Learning Guide


Tyne-Marie Nelson, leader of the Te Mata Rongoā Maara

Rongoā Māori is a system of practices and tikanga (principles) that aid in healing and hauora (wellbeing). While the focus of this learning guide is rongoā rākau, where we use plants to and developing a relationship with our natural world, it is important to acknowledge that rongoā Māori is not limited to rākau and includes a range of other practices of which wairua (spirituality) is an integral part. Some examples are the body-work practices of romiromi and mirimiri, as well as the use of taonga puoro (musical instruments), mahi toi (art), karakia and takutaku (types of prayers and incantations).

Rongoā comes from a tradition of living as a part of the natural world, and the accumulation of generations of close observation of every detail (Pa McGowan, 2019). As such, rongoā is very specific to our beautiful homeland of Aotearoa and its particular plants and species. While plant identification skills are critical to learning rongoā rākau (the misuse of a plant could result in serious harm or even death), it is important to understand that rongoā isn’t just about using plant constituents to cure our mamae (ache, pain, injury, wound). To truly learn rongoā Māori you must also develop your understanding of te ao Māori (the Māori way of understanding the world). 

This learning guide has been developed by Tyne-Marie Nelson to support people to learn about rongoā Māori – particularly rongoā rākau. It will be particularly helpful for those at the beginning of their journey. Please note, from here on in where the term rongoā is used throughout this guide we are using it in relation to rongoā rākau


Established in 2019, the Te Mata Rongoā Maara is located a short stroll down from the Main Gates Car Park. What was recently home to a stand of exotic deodara pines, blackberries and pasture is now being revegetated with native species and developed into a learning resource for future generations. 

Te Matau a Māui/Hawkes Bay can be a challenging place to learn rongoā because our natural landscape has been modified so much. In the old days, rongoā plants were more abundant throughout the rohe (region) which meant that people were more familiar with them. Nowadays, we only have a few remaining pockets of ngahere (forest) left where we are able to go to learn our trees, yet, these are not easily accessible and typically require a vehicle to get there. 

Heoi anō, Te Mata Peak is a special place for all who call Te Matau a Māui/Hawkes Bay home – a vantage point that overlooks the entire rohe – a most appropriate place to develop a rongoā maara for the whole community. 

“The first teacher of rongoā Māori is the ngahere, te Wao Nui a Tane, the forest itself” – Robert (Pa) McGowan

Tyne sharing kōrero with Te Roopu Puke Atea on a morning of māhi.

As it stands, the whenua is in its first phase of healing. The exotic and invasive trees, shrubs and weeds have been removed without the use of chemicals. Our care group Te Roopu Puke Atea  have been planting native and eco-sourced plants since 2020, hand- releasing them from being overgrown by weeds and grass, which is one of the biggest threats to their survival in their early days.

Species which have been planted are typical of revegetation programmes throughout Te Matau a Maui/Hawkes Bay; plants such as karamū, kahikatoa (mānuka), karo, akeake, harakeke, makomako, tī kōuka, and koromiko. These are commonly referred to as coloniser or pioneer species, however we prefer to call these first responders kai-rongoā – the first to arrive on the scene and begin the natural process of healing. Special characteristics typical of these plants are that they generally;

  • produce many small or light seeds
  • are quick to establish and have relatively short life-cycles
  • they are generally shorter trees or shrubs
  • they can tolerate direct sun and are hardy

In several years when the canopy has closed (that is, when the trees have established themselves enough that they provide shade and warmth beneath them), the next stage of the forest regeneration process will begin. At this stage, we should not have to release the plants anymore as the weeds will not survive without sunlight and will die back on their own. Instead, we will be able to start to introduce new plants, the ‘secondary species’ that grow in the shelter of the kai-rongoā, now acting as ‘nurse plants’ or kai-manaaki


*Adapted from Rongoā Māori – A practical guide to traditional Māori Medicine by Rob McGowan

Plant identification is an essential skill for anybody practising rongoā rākau; people must be able to correctly identify the plants they intend to use. It is difficult to overstate the importance of being able to do this. To the beginner, lots of trees and plants look more or less the same, and even the same plant can look very different depending on where it is growing. At the very least this can be very confusing; at worst, an error could be fatal – more than one person has died from being accidentally poisoned with tutu, for instance.

