New Zealand Medicinal Plants

Despite the small area of New Zealand, comparable with that of California, it constitutes a distinctive botanic region. Of the approximate number of two thousand species of higher plants found, 75% are endemic to the country. Many unusual plants occur and the chemical investigations conducted to date have confirmed the unique nature of the flora.

In view of these facts it is surprising that only a few native plants have been commercially exploited. Several of the trees, notably Agathis australis, Dacrydium cupressinum, Podocarpus totara, P. dacrydioides, and Vitex lucens yield useful timber, but the stands of these have largely been worked out. New Zealand flax, Phormium tenax, is cultivated for its fibre which is made into ropes and matting. Kauri gum (really a fossil product) up to a value of £21 million has been exported but it is a declining article of commerce. It has been shown that useful dyestuffs can be produced from a number of plants, particularly in the genus Coprosma, but no commercial exploitation has resulted.

Pharmacology is probably the most promising field for extending the use of New Zealand native plants and it should therefore be of value to have a check list of those plants reported to have been used medicinally by the natives of New Zealand. This must necessarily include usage by early settlers as it cannot be decided with certainty what the settlers learned from the Maori and vice versa. Indeed some authorities on Maori culture believe that all medicinal use of plants by the natives was learned from the white man’s example — a conclusion which seems contrary to the observations of Captain Cook and other early visitors to New Zealand. Other students of the Maori suggest that pre-European use of plants was external, e.g., in vapor baths and embrocations, and that the natives extended the use of these herbs after the pakeha (white man) arrived.

Historical Aspects

To see this question in its proper perspective, a few historical details are appropriate. Aside from a brief visit by the Dutchman, Abel Tasman, in 1642, European contact with the Maoris of New Zealand began with the visit of Captain James Cook in 1769. This visit was largely scientific in its purpose, and Cook was accompanied by two eminent botanists Sir Joseph Banks and Dr. Solander who laid the foundations of our knowledge of the New Zealand flora. Cook was a pioneer in recognizing the value of fresh fruit and greens as antiscorbutics in the diet of his crew and he lost no opportunity to try out any suitable plants during his voyages of exploration. One of these was the New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia expansa). The Maoris may have learned from examples of this kind, but Cook certainly records the indigenous use of vapor baths in which various herbs were employed.

In the following years a number of navigators, explorers, whalers, and other sea captains visited New Zealand. Some lived among the Maoris and kept a few records while others made only a brief stay. In 1826 there were still only a handful of permanent white residents, mainly missionaries, but the Rev. William Williams recorded in his diary that Epsom Salts was a favorite remedy with the natives and that he had brought a supply from England which sold at £1 a hundredweight. Later students of the Maori report that “He developed a marvellous appetite for medicine no matter what the remedy might be, or whether he possessed any ailment or not.”

The situation is further confused by the difficulties of the Maori language in which one word has several meanings and by a lack of interest in the subject by the early traders and missionaries. The Maori certainly used plants in various mystical rites associated with sickness and death, and it is bard to decide where magic ended and medicine began. Because of all these factors it might be emphasized that the inclusion of plants in the list below does not mean they were necessarily effective in medicine. Few genuine cures can be substantiated and some of the concoctions contained known poisons. Nevertheless the list may give some clues to the use of these plants or their products in modern pharmacy. To round off this paper we have included a list of compounds found in New Zealand plants of actual or potential value in pharmacy.

In the final part of this paper we propose to review briefly those plants and chemical substances found in them which appear to be of potential value in chemotherapy. We are indebted to a very useful review of New Zealand plant chemistry of Briggs where many observations are made which come within our survey. It may also be mentioned that the research program of the New Zealand branch of the British Empire Cancer Campaign includes an investigation of the local flora for substances of significance in cancer therapy. This work is still in progress.

