us well. It is easy to see that a mine or a hydro scheme can devastate a landscape; to Maori the commercial exploitation of living creatures, be they plant or animal, and in this we can include people, has a similar, if less visible effect. It fundamentally damages their Mauri, their gift of life, and in doing so compromises their ability to share that gift, to give health and healing. That is no fantasy; there are ample scientific tests that demonstrate that modern cultivars developed for industrial scale horticulture, have often lost many of the micronutrients so important for good health.

 I think that if we really want to learn about traditional Maori medicine and incorporate it into our practice, we need to ask fewer questions and listen much more carefully. Often elders are unwilling to share their knowledge because they fear that others will use their knowledge without the care and respect to ensure its integrity, and the wellbeing of the taonga we look to use. We are so good at asking questions about what we want to know; often our elders would rather spend their failing time and energy in telling us what we need to know. When it comes to research often we much older people have not yet shed the ways of teenagers.

I remember very clearly many years ago meeting a kaumatua in Whanganui who was said to be an expert on rongoa Maori. He was exactly the sort of person I was most anxious to talk to, and quickly started asking him about some of the plants about us at the time. He very smartly told me that he had mostly given up using plants and that his focus was actually on taha wairua. I was greatly disappointed, particularly because I had been given the same answer a number of times already by different kaumatua along the Whanganui River. It wasn’t just because I was a priest at the time, and was expected to be more able to focus on the spiritual dimensions involved in healing; it was how they actually saw things; the source of illness, and healing begins at a much deeper level than the physical. That was more than 30 years ago. It has taken me much of the intervening time to slowly realize that in fact the foundation of rongoa Maori was not rakau – trees and plants, but wairua, something much deeper more comprehensive.

 What I hope to do over the next few moments is explain something of what that means, and how that can contribute to developing the theme of this presentation “Growing the connection between Rongoa Maori, traditional Maori medicine and New Zealand herbal medicine”. What is needed is some insights into the traditional Maori understanding of health and healing, and then how traditionally that was achieved.

Rongoa Maori wananga:

Over the last nearly twenty years I have run many hundreds of workshops and wananga on rongoa Maori. Rather than try and give you a list of definitions and terms that are used I thought it might be easier to walk you through the programme for such a workshop as a way of illustrating some of the key points that would be helpful in addressing the topic.

 Every wananga begins with karakia; that is obvious; that is how wananga always begin. We are becoming well used to karakia in New Zealand these days; every time something special happens, an opening of  a new public building, a conference, a new beginning, a disaster, and so on, a kaumatua is brought along so say a karakia. People usually stand in respectful silence, often wondering what it is all about, and hoping that it doesn’t carry on for too long. However it is much more than just a ceremony.

Much could be said; the following comments focus on the place of karakia in healing.

 The first reason for a karakia at the beginning of a wananga, or anything important, is to clear the way. We are busy people, and our minds are usually full of whole range of important business so it is hard at times to fully concentrate on the matter at hand. When it comes to health and healing it doesn’t pay to be distracted. The karakia is the time to collect your thoughts, to focus on what you are doing and why. It is not just things that we have in mind; it also is a matter of acknowledging our tiredness, grumpiness, lack of confidence, disappointments that bother us, anything negative that might hinder our ability to do what we have set out to do.

 That in itself is not just to clear our minds, it is also to protect us. Often when dealing

with illness we have to contend with a lot of negative feelings, from the patient, from family and friends of the patient, other health professionals. Sometimes it is peoples’ expectations; nothing less than a miracle will suffice. That sort of negativity can disempower us, and if we haven’t taken time to prepare ourselves carefully it can be very draining, to say the least, and impede our ability to help.

 The purpose of a karakia is to clear those things from us so that we are able to do the best we are capable of.

The words used are not important. We use our own words, language, not somebody else’s. Sometimes words are not needed at all; just a quiet time within ourselves. We draw on our own beliefs, our own traditions, our own practices – our tikanga, the way we have been taught to go about things. We remember the people who have taught us, inspired us, given us our values, our knowledge, and bring them with us. We draw on the knowledge and wisdom they have given us, not just our own. Sometimes the most significant part of a karakia is the quietness; we hear the sounds of the forest, the birds, the water, the wind. In the stillness is found the beginning of the healing.

 Having taken the time to begin with karakia the next step of the wananga is to focus on the plants themselves.

There was a time in New Zealand when most people lived close to the natural world of the forest and lots of people had a good knowledge of the trees and plants, and everything else that lived there. Those days have gone; most people enjoy the ngahere, the forest, but in fact know very little about it. There was a time when people depended on what the forest could provide for day to day necessities; food, water, medicine, shelter, safety, firewood, and as a result had a very broad and very deep knowledge of its life and energy. These days we go there for bush walks, to relax, recharge, find inspiration, but not so many people know just about every tree and plant, not just as a species, but as a family member, nga uri of Tane Mahuta, fellow children of Tane. I was told at the very beginning of my journey to learn rongoa Maori that nobody needed to tell me anything about the trees and plants; all I had to do was to get to know them and they would tell me everything I needed to know. That sounded rather discouraging at the time, but once again it proved to be the case.

