Piper excelsum ssp. excelsum
(previously known as Macropiper excelsum)
Kawakawa / Pepper Tree
Māori had a wide variety of uses for Kawakawa, particularly the leaves. Bruises, kidney trouble, rheumatism, gonorrhoea, boils, bladder complaints and toothache were among the complaints dealt to with this plant.
Leaves can also be placed on a camp fire to deter flies and biting insects.
5m high x 3m wide, though more commonly found to 2m high. The key features on this shrub are the broadly heart-shaped leaves, the dark stems, and the swollen portions of the stem where leaf-stem meets branch.
The pepper-tasting fruit swell to the size of a pinky-finger, turning orange through summer.
In revegetation, good as an understory shrub to nurse young trees.
In more cultivated settings, great for creating a hedge-like border to guide the eye or to conceal unappealing sights. The strong green can be used to effect against bold light surfaces, such as concrete or marble panels.
Grows best where a high canopy above reduces light intensity. However, the higher the light levels, the more dense and filled-out the plant becomes. Frost tender to all but the lightest of frosts.
Can only be likened to species in the same family, which are only naturally found off-shore.
de Lange’s Kawakawa (Piper excelsum ssp. delangei) – leaves are leathery like Broadleaf, and very peppery to the taste. Young stems are green.
Hauraki Kawakawa (Piper excelsum ssp. peltatum) – point on the leaf where the veins meet is often not on the leaf edge. Leaves are relatively flat, and very peppery to the taste. Stems are green.
Kermadec Island Kawakawa (Piper excelsum spp. psittacorum) – leaves are very thin, puckered and with minimal peppery taste. Male flower spikes to 200mm long.
Three Kings Kawakawa (Piper melchior) – leaves are larger, thicker and more textured, and not peppery to taste. Stems are green. Growing only to 2m high, and demanding high shade, and dry conditions. Male flower spikes to 130mm long.
Primary host to the Kawakawa Looper caterpillar, though toxic to most other insects. Flowers are wind pollinated, so have no appeal to bees. The fruit is popular with forest birds January-March, including Saddleback and Kereru.
Male and female flowers occur on separate plants, so both are necessary where fruit and seed are desired.
Wild Picnic – Kawakawa [blog]
Oratia Nursery/Titirangi Tatler – Macropiper excelsum
NZ Plant Conservation Network – Kawakawa
Landcare Research: Māori Plant Use – Kawakawa