If a person is not prepared to really work hard at learning plant identification then it is better to leave that part of rongoā Māori to somebody else. Although it can seem quite overwhelming at first, getting to know the trees of the forest is no more difficult than getting to know a room full of strangers. In fact, meeting trees is easier; if you leave them for a while they will still be in the same place when you come back!

Tips for plant ID

The best way to learn your plants is to be pro-active and engage with them. Think of it as walking into a room full of strangers – at first, you just see people and it can be a little overwhelming. Then you start to notice the different physical features of the various people. Next, you might choose to talk to a group of people and notice particular quirks or mannerisms; perhaps it’s the sound of their voice or maybe they have a particular smell. They may choose to reciprocate and offer details about themselves – you might learn their name for instance. It is much the same process when learning your rākau. 

Utilise all of your senses to get to know the rākau – and pay attention to the details! 


Look at the leaves:

  • are they big or small?

    Māhoe (Melicytus ramiflorus) with berries

  • are the edges of the leaves smooth or serrated?
  • do they have spots on them?
  • are they shiny?
  • is the underside a different colour or shade to the top of the leaf?
  • how are the leaves arranged; are they opposite each other, or are they alternating?

Look at the seeds:

  • are they big or small?

    Flowering māhoe

  • do they have fleshy fruit around them?
  • what colour are they?
  • Are there many seeds or one seed?
  • do you think they are spread by the wind or birds?

Look at the flowers:

  • are they big or small?
  • what colour/s are they?
  • how are they arranged; just an individual flower or a group of flowers together?
  • are the petals made up of petals or stamens?

Look at the trunk of the tree and the bark:

Māhoe skeleton leaf. Look for these on the forest floor.

  • is there anything special about the bark? Is it smooth? Is it flaky?
  • does the trunk have buttresses?
  • are there insects on the tree or is there any insect damage?

Look up at the canopy, look down at the forest floor, look around – the more you look, the more you see!


The ngahere (forest) is not a museum, nor are trees objects – you are encouraged to touch, as long as you do so with care and respect. In te ao Māori the rakau (trees) are our tupuna (ancestors). Consider that they are our tuakana (elder) and we are the teina (the youngster), and you will get an idea of how we should treat them. 

  • are the leaves furry or prickly?
  • is the stem round or square?
  • is the bark rough or smooth to the touch?
  • are the leaves thick or thin?
  • is the soil below the tree wet or dry?

Ongaonga, Urtica ferox

A word of caution: Just as there are some people that are more affectionate than others, there is just as much variation with our rākau. While many like to be touched, some do not and will let you know very quickly. An example is our native tree nettle, ongaonga. As with people, there is always a good reason behind one’s demeanor and in the case of ongaonga – it takes its job of protecting the kahukura (red admiral butterfly) very seriously!


For plants, smell is a vital form of communication. Their scents are a form of ‘volatile organic compound’, a combination of complex chemicals that easily evaporate and float through the air to attract pollinators and repel predators. In other words, plants produce smells to seduce pollinators or to deter pests!

Sweet smelling flower of houhere (hoheria sextylosa)

Sweet floral smells are designed to attract pollinators that are drawn to a sugary aroma such as bumblebees, bees and many butterfly species. An example of this is the sweet smelling flower of the houhere, which attracts the tūī

Some plants imitate the smell of rotting flesh and dung — they are trying to attract insects like flies and beetles. An example of this is the native tree hūpira (Coprosma foetidissima), also called stinkwood! 

Some plants have essential oils in their leaves which can be smelled after running your hand through the leaves and/or crushing them. Often this is a method to deter pests.

Does the plant smell? Why would it smell that way?

Did you know? Flowers pollinated by bees and butterflies usually release their scents in the day, while those pollinated by moths and bats release theirs at night.


Some leaves, barks, flowers etc have a certain taste (but be careful; some plants are poisonous, you just touch a crushed leaf with the barest tip of your tongue).

By tasting you can start to notice the effects of the climate and discern regional and seasonal differences. This intimate next level knowledge can help with diagnosing issues within the eco-system.

