General Description / Cultural Significance
New Zealand, also known by its indigenous name Māori Aotearoa, is a remote island country in the South Pacific Ocean. According to the Native Māori people, all trees which grow in Aotearoa are the children of Tāne Mahuta, the forest God. All Māori have a deep respect for the medicinal and aromatic plants which grow across their country’s varied terrain, from active volcanoes and snowcapped mountains to pristine beaches, valleys, caves, and lakes. No plant is more versatile and esteemed to the Māori people as the Mānuka, Leptospermum scoparium, which grows across the country’s cool and moist landscapes, on both the North and South islands. Native to New Zealand, most of the country is covered with the shrubby tree, also known as the New Zealand Tree, which blossoms in petite, bright white and pink flowers with each coming of summer. Though Mānuka does grow wild, the tree has been extensively developed into cultivars which range in size and shape, but all produce beautiful and aromatic flowers heralded for their ornamental, practical, and medicinal use.
Throughout time, the Mānuka has been utilized for nutrition, weaponry-making, to craft hunting and fishing tools, for construction, and in medicine. Māori healers, or Tohunga pu, hold the traditional medicinal knowledge (rongoā) about indigenous plants and their therapeutic uses. This knowledge is considered sacred and has preserved many medicinal practices conducted by the Māori using the Mānuka. The volatile oils of the plant have been traditionally extracted and used to prevent infections. Mānuka leaves and branches were once gathered by the Māori and placed upon hot rocks to create smoke or in boiling water to create steam which cleansed the breathing pathways of those who were ill and killed bacteria in the air. Early European colonizers quickly acknowledged the Mānuka’s value: its bark and oil were found to relieve the inflammation of painful joints and the tree’s inner bark was boiled and used as a mouthwash and to treat eye infections. Young Mānuka shoots were eaten to relieve dysentery and, in the summer, a sugary resin called pia was harvested from the young branches and used as a salve for burns, a lozenge for coughs, and as an aide for constipated infants. Today, steam distillation is widely used to extract the highly valuable Mānuka essential oil, which is renowned for its scientifically proven antibacterial properties. These qualities are also shared by the tree’s honey which has evolved into an international culinary and medical commodity. Its natural antibacterial qualities are legendary, said to come from enzymes that create a natural hydrogen peroxide. After extensive research, Mānuka honey has been designated as “medical grade,” able to treat many different types of exterior wounds and internal infections, including those which are MRSE-related. The honey is also a rich source of nutrition, containing vitamin B, amino acids, calcium, and a list of minerals.
Unfortunately, bee populations around the world are in decline due to deforestation and increasing erratic weather events which destroy their habitats. The Mānuka flower depends on bees for pollination and, thus, the prosperity of the Mānuka is inextricably linked to the ongoing effects of climate change.
Climate Change / Conservation Status
As climate change has already impacted New Zealand, the South Island is being devastated by flooding while the north is experiencing prolonged droughts. Across the country, sensitive arable land and livestock are suffering from changes in climate patterns which are altering long traditions of land management and agricultural practices, not to mention negatively impacting crop yields. The coastlines are at extreme risk of erosion and flooding due to sea level rise while changing snowfall and glacial melting patterns are affecting seafood, access to water, hydropower, and tourism.
The Mānuka is a protector of both people and plants as it is considered a nursery tree in the regrowth of forests. It protects small seedlings as they develop, fostering their growth until they are full size and eventually fill the forest canopy. At this time, the new growth trees shut out light and allow the Mānuka to die off. Mānuka are often the first species to repopulate deforested habitats or areas which have been scorched by fire, urging ecosystems back to prosperity in the face of disruption and climate change related destruction. This is becoming an increasingly important phenomena as New Zealand’s ecosystems attempt to regenerate after the intensifying impacts of climate change. The country’s forests offset approximately a third of New Zealand’s emissions through carbon dioxide absorption. It has always been and continues to be critical to protect these forests and the trees which give them life just as the beautiful and aromatic Mānuka does.
Even though New Zealand is working to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, the country is plagued by increasing droughts, fires, floods, and storms.
The New Zealand Tree
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