Leptospermum scoparium, better known as Mānuka, is an important evergreen tree found around the coastal areas of New Zealand. Its story, if told through the lens of a film, would be a box office blockbuster. Key to its survival across the centuries, has been its extraordinary ability to regenerate itself and also its antibacterial powers.
The Mānuka tree will generally grow up to five metres in height, although trees have been seen to grow up to fifteen metres tall. It features thick branching with small leaves and flowers that give a sweet scent.
Mānuka & Maori
Maori have had a long relationship with Mānuka, finding a plethora of uses for it; from tools, to medicine, to weapons and building materials. The list goes on including canoe paddles and spears for hunting, its bark was also used to carry water and provide a waterproof membranes for roofs.
The Mānuka was also used by the Maori for its health and healing properties. They made infusions from the leaves to reduce fevers and treat stomach problems, as well as treating scalds and burns.
What’s extraordinary is that Mānuka’s life cycle craves fire. When the capsules containing Mānuka seeds are subjected to intense heat they open, scattering seeds on the recently cleared ground.
In each area there’s a fight for survival; where fire can destroy all vegetation - it can regenerate quickly. In time, however, the dense branching of each Mānuka tree provides shelter for lower level vegetation to thrive again, and after 50-75 years if no forest fire ravages the area, the Mānuka will be superseded by this second phase vegetation and will die out. Having served its purpose in the natural world life cycle.
Around 250 years ago, early settlers from Europe arrived, burnt down countless acres of land and forest, planted grass and put sheep to graze. On the steeper hills, where sheep were unable to reach, Mānuka was able to regenerate. They cleared extensive areas using fire. This gave Mānuka the opportunity to rapidly grow across many areas of the country.
Captain Cook’s crew boiled the leaves of Mānuka to make tea. Cook also brewed beer using Mānuka and Rimu leaves.
Medicinal and Antibacterial properties
In 1839, a couple of hives and honey bees from Australia were brought over to New Zealand.
Today, Honey made from bees who collect nectar predominantly from the Mānuka tree is recognised as a valuable food and health product. Studies, including that of the University of Waikato in New Zealand [further information here.], show that Mānuka honey has the highest antibacterial activity of all honeys. Sparking worldwide demand.
In addition, essential oils from Mānuka leaves are used commercially and form the basis of a variety of medicinal and cosmetic products.