List of Maori Medicinal Plants

Plant Part Used Reputed Use
Durvillea anlarctica Tender end Scabies, worms, eczema
Porphyra columbina Whole plant fermented Aperient
Calvatea caelata Reddish dust Burns
Lembophyllum clandestinum Whole plant or leaves Venereal disease, check menstrual bleeding.
?, (species unknown) Dried powdered plant Cutaneous eruptions.
Asplenium bulbiferum Root infusion Skin troubles, sore eyes.
Asplenium obtusatum Root Skin troubles.
Whole plant Vapor baths.
Asolla rubra ? Scalds of infants.
Blechnum fluviatite ? Chewed for sore mouth and tongue.
Cardiomanes reniforme Leaves Ulcers.
Cyathea dealbata Pith Poultice for skin sores.
Cyathca medullaris Pith Swollen feet and sore eyes; dressing for sores and chafings.
Young fronds Inflamed mammae; Boils; to assist discharge of placenta.
Slimy tissue Wounds, poisoned hands.
Gum Vermifuge, diarrhea.
Cyclosorus pennigerus Roots Skin sores and ulcers, boils.
Marattia salicina Rhizome Diarrhea.
Pteridium esculentum Root Food for invalids; sea sickness; influenza.
Burnt fronds Severe burns.
Fronds Dysentery.
Agathis australis Gum Burns.
Dacrydium cupressinum Infusion of? Ulcers.
Gum Stopping flow of blood internally and externally.
Inner bark Burns, wounds.
Sap Baldness.
Leaves Sores.
Branches Scurvy.
Phyllocladus trichomanoides Bark Dysentery.
Leaves Scrofula.
Podocarpus dacrydioides Leaves Vapor baths; urinary and other internal complaints.
Bark Bruises, tonic.
Podocarpus ferrugineus Oil Tonic after fever.
Gum Wounds and ulcers.
Leaves & bark Gonorrhea.
Bark Stomach ache; antiseptic.
Podocarpus spicatus Sap Consumption.
Podocarpus totara Smoke from burning wood Skin disease, venereal disease, piles.
Bark Splints in bone fracture.
Inner bark Fever.
Cordyline australis Leaves Dysentery, diarrhea, cuts.
Scrapings of leaves Cuts, skin cracks, sores.
Young shoots Colic, tonic for nursing mothers.
Phormium colensoi ? Skin diseases.
Phormium tenax Gum Burns, wounds, old sores; diarrhea.
Root sap Constipation; gunshot and bayonet wounds.
Decoction of the root Flatulence, wounds and amputations, chilblains, tonic, stoppage of menses, constipation, stomach upsets, worms, foul breath.
Root Colds, headaches, abscesses, swollen joints, worms, wounds, general tonic, ringworm, skin chafing.
Butts of leaves Burns, wounds, lacerations, constipation, rheumatism, sciatica, gonorrhea, tumors, abscesses.
Fibre Wounds (as a dressing).
Leaves (strongest parts) (Splints for) broken limbs.
Zantedeschia aethiopica Rhizome Abscesses, boils.
Meryta sinclairii ? Used to produce abortion.
Schefflera digitata Sap Scrofula, ringworm.
Chenopodium album Leaves (infusion) Boils, blood trouble.
Brachyglottis repanda Leaves Wounds, ulcers, boils.
Gum Foul breath.
Celmisia sp. Leaves Asthma.
Gnaphalium keriense Leaf sap Bruises.
Lagenophora petiolata Sap Ulcerated mouth, general complaints.
Onophordon acanthium Sap Cuts and sores.
Sonchus oleraceus Sap and leaves Cutaneous eruptions, stomach complaints, carbuncles. Hemorrhage after childbirth. Also used as blood purifier, antiscorbutic, and slight laxative, and on cuts to prevent poisoning.
Taraxacum magellanicum Roots Alterative.
Calystegia sepium Root Poor flow of milk in women.
Ipomoea batatas Whole plant or infusion Low fever, skin diseases.
Coriaria arborea Shoots Boils, bleeding cuts, dysentery, sprains, bruises.
Extract of leaves Sores, cuts and inflammation, dysen tery, wounds, broken legs, bruises.
Pith (Plaster) Wounds, insanity, broken bones.
Sap (Plaster) Broken bones.
Fruit Constipation.
Bark Broken bones.
Root Neuralgia, rheumatism, eyestrain.
Corokia buddleoidcs Extract of leaves Stomach ache.
Griselinia littoralis ? Constipation.
Inner bark Scrofula, venereal disease.
Corynocarpus laevigala Leaves Wounds.
Brassica oleracea ? Colic.
Brassica rapa Juice Hemorrhage after childbirth.
Lepidium oleraccum Leaves Scurvy.
Nasturtium officinale Whole plant Headaches (applied as a pack)
Weinmannia racemosa Bark Stomach pains, constipation, tonic
Weinmannia sylvicola Bark Burns, cuts.
Mariscus ustulaius Pith Kidney trouble.
Scirpus tacustris Leaf sap Blindness.
Aristotelia serrata Extract of leaves Burns, rheumatism, boils, sore eyes.
Infusion of bark Sore eyes, rheumatism.
Elaeocarpus dentatus Decoction of bark Skin disease.
Cyathodes acerosa Leaves (infusion). Kidney trouble, asthma, menstrual disorders, septic wounds.
Leucopogon fasciculatus Leaves (infusion). Headaches and influenza.
Gaultheria antipoda Leaves Wounds, cuts.
Infusion of leaves Wounds, cuts, asthma.
Euphorbia glauca Whole plant (infusion) Skin troubles.
Euphorbia peplus Whole plant (infusion) Skin troubles.
Disphyma australe (also known as Mesembryanthemum australe) Sap Boils.
Tetragonia expansa Leaves Scurvy.
Geranium dissectum Leaves Boils, sore backs.
Geranium microphyllum ? Aches and pains.
Geranium molle Infusion Chest pains in tuberculosis, sepsis wounds, contusions.
Pelargonium inodorum Leaves (infusion) Burns, pimples, scalds, bruises.
Leaves Foul breath.
Rhabdothamnus solandri Leaves & twigs Vapor baths.
