Two plants abundant across New Zealand’s islands are the Manuka/Kāhikatoa (Leptospermum scoparium) shrub and its taller tree relative Kānuka (Kunzea ericoides). They are colloquially called ‘tea trees’ after Captain Cook took it upon himself to name them once they proved to make a good cuppa.
I first came across Manuka by one of Taupo’s geothermal springs, where there is a very localised sub-species Kānuka ericoides var. microflora. A lucky if accidental find. A week later, while tramping (the term for hiking in New Zealand) through the lowland bush, I dropped back while friends walked on. I rubbed the white Manuka flowers and spiny thin leaves. A burst of lemon and heather scents and yes, familiar tea tree. My mind ticked over as we hiked up towards some caves. Surely that lemon heather scent would make a fresh tea? Indeed, I am no pioneer – Manuka bush tea is still ‘a thing’.
A handful of Manuka springs in my back pack (the kānuka grows too high to reach) we descended home and they were duly boiled up and supped. Our host said he had many a time brewed some up on long hikes in the bush. It made for a fresh cup not unlike citrus green tea which, it was agreed, reminded us of home. The scent so similar to the smell of being on the peat bog; the sweet gale and the heather flowers combined.
Across New Zealand Manuka shrub and the Kānuka tree has long been used by Māori for a myriad of uses, yet early settlers tried to clear this ‘nuisance’ shrub. Now it’s importance for pollinators, enticed by it’s sweet flower nectar, has called for careful management and regeneration. And still it makes a very good cuppa.