Tauranga’s Rob McGowan has loved plants ever since he was old enough to grab one in his tiny fist.
This fascination grew when he was given responsibility for looking after the fernery at the Greenmeadows seminary in the Hawke’s Bay while training to be a Marist priest, and later, when he returned to his hometown of Whanganui and learned about the medicinal uses of plants from local kaumatua.
After retiring from the priesthood, he devoted the next 25 years to ensuring matauranga Maori (traditional Maori knowledge) in conservation management, ensuring the preservation of indigenous trees used for rongoa Maori, or traditional Maori medicine.
He has been heavily involved in the set-up of the Kaimai-Mamaku Catchments Forum and is one of the founders of Tane’s Tree Trust, a non-profit charitable trust that was established more than 10 years ago to encourage New Zealand landowners to plant and sustainably manage indigenous trees for multiple uses.
Rob is also the author of a book ‘Rongoa Maori: A practical guide to traditional Maori medicine’ and is a former member of the Bay of Plenty Conservation Board.
This work has seen Rob named the 2018 winner of the esteemed Loder Cup, awarded since 1926 to acknowledge individuals and groups who make an outstanding contribution to conserving New Zealand’s native plants.
He describes the win as “quite wonderful”.
“It’s an honour to share this award with some of the most prestigious names in botany in New Zealand.”
After retiring from the priesthood Rob set up a plant nursery for the Tauranga Moana Trust Board and worked in the Kaimai Mamuku Forest Park. “This gave me a very good working knowledge of the bush.”
Rob went on to work for the University of Waikato for about 10 years and now works part-time for the Department of Conservation for a group called Nga Whenua Rahui, a contestable ministerial fund established in 1991 to protect the integrity of Maori land and preserve matauranga Maori.
He is also involved with the Wai 262 Flora and Fauna Claim lodged with the Waitangi Tribunal in 1991, which relates directly to the use of rongoa Maori, and arose out of concerns within Maoridom at attempts made by multinational pharmaceutical companies to claim intellectual property rights over New Zealand plants used by Maori for medicine. It has yet to be settled.
Rob says the Waitangi Tribunal itself has made a “huge” contribution to Maori health because it has given Maori back their self-respect.
“It says we weren’t rebels; we didn’t disobey the Crown. We fought for our rights and lost. To know that history and to be connected to that courage really gives people confidence in their own abilities.”
Rob, known to his whanau, friends and colleagues as Pa from his days as a Maori mission priest, is not Maori himself – he is half Dalmatian – but is a fluent speaker of te reo Maori and is a practitioner of rongoa Maori.
Rob says rongoa is less about healing and more about keeping well. He makes a decoction, or tea, from the karamu plant to help people with diabetes and uses the tataramoa, or ‘bush lawyer’ plant to make a decoction to help ease tension and aid sleep.
Rongoa is not a miracle cure, however, and people with conditions such as diabetes still need to follow the rules of good diet, plenty of fluids and regular exercise, he says.
If you’re a rongoa practitioner your first patient is the whenua (land) itself, says Rob.
“There are some places you can’t get your medicines from because they are unwell. If Papatuanuku (mother earth) is not well, how can you be well?”
Rob says in regards to conservation management we should always ask the question ‘does it hurt the earth or heal it’?
“If the answer is no, it doesn’t heal it, you don’t do it. We are the guardians of the next generation’s well-being. We don’t own things; we hold them in trust for those who follow us. That doesn’t just include people; it includes animals, plants and microbes. We don’t have the right to deprive other living creatures of their future. Until we live with that realisation, all we’re doing is pillaging the planet’s resources.”
Rob says people don’t realise how sick our bush is.
“Because I use the plants for medicine and food, when I go into the bush to look for them I find many of them are not there anymore. People ask why more traditional Maori medicine isn’t used. One of the reasons is because the plants aren’t there anymore.
“It’s those little plants, those undergrowth seedlings; the mulch on the ground that holds the water long enough to percolate into the aquifers – that’s what keeps our springs alive and our rivers running. Cumulatively things are deteriorating because the little things are missing.
“A big tree can only stand stall because of the little plants looking after its base. We all look at the big trees and don’t notice the little things. A rongoa person notices the little things.”
Rob’s personal plant nursery has more than 100 native species, some quite rare. He also loves to grow flowers, describing them as a great healer.
“When someone gives you a bunch of beautiful flowers doesn’t that make the sun shine? And that memory is good for your health. Children are healers too. Children’s smiles do amazing things to very sick people. In fact, we’re all healers if we learn how to smile a lot.”
Rob says the idea that plants can talk is not a myth.
“You don’t just hear with your ears. You hear with your eyes and your fingertips. We have an ability to sense wellness or a lack of wellness. A mother can sense when her child is not well. You can tell when people are happy or sad by the look on their face. That’s how you work with plants for medicine; you develop that connection.”
Rongoa Maori practitioners tend to stay out of the public eye, says Rob. Some still experience “unconscious” ridicule from health professionals, and others find themselves exhausted by constant demand for their skills.
“Some have moved to Australia to get away from people. If someone comes to you for healing and you’re cooking your tea, then they share your tea, and that becomes hard to manage. There was an old system of koha (donation) and that still exists to some extent, but lots of people demand rongoa as of right because they are Maori but they don’t contribute anything.”
Rob says the use of rongoa Maori in the mainstream health system is progressing “slowly”.
“There is certainly interest there. One of the issues is that you can’t practice in the mainstream health system unless you understand the mainstream health system. How do you know whether a plant is going to interact with a medication a person is on?
“The old people had a very good understanding of physiology and anatomy. They knew how the body worked. Modern people don’t have that.
Rob runs regular rongoa Maori workshops alongside fellow practitioner Donna Kerridge. They are attended by nurses, physiotherapists, and sometimes doctors, who are interested in using rongoa Maori to complement their work.
“That’s good because they can become good and safe practitioners. The whole safety thing is really important because you can overdose.”
As well as the use of traditional plants, karakia (prayer) and mihimihi (massage) play a key role in rongoa Maori, says Rob.
“Sometimes with illness, the biggest obstacle to being healed is within yourself. That’s when karakia is fundamentally important.”