Robert McGowan, QSM

As a former priest, Rob McGowan – awarded a Queen’s Service Medal in yesterday’s Queen’s Birthday Honours – is at ease with the concept of mauri (life force) which he honours and acknowledges when entering New Zealand’s bush or handling native plants and notes matter-of-factly he always asks before he takes anything for his practice of rongoā (Māori medicine).

“Sometimes the answer is ‘yes’, sometimes ‘no’ and sometimes I’m quite clearly directed to another plant the same but over there. If you stand quietly and listen, it’s all there.”

Rob McGowan in his teaching garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

His initiation into rongoā came when he was sent by the Catholic church to Whanganui to learn te reo. “I met Aunty Rua [Henare] who was making piupiu [flax skirts] for the culture club, a very respected elder and somewhat feared. When it came time to go up the river to collect flax it turned out I was the only man available to help her.

“On another trip we went into the bush to collect bark for dye and later I found out that once you begin making the dye there are some strict tapu, one being that a man can’t sleep with his wife, so I suppose a priest was handy to have around.”

Still widely known as Pa Ropata, Rob says “at some point” Aunty Rua decided to teach him rongoā, although she had taken her time sizing him up. “She was testing me to see if I would learn properly and keep the knowledge safe – you can ask to be taught, but they choose who they will teach.”

All hebes (this is Hebe stricta), including garden hybrids, have medicinal properties – eat unopened tips to ease diarrhoea; boil small branches for 10 minutes, cool and use to ease chafing or nappy rash. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Rob’s mother, the daughter of Dalmatian gumdiggers, used herbal medicine for her family based on rongoā knowledge shared through the marae next door, and as a child Rob spent much time in the Northland bush. “So Aunty Rua would ask for something and I could go and get it. That helped her open up to me.”

When Rob was transferred to Hastings in 1977, Aunty Rua instructed him to share his knowledge only with those who could whakapapa back (tie their genealogy) to the Whanganui River. She  connected him with Paul Mareikura who continued Rob’s education in Hawke’s Bay, an introduction that was doubly valuable when Aunty Rua was killed a few months later.

“They said, ‘we don’t have to teach you anything – if you get to know the plants they will teach you everything’. I always thought it was an excuse not to tell me something, but actually that’s how it is.”

The holed leaves of kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum) are the most effective as medicine. Scrunch older leaves and rub on as an insect repellent or make a leaf wad and chew on it gently to numb toothache or ease a sore throat. Photo: Sandra Simpson

After moving to Te Puke to tend to Catholic Māori in the Bay of Plenty Rob found himself burning out and in 1989 took sick leave, before deciding to leave the ministry.

A short time later he met Vic Smith, a leader of Ngāti Hangarau in Bethlehem, who urged him to share his knowledge with young Māori so Rob went back to Whanganui and sought permission, which was granted.

Since the opening of the hapu’s Ngamanawa Waitaia Lodge in 1992, Rob has taught there regularly, seeing it as a chance to reconnect the people to the whenua (land), as well as taking courses open to everybody. He now works for Ngā Whenua Rāhui, a unit within the Department of Conservation, which provides funding for the protection of indigenous ecosystems on Māori-owned land. There is now more than 170,000ha under covenant (kawenata).

Rob, who lives on a 2.4ha rural property in Welcome Bay, near Tauranga, with his wife Lyndel Crisp, a medical herbalist and former nurse, and daughter Ella, was delighted to be made a life member of the New Zealand Association of Medical Herbalists at their annual conference in 2017.

He helps run a small nursery for the neighbourhood Waitao Landcare Group and he and Lyndel participate in the fortnightly planting bees – in 2016 the Waitao Stream won the Morgan Foundation National River Story award.

Pomaderris kumerahou is also known as bushman’s soap. A few crushed and moistened leaves rubbed between the hands are said to remove even the worst of embedded grease and sticky substances. Photo: Sandra Simpson

A founding member of Tāne’s Tree Trust in 1999 and still a trustee, Rob is helping the bush on his land regenerate and has also planted a rongoā garden on his property to help students learn plant identification.

“Most New Zealanders see the landscape as a blur of many shades of green, not noticing the incredible diversity that’s present,” he says. “Taking people into the bush is often like teaching blind people to see.”

Many important rongoā plants grow on the fringes of the bush, he says, or in regenerating bush. “They buffer the forest from wind, suck up heavy rainfalls and stop the forest floor drying out, they keep the forest safe and strong. The plants that heal the land are also the ones that heal the people on the land.”

Rongoā Māori: A practical guide to traditional Maori medicine by Rob McGowan is a 70-page book of rongoā practice (no recipes) and is available from Karen Tindall.

This article was first published in NZ Gardener and appears here with permission.

Queen’s Birthday Honours

Congratulations to Jo Dawkins and Rob McGowan, both of Tauranga, who were acknowledged in today’s Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

I’ve previously written in this 2015 post about Jo, who still works tirelessly at Te Puna Quarry Park, and her sister Mary. Jo has become a Member of the NZ Order of Merit (MNZM). Here is today’s story from the Bay of Plenty Times.

Rob McGowan, a rongoā Māori expert, receives a Queen’s Service Medal for services to Māori and conservation. I will post about Rob tomorrow (his Bay of Plenty Times piece is behind the paywall).

Also recognised as an MNZM for his services to horticulture is botanist Murray Dawson of Christchurch, a member of the Royal NZ Institute of Horticulture and a researcher at Landcare.

Cracking kowhai

Wandering along the lakefront in Wanaka and had my eye caught by some large, spreading kowhai trees – nothing like the poor, stunted specimens that serve as street trees in my neighbourhood. These were trees with grunt and clearly of some age.