Arundo kakaho Ash Burns.
Fronds Bleeding.
Leaves Diarrhea.
Stem Kidney trouble.
Juice Dirty tongue in infants.
Hierochloe redolens ? Vapor baths.
Poa caespitosa Whole plant Rheumatic pains, burns.
Haloragis erecta Sap or infusion Scrofula.
Hypericum perforatum ? Headaches, measles, influenza.
Mentha cunninghamii ? Used as a diaphoretic.
Beilschmiedia tawa ? Wounds, stomach pains, colds.
Litsea calicaris ? Used in vapor baths and midwifery.
Sophora tetraptera Bark Pains internally or in back or side Constipation, itch, scrofula, tumors, broken limbs, bruises.
Sap Gonorrhea.
Ashes Ringworm.
Infusion Colds and sore throats.
Sophora microphylla Bark infusion Pains internally or in back or side, skin disease, bruises and fractures.
Arthropodium cirrhatum Base of leaves Ulcers.
Roots Unbroken tumors and abscesses.
Geniostoma ligustrijolium Sap Skin disease in children.
Bark Itch.
Pseudowintera axillaris Bark Fever.
Sap Skin disease, gonorrhea.
Leaves (infusion) Stomach ache, skin disease.
Leaves (chewed) Toothache.
Leaves (rubbed on breasts) Wean infants.
Hoheria populnea Bark (infusion) Colds, weak and sore eyes, burns.
Dysoxylum spectabile Leaves and bark Tonic, stomach troubles, coughing, to stop flow of milk.
Red pulp Consumption.
Infusion of leaves Lung hemorrhage, colds, fever tonic, “woman’s disorders,” sore throats, boils, gonorrhea.
Whole plant (?) Convulsions.
Hedycarya arborea Leaves Vapor baths.
Lauretta novae-zealandiae Bark (infusion) Tuberculosic and chronic ulcers, skin complaints, toothache, syphilis, neuralgia.
Myoporum laetum Bark Ulcers, eruptions, toothache.
Twigs & leaves Steam bath.
Leaves Bruises, septic wounds, baby eczema.
Myrsine australis Leaves (infusion) Toothache.
Eucalyptus globulus Leaves (infusion) Post-partum bath and to cure post-partum hemorrhage, asthma.
Eugenia maire Bark Ringworm.
Leptospermum ericoides and L. scoparium Capsules (infusion) Diarrhea, colic, fever, inflammation, of breast.
Capsules (poultice) Open wounds, running sores.
Gum Scalds, burns, coughing, given to suckling infants to cure constipation.
Bark (infusion) Sedative, dysentery, diarrhea, skin disease, internal and external pains, fever, mouth, throat, eye trouble, inflamed breasts.
Sap Blood and breath purifiers.
Leaves (infusion) Colds, pains internal and external, dysentery, vapor baths, urinary and internal complaints.
Metrosideros albiflora Bark (infusion) Pains, bleeding, wounds.
Sap Women’s complaints.
Metrosideros excelsa Bark (infusion) Diarrhea.
Nectar from flowers Sore throat.
Metrosideros robusta Nectar Sore throat.
Bark (infusion) Sores, bleeding, ringworm, colds, bruises, aches, pains and wounds, venereal disease.
Sap Stops bleeding of wounds, tonic.
Leaves Toothache.
Metrosideros scandens San Eye troubles, wounds, tonic, coughs, antiseptic.
Bark Sores, bleeding.
Myrtus ballata Leaves Bruises.
Myrtus obcordata Bark & berries (infusion) Dysmenorrhea.
Fuchsia excorticata Whole plant Vapor bath and internal hemorrhage after childbirth.
Rhopalostylis sapida Pith and sap Relax muscles in childbirth, laxative.
Tetrapathaea tetrandra Seed oil Chronic sores, chapped nipples.
PIPERACEAE Leaves & bark Cuts, wounds, stomach pains, gonorrhea, steam baths.
Micropiper excelsum Leaves Boils, toothache, stomach pains, skin disease, kidney trouble, eczema, V.D., bruises, rheumatism, wounds, worms, blood impurity, bladder complaints.
Root Toothache, urinary complaints.
Fruit and seeds Excite the salivary glands, kidneys and bowels. Slightly diuretic and aphrodisiac.
Pittosporum eugenioides Gum Foul breath.
Pittosporum tenuifolium ? Itch, eczema of scalp and skin diseases.
Leaves Ague.
Plantago sp. Leaves (poultice) Ulcers.
Leaves (infusion) Scalds, burns, uterine disorders, retention of the placenta, cuts, boils.
Sap Cracked lips, boils, burns, cuts, pains generally, septic wounds.
Whole plant (?) Piles.
Polygonum serntlatum Whole plant (infusion) Rheumatic pains.
Rumex sp. Similar uses to Plantago sp.
Knightea excelsa Bark Used on wounds to heal and stop bleeding.
Clematis hexasepala Bark and stems (infusion) Mild alterative.
Clematis paniculata Leaves Used to produce blisters as a counter irritant.
Sap Wounds.
Bark and wood Colds in the head.
Ranunculus hirtus Whole plant Toothache, inflamed eyes, abrasions.
Ranunculus rivularis Sap Rheumatism and joint diseases.
Infusion of leaves Quinsy.
Pomaderris elliptica Leaves (infusion) All chest complaints, bronchitis and consumption, heartburn, kidney complaints, skin cancer, diabetes, coughs, sores, colds, constipation, asthma. Said to be blood and skin purifier.
Acaena sanguisorbae Leaves (infusion; Wounds and contusions, painful micturition, rheumatism, kidney and bladder trouble, stomach troubles and as a general tonic.
Geum urbanum Leaf Diarrhea, dysentery, foul breath.
Rubus cissoides Bark (infusion) Purgative in cases of severe abdominal pain. Vapor baths to assist in childbirth.
Decoction (of?) Dysmenorrhea.
Leaves (infusion) Congestion in the chest, hard cough, sore throat, constipation.
Coprosma australis 