Before people start to learn about the medicinal properties of the trees and plants of the forest they need to get to know the trees themselves. That means much more than identifying them and knowing where to find them. It means getting to know them in their relationship to the rest of the forest, not just other trees and plants, but the birds and insects, the sun and moon, the earth itself and the water that gives it life, and ourselves; we too are part of Tane’s family.

 People also need to learn to see themselves as part of that web of connections. One of the major causes of ill health in the modern world is that we have lost an awareness of our connections, our belonging to the earth and sky, and all that draws life from that. How else can the destruction the human race has wrought on the environment be explained? How can we ever heal the world until we come to relearn that we are in fact part of it?

The next stage in the wananga then is to help people to learn about the plants, not just the ones that will prove to be useful for their medicinal or other properties, but all the plants. We need to do this to be sure that we have collected the ones we are looking for. First we must get to know their names, just like we are getting to know the names of so many people at this conference whom we have met for the first time. Most plants have lots of names, traditional names, botanical names, common names, story names and the associations that help us to remember them, just like people. That can be a bewildering experience to begin with, but not an unachievable challenge. We can learn anything if we want to, and believe enough in ourselves.

 Having been introduced to the trees and plants, like getting to know a new friend, it is important to spend time with them. The venue for these wananga is not in a class room, but the bush itself. It is only when you really get to know the bush that we can begin to realize that even that is far from well. So many of the plants that were once so common have almost disappeared, thanks to the impact of animals, not just pest animals but domestic stock as well,  and the invasion of hundreds of exotic weed species. Most of the plants used traditionally by Maori for medicine are found in the regenerating fringe of the forest where they are readily eaten by animals and quickly displaced by more aggressive pest species. The use of rongoa Maori is declining because the bush itself is in decline.

 In using New Zealand plants in our practice we need to be mindful that even these may not be easy to obtain, and we must help address that.

In the past the rangatahi, the up and coming generation, were sent by their kaumatua /elders into the forest to learn to be orators; the beauty of their speech to be compared to the songs of the birds of the forest. Now the forest is a place of silence and emptiness, no sound but the wind soothing its way through bare branches, not even the flowers to adorn them. The sub canopy growth, seedlings, shrubs, ferns, mosses, often has disappeared completely. Even the giant trees struggle to survive, no longer nourished and nursed by the many layers of growth once shaded by their outstretched branches.

 Taha Wairua:

That all sounds very dramatic, even though we have heard that sort of talk so often that we have almost become immune to it. But isn’t much of our time as practitioners spent treating the illnesses that are directly caused by the environment we have created? We try to counteract the effects of industrialized food and contaminated water, in people who are so stressed by the pressures of modern living that they are dominated by their excesses, food, drink, play, work, worry. We live in a world full of people who claim their rights yet forget their responsibilities and wonder why there is not enough to go around.

 The answers are not going to be found in the better use of plant medicine, plants can’t heal the emptiness and loneliness, the uncertainty, the self doubt, the sense of disappointment that so many people feel. The problems are much more fundamental than that. That’s why we need to look beyond the traditional use of plants for medicine to a fuller understanding the basis of traditional Maori medicine.

At the beginning of this paper I repeated what I have been told so often, the basis of traditional Maori medicine is not rakau, trees and plants, but taha wairua. Health is not about medications, however prepared, or how effective; it is about who we are and where we belong to the world. It is about the world of connections of which we are a part, it is about that sense of belonging, knowing that we belong, and where we belong. It is about restoring and maintaining the balance that enables life to thrive. We are not the kings of creation, the glorious end achievement of the long process of evolution; we are unique, we are a treasure, a marvel, but still only one marvel in a much greater marvel, the world of creation.

 The focus of the traditional Maori understanding of the environment is on that interconnection; it is expressed in whakapapa, which begins with Tane Nui a Rangi and Papatuanuku, to Tanemahuta and their many other children, and through them to all living creatures. Certainly there is conflict in that world; Tawhirimatea lashing the children of Tane with the force of his wind, and Ruamoko shaking the earth, but it is all within the family, and it is a matter of maintaining a state of balance so that the connections that bind creation are strong and sustaining.

 Human kind are descended from Tane; in terms of the whakapapa we are in fact the teina, even more, the potiki, the most junior of his descendents. One of the key rules of the Maori world is to always respect one’s seniors; not to do so brings about disharmony and even conflict. It could be said that the devastation that is happening in terms of human impact on the environment is a direct result of this rule being overlooked. We have acted as if we were owners of the world’s resources, and taken without asking, taken much more than we were ever entitled to. We are beginning to pay the cost.

 This sense of belonging, or connection, finds expression in the way rongoa is harvested and prepared. Traditionally healers have a real relationship with the trees and plants they harvest for rongoa; they never harvest without preparing themselves properly, and ask permission before they start to harvest. They harvest with care and respect, taking only what they need at the time. Anything that is harvested is, after use, returned to the land.

 The healing is not only the physical or chemical properties that the plant may contain; they may be important, but more important is connection between the Mauri of the plant, and that of the healer, and the patient for whom the rongoa is destined for. One could describe the Mauri as the “gift of life”. It is much more than a physical reality; there is an energy involved, something much more than physical; it is this that empowers the healing.

 This is something that needs to be seriously considered in terms of growing the connection between Rongoa Maori, traditional Maori medicine and New Zealand herbal medicine. Kaumatua are often wary of entrusting their knowledge to others because they are not certain that others will treasure the knowledge and treat it with the respect it requires in order for it to live and share its gift.