Follow this link to learn more about and identify poisonous plants 


This might sound a bit way out, but the sound of the wind through a tree can sometimes help tell you what it is; or the sound of a certain manu might give you a clue to what type of trees are around. The sound the leaf makes when pulled quickly through your fingers can also help you to discern one species from another. 

Te Reo Māori (the Māori language) with its particular sound has sprung from our taiao, as has taonga puoro (Maori instruments) waiata and kapa haka (traditional song and dance).

Explore further: Listen to esteemed Maori composer Hirini Melbourne (1949-2003) who was notable for his contribution to the development of Māori music and the revival of Māori culture. He played traditional instruments (ngā taonga pūoro) and his waiata (songs) have preserved traditions and used Māori proverbs. He was from Ngāi Tūhoe and Ngāti Kahungunu. Link here: Hirini Melbourne | RNZ

Activity: Leaf music  How to play the leafophone – YouTube


Take note of where each species likes to grow. Some trees only grow in warmer parts of the country, others never grow there, some can tolerate wet or damp soil, others can’t, some like to be in the shade and well protected while others will die if they are out of the sun. 

Other ways to help you learn:


Once you can correctly identify all of the poisonous plants and most (if not all) of the natives found in your rohe (region), you can consider deepening or developing your relationship with rākau further by starting to harvest plant material for use in rongoā (or kai, raranga (weaving), whakairo (carving), taonga puoro (musical instruments) – whichever custom modality you are called/drawn to). Before harvesting anything, there are some important things to take into consideration. 

It would be fair to say that rongoā Māori is undergoing a revitalisation alongside other traditional practices of te ao Māori. This is ultimately good as these practices have much to teach us. Yet, our enthusiasm for the kaupapa can lead us to get ahead of ourselves, to skip ahead to ‘the good bits’, hungrily harvesting with an attitude of entitlement to do so without a second thought. That is not good practice. Exercise restraint until your appetite for harvesting moves from ravenous, to something more considered, deliberate and reverent.

Although New Zealand was one of the most recent places on earth to be settled by humans, we have radically modified the landscape in a very short period of time, resulting in rapid biodiversity loss.

Over the past 150 years, massive wetland drainage, land and biodiversity clearances across the Hawkes Bay region have drastically altered the landscape from its original state, resulting in a loss of 77% of the original indigenous forest that once covered the region.

In Hawkes Bay, we’ve lost 10 plant species, 9 birds, 5 lizards, 2 frogs and 1 fish species – and that’s only the ones that we know of. What remains is under threat from invasive pests such as possums, rats, rabbits, stoats and ferrets.

Because the health of our natural environment is very compromised already, we need to be very careful to cause no harm. If you imagine a family member being severely ill, you wouldn’t want to ask much of them – and would instead be more inclined to give. This is how it should be when taking from the ngahere. Take only what you need and do so according to tikanga. You must do the work you need to in order to gain a good understanding of how to harvest without causing harm to the trees.

The evidence of Māori attitudes to what we now call conservation is indirect and varied within different tribal groups. As with all peoples, immediate survival would have taken precedence over longer-term issues of sustainability. As the population increased, there would have been times when food was scarce, and whatever was edible would have been taken. But by the time of European contact, a number of conservation traditions were evident. There was a widely recognised spiritual relationship between the gods, people, the land and its creatures (Te Ara). 

Karakia provided by Mahinaarangi Tuhi-Smith of Mauri Tau Rongoā

In Hawkes Bay, the majority of the ngahere we have access to is managed by the Department of Conservation. In most cases, the taking of flora and fauna from these protected areas is not allowed unless specifically permitted. However, these tracks are good for beginners who are learning plant identification. Contact your local DOC office if you have a question relating to the status of conservation land.

Engage with the natural environment to synchronise, build familiarity with the rākau and taiao on a deeper level, care for and utilise, participate in the natural world, act as part of it, not excluded from it or an exception to it, deepen your relationship to it.

You may find many different ways to engage with the nature around you such as weaving, cooking with native plants, nature art, mau rākau, takaro, bushwalking, and orienteering. Try different activities to discover what best speaks to you.

