It’s hard to believe that until the early 80s, honey produced by the manuka tree (leptospermum scoparium) was considered to be just another tasty honey produced by flowering plants native to New Zealand. And regardless of its delicious honey, farmers thought of manuka as a noxious weed that was nearly impossible to keep under control.
It wasn’t until Dr. Peter Molan, a scientist from the University of Waikato, began researching the different kinds of honey that the true uniqueness of manuka honey was discovered.
So unique in fact, that the term ‘Unique Manuka Factor’ was coined, and later trademarked, as a way to grade the strength and purity of genuine manuka honey.
After this discovery, New Zealand’s relationship with the manuka tree did a complete 180 degree turn and we now try to grow the plant, rather than control it.
But the manuka tree has a long history of other uses that made it one of New Zealand’s most resourceful native plants. With an interesting story of how it came to be, and what it was once used for, the manuka plant is a natural phenomenon.
Native manuka (leptospermum scoparium) quickly spread far and wide
Manuka is indigenous to New Zealand, however it has some relatives across the ditch in Australia. Although the Australian counterparts are classed as leptospermum (or tea tree), they don’t match the range seen in New Zealand.
New Zealand manuka, however, has the same adaptations as its Australian cousins; its ability to grow in harsh conditions and its love for a warm, dry environment.
It was these adaptations that allowed the manuka tree to increase its range in a most unusual way.
When Maori created their villages, they cleared bush and minimised overgrowth through the use of fire. However, for manuka, fire had the opposite effect that the Maori had hoped for. If it weren’t for the fire, manuka wouldn’t have had the opportunity to spread as far as it did.
Manuka’s ability to adapt to fire and extreme conditions meant it could not only withstand the fire, but thrive on it too.
Manuka’s woody capsules that contain seeds were burst open by the intensity of the fire. The contents were then scattered onto the land that had recently been cleared so it wasn’t long before the manuka plant was recognised for its ability to regenerate.
Before honey the manuka plant had many other uses
Maori and early European settlers made use of the manuka plant long before it was famous for its magical honey.
As it grew prolifically under even the harshest of conditions, Maori found many ways to utilise Manuka. The hard, straight wood grain made it the perfect material for carving tools, weapons, canoes and furniture.
Manuka's spectacular ability to promote fire also meant it could provide a sturdy firewood in New Zealand’s colder months.
Early European settlers including the famous Captain Cook, used manuka leaves to brew tea and even to brew beer. Far from home comforts, Manuka leaf tea was quite a luxury and a great use for such an accessible plant. It became known as the ‘tea tree’.
The plant’s spectacular ability to promote fire also meant it could provide enough sturdy firewood to see out New Zealand’s winter months.
As a popular plant for so many reasons already, manuka became a stand-out once the robust flavour of its honey was tasted. However, this wasn’t until 1839 when Sydney woman, Mary Brumby, settled in New Zealand bringing two honey bee hives along with her. From then on, manuka honey became a valuable food source.
It would be much later still that the wonderful properties of Manuka honey would be discovered.
Leptospermum scoparium: a champion of the forest
The pretty white flowers, dark branches and evergreen shrub make manuka an easily recognisable plant.
But aesthetic appeal is only one detail on its long list of qualities.
Manuka plays an important role in the forest for its regenerative abilities. Because of this, the manuka plant is a protector in the forest and used for revegetation planting.
As a plant that has co-existed with New Zealand wildlife for centuries, manuka is a precious shrub in our New Zealand ecosystem.
Nowadays, when manuka is mentioned, the first thing that comes to mind is the unique honeyproduced by the flowers. Bee Plus are passionate about pure manuka honey and all products are of the highest quality.
Made from uncultivated New Zealand manuka, Bee Plus Manuka Honey undergoes a series of tests before it is given a UMF rating. This means Bee Plus Manuka Honey creates some of the purest manuka honey on the market today.
Explore our range of UMF-rated Manuka honey and get yours here today.