 Modern herbal medicine happens in a busy world full of many pressures. Too often most of the herbs dispensed are prepared on an industrial scale; the mass production that is necessary to meet the demand of the market means there may be little space for the protocols, tikanga, required by traditional practice. 

That passes through to the busy herbalist working in a dispensary. How often do people proscribe herbs that they have never seen let alone harvested for themselves.  There is often no real connection between the herbs and the practitioner, other than the training they have received and experience they have developed. This may seem to be all that is necessary; they have the professional skills. However traditional healers might say that this is not “safe practice”, that in working this way not only do patients not receive the best of treatment but the practitioners themselves may in fact be putting themselves at risk. Even herbalists suffer burnout, become disillusioned, become so committed to setting up a successful practice that they lose sight of the values and goals that first drew them to their profession.

 In this very busy world, in this world where the places in which we live are becoming so unhealthy, it is critical that those who work with traditional medicines, retain their earth connection and the values that come from it. It may turn out that the greatest contribution that medical herbalist makes to their patients is not the wonderful medicines they prescribe, but reconnecting people back to the earth, the source of life itself.

 In a practical sense that means getting out and getting to know the plants you use; walk in the bush, grow herbs in your garden, live as much as you can from what you grow yourself. Not only is that a very good way to de-stress, but in fact it will enrich your healing. Of course you will have to make use of the excellent products that are now available; but you won’t be dealing with strangers. Your herbs are your family, you know them and you care for them. When you prepare a medicine with them you will be sharing their mauri, not just their chemistry.

 Herbalists with this sort of background connect to traditional healers much more easily; there is a very real connection which is quickly recognized. It is through that sort of connection that we start to learn.

 There is much to learn about traditional Maori medicine, other than the plants themselves. The meaning of such concepts as “tapu and noa”, “mana’, “taha wairua” are all important in coming to understand rongoa Maori. They are not barriers, as they are often depicted, but boundaries, to ensure safe practice. They help to restore and enable the balance, the strength of connections that are all necessary that a person may be well, and to ensure that the healer is kept safe and well..   

 We live in a world that is obsessed with its technology and biochemistry. Health care has become one of the major industries of the world and is dominated by multinational businesses that make many people wealthy. They fund research, and even though they have brought major benefits to very many people they also work to ensure that nobody or nothing can in any way jeopardize their profitability. Its proponents regard themselves as the leaders in healthcare and tend to belittle traditional medicines as being primitive and less capable, an anachronism that no longer has a place.

 We have largely bought into that thinking and spend too much of our time and energy in trying to find a little space to enable us to continue to survive. The battle over the ANZTGA and now the new proposal being promoted by Government are examples of that. We need to stop doing that. We are the mainstream medicine; more people in the world use only traditional medicines than will ever use, or be able to afford, pharmaceutical medicines, which increasingly are available only to the wealthy.

 We are not just talking about the medicines that can be made from natural products – even those are becoming available only to those who can afford them.  We are talking about the whole understanding, the whole set of values and beliefs that underpin traditional medicine, the sense of belonging to the world, the belief that the Earth is the Mother of us all, the right of each person to uphold their mana and to be treated with respect; the practice of using with care, and the willingness to share, and always returning to the Earth that which comes from the earth. These are all fundamental to the Maori understanding of health and healing; they are fundamental to very many traditional cultures. We need to rediscover them, remind ourselves of them, and give them full expression in the way we live and practice. We need to be  uncompromising in our determination to do so.

 The answer to the growing problems that our planet faces will not be found in technology, or the wizardry of the modern computer backed scientist. The answer is to be found in the teachings of our ancestors. We need to learn again to care for the Earth. Care for the Earth, our Mother, and she will be able to care for us.

Rob McGowan Presentation to Herb Federation of New Zealand Conference 2007




Rob McGowan (photo by Greta Cabrita)

Rob McGowan (photo by Greta Cabrita)



Thank you for the privilege of asking me to give the address to begin this conference. It is a privilege and an honour. I accepted the opportunity to be here because I see the importance of the knowledge you share, and the ideals and values that inspire you. I hope that what I have to say may contribute to that.


I offer you comments and thoughts from a person who is not really a herbalist, but who knows many herbalists and the work they do. I wander mostly on my own path, drawing more on what I know and understand about traditional Maori medicine, and the knowledge gained from the other major influences in my life, my family, my Church, the many wonderful people I have been close to, the various experiences that have marked my life and shaped me into the person you see before you. Like most kiwis I am an interesting blend.


What follows then are some comments from somebody a little on the outside from the mainstream of  herbal medicine in New Zealand. I hope you find there is some value in that perspective. I hope it contributes to the success of the weekend together that we now begin.




The issue of sustainability is very much one of the major concerns of current times. More and more people are becoming aware that we are using the world’s resources faster than they can be replaced naturally; at the present rate of exploitation there will be less and less left for coming generations. Unless we quickly make major changes in the way we live our children and especially our grand children and those that follow are unlikely to enjoy the standard of living that we presently take for granted. The world of the future may well be one of growing need, coupled with a growing bitterness at the realization that much of shortage that they will be experiencing will be the result of the lack of wisdom of those who have gone before.


