Piper excelsum (Formally Macropiper excelsum) is commonly known as Kawakawa. Kawakawa is one of the most distinctive New Zealand native plants. It is a herbaceous shrub with knobbly joints and branching stems. It has large heart-shaped leaves that are dark green, and sometimes slightly glossy. Piper excelsum is a coastal shrub that has orange berries that are important for birds. The habitat of the kawakawa plant is the coastal and lowland forests of the North Island and the northern half of the South Island. It prefers moisture rich & free-draining soil in a semi-shade to shade position.
Kawakawa is endemic to New Zealand. Plants can grow up to 6m, but home gardeners will find they’re easily kept trimmed to a more manageable size. You’ll often see holes in the leaves caused by the caterpillar of the kawakawa looper moth, which restricts its diet to kawakawa. It’s not detrimental to the plant. It will tolerate an open windy situation but is frost tender and will only survive on the Banks Peninsula in Canterbury in an open position. Kawakawa will often be found growing beneath the canopy of larger plantings as the kawakawa plant does not require much light to flourish.
The leaves of the kawakawa plant have a long history of medicinal use. They are still very popular with traditional practitioners for preparing rongoā. A dissolution of leaves in hot water would bring out the flavours, aromas and essential natural minerals. Traditionally the tea was drunk to soothe the digestive system. The leaves were also turned in a poultice and applied topically to treat skin abrasions and ailments. There are also stories of people chewing on the leaves to cure toothaches. It is an incredibly medicinal and healing plant of the New Zealand bush