Between September and February every year, mānuka produces white or pink flowers which are loved by native insects, invertebrates and bees for the nutritious nectar they produce.
Most commonly known throughout the world for the mānuka honey that is made from this nectar, mānuka has a long and rich history with the people of Aotearoa. Thanks to the wide ranging healing properties that mānuka possesses, the native Māori had many traditional uses for mānuka and kānuka.
“History records a diverse range of uses by both indigenous Māori and early European settlers. These include infusions for ‘immoral people’, urinary and intestinal complaints, as a febrifuge, sucking the gum for coughs, vapour inhalations for colds, poultices for back pain and skin conditions, inflamed breasts, burns and scalds, mouthwashes and gargles, gum disease. The wood was also used for canoe structures, fishing tools, gardening tools, war weapons and firewood. The gum or manna has mannitol as a main ingredient, which was used medicinally to relieve oedema and remove excess fluid from the body”
When Captain James Cook travelled around New Zealand in the early 1800s, his crew were suffering from scurvy. To remedy the condition, he made a strong brew of tea using leaves from the mānuka tree. This is how mānuka got the name ‘tea tree’.
The first beer ever brewed in New Zealand was made by Captain James Cook on his second voyage here. This spruce beer was made from a combination of mānuka branches and leaves, rimu twigs, molasses, water and yeast.
Mānuka grows very fast and thrives in a wide range of environments - from sea swept rocky outcrops to mountainous areas up to 1800m above sea level. It grows naturally in most parts of the country, from Stewart Island to Cape Reinga. In some places, mānuka can even be found growing without any soil.
Due to the fact that mānuka and kānuka are very fast growing plants and establish strong, flexible root systems, they are often planted on precarious hillsides to prevent erosion. This is also helpful for stabilizing riverbanks and improving water quality.
“Kānuka and mānuka roots have a combination of properties that make them especially good at preventing soil erosion. In addition to being strong, the roots are also flexible and elastic. The roots not only bind soils to a depth of 0.5 - 1.0m, they also maintain stability by resisting soil movement on slopes.”
Some farmers view mānuka and kānuka as a nuisance - they spread to new areas very fast, and grow even faster which can sometimes make it hard to eradicate them from productive land. As a seral species, they play an important role in the regeneration of native forest by pioneering new areas of unforested land, and establishing canopy cover that gives slower growing native plants a chance to develop.
Mānuka and kānuka are often confused with each other. They look very similar, and grow in the same habitats most of the time. However, these two plants are separate species (mānuka is leptospermum scoparium; kānuka is kunzea ericoides), and the products made from them such as honeys and essential oils exhibit different properties. They are both members of the Myrtaceae family of plants.