Kawakawa balm has so many applications it's a bit of an everything-balm. Made with a medicinal herb native to New Zealand.
This post is for all my beautiful Kiwi readers, we’re using a native herb today!
Let’s chat about the healing powers of kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum) and how to prepare this gorgeous native as a skin-healing balm with antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects.
We’ll cover some of kawakawa’s key therapeutic benefits, how to identify, harvest and dry it, how to prepare the infused oil, and finally how to make healing kawakawa balm.
If you’ve never made a balm before, don’t sweat, it’s incredibly simple and I’ll talk you through each step.
🔬Kawakawa medicinal uses
Kawakawa is an incredibly revered medicinal plant in Rongoa Maori, traditional Maori healing. I've written about the internal uses when enjoyed as a tea here.
Topically, kawakawa has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, it’s a natural pain reliever, increases circulation to the skin’s surface, acts as a counter-irritant, and purifies the blood. It also contains compounds that exert an insecticide effect .
Therefore, it is an excellent herb for;
- Cuts and boils
- Skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis
- Pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints, tendons, ligaments, bones and muscles
- Neuralgia, shingles
- Keeping insects away
For those interested in the plant’s chemistry, the main constituent is the volatile compound myristicin, which is also found in nutmeg.
Myristicin is a strong antibacterial agent against both gram positive and negative bacteria . It is also able to inhibit nitric oxide, cytokines and chemokines, all of which play a role in inflammation .
Myristicin is a similar compound to eugenol in clove, lending pain-relieving properties.
Diayangambin is another active, its immunomodulatory, anti-allergic and anti-inflammatory effects  indicate its use in eczema, psoriasis and rheumatic diseases such as arthritis.
🍃Where to find the leaves
Kawakawa is prolific in New Zealand, growing in coastal and lowland forests throughout the North Island and upper South Island. It’s a shrub/small tree packed with glossy heart-shaped leaves, often full of holes thanks to its sole predator – the looper moth.
🧺How to harvest
Collect the leaves in the morning once the dew has evaporated. Don’t forget to say a prayer of gratitude first, take only what you need, and not too much from a single plant.
When you get home, spread the leaves out to let any bugs crawl away, then wash if necessary and pat completely dry with a paper towel.
If you plan on drying any excess herb to enjoy as a tea, place them on mesh trays and pop into the dehydrator at 40-45˚C (104-113˚F) for 4-6 hours or until completely dry yet still a vivid green colour, then crumble with your hands and store in an airtight jar.
⚗️Making the infused oil
Before we make a balm, we need to infuse a base oil with our kawakawa. There are several ways to do this.
Traditionally, the fresh, whole leaves are used, rather than dried.
They are simply added to a carrier oil (like olive) and either left to infuse on a warm shelf for several weeks, in the oven set to a low temperature of 50˚C (122˚F) for 6 hours, or, placed in a double boiler and left to infuse over simmering water for 3 hours.
I’ve used the oven method today. Place a packed cup of kawakawa leaves (about 20) to a cup of sweet almond oil, straight into a saucepan.
Don't worry if some of the leaves protrude, they'll gradually soften and become engulfed by the oil as it heats up.
Now transfer the saucepan to the oven for 6 hours. It’s important to keep the temperature low.
Once done, remove the leaves and you are ready to proceed to making the balm.
Tip: Olive oil is universally used by herbalists as a cost-effective base oil to make infusions destined for salves or balms. I find it ideal for general use over the body (think bumps, sprains, strains, insect bites and minor wound care), though prefer lighter, more hydrating oils such as sweet almond, apricot kernel, meadowfoam and fractionated coconut oil for use over sensitive skin or the face.
🌡Making kawakawa balm
Pour one cup’s worth of your gorgeous infused oil into a pyrex jug or small saucepan, reserving the remaining oil to use to adjust the consistency of the balm later if you need to.
Wait! Take a moment to smell that sweet floral scent - I just love it! Thank you bees.
Now stand in a saucepan over gently simmering water. Using a double boiler is another option.
Keep the heat nice and low, and let the beeswax fully dissolve.
Remove the mixture from the heat, and test to see if the consistency is to your liking.
Do this by dipping a teaspoon into the mixture then popping into the fridge or freezer to set, at which point you can test the firmness. If it’s too soft, pop the mixture back over the heat and add more wax, if it’s too hard, add more of the infused oil.