This is not an issue only for the so called “greenies”. To quote our Prime Minister Helen Clarke in a recent address to open the Christchurch Sustainability Forum: “ Sustainability is now the big issue challenging politicians, policy makers, business, and communities around the world. It has become the major theme of international meetings from Davos to APEC”.[1]


And further: “I believe that the sustainability challenge is a defining issue of the twenty first century.


“How Nations grapple with that challenge will not only have a significant impact on the world’s environment, but it will also determine their prosperity, security and their citizen’s quality of life”.[2]


It is a challenge to which each and all of us must respond to. It is appropriate for us, then, as herbalists and practitioners, at the beginning of this annual conference, to consider how we might contribute towards becoming a sustainable world. What can herbal medicine in the 21st century, contribute to the challenge of sustainability, of achieving a way of living throughout the world which meets the needs of all of its people without depleting the world’s resources? Only that will ensure that the generations still to come will be adequately provided for?


Much?, no doubt most will respond. For a long time herbalist and traditional healers have been wanting to make a more substantial contribution to present day health care,  with largely disappointing results, at least in first world countries such as New Zealand. In underdeveloped countries it is a different story.


Research by scientists and others are providing increasing verification of the effectiveness of many herbal medicines long used by traditional healers. There is no doubt herbal medicine has much to offer to present day health care in New Zealand. Hopefully Government and mainstream health providers will increasingly recognize that, and incorporate more herbal medicines, where appropriate, into mainstream health provision. This in itself would be a contribution to sustainability, given the high cost of present day health care. The cost of  pharmaceuticals  and modern medical technologies has the potential to collapse the New Zealand health system. New Zealanders expect to have access to the latest in designer medications and medical technology but these can only be available on a limited basis. Million dollar treatments, wonderful though they be, can mean many people have less access to basic health care. This is reflected in the long waiting list for necessary surgery and treatment that is a reality of modern health care. 


However it is not for us to be too distracted with that thought; it must be admitted that herbal medicines can themselves be expensive, in fact too expensive for most ordinary people. Unless Pharmac can be persuaded to subsidize herbal medicines they will increasingly be unavailable to most New Zealanders. Herbalists could well find their practice confined largely to the more affluent section of the community, small comfort for the ideals and values we try to represent.


How sustainable is Herbal Medicine? 

Pikopiko (phot by Greta Cabrita)

Pikopiko (phot by Greta Cabrita)


Herbal medicine, complimentary medicine, etc., can, in many cases, offer a viable alternative to some mainstream pharmaceuticals. However that does not mean that they are necessarily more sustainable.


Many of the plants that have been so long used by healers are increasingly less available. Some are being driven almost to the point of extinction by over harvesting. With increasing pressure on arable land for horticulture and agriculture to feed the growing population of the world, wildcrafting and small scale production of herbs is no longer sufficient to meet the needs. There is little room for “weeds” and wild plants in a cultivated landscape, and all the biodiversity that contributes to their health and healing powers. We live in a managed world where even Nature itself seems forced to comply with the management schedules of company directors. 


To boost production it has become necessary to duplicate many of the horticultural practices which are increasingly seen to be non sustainable. We live in a world of mass production; for horticulture that means mechanical cultivation with heavy machinery that compacts the earth and squeezes the life out of it, destroying the living organisms that enable it to breath and nourish growth; it may mean sometimes large volumes of chemical fertilizers and sprays are used, that can poison the soil and contaminate ground waters, massive irrigation schemes which can drain lakes and underground aquifers, and reduce once mighty rivers to polluted trickles,  mechanical harvesting and processing, high tech laboratories and the usual production line processes that may differ little from the mass production of pharmaceuticals. We too can be converted to worship at the altars of modern technology and in order to provide “natural medicines” for people who are largely strangers to Nature, living in concrete and glass cages, built for the view of course, who walk on asphalt and cobbled paths so that shoes are never sullied by the strands of vegetation that reach out to touch them. We provide health in bottles and pills, measured exactly, refined to precision, certainly compliant to the highest standards of modern industrial pharmacies. If not we will be condemned as charlatans. We had a narrow escape with the NZTGA.


Back to the Future:

No that is not a contribution to sustainability, conforming our practice to the standards of the industrial manufacturing of pharmaceuticals.


No, we need to be much bolder, more radical, much wiser if we are to offer our best contribution towards creating a sustainable future for our children. What can we, as practitioners of natural medicine, offer the world of the 21st century medicine?


We need to go back to the future; we need to rediscover our roots, to find a surer pathway into the future.


Ethnobotanists and bioprospectors continue to scan the world to find and investigate the plants used by traditional healers. That has been happening for a long time, driven both by the need to discover commercially viable products, and to respond to the diseases of modern society. Diseases such as aids, various cancers, and antibiotic resistant pathogens are a continuing and perhaps growing challenge to 21st century medicine.


It is necessary research; we have yet to tap the full richness of what nature has to offer. There is an urgency in the search, as the planet’s problems become more urgent. Yet it is largely funded by those with sufficient wealth to make the necessary investment, in the  hope of becoming even richer, and governed by whole systems of law, designed, not for the benefit of those who may need some new found medicine, but to protect the intellectual property rights of those who have made the investment, to ensure they enjoy the full benefit of their enterprise. The system tends to protect profits, not health.


