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Native Tree Adds Spice

This article was first published on 17 Sep 2015.

Horopito (Pseudowintera colorata, or pepper tree)

Horopito (Pseudowintera colorata, or pepper tree)

Anyone who grew up playing in the New Zealand bush has probably experienced the sharp, peppery taste of a horopito leaf.

Horopito (Pseudowintera colorata, or pepper tree) grows throughout New Zealand. Usually a shrub growing to 2m tall it sometimes grows into a tree 10m in height

Leaves range in colour, from light yellowish-green with a few red speckles, to completely blotched with red. Flowers, which can be seen at the moment if you look closely, are star-shaped and yellow-green. They will be followed by plump, blackish berries.

The leaves and bark of horopito were used by early Māori to treat a wide range of ailments - from skin complaints to venereal diseases, toothaches to fungal infections.

In recent years, scientists have found compounds in the plant that confirm antiseptic, antifungal and antibacterial properties. It is used in some modern healthcare products and as a culinary spice.

Horopito is a wonderful garden plant. It will grow very slowly, into a neat bush that will rarely need pruning. It can tolerate wind and frost, and most soils that are not too dry or wet.

Brighten up a slightly shady corner of your garden, or grow it out in the open, where leaf colour tends to be brighter. You could even grow some in a pot, and try using the leaves instead of black pepper in cooking.

The decorative foliage will last for weeks in a vase.

Kate Caldwell is curator of the native plant collection at Dunedin Botanic Garden.