Learn more by exploring the following links: 

Different rongoā Māori modalities

Life of Kai, Joe McLeod | Māori Television (maoritelevision.com)

Monique’s Recipes | Māori Television (maoritelevision.com)

Te Whare Tapa Wha

Te Matau a Māui/Hawke’s Bay Calendar of Activities

Downloadable PDF of calendar 

Resources for collecting puha, watercress and other ‘weeds’ 

Calendars for seed collecting and propagation tips

Collecting karengo



What is rongoā?

Watch these videos and learn about rongoā Māori

What does rongoā mean in your own words? 

Can we touch the plants in the ngahere?

What does the whenua (land) mean to you? 

Check your knowledge

Answer these questions to see how much you’ve learned…


In its simplest terms rongoā rākau is the medicinal uses of native plants, on a deeper level it is that the life forces within the forest can be used to maintain & enhance our wellbeing. Other modalities of Rongoā Māori include mirimiri and romiromi (bodywork), whitiwhiti kōrero (support/advice) and karakia (prayer).


It is appropriate to do a karakia, which acknowledges that we are going into a different realm (of Tane Mahuta), and that we are there to learn as a group. A karakia binds us together for that duration and hopefully keeps us all safe.


Collecting & using the wrong plant may cause harm, sickness, & possibly death to the person using it.

Possible answers:

Kawakawa The pepper plant, heart shaped, tastes like pepper, the most commonly used medicinal plant. Can be boiled as a tea/tonic, or used in cooking for a peppery taste.

Karamu From the caprosma family, matching/opposite leaves, red berries can be eaten, leaves used in a tea.

Hangehange Matching/opposite leaves, tips of plant used in a salad.

Pikopiko Hen & Chicken Fern, the young baby koru stalks harvested, eaten raw or boiled up.

Ongaonga Leaves have very sharp needles on them, not to be used or touched.

Rangiora Bushman’s friend, used for toilet paper or as a parchment for writing on.


A karakia should be performed at the end of our time in the ngahere.

Download this poster and learn more about Matauranga Māori and how we interact with the land.


Activity 1

Personifying Plants

E koekoe te kōkō, e ketekete te kākā, e kūkū te kererū

The parson bird chatters, the parrot gabbles, the wood pigeon coos. 

The early ancestors recognised that, like humans, every bird has its own unique characteristics, like the individual cry they make. The native birds of Aotearoa have distinct calls and in some cases are named after those calls. This whakataukī alludes to the idea that like the native bird species we as humans also have individualistic traits.

The lesson given by this proverb is that the world is full of variation, and those differences should be celebrated. 

Plants also have diverse personalities, much like humans. Through this activity, we can consider their differences and appreciate their diversity.


Go into your local bush and collect 3 plants to identify, taking special care to understand which plants are poisonous before you begin.

Resources to help you identify plants:


Once you have discovered and identified your 3 plants, use this worksheet to record the characteristics of each one.

STEP 3: 

Record your plants on your worksheet…

As an example, imagine that one of your plants is a kōwhai.

What does it look like?


  • First, draw a picture of your kōwhai.
  • Next, use the kupu on the worksheet to list the characteristics of a kōwhai that stand out to you such as bright, tough, supportive, scraggly.
  • Now, can you think of anyone who you believe shares many of these same characteristics? Can you create a person with these characteristics? Draw a picture of a person with the traits you’ve identified. 

STEP 4: 

Consider the differences in each of your 3 plants and 3 people. How are they different? How are they the same? Why is it important for plants (and people!) to be different?

Activity 2:

Wairākau and panipani

How to make wairākau (healing tonic) and panipani (healing balm)

Recipes created by Mahinaarangi Tuhi-Smith of Mauri Tau Rongoā



Activity 3:

Grow your own rongoā maara

Guide for planting rongoā at your school, marae or home:

Hawkes Bay can be a challenging place to learn rongoā rākau because our natural landscape has been modified so much. In the old days, rongoa plants could be found all around us which meant that people were more familiar with them. Nowadays, we only have a few remaining pockets of ngahere left where we are able to go to learn our trees, yet, these are not easily accessible (and typically require a vehicle to get there). 

Planting rongoa trees around kura, marae, homes and other special places can help us to recover our rongoa matauranga and to reconnect with our amazing rakau. The following is a guide to help you to do just that!

How can you make a rongoā garden? What would you need and what could you plant? 

