4 Facts About New Zealand's Mānuka Tree


What is mānuka?

Interestingly, mānuka was not as revered and loved as it is now. In fact, Robert Vennell, in his beautiful book 'The Meaning of Trees,' tells of its polarising history. It alternated between a beloved treasure and a much-maligned plant that was removed with force by others.

Mānuka’s botanical name is Leptospermum scoparium. Leptospermum means slender seed. This is not only true but very relevant to how mānuka arrived in Aotearoa and also how it spread as widely as it has.

It is believed that mānuka seeds probably came over from Australia millions of years ago, and that is how it was established here. But once here, Māori began using it as it provided many valuable uses: to help build or create items like combs, needles, tools, paddles, canoes, etc.

1. How to identify mānuka

Mānuka is a perennial shrub with very small leaves, up to 12 mm long and about 4 mm wide. It looks very similar to kānuka. Often, people use the saying ‘mānuka mean, kānuka kind’ to remember which is which, as touching the leaves can help you with identification. Mānuka leaves are spiky as opposed to kānuka, which feel softer. 

Another way to tell the difference between mānuka and kānuka is the flowers. The flowers of the mānuka plant are larger, and more spread out than the kānuka flowers, which are smaller and more clumped together.  Mānuka flowers for only 2-6 weeks a year, and the flowers only open for five days.

Also, tellingly, kānuka plants are quite a bit taller (10-15m) than mānuka (6-8m).
Mānuka can be found throughout New Zealand, from lowlands to lower alpine areas (up to 1800m above sea level). It grows in all areas, wetlands, gravel areas, and drier climates and hillsides. It seems to be more resilient than kānuka once it matures and can survive drought, frosts, flooding and strong winds.

Kānuka on left - mānuka on right. Photo taken from the University of Auckland

2. How was the mānuka tree used traditionally?

Parts used: Leaves, twigs, flowers and bark.

Mānuka was used in multiple different ways traditionally. Murdoch Riley’s Māori Healing and Herbal’ textbook documents some of its traditional uses:

External uses:
  • A vapour ‘bath’ to help with painful joints
  • As a disinfectant for clothes (cloaks were placed over smoky fires to get rid of vermin, lice, etc)
  • As a poultice on wounds and sores to reduce pain
  • On the scalp for itchy, dry skin
  • To treat ringworm
  • To treat venereal diseases
  • To reduce bleeding
Internal uses:
  • To treat urinary complaints
  • Taken as a laxative
  •  For indigestion
  • To reduce fevers
  • To reduce coughing
  • As an astringent (when suffering from diarrhoea)
  • As a diuretic
  • To help with colds, flu and headaches
  • As a mouthwash, to help with sore and infected teeth and gums
  • Kidney issues 
  • As a sedative
As you can see, the traditional list is quite exhaustive, and the mānuka tree only grew more popular with the arrival of Captain Cook, who used it extensively as a tea, as did the whalers. Mānuka became known as a ‘tea tree’ due to its wide use as a substitute for tea leaves and use with sailors.

3. Why do we use mānuka?

Mānuka is now more widely used by herbalists today to help support the body with digestive and immune complaints. This is because mānuka plant has many health benefits.

The active constituents within mānuka are high in volatile oils, tannins, flavonoids and triterpenes. This chemical makeup has been found to be antibacterial, anti-fungal,  anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and also anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing).

We are building on the traditional use and knowledge of tangata whenua by utilising mānuka in our Switchel, Immunity Tonic and Liver Bitters. In each of these products, the choice of mānuka supports slightly different actions.

We chose it for our Switchel to help support our kidney and urinary system as part of the product’s overall electrolyte function. 


Within our Liver Bitters its action is to support a healthy digestive system, to support waste elimination (constipation) and indigestion, and also, as it is a bitter plant, it helps with bile production and overall liver health.

We chose it for our Immunity Tonic because it helps to support a healthy immune response (e.g. with fevers, ills and chills etc). We are very lucky and grateful that this versatile plant is available for us to use in a variety of ways.

4. How can you use mānuka?

The best way to use mānuka is in a tea or infusion.

Mānuka can easily be picked and dried to be used as tea. You can use the leaves to make an overnight steep and then use it as a mouthwash or gargle for oral health hygiene. You can also add it to peppermint tea to support digestion. Always remember when foraging to be responsible and respectful and only take what you need, never from the roadside and always ask permission if on other people’s land.

Another option would be to infuse it in oil so you can use it topically. You could do this in a double boiler, which uses heat and is a quicker method. You could also use the folk method, which is a cold infusion - over a month to 6 weeks. Once strained, pour it into a sterilised jar and label it with the date. You could use this oil to make a balm by adding beeswax and cacao butter if you wish as well. 

Mānuka honey is also widely available. This honey is anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial and can also support the immune system. Taken by the teaspoon, it can help with itchy, irritated throats and can also be used topically for irritated skin. Mānuka honey can also be added to lukewarm drinks to supercharge its health benefits.

According to Comvita NZ, it takes bees approximately 22,700 individual trips to the mānuka flower to gather nectar to make one 500gm jar of honey! How impressive is that!

Advice: Use products only as directed. Discontinue if any irritation arises. If symptoms persist, see your health care professional.

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