Māori Plant Use

   Skip Navigation Links
Copyright © 2019

Plant Use Details 

 
Sophora spp. Kōwhai. Main reference.
FAMILY: Fabaceae Pea family
BOTANICAL NAME: Sophora spp. Especially Sophora microphylla and Sophora tetraptera.
MĀORI NAME: KŌWHAI. (Recorded by Solander in 1769 for S. tetraptera); kōwhai māori (Recorded by Solander in 1769 for S. microphylla, which was more common along the coast); kōhai, goai (Ngai Tahu dialect. See, for example, references in Beattie 1994)
kōwhai angaora, kōwhai tauiti (Williams 1971); kōwhai tāepa - a drooping variety of Sophora tetraptera (Williams 1971); houma , Otago Maori name for S. microphylla (Lindsay 1868)
DESCRIPTION: Rauraha - term applied to kōwhai when bursting into bloom. Punga - term applied to kōwhai when the flowers begin to fall. (Williams 1971)
NOTES: Sophora microphylla. ''... the Kowai of [Otago] settlers, - or as the word is variously corrupted and spelt by them - Goai or Ghoai, Goa or Ghoa. According to Hector , the type is known to the Otago Maoris as Houma, while the term Kowhai is applied to var. grandiflora [S. tetraptera] in common with its other varieties. Var. Microphylla is also sometimes designated by the colonists the Native 'Laburnum' or 'Mimosa' '' (Lindsay 1868)
MEDICINAL: Bark: boiled with mānuka, poured over woodash, rubbed onto diseased skin and dandruff. Infusion drunk for internal pains. Lotion applied locally to pains in back and side. Inner bark, lotion for scabies (Taylor 1848 and 1870; Goldie 1905 ; Best 1906, 1908).
Bark used as a purgative (Colenso 1869a ; Kirk, in Taylor 1870).
Inner bark used by bushmen as poultice for sprains, etc. (Kirk 1889).
Root - juice of central core taken internally for gonorrhoea. Told so by 'two independent persons'. Bark used as poultice for skin disease, dressing wounds (Bell 1890).
Infusion for bathing cuts, bruises, swellings. Juice expressed on sores, inner bark used to cover infected skin (Te Rangi Hiroa 1910).
''A good remedy for colds and sore throats is to steep goai... bark in boiling water and drink the infusion. It has to be taken fresh, as it will not keep ... The bark is taken only from the sunny side of the tree, and its removal does not kill the tree. My neighbours and I all keep a stock of the bark handy'' (Māori informant quoted in Beattie 1920)
Boil or crush the bark, steep in water, apply to bruises. A quick healer of broken limbs after they have been reset. (Poverty Bay Federation of Women's Institutes Cookery Calendar; mid-1930s?)
Bark soaked in water, pounded to soften, applied as a pack to broken limbs. Wound bathed with infusion (S. Collier ; H. Honana) Bark and leaves boiled and applied as a pack for broken limbs (K. Kahaki 1941).
Medicinal information was collected by Norman Potts, a public notary in the Bay of Plenty. Two of Pott's informants gave personal examples of the efficacy of kōwhai for mending broken bones.
Bark crushed, infusion used for bathing bruises. Said to help heal fractures (Adams 1945).
Ashes of kōwhai used for ringworm (Anon, 'Straight Furrow', December 1946: 101).
Used a lot by Mother Aubert. Grew trees at Home of Compassion, Island Bay. A remedy of Mother Aubert's tested by the Paris Faculty of Medicine in the 1870s/1880s, said to be superior to quinine, as it had no unpleasant side effects - thought by Sister Angela as perhaps being kōwhai (Sister Angela in interview with Ruth Mason, Botany Division, 14/8/40).

Related pharmacology in Brooker, Cambie and Cooper 1987.
See Riley 1994 for information on medicinal uses of related plants elsewhere in the world.
DYES: Yellow dye (Wall, Cranwell 1943)
DOMESTIC: Sometimes used to make axe handles, particularly the heavier ones(Colenso 1869a)

Among museum artefacts he tested Wallace 1989 found 5 mauls, 2 paddles and a weapon.
CONSTRUCTION: Timber. Cabinetmaking. Millwright's work. (Colenso 1869a) (N.B. Details on colonial timber uses generally not part of this database).

Valuable for fencing, highly durable (Buchanan, list of useful trees in Otago, New Zealand Exhibition Catalogue, 1865)
FISHING AND HUNTING: A kereru which had to live on the leaves of the kōwhai [sic] was very poor and was not generally eaten, as the inside had a nasty smell' (Makereti 1938)
CHEMISTRY: S. tetraptera contains tannin (Smith 1879)

Compounds have been isolated from all parts of the plant. Listed in Cambie 1976, 1988 with references.
TOXINS: Wood is poisonous. Two persons very ill after eating food with a spoon made from kōwhai wood (Aston 1923a).
TRADITIONS: Flowering of tree is said to mark the last frost of the season - the kōwhai frost. In some parts, the kōwhai flood or rains seen as inevitable (Best 1908)
He ua kōwhai, spring showers, when the kōwhai is in bloom (Williams 1971)
RECORD NUMBER: 1102