Everything You Need To Know About Kawakawa And 4 Unique Ways To Use It


Kawakawa (Piper excelsum) is the beautiful New Zealand native with big heart shaped leaves. You have probably come across it before, but if not after reading this you’ll know exactly where to look and how to use it!

Although kawakawa has the common name of pepper tree, don’t mistake it for horopito (also called the pepper tree). Although these two natives each have their own unique spicy flavours, they have different medicinal properties. Here’s a little about this wonderful plant and how you can utilise it for yourself.

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Where can you find kawakawa?

Kawakawa is mostly found around the North Island of New Zealand and the northern parts of the South Island. You’ll see it in parks, lowland forests and especially near the coast. But, don’t be disheartened if you dwell in the very southern regions of the country because you can find some around banks peninsula and even in some sneaky, secret places in Dunedin.

It does however prefer warmer weather. Kawakawa grows to about 6 metres high and it is instantly recognisable for its beautiful, rich green heart shaped leaves. This plant produces fruit in the summer and both the fruit and seeds are edible.


Why Does Kawakawa Have Holey Leaves?

If you’re a keen kawakawa forager or lover of plants you may have noticed that more often than not the leaves of this plant are covered in holes. These are made by the hungry caterpillars of the kawakawa looper moth (Cleora scriptaria). But don’t be deterred, when it comes to choosing leaves, opt for the holey ones! Research has shown that the chewed leaves have more active compounds, triggered and released by the caterpillars munching!


How Was This Plant Used Traditionally

Kawakawa has recently become more widely used in a variety of things, such as skincare, spice mixes, teas and tonics. This could be because kawakawa is an amazingly versatile plant that can help with a variety of issues, but it also could be that rongoā medicine is becoming more accessible, and we are learning more about this beautiful plant.

Skin issues: Traditionally kawakawa was added to baths or used with steam to help conditions such as ringworm, or irritated skin. Boils or abscesses were also treated with kawakawa as the astringent (drying)  properties of the plant helped to dry up the wound. Often alongside topical treatments kawakawa use people also took it internally to help with the healing process.

Gastrointestinal issues: Kawakawa has some very key digestive actions that can help support the digestive system, and help to reduce issues from IBS, bloating and dyspepsia. It can also work as a digestive tonic to ease discomfort after over-eating or rich foods and help with stomach pains.

Musculoskeletal issues: Traditionally kawakawa leaves were boiled and people could then bathe in the infused liquid to support rheumatism and arthritis.
Wounds and bruising: Māori would heat the kawakawa leaves and place them on their wounds. Fresh leaves were also used and were bound to wounds to help speed up the healing process.

Respiratory and oral issues: A kawakawa infusion (or tea) would be taken orally to support chest and respiratory health. For sore teeth, or swollen gums and tonsils the leaves were chewed.


Why Do We Use Kawakawa?

We use kawakawa because it is a powerful plant that supports the whole body. We are building on its traditional use and incorporating this versatile plant into our everyday and celebrating the many supportive actions this plant has. We celebrate kawakawa within our defence range to help support a healthy immune system as well as having it in our topical skin oil to support healthy skin and skin repair. Our Daily Boost Tonic contains kawakawa to add to this formula’s tonic and energy supporting action.

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How To Harvest Kawakawa

When it comes to harvesting kawakawa it's important to choose the correct leaves. By taking the leaves with a spoon shape at the base of their stem, and not the leaves at the tip, you're giving the plant a much better chance to regenerate. As always, be respectful and only take what you need.

How To Dry Kawakawa

Drying your kawakawa is a great way to preserve it and in this form it can be used in a multitude of ways. When harvesting always be respectful and pick your kawakawa from trees that have abundant leaves, and don’t just pick from one tree. Remember that less is more and often you will get more than you need - so don’t feel the need to fill big containers.

Once you have picked the leaves, rinse them and pat dry. Place them on a fine mesh or a covered oven rack in a single layer out of direct sunlight. Then cover with a light material like muslin cloth. Make sure the room they are drying in is not humid or damp - you could run a dehumidifier in the room - or place them in a small dehydrator on the lowest setting. Flip the leaves to dry both sides. Once your kawakawa leaves are dry carefully crumble them into a glass jar that tightly seals and use when needed.

How To Make Kawakawa Tea

  1. Pick 1 or 2 kawakawa leaves
  2. Rinse the leaves and rip them up
  3. Put in a pot with 500ml boiling water and simmer for 10 minutes
  4. Pour yourself a cup and sit back and enjoy!
If you have dried kawakawa use 1 teaspoon per 150ml water. Steep with a lid on top of the cup for 5 minutes and drink. We also like to return the used leaves to the earth after making the tea, either by putting them in your garden or in your compost, in respect to the plant.

How To Use Kawakawa In Your Cooking 

Kawakawa can also be used in your cooking and is said to give off basil-like flavours. Because of its powerful medicinal properties its important to remember not to over do it. Don’t go nuts, just use it like you would a herb. Dried kawakawa can be added to sea salt to boost your meals like soups. Just add 2 teaspoons of dried Kawakawa to 1 cup salt. 

Make A Relaxing Kawakawa Foot Spa

You can use the above salt in a footbath. Just add a tablespoon to a big container of water and soak your feet for about 10 minutes. Kawakawa is great for helping to sooth tired and achy feet.

How To Use The Berries

There are many ways to use kawakawa berries. You can pickle the berries and use them in a salads, add them to your homemade chutney, eat them fresh, or make them into a tea.  You could even use Johanna Knox’s recipe and make chocolate dipped kawakawa berries, a tasty summer treat! Do be aware that kawakawa has a numbing effect so don't eat too many. A very small amount goes a long way.



  • Posted on by Sally Pugh
    There is a reason why the best leaves for medicine are the holey leaves. There are two types of leaves on the plant – one is integral to the core structure of the plant. The other leaves, which are attached with a spoon-like feature to the plant, are the ones that don’t negatively affect the plant’s growth. Those are the leaves with all the medicinal qualities so that caterpillars can nibble on it without damaging the actual plant. So when foraging, take only the leaves with the spoon-shape. (Thanks to Sam The Trapman for sharing this bit of information).
  • Posted on by bronwyn
    Just to share, i live in Dunedin and have many kawakawa in the garden, they grow like weeds so don’t be afraid to try growing them down here. But now i am going outside to pick some berries and try them, i haven’t known you could do this before
  • Posted on by Mr Chris Stratton
    I live in English countryside…so no access to this interesting tree or its healing products unfortunately. Think it could help my son’s dry elbows! Possibly psoriasis. Want to mention page 159 of a lovely book by Lydia Syson: Mr Peacock’s Possessions. Just reading that fictional page about your great part of the world, and found your lovely website. Well done. Enjoy your fortunate lifestyle and countryside and nature….I sit here in cold damp fog today…but a walk in nature and picking a fresh apple off an autumnal tree will still bring much happiness. Do get outside Everyone and benefit from healing nature. Enjoy.
  • Posted on by Bessie Moses
    About 4 months ago I started making kawakawa balm, it has become a favourite thing to do. I have had some great feedback with it helping to heal blemishes and eczema.
  • Posted on by Ruth
    In response to your question Elizabeth Cheesman- yes letting your Kawakawa Tea cool and then using it as an iced tea is a great idea. Will keep in the fridge for a few days. Ruth from @wilddispensary

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