Coprosma acerosa Coprosma robusta

Sap Skin diseases.
V Leaves (infusion) Broken limbs, bruises, fever, cuts, festered sores, kidney trouble.
Leaves (poultice) Broken limbs.
Bark (infusion) Broken limbs, bruises, scabies, itch, cuts, stomach ache, vomiting, aches and pains, venereal disease.
Young shoots Bladder stoppage and inflammation.
Galium umbrosum Whole plant Gonorrhea — particularly with retention of urine.
Melicope ternata Gum Foul breath.
Alectryon excelsum Oil Weak eyes, sore wounds, sore breasts, chapped skins, bruises, painful joints, earache, constipation, sore or hard navel in the newborn.
Red pulp Hemorrhage in consumption.
Hebe salicifolia Whole plant Vapor baths.
(Veronica salicifolia) Leaves (infusion) Dysentery (very effective), infantile diarrhea, kidney and bladder troubles, skin troubles, headaches, laxative, to promote easy delivery in childbirth, also as mouthwash and gargle.
Leaves (poultice) Ulcers, venereal disease.
Sap Skin disease.
Rhipogonum scandens Stem (burnt) Cauterizing wounds.
Stem (poultice) Venereal disease.
Sap Wounds, also demulcent.
Root (infusion) Rheumatism, bowel complaints, fever, general debility, skin disease, secondary symptoms of syphilis. Also used to produce abortion and as a substitute for sarsaparilla.
Young shoots Itch.
Solatium aviculare 

and S”. lacinialum

Whole plant Poultice for sores, ulcers.
Sap Itch, scabies, wounds, produced by tattooing instruments.
Pith of stem Bruises.
Bark Scabies, ulcers, itch.
Leaves Wounds, cuts.
Solatium tuberosum Water in which tuber is boiled. Pimples, ague, skin eruptions, burns.
Typha angustifolia Pappus of seeds Wounds, ulcerated sores.
Rhizome (infusion) Assist removal of the afterbirth.
Angelica rosaefolia Leaves Used as diuretic and in syphilis.
Apium prostratum Whole plant Vapor baths, antiscorbutic.
Urlica ferox Bark (infusion) Eczema and venereal disease.
Vitex’ luccns Leaves (infusion) Sprains and backache, ulcers (especially under the ear), sore throats.
VIOLACEAE Leaves (infusion) Rheumatism, scabies.
Mclicytns ramiflorus Bark Burns.


