Before Humans, There Was Horopito: A Hot Shrub That’s Kept Predators and Unwanted Conditions at Bay

By Sandra Nomoto

Known to Alleviate Multiple Conditions, Horopito Could be One of the World’s Oldest and Most Beneficial Plants

Horopito, or Pseudowintera colorata is one of the world’s earliest evolved flowering plants. It is also known as mountain horopito, peppertree, pepperwood, or ramarama. A small two to three metre tree or evergreen shrub that grows in damp areas located only in New Zealand, horopito is typically found on the edges of the temperate rainforest.

Closely related shrubs include lowland horopito (Pseudowintera axillaris) and Travers horopito (Pseudowintera traversii).

Photo: Tyler Lastovich

Horopito makes an ideal suburban garden plant, as it requires minimal attention. Its red, yellow, or green leaves with rusty, red-brown spots and edges remain, despite the time of year. However, it carries a high price tag due to its five to eight year harvest time.

Horopito has a peppery taste that leaves a burning sensation in the mouth, not unlike some of the world’s hottest spices. This taste and its leaves’ anti-fungal properties protect it against fungi and other wild predators, which is largely the reason it has survived unchanged for 65 million years.

The leaves and berries were traditionally used by the New Zealand Māori to flavour food. Fresh horopito leaves were chewed to treat toothaches. Bruised leaves or the inner bark were steeped in water and applied topically to treat skin infections such as paipai, bruising, and venereal diseases. It is nicknamed the “Maori Painkiller” for alleviating stomach aches, sore joints, and respiratory conditions. With its high antioxidant properties and a source for Vitamin C, early European settlers relied on horopito for multiple purposes including treating scurvy, diarrhea, and other gastric infections.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Today, horopito is used by restaurant chefs and home cooks alike; its dried leaves can be ground to form a powder to season food in the same way as black pepper. It alleviates the same digestive conditions and skin problems faced by the Indigenous New Zealanders and settlers alike. Its power lies in the tannins, flavonoids and volatile or essential oils of its leaves. Horopito’s heating property has been known to promote and improve blood circulation and treat chilblains.

More recent research conducted in New Zealand has shown horopito to have astringent, analgesic, anti allergy, anti-inflammatory,  insecticidal, expectorant, anti-bacterial, antiseptic, and antimicrobial responses. In 1982, studies led by Professor J.R.L. Walker at the University of Canterbury discovered that polygodial (sesquiterpene dialdehyde polygodiali), horopito’s active ingredient, was responsible for not only its peppery flavour, but also its antifungal properties. Polygodial also makes horopito a powerful medicine against Candida albicans, thrush, Trichophyton (ringworm), and athlete’s foot. Polygodial was found to act stronger and faster and with less side effects than Amphotericin B, its pharmaceutical counterpart.

Horopito is commonly found in topical products such as skin lotions, in which the doses can be controlled. It is generally considered safe to use, with exception of pregnant or breastfeeding women or those with acute gastritis and peptic ulcers.

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. We advise readers to always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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