An introduction to rongoā

If you’ve been thinking of entering our Kai Garden Competition for pre-school, primary and intermediate aged students, then you may have come across the word rongoā while planning your garden design. Here we delve briefly into what rongoā embodies, and how you can bring these traditional Māori practises into your school or home life.

Please note: We don’t pretend to be experts on rongoā and, while all information in this blog has been assembled from respectable sources, we’re still learning too. We hope this introduction to rongoā spurs you to do your own research and to consult an expert to make the most of your plant remedy journey.

Our Kai Garden Competition

Our Kai Garden Competition is a great way for tamariki aged 3-13 years to develop a greater understanding of the natural world and to gain hands-on experience building a small kai or rongoā garden for their school. Open to ECEs, kindergartens, primary and intermediate schools, the Competition gives students the opportunity to collaborate and design a garden that features edible and/or medicinal plants, and which is constructed using sustainable and reclaimed materials. Find out more here.


So what is rongoā?

For such a short word, rongoā embodies a wide variety of traditional Māori healing. undertaken by experienced practitioners, rongoā takes a truly holistic approach to medical wellbeing – encompassing elements rooted in the spiritual, cultural, environmental and social dimensions, focusing on physical health as only one part of a wider healing system.

In the last twenty or so years there’s been a real resurgence of interest in rongoā Māori, including with doctors and health practitioners who recognise that traditional treatments can complement modern medicines, rather than work against them. It’s even been proposed to formalise rongoā within the New Zealand public health system.

Despite being marginalised by Western medicine and the effects of colonisation for many decades, this traditional healing is also proving to be a real repository of Māori culture and history, and as such is considered taonga (a treasured possession) by Māori.


Plant remedies

A prominent practitioner of rongoā, Rob McGowan QSM, said “traditional Māori medicine is not just about fixing the sick, it’s about giving them hope and [that] they will learn to be well.”

While Māori traditional medicine is more widely known for the medicinal properties from native trees and plants which address acute pain (rongoā rākau), the most fundamental part of all rongoā is the spiritual healing component which focuses more on the cause of pain, using techniques such as massage and prayers to compliment physical intervention. SRC

Here, we look solely at plant remedies  (rongoā rākau) that can be chewed, consumed or applied to wounds, as just one part of the wider holistic system. We encourage anyone with an interest to check out further reading, or to consult a professional.

Please note: this article contains general suggestions and does not offer or constitute medical advice; care should be taken to research any plantings you undertake. Not all native plants have healing properties, and some rongoā can be poisonous if not prepared properly. If you’re uncertain of the reported benefits of a plant, or whether a plant may or may not be toxic, please do not consume or apply it without seeking expert advice.


How can rongoā plants help?

Māori have recognised the usefulness of plant remedies, or rongoā rākau, for centuries. Different plants have different healing and soothing properties, often differing by how they’re prepared. For example:

  • The leaves of the koromiko plant (hebe), when infused as a tea, can help reduce bleeding from minor abrasions, and the shoots can be chewed to ease stomach pain.
  • The bark of houhere (lacebark) is soaked in cold water, forming a jelly which can be applied to the eyes to relieve eye infection.
  • A compress of the leaves of karamū (coprosma) is applied to bruised limbs to ease aches and pains. The bark, when infused as a tea, can ease nausea and stomach pain.
  • An infusion of the leaves of the mānuka (red) or kānuka (white tī/tea tree) can be drunk to ease bladder and kidney pain We’ve all heard about the benefits of Mānuka honey, but much of the tree can be used for healing. The bark, when boiled and reduced down, can act as a sedative and help with diarrhoea. Extracted oil has great anti-septic properties, and an infusion (tea) of the leaves can ease the symptoms of fever.
  • Kawakawa (also known as the Māori Pepper Tree) leaves can be boiled or chewed to help ease ailments such as toothache, bruises and boils, while the whole leaves can be used as bandages on open wounds.
  • Mamaku (also known as Black Tree Fern) bark can be ground into a poultice to provide relief from sun burn and chaffing.

It’s important to note that rongoā is a holistic system, not just a list of plants that can aid some ailments. For example, respect features heavily in the harvest; saying a karakia (prayer or blessing), observing the appropriate tikanga (customs and rites) when collecting and preparing rongoā, harvesting only what you need and only what a certain plant can give (so as not to destroy it), and returning what you’ve used back to the forest to complete the nutrient cycle are key to the concept of rongoā.

There are some excellent resources online which delve further into the mana and respect for the Earth encompassed within rongoā, which we encourage you to check out.

For more information and context, check out this document which has been especially useful in pulling these examples together: https://bpac.org.nz/bpj/2008/may/docs/bpj13_rongoa_pages_32-36.pdf


Kai Garden Competition

Our Kai Garden Competition is a great way for tamariki aged 3-13 years to develop a greater understanding of the natural world and to gain hands-on experience building a small kai or rongoā garden for their school. Open to ECEs, kindergartens, primary and intermediate schools, the Competition gives students the opportunity to collaborate and design a garden that features edible and/or medicinal plants, and which is constructed using sustainable and reclaimed materials.

Our tamariki can also learn how easy it is to reduce their environmental footprint by growing their own food, cooking seasonally and composting food and garden waste.

The garden can be any shape and be situated anywhere in the school — indoors or outdoors. It can be a new garden, or an enhancement to an old one; an individual class project or one the whole school contributes to.

Design entries are open until 11.59pm on Friday 17 June 2022 and the ten winning entries will be announced on Monday 27 June 2022. The ten winning schools will receive a $1,500 donation to bring their design to life and for the ongoing care of their garden as it grows.

Enter here >>


Further reading and references

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