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

PlantPart UsedReputed Use
Durvillea anlarcticaTender endScabies, worms, eczema
Porphyra columbinaWhole plant fermentedAperient
Calvatea caelataReddish dustBurns
Lembophyllum clandestinumWhole plant or leavesVenereal disease, check menstrual bleeding.
?, (species unknown)Dried powdered plantCutaneous eruptions.
Asplenium bulbiferumRoot infusionSkin troubles, sore eyes.
Asplenium obtusatumRootSkin troubles.
Whole plantVapor baths.
Asolla rubra?Scalds of infants.
Blechnum fluviatite?Chewed for sore mouth and tongue.
Cardiomanes reniformeLeavesUlcers.
Cyathea dealbataPithPoultice for skin sores.
Cyathca medullarisPithSwollen feet and sore eyes; dressing for sores and chafings.
Young frondsInflamed mammae; Boils; to assist discharge of placenta.
Slimy tissueWounds, poisoned hands.
GumVermifuge, diarrhea.
Cyclosorus pennigerusRootsSkin sores and ulcers, boils.
Marattia salicinaRhizomeDiarrhea.
Pteridium esculentumRootFood for invalids; sea sickness; influenza.
Burnt frondsSevere burns.
Agathis australisGumBurns.
Dacrydium cupressinumInfusion of?Ulcers.
GumStopping flow of blood internally and externally.
Inner barkBurns, wounds.
Phyllocladus trichomanoidesBarkDysentery.
Podocarpus dacrydioidesLeavesVapor baths; urinary and other internal complaints.
BarkBruises, tonic.
Podocarpus ferrugineusOilTonic after fever.
GumWounds and ulcers.
Leaves & barkGonorrhea.
BarkStomach ache; antiseptic.
Podocarpus spicatusSapConsumption.
Podocarpus totaraSmoke from burning woodSkin disease, venereal disease, piles.
BarkSplints in bone fracture.
Inner barkFever.
Cordyline australisLeavesDysentery, diarrhea, cuts.
Scrapings of leavesCuts, skin cracks, sores.
Young shootsColic, tonic for nursing mothers.
Phormium colensoi?Skin diseases.
Phormium tenaxGumBurns, wounds, old sores; diarrhea.
Root sapConstipation; gunshot and bayonet wounds.
Decoction of the rootFlatulence, wounds and amputations, chilblains, tonic, stoppage of menses, constipation, stomach upsets, worms, foul breath.
RootColds, headaches, abscesses, swollen joints, worms, wounds, general tonic, ringworm, skin chafing.
Butts of leavesBurns, wounds, lacerations, constipation, rheumatism, sciatica, gonorrhea, tumors, abscesses.
FibreWounds (as a dressing).
Leaves (strongest parts)(Splints for) broken limbs.
Zantedeschia aethiopicaRhizomeAbscesses, boils.
Meryta sinclairii?Used to produce abortion.
Schefflera digitataSapScrofula, ringworm.
Chenopodium albumLeaves (infusion)Boils, blood trouble.
Brachyglottis repandaLeavesWounds, ulcers, boils.
GumFoul breath.
Celmisia sp.LeavesAsthma.
Gnaphalium kerienseLeaf sapBruises.
Lagenophora petiolataSapUlcerated mouth, general complaints.
Onophordon acanthiumSapCuts and sores.
Sonchus oleraceusSap and leavesCutaneous eruptions, stomach complaints, carbuncles. Hemorrhage after childbirth. Also used as blood purifier, antiscorbutic, and slight laxative, and on cuts to prevent poisoning.
Taraxacum magellanicumRootsAlterative.
Calystegia sepiumRootPoor flow of milk in women.
Ipomoea batatasWhole plant or infusionLow fever, skin diseases.
Coriaria arboreaShootsBoils, bleeding cuts, dysentery, sprains, bruises.
Extract of leavesSores, cuts and inflammation, dysen tery, wounds, broken legs, bruises.
Pith (Plaster)Wounds, insanity, broken bones.
Sap (Plaster)Broken bones.
BarkBroken bones.
RootNeuralgia, rheumatism, eyestrain.
Corokia buddleoidcsExtract of leavesStomach ache.
Griselinia littoralis?Constipation.
Inner barkScrofula, venereal disease.
Corynocarpus laevigalaLeavesWounds.
Brassica oleracea?Colic.
Brassica rapaJuiceHemorrhage after childbirth.
Lepidium oleraccumLeavesScurvy.
Nasturtium officinaleWhole plantHeadaches (applied as a pack)
Weinmannia racemosaBarkStomach pains, constipation, tonic
Weinmannia sylvicolaBarkBurns, cuts.
Mariscus ustulaiusPithKidney trouble.
Scirpus tacustrisLeaf sapBlindness.
Aristotelia serrataExtract of leavesBurns, rheumatism, boils, sore eyes.
Infusion of barkSore eyes, rheumatism.
Elaeocarpus dentatusDecoction of barkSkin disease.
Cyathodes acerosaLeaves (infusion).Kidney trouble, asthma, menstrual disorders, septic wounds.
Leucopogon fasciculatusLeaves (infusion).Headaches and influenza.
Gaultheria antipodaLeavesWounds, cuts.
Infusion of leavesWounds, cuts, asthma.
Euphorbia glaucaWhole plant (infusion)Skin troubles.
Euphorbia peplusWhole plant (infusion)Skin troubles.
Disphyma australe (also known as Mesembryanthemum australe)SapBoils.
Tetragonia expansaLeavesScurvy.
