Horopito is a New Zealand native shrub, which is also known as the native pepper tree. growing throughout most of New Zealand. Unlike most plants and trees, this native has red and yellow leaves all year around, It is an ancient endemic genus growing nowhere else in the world, with a primitive flower structure.
Sometimes called NZ pepper tree the horopito thrives in the colder regions with ample light throughout the south of Auckland. Pseudowintera colorata (P. colorata) is generally found on the edges of the forest. The native fauna tend to avoid these plants as they are distasteful and therefore thrive in forest areas.
Benefits for the kitchen!
This type of horopito is easily distinguished by the leaf colouring and is a good diagnostic feature, with the horopito having a red/yellowish leaf with red blotches on top and a whitish underside. If after chewing a leaf you feel a kick or bite of a peppery/chilli taste, you have got the right horopito. Initially, the taste of is a mild almost nothing sensation, however it then develops a strong peppery effect that competes with chilli as one of the world's hottest spices. This spicy horopito is popular in trendy restaurants and serious home cooking, particularly when prepared with game and meat.
The P. colorata generally doesn't get any bigger than 2-3 metres tall, with a fleshy, dark red or black fruit to attract birds. They are ideal garden plants for suburban gardens as they need minimal attention.
Benefits in the medicine cabinet!
The reason Horopito leaves have such a distinctive hot peppery taste is due to polygodial (poh-ligo-dial), is due to an active anti-fungal compound which is also the key to Horopito’s long survival in our native forests. Fungi and insects are deterred from attacking the leaves, and browsing animals such as deer, are repelled by the taste which means Horopito often dominates the undergrowth in heavily browsed forests. Research has found that this compound not only offers a powerful resistance to microbes like fungi and bacteria in nature, but has been favourably compared with pharmaceutical antifungals in scientific studies.
The polygodial compound was isolated from Horopito leaves in the early eighties by researchers of University of Canterbury. Discovering that it had the ability to minimise growth of Candida albicans (a fungus or yeast ) which is naturally found in all healthy people but under certain conditions, it can can cause infections.
Researchers have shown it to be effective in clinical trials against a variety of yeast-like fungi as it breaks down fungal cell walls and destroys cells. Many alternative health practioners are using remedies made from Horopito as an alternative to conventional drugs in the natural treatment of candidiasis, common known as thrush.
Historic recordings also make mention of the horopito being a cure/remedy for skin disease, tooth aches, stomach aches and rapid repair of the skin from cuts.
Overall, the horopito plant has many uses, but is a very slow growing plant, often taking 5 - 8 years to able to harvest sustainably, hence the high price tag.
Sources: Phoebe Shaw
Kubo, I., Fujita, K.-i., Lee, S. H. and Ha, T. J. (2005), Antibacterial activity of polygodial. Phytother. Res., 19: 1013–1017.