Piper excelsum, previously known as Macropiper excelsum, belongs to the pepper family (Piperaceae) and is commonly referred to as kawakawa. It is a small tree, with the subspecies P. excelsum subsp. excelsum being native to New Zealand, while P. e. subsp. psittacorum is found in Lord Howe Island, Norfolk Island, and the Kermadec Islands.

Description: Kawakawa is widespread throughout the North Island of New Zealand and extends as far south as ?k?rito on the West Coast and Banks Peninsula on the east coast of the South Island. The tree typically reaches a height of 6.1 m.

Leaves: The leaves of kawakawa are typically 5–10 cm long and 6–12 cm wide, opposite to each other, and broadly rounded with a short drawn-out tip. They have a heart-shaped base and may exhibit holes caused by the caterpillar of the kawakawa looper moth (Cleora scriptaria). In forested areas, the leaves appear deep green, while in more open environments, they may have a yellowish-green hue.

Flowers: Kawakawa flowers grow on greenish, erect spikes measuring 2.5–7.5 cm long. They are minute and densely clustered around the spike. After pollination, the flowers develop into small, berry-like fruits ranging from yellow to bright orange.

Berries: Each berry cluster is approximately the size of a small finger and ripens from January to February. These fruits are enjoyed by kerer? or New Zealand pigeon.

Uses: Kawakawa has been utilized as a traditional medicinal plant by the M?ori people. Infusions made from the leaves or roots were used to alleviate toothache, and wounds were often wrapped in kawakawa leaves. The sweet edible yellow berries, primarily found on female trees in summer, were consumed as a diuretic. Leaves with caterpillar-eaten holes were traditionally favored for medicinal purposes.

In cultural contexts, kawakawa leaves are waved to welcome guests at a marae, and wreaths of kawakawa may be worn by hosts and guests at a tangi as a symbol of mourning. Early European settlers in New Zealand used kawakawa in teas and experimented with it as a flavoring agent in beer. It is also commonly grown as an ornamental plant in gardens. Kawakawa essential oil contains myristicin, which can induce delirium when consumed in high concentrations.

It has been suggested that the M?ori people, upon their arrival in New Zealand, named the plant ‘Kawakawa’ due to its resemblance to Piper methysticum, the plant used to make kava in the tropical Pacific. However, considering that Piper species are also found in tropical Polynesia, it is more plausible that they simply transferred the name of those plants to the New Zealand variety. In regions like the Cook Islands and the Marquesas, P. latifolium is referred to as ‘Kavakava-atua’, while in Samoa it is known as ‘Ava’ava-aitu’. P. latifolium bears a striking resemblance to the New Zealand species and is likewise utilized in traditional medicine in the Cook Islands.

Always consult a medical practitioner before embarking on any program. The information on this page is not diagnostic, therefore always consult a herbal practitioner or your GP in order to obtain a diagnosis. Never stop taking prescribed treatment without consulting your GP or a qualified herbal practitioner. Do not take without qualified medical advice.

Grow notes:

  • Seed Preparation: To enhance germination, you can scarify the seeds by gently rubbing them with sandpaper or nicking them with a knife. This helps break through the seed coat, allowing moisture to penetrate and initiate germination.
  • Choosing a Growing Medium: Select a well-draining and nutrient-rich growing medium for sowing the Piper excelsum seeds. A combination of potting soil and perlite or vermiculite works well. Fill small pots or seed trays with the chosen medium, leaving some space at the top for the seeds.
  • Sowing Seeds: Plant the prepared Piper excelsum seeds in the pots or seed trays, pressing them gently into the soil. Space the seeds evenly and cover them with a thin layer of the growing medium. Ensure that the seeds are not buried too deeply, as they require light to germinate.
  • Watering: After sowing the seeds, water the soil thoroughly until it is evenly moist but not waterlogged. Avoid overwatering, as this can lead to fungal issues. Maintain consistent moisture levels throughout the germination process by misting the soil regularly.
  • Providing Warmth and Light: Place the pots or seed trays in a warm and well-lit location, such as a sunny windowsill or greenhouse. Piper excelsum seeds require temperatures of around 21-27°C for optimal germination. Providing bottom heat with a heat mat can help expedite germination.
  • Germination: Piper excelsum seeds typically germinate within 2 to 4 weeks under optimal conditions. Keep an eye on the pots or trays for signs of germination, such as the emergence of seedlings from the soil.
  • Transplanting Seedlings: Once the Piper excelsum seedlings have developed several sets of true leaves and are sturdy enough to handle, they can be transplanted into larger pots or directly into the garden. Choose a sunny location with well-draining soil for transplanting.
  • Care and Maintenance: Provide regular watering and sunlight to the growing Piper excelsum seedlings. Ensure they receive at least 6 hours of sunlight per day to promote healthy growth. Protect young seedlings from extreme temperatures and pests.
  • Patience and Growth: Piper excelsum trees are slow-growing, and it may take several years for them to reach maturity and develop into fully grown trees. Be patient and continue to provide proper care and maintenance to support their growth.

PIC BY Tatiana Gerus from Brisbane, Australia, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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