Geranium dissectumLeavesBoils, sore backs.
Geranium microphyllum?Aches and pains.
Geranium molleInfusionChest pains in tuberculosis, sepsis wounds, contusions.
Pelargonium inodorumLeaves (infusion)Burns, pimples, scalds, bruises.
LeavesFoul breath.
Rhabdothamnus solandriLeaves & twigsVapor baths.
Arundo kakahoAshBurns.
StemKidney trouble.
JuiceDirty tongue in infants.
Hierochloe redolens?Vapor baths.
Poa caespitosaWhole plantRheumatic pains, burns.
Haloragis erectaSap or infusionScrofula.
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 tetrapteraBarkPains internally or in back or side Constipation, itch, scrofula, tumors, broken limbs, bruises.
InfusionColds and sore throats.
Sophora microphyllaBark infusionPains internally or in back or side, skin disease, bruises and fractures.
Arthropodium cirrhatumBase of leavesUlcers.
RootsUnbroken tumors and abscesses.
Geniostoma ligustrijoliumSapSkin disease in children.
Pseudowintera axillarisBarkFever.
SapSkin disease, gonorrhea.
Leaves (infusion)Stomach ache, skin disease.
Leaves (chewed)Toothache.
Leaves (rubbed on breasts)Wean infants.
Hoheria populneaBark (infusion)Colds, weak and sore eyes, burns.
Dysoxylum spectabileLeaves and barkTonic, stomach troubles, coughing, to stop flow of milk.
Red pulpConsumption.
Infusion of leavesLung hemorrhage, colds, fever tonic, “woman’s disorders,” sore throats, boils, gonorrhea.
Whole plant (?)Convulsions.
Hedycarya arboreaLeavesVapor baths.
Lauretta novae-zealandiaeBark (infusion)Tuberculosic and chronic ulcers, skin complaints, toothache, syphilis, neuralgia.
Myoporum laetumBarkUlcers, eruptions, toothache.
Twigs & leavesSteam bath.
LeavesBruises, septic wounds, baby eczema.
Myrsine australisLeaves (infusion)Toothache.
Eucalyptus globulusLeaves (infusion)Post-partum bath and to cure post-partum hemorrhage, asthma.
Eugenia maireBarkRingworm.
Leptospermum ericoides and L. scopariumCapsules (infusion)Diarrhea, colic, fever, inflammation, of breast.
Capsules (poultice)Open wounds, running sores.
GumScalds, 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.
SapBlood and breath purifiers.
Leaves (infusion)Colds, pains internal and external, dysentery, vapor baths, urinary and internal complaints.
Metrosideros albifloraBark (infusion)Pains, bleeding, wounds.
SapWomen’s complaints.
Metrosideros excelsaBark (infusion)Diarrhea.
Nectar from flowersSore throat.
Metrosideros robustaNectarSore throat.
Bark (infusion)Sores, bleeding, ringworm, colds, bruises, aches, pains and wounds, venereal disease.
SapStops bleeding of wounds, tonic.
Metrosideros scandensSanEye troubles, wounds, tonic, coughs, antiseptic.
BarkSores, bleeding.
Myrtus ballataLeavesBruises.
Myrtus obcordataBark & berries (infusion)Dysmenorrhea.
Fuchsia excorticataWhole plantVapor bath and internal hemorrhage after childbirth.
Rhopalostylis sapidaPith and sapRelax muscles in childbirth, laxative.
Tetrapathaea tetrandraSeed oilChronic sores, chapped nipples.
PIPERACEAELeaves & barkCuts, wounds, stomach pains, gonorrhea, steam baths.
Micropiper excelsumLeavesBoils, toothache, stomach pains, skin disease, kidney trouble, eczema, V.D., bruises, rheumatism, wounds, worms, blood impurity, bladder complaints.
RootToothache, urinary complaints.
Fruit and seedsExcite the salivary glands, kidneys and bowels. Slightly diuretic and aphrodisiac.
Pittosporum eugenioidesGumFoul breath.
Pittosporum tenuifolium?Itch, eczema of scalp and skin diseases.
Plantago sp.Leaves (poultice)Ulcers.
Leaves (infusion)Scalds, burns, uterine disorders, retention of the placenta, cuts, boils.
SapCracked lips, boils, burns, cuts, pains generally, septic wounds.
Whole plant (?)Piles.
Polygonum serntlatumWhole plant (infusion)Rheumatic pains.
Rumex sp.Similar uses to Plantago sp.
Knightea excelsaBarkUsed on wounds to heal and stop bleeding.
Clematis hexasepalaBark and stems (infusion)Mild alterative.
Clematis paniculataLeavesUsed to produce blisters as a counter irritant.
Bark and woodColds in the head.
Ranunculus hirtusWhole plantToothache, inflamed eyes, abrasions.
Ranunculus rivularisSapRheumatism and joint diseases.
Infusion of leavesQuinsy.
Pomaderris ellipticaLeaves (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 sanguisorbaeLeaves (infusion;Wounds and contusions, painful micturition, rheumatism, kidney and bladder trouble, stomach troubles and as a general tonic.
Geum urbanumLeafDiarrhea, dysentery, foul breath.
Rubus cissoidesBark (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