Once you’re happy, add essential oils if using – lavender, German chamomile and helichrysum are great choices for a skin-soothing effect.
Work quickly and pour the oil into several small, pre-sterilised jars. If you need the surface to be perfectly smooth and it sets less than, you can melt the top layer using a heat gun.
Label, date, and ready for use!
Because kawakawa has a few different applications topically, you might like to try some of these variations;
For minor cuts, abrasions, bites and stings: pair with skin-healing calendula infused oil, adding essential oils with antiseptic qualities such as tea tree, manuka, and pain-relieving kanuka.
For dry skin conditions such as eczema: pair with skin-healing calendula in a hydrating base oil such as sweet almond, adding antioxidant vitamin E, and soothing essential oils like lavender, German chamomile and helichrysum.
For delayed onset muscle soreness: pair with comfrey for tissue swelling and trauma, with wintergreen essential oil (Nature’s ‘Deep Heat’).
For stiff and swollen joints, tendons and ligaments: infuse the oil together with cayenne to bring heat to the site of application, with essential oils of lemongrass or frankincense.
For neuralgia: infuse the oil together with fresh St john’s wort herb.
To keep insects at bay: add essential oils such as peppermint, lemongrass and lemon eucalyptus.
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- Large saucepan/pot
- Sieve, muslin or a nut milk bag to strain herbs
- Small saucepan with a Pyrex jug OR double boiler
- 8x 30ml / 1oz glass jars with screw top lids
- Glass stirring rod (if using essential oils)
- 15-20 fresh kawakawa leaves
- 280ml sweet almond oil (one cup, and a few extra tablespoons)
- 28g beeswax (1 oz, but have a little extra just in case)
- 75 drops lavender essential oil optional
Kawakawa infused oil
- Place fresh but dry kawakawa leaves in a large saucepan/pot - and pour the sweet almond oil over the top. Don't worry if some of the leaves protrude, they'll wilt as it gets warm. Place the pot into an oven set to 50˚C / 122˚F, close the door and leave to infuse for 6 hours.
- Remove from oven (use a tea towel - handle will be hot) and strain the leaves out using a sieve, a muslin cloth or nut milk bag. Your infused oil is now ready to use.
- Measure out one cup (250ml) of kawakawa infused oil, saving the remaining few tablespoons just in case you need to tweak the consistency of the balm later. Add beeswax pastilles.
- Stand in a small saucepan simmering with water. A double boiler is another option here. Heat until the beeswax has totally dissolved. You might like to test the consistency of the salve here (see notes).
- Once happy with the consistency, allow to cool slightly, then add essential oil right before pouring. Use a sterilised glass wand/stick if you have one to stir in the essential oil fully.
- Work quickly, pouring into sterilised glass jars.
- Allow to cool, then label and date each jar. To use, massage a little into skin as needed.
- Plant material must be dry before making an infused oil, to avoid microbial growth (pat the leaves down well with a paper towel)
- Alternatives to sweet almond oil include apricot kernel and fractionated coconut oil. Olive oil is a great choice for general use
- Organic, unrefined beeswax is best, purchasing the pellets makes for an easier time melting
- To test the consistency - dip a teaspoon into the mixture once wax has melted, then place in the fridge or freezer. Once set, assess whether it needs more oil to soften, more wax to harden, or is just right
- For minor cuts, abrasions, bites and stings: pair with skin-healing calendula infused oil, adding essential oils with antiseptic qualities such as tea tree, manuka, and pain-relieving kanuka.
- For dry skin conditions such as eczema: pair with skin-healing calendula in a hydrating base oil such as sweet almond, adding antioxidant vitamin E, and soothing essential oils like lavender, German chamomile and helichrysum.
- For delayed onset muscle soreness: pair with comfrey for tissue swelling and trauma, with wintergreen essential oil (Nature’s ‘Deep Heat’).
- For stiff and swollen joints, tendons and ligaments: infuse the oil together with cayenne to bring heat to the site of application, with essential oils of lemongrass or frankincense.
- For neuralgia: infuse the oil together with fresh St john’s wort herb.
- To keep insects at bay: add essential oils such as peppermint, lemongrass and lemon eucalyptus.
- Always be sure that you're confident with your plant identification before harvesting.