Kawakawa is an important understory plant in coastal forests, and found growing in warmer parts of New Zealand.
Every part of the tree (root, fruit, seeds and leaves) is used in rongoārākau.
The heart shaped fleshy leaves can be used on skin cuts and wounds to promote healing, chewed to relieve toothache, and if dried and burned, as an effective insect repellent.
Leaves and roots were boiled to make a tonic used to treat a number of conditions from worms to chest and kidney ailments
The leaves are often covered in small holes – the food source of the caterpillar for the kawakawa looper moth, which are immune to the toxins in the leaf. Instead of these being shunned by Māori as tatty, they are favoured for rongōa as they indicate that they are the most potent.
Tiny fruit ripens to an orange colour on upright spikes and are loved and widely dispersed by birds (kererū and tūī). They are a delicacy for humans too, with a slight pawpaw taste, though the small black seeds have a peppery taste.