Indigenous peoples and small countries struggle to protect their rights in the face of such competition, not in the hope of winning against much more powerful competitors, but of at least gaining some recognition of what they have to offer and some share of the benefits that others gain from the exploitation of local biodiversity. The New Zealand Government, via the Ministry for Economic Development is currently carrying out consultation about bioprospecting in New Zealand, with a view to developing policy designed to protect New Zealand rights and optimizing its benefit from the opportunities that its flora and fauna provides. [3] Not to do so would be to our disadvantage; the global market does few favours for small players such as we are.


Puawananga (photo by Greta Cabrita)

Puawananga (photo by Greta Cabrita)

This is no pathway to sustainability. It is merely another dimension of the over exploitation of the planet’s resources that we are striving to correct. We need to look elsewhere for our answers; we need to look outside of the market driven mentality for something more fundamental than economic analysts can provide. There is a saying about doctors being unable to heal themselves. Careful management may mitigate the problems and even delay the inevitable shortages of essential commodities that are looming. But it will not prevent the crisis. We need a more real solution.


Reaching into the future:I believe our current economic system will prove unable to find the solution to the situation it has created; that will require a fundamental mind shift, an acceptance of a very different way of belonging to the world, of surrendering long held beliefs that have been used for generations to justify our exploitation of the natural world. Those beliefs have proved to be unfounded; the time has come when we must listen again to what we were told a very long time ago. It is not a matter of creating something new. We already have the knowledge; more importantly we already have the wisdom; what we no longer have is the luxury of being able to continue to ignore it.


That sounds very dramatic. And it is; we live in dramatic times; the environmental crises we are talking about are not the work of science fiction. The future will require the ultimate greatness that the human race is capable of, if it is to survive. The future may also bring acts of desperation such has never been experienced before, as individuals and nations struggle to gain and maintain control of resources.


It is here that people like us, who share in traditional knowledge and wisdom can indeed make a considerable contribution. We won’t do it by providing more earth friendly medicines, but by sharing the wisdom that has grown with the knowledge which is the basis of our practice.


I do believe we need to reconsider the foundations of the different schools of traditional medicines that we are part of, to discover and then to share some very basic ideas that need to find new currency at the present time.


Rongoa Maori:


In  terms of herbal medicine my own background is in rongoa Maori, traditional Maori medicine, so I will use that to illustrate what I have just said. I am certainly not an expert in rongoa Maori; I am still very much on the journey of learning, and have started too late and in too different a world to capture more than a little of the knowledge of those who were and are. However in that long journey I have been taught much that is of great value.


I have always been interested in plant medicines. Maybe that is a gift I received from my Dalmation grandmother. I still use some of the remedies that are part of my mother’s family tradition. And no doubt the canny wisdom to of the Irish on my father’s side had an influence. I have always been fascinated by the bush and felt very much at home there; from early childhood I always wanted to learn more. By the time I had finished my training as a Catholic priest, and sent to Whanganui in 1974 to work with the River people I knew quite a lot, and was ready to learn more. I particularly wanted to learn about the medicinal uses of New Zealand plants, because I had heard so many wonderful stories. I was also aware, from a very early age, of the work of Mother Aubert, the foundress of the Sisters of Compassion, and one of the icons of New Zealand herbal medicine. I spent a lot of time with the Sisters in my teenage years and was given an appreciation of the effectiveness and usefulness of rongoa Maori, especially in places where there was no access to any other form of medicine. I felt it still had a part to play in Maori communities and that an effort needed to be made to retain the knowledge of the healers. Even in the 1960’s it was obvious to me, a school boy, that that knowledge was being set aside in favour of “pakeha medicine”, and that it was in danger of being lost. And even the experts were not sure that it should be retained.


I was initially disappointed by the response I received when I first started to ask the River people questions. I expected to be taught about the healing properties of plants and how to use them. Instead I was given two very clear starting points.


At first those starting points seemed insignificant and a way of avoiding sharing knowledge, something that even I realized the kaumatua were very much entitled to do. (I was told by my peers at the time not to waste my time; I would be told nothing, and even if I was it would be of neither use nor value).



The starting point for learning rongoa Maori: Te taha wairua.


Morning Mist over Lake Mangonui Waitaia Lodge (photo by Greta Cabrita)

Morning Mist over Lake Mangonui Waitaia Lodge (photo by Greta Cabrita)

The first starting point I can quote word for word, because it was told to me time and time again, by so many people in different places throughout the country, and at different times.


“The foundation of rongoa Maori is not rakau (trees, plants) but te taha wairua (spirituality)”.


That did not please me at the time; I wanted to learn about rakau. (the medicinal properties of plants). And besides I was a priest and had been trained over many years to deal with taha wairua. It took me a long time to realize what I was being told. It has since become the foundation of how I teach rongoa Maori.


We have a preoccupation with physical health. Of course we have a saying “healthy body means healthy mind”, and that is true; physical health is one of the key ingredients in a healthy lifestyle. But we have become obsessed with the physical illnesses and ailments that afflict all of us and each of us from time to time. We try to chase their causes and eliminate them from our life style, one by one, and renew and repair our bodies as age starts to take its toll, in the hope, it would seem, that one day we will be able to live forever.


Yet the most crippling illnesses that we are likely encounter are not those of the body. Too many modern people are afflicted by the emptiness and loneliness that is within, and that can cripple; it can drown the pleasure of living no matter how much noise we make in our lives. How many of our major causes of  death begin with loneliness, emptiness, no real purpose in living except to grow old and die, no sense of belonging, out of step with the rhythms of the living world around us.