New Zealand species of ergot contain ergotamine and ergotaminine.


The common lichen Sticta coronata has shown promise in the treatment of leukemic mice.


Methyl salicylate (oil of wintergreen) has been found in Asplenium lamprophyllum but not in other species of this genus.


The fossil gum of the Kauri pine, Agathis australis contains as a major constituent agathic acid which has a similar carbon skeleton to Vitamins A, E and K.

Podocarpus dacrydioides and Dacrydium cupressinum both contain podo-carpic acid which is estrogenic. The propionate of podocarpic acid is effective in promoting the flow of bile. Podocarpus spicatus contains genistein, an estrogenic isoflavone, and matairesinol found to have antimitotic properties and tumor necrotising action in mice.



So many reports have been received about the healing properties of the gum found at the base of the leaves of Phormium tenax. (New Zealand flax) that it is difficult to believe there is no virtue in it, but Mcllroy found nothing significant in the analysis.


Coriaria arborea, called tutu by the Maoris and “toot” by the white man, contains tutin, a violent poison, in its leaves and seeds. Tutin is similar in its action to picrotoxin.


The berries of karaka (Corynocarpus laevigata) contain a poisonous principle karakin shown by Carter to be 1, 4, 6 Tris-(3-nitropropionyl)-d glucopyranose. At the time it was the only compound with a nitro group found in nature.


Tetragonia expansa, New Zealand spinach, has already been referred to. It shows carbonic anhydrase activity and therefore has the opposite effect to the sulphomanide drugs.


β sitosterol has been found in the bark of Beilschmiedia tawa.


A very extensive survey of the alkaloids of the Leguminosae in New Zealand has been reported by White. Holdgate has isolated anagyrine and diosmin from Sophora microphylla.


Hoheria populnea has been suggested as a substitute for slippery elm bark.


Dysoxylum spectabile contains β sito-sterol and much tannin both in bark and heartwood which also contains catechin.


The bark of Laurelia novae-zealandiae contains the alkaloid pukateine which is reported to be similar to morphine in its action but without its side effects.


Myoporum laetum, the ngaio, contains ngaione, a derivative of furfural, which suggests that it could be fungicidal. Ngaio has been found to be toxic and to cause liver damage in sheep..


Leptospermum species contain leptospermone which has anthelmintic properties, and is a synergistic insecticide.


The use of Macropiper excelsum as a painkiller by the natives could be due to the presence in its essential oil of myris-ticin a substance which is very similar chemically to eugenol the major constituent of oil of cloves.


The leaves of Pomaderris elliptica have been a widely advertised herbal tonic for many years and an ointment made from it is currently being sold by local herbalists for skin cancer.

RUTACEAE Phebalium nudum bark contains β sitosterol.


The barks of Coprosma species are rich in anthraquinone pigments which are interesting because they are substituted in the 2-position also found in a number of important mould metabolites discovered by Raistrick. Anthraquinone derivatives are also of possible significance as purgatives.


The koromiko (Hebe salicifolia) is the only plant to have received any recognition in medicine overseas and was included in some editions of the Extra Pharmcopoeia. It is still esteemed as a remedy for diarrhea and during World War II quantities of the dried plant were sent to the North African front where it was effectively used by the Maori troops.


The alkaloids of the native species of Solatium species have been extensively studied by Briggs and his school. Solasodine, solmargine, and solasonine and more particularly their hydrogenated derivatives have considerable antiaccelerator cardiac activity. Solasodine is of great interest because it is the nitrogen analogue of diosgenin and could be the starting point for the synthesis of a series of nitrogen-containing steroids.


The bark of the puriri Vitex lucens contains vitexin which is also found in Vitex peduncularis reported to be of great value in the treatment of various fevers and for antihaemolytic activity against cobra venom. Vitexin has been shown to have no antibiotic activity. The heart-wood contains β sitosterol, while β-carotene and p-hydroxybenzoic acid are found in the leaves. p-hydroxybenzoic acid derivatives are well known germicides and preservatives.

Economic Botany (1961 Volume 15)

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