Rob McGowan on rongoā

Department of Conservation —  24/09/2020

Rob McGowan is a prominent rongoā Māori practitioner, well respected for his work in the restoration of rongoā practise and traditional knowledge of native plants and medicines in Aotearoa New Zealand. Rob explains why we need to care for rongoā plants to help Papatūānuku thrive, even if that means using 1080.

Rob McGowan.
📷: Karen Murphy

Most of the plants used for rongoā grow on the regenerating fringe of the ngahere, or under the big trees that make up the canopy. Their main role is to heal the whenua and to protect the other trees and plants within the ngahere.

Kawakawa in the understory.
📷: Kate McAlpine

The term used in Whanganui for this fringe is ‘tōtara hoe’ and we liken them to the warriors who stand in front of the marae to challenge manuhiri.  That part of the ngahere is often most under pressure. Most of the rongoā plants are palatable and are eaten out by browsing animals, to be readily displaced by any number of exotic weeds.

Understory eaten out.
📷: DOC

The ngahere is left vulnerable if it loses that protective fringe, and even the biggest trees struggle to remain strong without those smaller plants to keep out the wind, protect their roots and retain moisture in the soil. And it is those lesser trees that provide kai for the manu; a ngahere with no birds is a ngahere with no voice.

Bare understory.
📷: Kate McAlpine

If we want our forest to thrive, we need to take special care of the rongoā plants. The ngahere, Te Wao nui a Tāne, is like a marae; our rangatira can only stand strong if they have their whole whānau around them to support them.

That means that we have to do what needs to be done to look after them. Sometimes that means that sometimes we need to use strong measures, even 1080, if that’s all that will work. Nobody likes using any poison to kill animals, least of all rongoā practitioners. We are healers, we nourish life. But even the practice of rongoā is threatened. More and more we struggle to find the plants we use for rongoā; they’ve been eaten out or squeezed out by the weeds that even the animal pests won’t eat.

Open weedy forest edge.
📷: Kate McAlpine
Weedy, trashed understory.
📷: Kate McAlpine

The knowledge and practice of rongoā needs a healthy ngahere; even the mauri itself which empowers rongoā fades when its healing plants disappear. The water which carries the gift of life becomes unsafe to drink and even wash in, and the many tiny creatures that sustain the network of life start to vanish.

Ka ora te whenua ka ora te tangata; we need the whenua to be well if we are to be well.

My biggest worry is that most people don’t realise how much the ngahere needs us to nourish it and care for it. It’s only those who go looking for their rongoā who seem to notice how unwell it has become. Maybe if more of us did take notice and did our part to help care for it we wouldn’t need 1080 and other toxins. But until we do, are we just going to let it slowly collapse?

Ka ora te whenua, ka ora te tangata

When the land is well, the people will be well

Rob is the author of Rongoa Maori: A Practical Guide to Traditional Maori Medicine; and is the Amo Aratu for Ngā Whenua Rāhui. Rob’s work is featured in numerous publications, and his expertise is sought around the whenua.

For further reading:

Ka mua, ka muri: the inclusion of mātauranga Māori in New Zealand ecology. New Zealand Journal of Ecology

Studies confirm 1080 operations don’t affect waterways or aquatic life and has never contaminated tap water in New Zealand

7 responses to Rob McGowan on rongoā

    Maria Roberts 30/12/2020 at 4:03 pm

    *Rob McGowan known to some Māori as Pā McGowan


    I remember Pā McGowan in his young days. (I think he lived in Pakipaki, Hawkes Bay). That’s amazing the knowledge of rongoā he has built up, and the reasons for looking after our ngahere are so well expressed here.


    Rongoa could be of huge benefit for all but unfortunately the 1080 and glyphosates used by regional councils are highly toxic and I am unable to forage for rongoa in my area of Tauranga

    Bruce Jefferies 24/09/2020 at 9:16 am

    Very useful summary – these are also the zones ecosystems and plant species that are impacted by browsing ungulates – there is increasing anecdotal evidence that deer, in Westland for example, are increasing.

      Chris Horne 01/11/2020 at 7:17 pm

      Pest animals have been systematically devastating our ngahere and our alpine plant communities for over 100 years. Those animals include: mice, rats, stoats, weasels, possums, deer (6 species), tahr, chamois, Canada geese, rabbits, hares and wasps, plus feral cats, dogs, goats, pigs, stock and horses. The damage to our native plant and native fauna communities which pest animals have caused and continue to cause is catastrophic and widespread. Clearly it is incumbent on all of us, plus all relevant arms of central government, regional councils and territorial local authorities to dramatically increase the intensity of their pest-animal control programmes. NOTE: A mature red deer stag can eat 20-30 kg wet weight per day of the leaves and fronds of native vascular plants, plus lichens, liverworts and mosses.


        Thank you Pat McGowan for your comments and guidance. I believe that it is incumbent on the Department of Conservation, all regional councils, all territorial local authorities, Pamu/Landcorp and any other agency managing land on behalf of the public to do all in their power to destroy pest animals on the public estate. Then our ngahere will be able to sequester carbon at ever higher rates in the battle against catastrophic climate change. All those agencies must have the social licence to use the most effective and cost-efficient ways to destroy alien animals in our ngahere by trapping, shooting and the use of toxins such as brodifacoum, and the indispensible 1080 WITHOUT deer repellent. Then and only then will our ngahere and rongoa be able to thrive.