How can you tell a person not to eat too much, drink too much, work or party to the point of self destruction when they were born into a legacy of failure; children brought up believing that they would never succeed, be good enough, never come to anything; adults trapped into a life of being used and abused by others, dreamers who have seen their dreams vanish like dew in the morning, leaving only dryness. These are the afflictions too often we see in each others eyes if we are bold enough to look. Too many of us are haunted people, haunted by our disappointment, our loneliness, our powerlessness to change our lives for the better,


In traditional Maori healing the beginning is always with karakia. Symptoms can wait, so can the case history, and all the other procedures that begin the processes of present day health care. The patient, the whanau, the healers, those who are there to tautoko, support, need to be freed from the burdens they carry so they can be of real assistance to the one in their midst who has come for help and healing. Karakia is to help heal the differences and divisions between people, even if it is only for a time. How often a major obstacle to becoming well is the negativity that illness brings, the feeling that we are a burden, or are considered a nuisance, or haven’t sorted the antagonism between people who should be close to each other. Maori see these as illnesses, illnesses that cause illnesses and must be dealt with before other illnesses can be attended to.


Then it is time to focus on the needs of the turoro, the patient. But again it is not necessarily the physical symptoms that are the primary focus. An illness is seen in the context of a person’s whole life, and often it is factors within a person’s life that have had an influence or effect on the physical illnesses that has developed. For most traditional people there is always a non physical element in ill health. Often they express that in terms that are not well understood by those who have been brought up in the mainstream of contemporary Western societies but their beliefs and practices can be manifestations of very fundamental realities. We can often miss that because we are distracted by our own perceptions and our own cultural conditioning. We can see other cultures as different, and somehow we are inclined to think that they must be wrong to the extent of their difference from what we consider to be the norm.


Part of the diagnosis, in terms of dealing with an illness, is to try to identify factors or causes in a person’s life that have resulted in their current situation. It is interesting that for practitioners of traditional Maori medicine, alienation from one’s cultural roots, its values  and beliefs, and the practices that give expression to them, is often considered to be the telling factor in a person’s deterioration into ill health. Culture is much more than a way of marking events of significance in a people’s life, births, deaths, marriages, victories and losses; it is the basis of our attitudes, values, beliefs, arts, sciences, modes or perception, habits of thought, activities…. It provides the keel in one’s life, the rudder to steer us through fine weather and foul. To lose touch with that foundation is to find oneself exposed and defenseless, left only with one’s instinct to survive.


We need to ask ourselves whether the emphasis, in our current New Zealand lifestyle, on the material, the world of possessions we feel we need to surround ourselves with, is an expression of our instinct to survive. We have, to a greater or lesser extent, lost touch with our cultural foundations and are driven to find compensation by surrounding ourselves with material goods, like participants in a primitive cargo cult, even though inevitably we know it will lead to our eventual destruction. How else do we explain the madness that is 21st century consumerism? And how else do we explain the burgeoning health problems that overcrowd our health system. It is not more funding that is needed, or better Government policies. We need to re-engage with our cultural roots, and the values and beliefs that once guided us.


Traditional Maori healers have not forgotten that lesson, but even they struggle to heed it.


We live in a world of extraordinary change. Our ability to survive depends on our ability to continually adapt to constant change. And like anybody on an urgent journey, we discard things that are too heavy to carry, or don’t seem useful at the time, with the hope that we can come back and get them at some stage. There is much we have discarded that time is proving we now need to retrieve. Maori communities more than most in New Zealand have had to contend with that change on a more drastic level. The insistence by traditional Maori healers on the importance of taha wairua in healing is a lesson we need to heed.


Can that not be something in which we, with our interest and involvement in herbal medicine, take the lead. In terms of sustainable health care we need to consider more than the many illnesses that affect modern people. We are not only healing illnesses, but people who have illnesses, and it is in dealing with the people side of things first we may be better able to attend to their illnesses.


The second stating point; getting to know the plants. I can also quote word for word the second starting point I was given, because like the first, it has been repeated to me so often by so many people, for such a long time.


“We don’t need to tell you anything about the plants; all you have to do is go into the bush and get to know them, and they will tell you everything you need to know”.


I was both flabbergasted and frustrated when that was first said to me. It sounded like the best excuse I had ever heard to tell me nothing. It was bad enough being accused of talking to plants, a sure sign of madness, but to believe they could talk back….!


That was the obvious reaction of a young person. But again it has proved to be very true. Many of the old healers had an extraordinary knowledge of the bush, the fruit of a lifetime living in the bush and watching it closely. It wasn’t a hobby, or a study, it was a way of life; it was necessary to survival. Even up to quite recently, and in parts of Tuhoe, even to the present day, an intimate knowledge of the ngahere was a basic life skill. One needed to be able to read the ngahere with the same ease and accuracy that a people today can read printed material. It is worth noting that one of the main reasons why kaumatua have refused to pass on their knowledge about rongoa is that their children and mokopuna and others who had come to them to learn were increasingly strangers to the forest and its ways; they had acquired a different set of skills, matched to a new lifestyle. Teaching such people was considered dangerous; there was too much of a risk that they might poison somebody by making mistakes identifying the right plants to use.


