Sandy’s Garden ... The Manuka Shrub

Sandy Simpson

Sandy Simpson

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Not so long ago, I scraped my left shin rather painfully doing … as I thought fortunately at the time … no more than grazing the affected area.

It’ll soon heal, I thought, choosing not to think about the known fact that my age, combined with type 2 diabetes, means that grazes take their time to heal and are always liable to infection. And so it proved. After a couple of weeks of my graze being generally ignored, an infection developed, sending me to the splendid community nursing service which we enjoy in our neck of the woods. Conventional dressings were tried: but the infection had a good hold by this time and these proved fairly ineffectual. Then the nurse produced a honey dressing … yes, a honey dressing … which, in answer to my questions, proved to be a dressing containing a very small percentage of manuka honey which, I was assured, would do the trick. And again so it proved. Within a couple of days there were visible signs that the wound was healing; and within a week the job was complete with new skin happily in place.

Now, gentle reader, before you think that a dollop of honey from the jar in the larder will be just the thing for your next cut or graze, let me emphasise that the medical dressing had a small percentage of manuka honey in it and was a specially-prepared, sterile dressing. I doubt whether it would be wise to smear even manuka honey straight on to an injury, so don’t try it! But the experience did make me wonder about the source of this special honey which, I learn, comes from the manuka tree which is native to south-east Australia and New Zealand.

Early European settlers in these antipodean parts discovered that, almost as fast as they cleared their new farming sites of an evergreen shrubby plant which they found growing there, the plant reasserted itself. The native peoples used the wood of this stubborn shrub to make such items as paddles, weapons and digging tools; they used the bark as a waterproof lining wherever such a facility was needed; and they knew that browsing animals do not generally eat any parts of the shrub, which is one reason why it flourishes naturally, although the plant’s white flowers have an attractive, sweet scent which attracts pollinating insects like bees, flies, moths and beetles. But the early settlers did find that the plant’s green leaves made an acceptable substitute for tea, giving rise to one of its common names … ‘tea tree’.

This stubborn shrubby plant with small, prickly leaves grows to a height of between 3 and 4 metres … say between 10 and 13 feet in old money … was known as manuka by the native people and was given the name Leptospermum scoparium before it was included in botanical registers. Its genetic name … Leptospermum … is derived from two Greek words, leptos, meaning ‘slender’, and sperma, meaning ‘a seed’, while its specific name, scoparium means ‘broom-like’. I learn from a New Zealand government website that Kakariki parakeets “use the leaves and bark of manuka to rid themselves of parasites. Apart from ingesting the material, they also chew it, mix it with preen gland oil and apply it to their feathers.” And I learn, from that same website, that “chemical tests have shown that manuka pollen, and honey derived from it, contains powerful insecticides and anti-bacterial agents that can help fight intestinal worms and bacterial infections. Manuka oil is now sold in New Zealand and overseas in various cosmetics and health care products.” And there we have the key words; manuka honey contains powerful anti-bacterial agents that can help fight bacterial infections.

Manuka shrubs are still widespread throughout New Zealand and are still regarded by some farmers as the bane of their lives. But their bane was a boon and a blessing to me!