Rongoā practitioner Donna Kerridge explains how to make a simple decoction for respiratory conditions and digestion.
Wairakau (decoctions) were once one of the most common and favoured remedies used by rongoā Māori practitioners.
Rongoā Māori practitioners are not chemists and most are unlikely to know what the constituents or active ingredients are in the plants they use. Still, through a strong connection to the land and their intimate knowledge of the symbiotic relationships that flourish within the ngahere, practitioners have developed many effective New Zealand plant remedies that are as relevant in a modern world as they were generations ago.
Knowing or understanding the active ingredients and constituents in a plant is less relevant when you stick to the old ways of preparation and have lots of experience of the use of specific wairakau. Understanding plant constituents is much more important when you lack experience or start changing the way medicines were traditionally prepared or administered, like using different solvents or harvesting plants at different times of year.
To make wairakau, water from special springs or deep underground aquifers is used as a solvent to draw out the plant’s unique properties. Coupled with the appropriate knowledge and respect for preparation, rongoā Māori practitioners use wairakau as hot compresses, for bathing, as dermal washes, internally to complement topical treatments and, since colonisation, as a base for medicinal syrups.
Today wairakau are being replaced by more accessible, longer lasting, convenient and sometimes more palatable remedies. This may be the result of the declining availability of suitable plant material and a reducing pool of expert practitioners or legislation constraining the use of plant medicines. We are slowly losing our competent working knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of specific wairakau preparations and as a consequence a valuable taonga diminishing our connection to the land
Wairakau are an excellent way of extracting important antioxidant substances such as flavononids and polyphenols, glycosides, antimicrobial tannins, mineral salts and some vitamins (such as niacin and B12, which are not affected by the heating process), in their most absorbable forms.
Yes they have a shorter shelf life compared to other medicines, need to be made fresh each time (or stored in the fridge) and can taste really bad, but these things are offset by their significantly cheaper cost and evidence of efficacy in some otherwise difficult to treat chronic conditions.
Wairakau are made from New Zealand-grown plants; preparation is governed by tikanga to ensure that plants are of the highest quality and harvested sustainably and at times when they are most effective. Wairakau is economical, effective in the right conditions – and, more importantly, helps us maintain that link with nature that some of us city dwellers crave for our own wellbeing. Our medicines are only as good as the raw ingredients and the love, care and compassion used to prepare them.
It makes good sense that as rongoā Māori practitioners for our whanau we should strive to maintain one of our key points of difference and continue to cherish the knowledge handed to us, by preparing our own medicines including wairakau from raw materials. As a natural consequence we will remember to care for and treasure the gifts of Papatūānuku who sustains our wellbeing.
How to make wairakau kūmarahou
Kūmarahou (Pomaderris kumeraho) leaves were traditionally taken internally as a decoction for bronchial complaints and digestive disorders. It is used topically as a dermal wash for healing skin conditions and burns. The flowers of the plant were used as a foaming soap in running water, also known as Gum Digger’s Soap. Kūmarahou also demonstrates a healing effect on the lungs and is a natural bitter to support liver function.
- A handful of fresh or half the amount of dried kūmarahou leaves
- Stainless steel pot
- Strainer to filter plant material
Prior to harvesting your plant material and again before making your rongoā, offer a quiet karakia to acknowledge Tāne’s gift and the purpose for which it was harvested.
Cover your kūmarahou leaves with cold water (about 1.5 litres) in a stainless steel pot. Bring this to the boil and simmer gently for 15-20 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and strain plant material from the water using a clean cloth or muslin. This water is your wairakau. Once the liquid has cooled you can store it in the fridge until needed. Return the spent plant material/leaves to Papatūānuku. Never discard your used leaves in the rubbish.
Dosage: Mix half a cup of cold decoction with half a cup of hot water. Drink 2-3 cups each day (the taste gets better as you get used to the initial kawa bite of the first mouthful).