To learn rongoa Maori one must indeed get to know the plants. It is much more than learning to identify the different species that make up a forest. That is important but it is only a beginning. Experience shows, and this is increasingly being endorsed by researchers, that the medicinal properties of plants can vary from place to place, from season to season, and even at different times in the same day. There are tikanga to learn and adhere to. There are right ways and wrong ways of harvesting, of preparing rongoa and much more. By staying in the bush and watching the plants change with the seasons, seeing how they react to the extremes that from time to time occur, where they like to grow and what they like to grow with, observing their particular role in the forest, and how that may vary from place to place; all this and much more builds up in a person’s mind an understanding of what might be the healing properties in each tree, and how it might best be used.


But that is only the beginning. It is only by spending time in the ngahere can one come to appreciate where we belong in the family of Tane. We belong, but as junior children in a very big family.  We can never own a forest, but it can own us. We are part of its strength its beauty, and can share in those gifts. And we do belong.


This contrasts with a view that sees humans as intruders into the forest, outsiders who don’t belong, who are best keep away, except for those special people who have superior level of knowledge and understanding of the forest world. There is a philosophy that has a major influence of conservation thinking and planning. It sees an alienation between man and the natural world, an apartness and superiority which has justified the  exploitation of  the planet’s resources for the benefit of mankind, particularly of those individuals and the elite that have the resources to do so, without the need to seriously consider the impact and consequences on the interconnected world to which we in fact belong. That is a rather crude and simplistic description, but the consequences of such an attitude is the situation in which the planet, and all its inhabitants, now finds itself in; it has reached the point where we must urgently learn to live sustainably, or very soon discover that we are no longer welcome on Mother Earth.


That is not the view of most traditional peoples. They see us as intrinsically connected to the natural world. To Maori the ability of plants to heal very much is a consequence of our connection to them, through whakapapa, through descent from a common parent, Tane. To be able to share in the gifts of the world of Tane one must get to know that extended family, and our connections within it.


It is worth noting that the plants most used for medicine are to be found in the regenerating fringe of the forest. The plants that heal the land can also heal us, who belong to the land. That in itself is an indication of what their healing properties might be.


The advice given to people wishing to learn rongoa Maori, in particular wai rakau, the traditional uses of the trees and plants as medicine, is to spend as much time as possible in the forest. People, wise people with much knowledge may help us, but the first teacher, real teacher is Tane himself. It is in his wananga that we must immerse ourselves. By doing this we may better understand what the old people might like to share with us, and in our own way be better able to adapt their knowledge to the needs of our ever changing world, a world very different from that in which the people we look to as our teachers and guides first began their journey of learning. Like any living knowledge, rongoa Maori is constantly re-expressing itself to meet the changing needs of the world it serves.


The changing forest:


But it is a very different forest today to that from which rongoa Maori was first derived. The healing trees have largely vanished from the landscape. They have been eaten out by  introduced animals, farm animals, animals introduced for sport and recreation, and the inevitable pests that follow wherever people migrate. The regenerating margins, once rich in rongoa, are now more often than not dominated by a host of exotic weed species; the waters that once healed are too polluted to use. It is sad to hear kaumatua advising their people, bringing babies to be baptized or sick to be healed in traditional healing springs, to be careful to make sure that no water splashes into the faces and eyes. The healing waters, te wai ora, have become too polluted to be safe for such rituals. Little gullies with bush remnants are home to truckloads of household and farm rubbish; the local landfill is too expensive or too much of a bother; it is easy to find a free dump, just out of sight, on somebody else’s land. Where do we find our healing plants? Where is there are safe place we can go to look for the gifts they may bring?


Is it any wonder that traditional healers are losing heart and their knowledge passing with them. So much is symptomatic of a society in decline, a nation that has polluted its own nest, and yet still claims the rights to do so.


We can go to the bush for something else now. We can go there to hear the land crying, sighing wind through balding trees, deprived of the song of the birds that once lived there. How can we claim to be so environmentally friendly when we have takahi-ed, tarnished, such a beautiful land.


We are so obsessed with our own troubles, our own ill-health, the sicknesses that plague us; we commit our lives to healing each other, where even in New Zealand, mother Earth is becoming too unwell to sustain us.


Our first patient must be the land itself; if we can heal the land we will have healed ourselves.


The third starting point: medicines of the land.


This is something that was not part of that original direction given to me by kaumatua from the Whanganui River; it is a very fundamental principle of herbal medicine, and very much endorsed by traditional Maori healers:


            “To find your healing you must look to what the land provides”.


For us in New Zealand it means obviously, use what New Zealand, Aotearoa me te Waipounamu, provides. We don’t need to look to another country for our healing plants; look around, everything we need is within reach.


I find this aspect of the way most herbalists I know in New Zealand work quite extraordinary; they seem to utilize herbal medicines from every corner of the globe, and quickly embrace yet another wonder herb whenever it becomes available. Nor is this confined to New Zealand practice; some years ago I was at a conference in Australia; in the course of four days of very impressive presentations there was only one which focused on Australian native species. Yet the tangata whenua of Australia have a very rich and long standing tradition in the use of their own plants. It seems that New Zealand and Australian herbalists are very loyal to their colonial roots; this new land has nothing to offer that is better than what we have brought with us from home. And even though the reach of modern herbal practice has spread the emphasis is still very much on the distant and exotic. Is it time we start looking at herb miles? We talk about natural medicines but how natural is it to fly in our herbs from so far away, when we have yet to really explore what this land has to offer.


