Kawakawa leaf
June 23, 2015

The Promise:

A recent client brief specified that part of the design should represent the importance of New Zealand’s native kawakawa leaf to their project.

We searched for existing photographs to purchase but came up empty. There are a few photos of kawakawa online, but only a very few and none of them answered the requirements of what we needed for the artwork. Plan B was to take some photos specifically: “Sure thing” I boldly stated. “I’m out running and mountain biking the wonderful native bush trails available to use here in Rotorua, I can find those leaves and take some studio photos.”

I did a little preliminary research to make sure I knew what I was looking for, then kept my eyes peeled on every ride and run I did. It was harder than I anticipated – I just couldn’t find any. I did more research to figure out where they might be in this region and started going out for runs just to search for the elusive kawakawa. During the course of this research I found out some intriguing facts and stories about them. They are a traditional herb in Maori medicinal care, with a wealth of uses including a mild analgesic effect similar to Fiji’s Kava plant which it is related to.


Maori lore:

There is also differing points of view on which leaves are the most potent for medicinal use. One theory is that the leaves with many caterpillar holes are best, because the caterpillars eating them stimulates the plant to produce more of the active chemicals which provide its medicinal value.

Another is that the holey leaves are best, but for a different reason – that the caterpillars know which leaves are the best ones!

Yet another theory is that leaves from the north side of plants are most effective. Although that could be a variation of conservation – encouraging people to take leaves from the sunnier north-facing side of plants because that side will recover and re-grow faster seeing as it faces the warmer northern side.

In any case. I couldn’t find any for a long time, and was getting concerned about not being able to deliver on a promise to the client.


In the least likely spot:

Eventually I was successful, returning from an unfruitful run in a new area far off the beaten track and getting into my car to drive home and noticing a plant in the carpark. A carpark of all places, with the out of the way locations I’d been checking! From that area I ended up finding a wide range of healthy plants to choose from.

The photo shoot was successful and I delivered on the promise to the client. I have since found out that kawakawa is rare in this area because it is frost prone, it is more common in coastal areas or further north so I was especially fortunate to find any.


Lessons learned

Two lessons were learnt during this process:
1: Don’t promise to take photos of something unless you’re very sure of where to find them.
2: Kawakawa leaves are a fascinating natural medicinal plant that I never would have encountered if I hadn’t broken lesson 1.

As a side benefit. I have now attuned my awareness of kawakawa to such a fine degree that I can identify it from a passing glance at a distance. I’m also enjoying the occasional cup of kawakawa leaf tea, which is very satisfying.