Hawkes Bay has what is called a temperate climate which means that it is not too cold, and not too wet, although we enjoy some hot days in the summer and droughts at this time are not uncommon. This is why we plant trees over the winter months so that they have enough time to establish themselves before the dry summer period.

When creating a planting plan it is important to consider the regional climate as some native species won’t do well here. An example of this is kumarahou which is one of our rongoa plants that doesn’t naturally grow in Hawkes Bay, but is found further north. Buying eco-sourced plants from a local nursery is a good way to avoid planting trees that are not well suited to our local conditions.

Different plants have different needs depending on their place within the eco-system. Draw a map of the area that you would like to plant. If you have one particular area that you have in mind, for instance at your kura, draw both a map of that area, but also of the greater school area as well. Be sure to create your plan leading up to winter so that you can plant during the winter planting season. 

  1. Map out your area
  2. Add the existing plants and identify what they are. Do you have any rongoā plants already? 
  3. Spend some time identifying which areas are shady, and which are exposed to sun and/or wind.

4. Choose your species

5. Identify the best location for each species.

The following rongoā plants are generally well suited to our local environment. They have been organised into two general categories – ones that do well in open and exposed environments and those that need shade.

Open sites (underlined ones are poisonous – make a key)











Shady sites










6. Aim to plant in winter

7. Maintain plants throughout the seasons.


  • Karakia

    Create your own karakia. How would you communicate to the plant world before harvest or while enjoying being in nature? Focus on your intention, and the words will follow.

  • Manu and Rakaū

    Explore your class manu or rakaū.

    Why would your class choose this as special to you and your classroom or kura?

    What characteristics or strengths does it have that match your values and kaupapa?

    Click here for more ideas.

  • Visit Te Mata Park

    Come Visit!

    Plan a hikoi at Te Mata Peak and see what plants you can identify!


  • Poisonous Plants

    Read about poisonous plants HERE. Choose 3 to research, learning how to identify each one on sight and explain why they are harmful. 

  • Write Your Pepeha

    Write your pepeha as a wellbeing or self love exercise. Everyone has a place and a purpose like every tree and plant have a purpose. 

  • Create a Class Herbarium

    Collect plant samples and press them to create a class herbarium that will help you learn to identify plants.


The Māori calendar is called the maramataka, and it is a lunar calendar. Instead of referring to days of the week, the maramataka goes by nights of the month – marama meaning ‘moon’. The rhythm of the maramataka is quite different to the calendar year we are all familiar with, which is based on the cycles of the sun and begins with January 1st and ends December 31st. Instead, the maramataka new year begins within the period of June-July, specifically with the first new moon following the appearance of Matariki (Pleiades) or Puanga (Rigel), depending on where you are in the country. The maramataka requires us to engage, interact and observe our natural environment. Importantly, we are a part of that picture.

In te ao Māori, everything is connected; consider the whakatauki;

 ‘Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au –

I am the river and the river is me’.

When working with the maramataka, we grow our understanding of the influence the moon phase has on ourselves and our environment. We also utilise and build on the matauranga passed down over generations specific to our takiwa. With this knowledge, we can plan our activities in a way that works with nature, and not against it. The following are some simple steps along with this maramataka dial PDF template to get you started on your journey with the maramataka.

Find a local maramataka that has the names of the moons for your area. Here is one for Kahungunu from Paraire Tomoana.. Keep this on hand and try to familiarise yourself with the names, qualities and activities suggested for each moon phase.

Keep a journal. Make notes of what is going on for you. For example, is your energy high or low? Are you feeing scattered or focussed? Irritable or calm? At the same time, note what moon phase it is and any other observations. Look for tohu (signs) in nature such as the blossoming of flowers like the kōwhai, watch the tides, the changes in weather and add them to your journal. Also, you may notice that people are particularly grumpy or happy or sensitive on certain moon-phases. Write it all down.

Commit to the process for one moon cycle (from new moon to new moon) and then reflect on what you wrote. From here you might like to try committing to practising this for a year.

Resources for collecting puha, watercress and other ‘weeds’ 

Calendars for seed collecting and propagation tips

Collecting karengo



Aroha mai, aroha atu. I receive love, I give love.

What can you do in your community to connect to and heal the land?