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Phylogenetic and Transcriptomic Analysis of Kawakawa for Rongoā and Kaitiakitanga

Kawakawa (Piper excelsum) is a taonga in every sense of the term. This indigenous shrub is an important component of the understory of forests around Aotearoa, and subspecies are also found on offshore islands. As well as its important function in ecosystem dynamics, kawakawa is used in cultural ceremonies and for traditional medicine.

Analysis of kawakawa

While multiple varieties of kawakawa are known from across the motu, to date no studies have used molecular data to investigate the diversity, population structure and inter-relatedness of sub-populations of this species.  This project seeks to add genomic information to the rich existing mātauranga on kawakawa. 

Wakatū has established the most comprehensive regional database of indigenous and endemic vascular plants available in Aotearoa New Zealand, categorised according to their risk status, level of endemism, geographical coverage, phenotype, whakapapa, and other factors. Beginning with kawakawa, Wakatū now seeks to understand the genotypic diversity of these taonga to support best practice in the protection, conservation, use, and enhancement of indigenous plants and community management of plant variety diversity. 

Using a tikanga-informed pathway for sample acquisition, processing, data sovereignty and benefit-sharing, the team is using a transcriptomic approach to understand kawakawa diversity and bridge this knowledge gap.

Robust data showing the whakapapa relationships among kawakawa could inform decisions around eco-sourcing to protect biodiversity in revitalisation or horticulture initiatives. In turn, genetic information aligned with mātauranga may provide additional insights regarding the efficacy of local kawakawa varieties for health and wellness applications. 

A deeper understanding of the traits of regionally specific kawakawa varieties could lead to new high-value products with distinct provenance and narratives that support tikanga-led economic development. 
The benefits of this project will be widely shared, and lead to a range of future benefits for Māori (and other groups) across Aotearoa.

Key project outcomes include: 

  • Data generation to guide future cultivation efforts, potentially aiding the discovery of bioactives within kawakawa and related species
  • An exemplar of the utility of mātauranga to inform genomics research, providing a pathway for other iwi/hapū in managing their respective taonga
  • Possible identification of traits that are of benefit to healthcare, with the potential to lead to increased use and efficacy of rongoā in treatment regimes
  • A possible springboard for understanding population dynamics in fragmented ecosystems, phylogenetic activities may augment international and regional efforts like PAFTOL, and provide a pipeline for similar work in other taonga species.


  • Dr Meika Foster (Wakatū Incorporation)
  • Jackie Stephens (Wakatū Incorporation)
  • Dr Nathan Kenny (University of Otago)
  • Dr Roseanna Gamlen-Greene (University of Otago)