Wai 262.


There is of course a matter of Wai 262, the Flora and Fauna Claim currently being considered by the Waitangi Tribunal. After years of hearings and delays the hearings have finally finished, the Government has delivered its response, and the Tribunal is in the process of preparing its report to Government and the claimants.


The claim arose out of concerns that overseas companies were claiming ownership rights over some New Zealand indigenous species. There was also the concern that successive New Zealand Governments had signed international protocols such as the GATT agreement which gave individuals and companies of signatory countries some rights of access to taonga, among them New Zealand flora and fauna, which were guaranteed to Maori, as set out in Article 2 of the Treaty, unless Maori themselves had decided to relinquish ownership.


The implications to manufacturers of products utilizing New Zealand flora are obvious. The major concern was the exploitation of New Zealand species for profit, without reference to Maori, and in a way that excluded Maori from having some share in the benefits.


But there is a more fundamental issue; commercial harvesting and manufacturing can affect the mauri of the plant. To Maori the mauri is the source of its ability to heal. They consider that in order to protect and benefit from its healing powers that mauri must be respected and cared for. They see themselves as kaitiaki, guardians, and protectors of that mauri. Kaitiakitanga is about care, not use. Kaitiakitanga sets the boundaries to ensure that the mauri of the plant continues to thrive.


Plenty of people want to share in access to New Zealand plants for medicine, but not so many want to share in the responsibility of caring for them. They see New Zealand flora as a resource to be developed and exploited, not as a treasure, a taonga, to be cared for and shared. 


Healing or staying healthy:


One final starting point as we prepare our contribution towards a sustainable future. The modern lifestyle is like living in a permanent polar summer; the sun never goes down, and there is never a winter. We don’t slow down when winter approaches as we should, and prepare for the rest we have earned for what we have achieved in the growing, ripening and harvesting seasons. We just turn on the lights, turn up the heaters, and carry on as if it were still the long days of mid summer. We drive ourselves, we push ourselves, and when we do get a break too many look for an opportunity to party, twelve months of the year. When our bodies start to protest, to breakdown, we look for supplements to boost our flagging production, and healing to repair us on the run.


How can we expect to look after our planet when we treat ourselves with so little feeling or respect? Maybe our abuse of the planet is a reflection of our abuse of ourselves. We need to follow the rhythms of the seasons; there is a time for everything, the Bible tells us.


In conclusion:


We could spend days sharing our knowledge about the healing power of the herbs we treasure, and profit greatly from that. We need to do that; that is what has brought us together for this weekend. But we need the wisdom of the past to temper our enthusiasm and urgency for the future. We must remind ourselves of that. The first purpose of herbs is to keep us healthy and well; they are not meant to be something we turn to mostly when we have become unwell. We promote them because they help us to stay healthy, not because they are a more natural and still effective alternative for what mainstream medicine may have to offer.


To do this well we must let them teach us; we must follow them through their seasons, and when they rest, we will find time to renew the connections that make us who we are, and to share the knowledge that has been passed down to us. Winter is a time of storytelling, sharing dreams and rediscovering the vision of what this world could become.


We are people who share much traditional knowledge. We must remember that the role of such people in traditional societies is to add wisdom to the knowledge that has been gathered. I think our world needs that wisdom even more than it needs our knowledge of herbs. Listen to what the plants are saying; listen to the quiet voice within us; they both will speak to us if we learn to be silent.
















[1]               Rt. Hon Helen Clark: speech notes for address to open Christchurch Sustainability Forum, 26th October, 2007.

[2]               Ibid.

[3]               “Bioprospecting: Harnessing Benefits for New Zealand. A policy framework discussion”. Ministry of  Economic Development. 2007.

Tariana Turia

What is Rongoa?
Tariana Turia(Extracts from  a speech made by Tariana Turia at a conference in 2006 ref:(
“….One of our kuia of the river turns one hundred this year. She is a woman who has never used western medicine, who walks every day and takes care to eat the right kai to maintain her wellness. Our kuia is not someone who interprets rongoa as being another name for traditional medicines, herbal treatments, or alternative therapy. Rongoa to her is about a total way of life, upholding tikanga Maori to achieve holistic health.
Rongoa is the way we talk to each other and to our children and our Matua Tupuna to ensure a healthy mind, a healthy body and a healthy spirit. Rongoa springs from an absolute belief in the total well-being of the wairua, tinana, hinengaro, whanau.
Mä te rongoa e whakaora pai noa iho. The tikanga of whakawhanaungatanga, how you relate to each other is as important to rongoa as is the extraction of healing properties from our flora and fauna….
Rongoa Maori can only sustain its ongoing value as a cultural asset if it retains our distinctive knowledge, our culturally valid codes of conduct, and our belief in our tikanga and kaupapa.
Rongoa Maori is more than a plant, it is more than karakia, it is more than core competencies in safe cultural and clinical practice. Rongoa Maori is about believing we can touch the sky, it is about believing in tangata whenua, it is a total package. Kimihia nga putake katoa o te kaupapa, ina kitea, kimihia nga rongoa.”