SapSkin 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 shootsBladder stoppage and inflammation.
Galium umbrosumWhole plantGonorrhea — particularly with retention of urine.
Melicope ternataGumFoul breath.
Alectryon excelsumOilWeak eyes, sore wounds, sore breasts, chapped skins, bruises, painful joints, earache, constipation, sore or hard navel in the newborn.
Red pulpHemorrhage in consumption.
Hebe salicifoliaWhole plantVapor 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.
SapSkin disease.
Rhipogonum scandensStem (burnt)Cauterizing wounds.
Stem (poultice)Venereal disease.
SapWounds, 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 shootsItch.
Solatium aviculare 

and S”. lacinialum

Whole plantPoultice for sores, ulcers.
SapItch, scabies, wounds, produced by tattooing instruments.
Pith of stemBruises.
BarkScabies, ulcers, itch.
LeavesWounds, cuts.
Solatium tuberosumWater in which tuber is boiled.Pimples, ague, skin eruptions, burns.
Typha angustifoliaPappus of seedsWounds, ulcerated sores.
Rhizome (infusion)Assist removal of the afterbirth.
Angelica rosaefoliaLeavesUsed as diuretic and in syphilis.
Apium prostratumWhole plantVapor baths, antiscorbutic.
Urlica feroxBark (infusion)Eczema and venereal disease.
Vitex’ luccnsLeaves (infusion)Sprains and backache, ulcers (especially under the ear), sore throats.
VIOLACEAELeaves (infusion)Rheumatism, scabies.
Mclicytns ramiflorusBarkBurns.


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)