Kowhai seedpods. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The ground beneath them was peppered with small golden seeds as the wind tossed the branches around. Kowhai  are part of the Sophora family – the Maori name means ‘yellow’ and is pronounced something like ko-fie. Unfortunately, evolution has seen fit to give the tree a seed with a particularly tough outer shell. The tree man I chatted to in Wanaka reckoned seeds that fell in the lake did okay as stones and sand abraded the tough outer shell so water could get in.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

To help start your own seeds try this advice from DOC.

Here in the Western Bay of Plenty we don’t have any naturally occurring kowhai thanks to the volcanic ash and pumice that covered the area 27,000 years ago after the Taupo eruption.

In a 2009 interview Robert McGowan (Pa Ropata), a rongoa Maori medicine expert, said: “Anything with a wind-blown seed or a seed that will be dropped by birds comes back very quickly into a devastated landscape, but the seeds of a kowhai are generally carried back into a landscape by a flood and that will only happen after the rivers start to rebuild the landscape.

“Kowhai seeds can remain dormant for 100 years and need something to wake them up. The pod is very hard and needs to be cracked to get at the seed.”

Kowhai in bloom. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Southland’s Denis Hughes is trying to collect all the various types of kowhai. Read more here. His Blue Mountain Nurseries catalogue is here.

Our native plants: kowhai

another bitter morning
and then –
the first kowhai

– Cyril Childs, 1941-2012


Kowhai blooms. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Despite its prosaic name – kowhai is simply the Maori word for yellow – a tree in flower means spring, doesn’t it? Oddly enough, the Bay of Plenty (where I live) is one of the few places in New Zealand where kowhai don’t occur naturally, thanks to the volcanic ash and pumice that covered the area from the Taupo “super-eruption” 27,000 years ago.

In a 2009 interview Robert McGowan (Pa Ropata), a rongoa Maori medicine expert, said this: “Anything with a wind-blown seed or a seed that will be dropped by birds comes back very quickly into a devastated landscape, but the seeds of a kowhai are generally carried back into a landscape by a flood and that will only happen after the rivers start to rebuild the landscape.

“Kowhai seeds can remain dormant for 100 years and need something to wake them up. The pod is very hard and needs to be cracked to get at the seed.” Read more about how to germinate kowhai seeds here.

In 1925 rugby great George Nepia had his career saved by the bark of the kowhai after injury threatened to end his playing days. Read all about the traditional treatment here.

The kowhai belongs to the Sophora family, Sophora being the Arabic word for a leguminous tree, which itself is part of the pea family (not suprising when you look at the leaves and flowers). It is said that when the kowhai came into flower, Maori knew it was time to plant their potatoes.

The Field Guide to New Zealand Native Trees by John Dawson and Rob Lucas (2012) lists seven separate types of kowhai, many of them hybridising with one another where their territories overlap. The trees aren’t seen in the bush (forest) but grow on open ground and some are semi-deciduous.

Dennis Hughes of Blue Mountain Nurseries in Southland is trying to create better kowhai for the garden, read about his work here. He has a vast selection of kowhai  available in the nursery catalogue (click on catalogues and then natives).

And why would we have a kowhai in the garden? As well as bright yellow flowers at what can still be a dull time of the year, there is also the bird life the nectar-filled flowers attract – tui, bellbirds and waxeyes.

Pearls of Wisdom

A few of the good ideas and bon mots from the speakers at the recent Garden and Artfest …  but first a photo (readers of a delicate disposition should look away now) …

stephen ryan + colin davis - Copy

Loud Shirt Day at the Garden and Artfest – guest speaker Stephen Ryan (left) resplendent in orange with tiny blue polka dots, while Tauranga resident Colin Davis opted for the Colgate look! Photo: Sandra Simpson

Cats, possums and rabbits don’t like the smell of Thiram fungicide, according to Lynda Hallinan, editor-at-large for NZ Gardener. Read more about that in this fact sheet from the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council. She also recommended Stockholm tar, used in the equestrian world, to repel possums – paint it at the base of trees to keep them off.

“Put it in, it dies, put in the compost – and you have that most valuable thing in a garden. A gap.” Stephen Ryan, Australian gardener, nurseryman and author.

Don’t have a heatpad for seed raising? Gerard Martin of Kings Seeds demonstrated how to start tomato, capsicum and eggplant seed using a 2-litre ice-cream container and plastic wrap.

Punch some drainage holes in the bottom of the container, add 2” of seed-raising mix, sprinkle the seed over – never sow seed more than twice its diameter deep – lightly cover with more mix, water, wrap the container in plastic film (making sure there are no gaps) and place the whole thing in your hot-water cupboard.

The seeds should germinate in about a week but works only for seeds that don’t need light to germinate. The seeds shouldn’t go outside too soon when they come out, give them time to adjust.

Don’t attempt to trim your topiary to its finished shape on the first attempt. Approach the size and shape you want. That way, any mistakes made will be small ones – Claudia Gorringe during her clipping demonstration.

A natural treatment for varroa mite is to use icing-sugar. Buy a puffer from a pet store, fill with organic icing sugar and cover all the bees lightly (they breathe through their skin so don’t overdo it). The icing sugar makes the bees slippery and the varroa mites slip off. As well, the bees love the icing sugar and lick it off, in the process preening off the mites. Do fortnightly. It doesn’t eliminate varroa but you can keep on top of the pest.

– Advice from Marcia Meehan, natural beekeeper

Getting out in the sunshine and gardening is medicine. Hearing birdsong is medicine.

Every vege garden needs a flax plant – there are your tomato ties (strips of flax) that will do the job but be gone by the end of the season. Much better than plastic.

– Both from Robert McGowan, rongoa Maori medicine expert.