A kanuka is one of a species of flowering trees and shrubs whose leaves produce a rich, pleasant scent when crushed. Native to Australia and New Zealand, the kanuka has been used by New Zealand’s native Maori people for centuries as an herbal remedy. Modern medicine has confirmed what the Maori already knew, that kanuka oil has strong antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties. It has a pleasing scent and is used to enhance cosmetics and perfumes. Its soothing effect has made it well suited for aromatherapy.
The kanuka and its close relative the manuka are sometimes called “white tea trees.” The name might have come from historical accounts that say British captain James Cook brewed leaves from the trees to make strong tea for his sailors. In recent years, the kanuka has seen increasing use in Europe and North America as a natural, herbal treatment for many skin conditions. The medicinal benefits of both the kanuka and the manuka have begun to be examined more closely by Western physicians.
Although data is limited, research has shown that kanuka oil can kill several types of bacteria, including listeria, staphylococcus and streptococcus. The oil, which is distilled by pruning and steaming the plant’s leaves, also has anti-inflammatory properties and can help treat a variety of skin ailments, such as acne, rashes and eczema. Its antifungal properties make it effective against athlete’s foot. It even kills parasites such as ringworm and head lice.
The kanuka is often confused with the manuka. To make matters worse, the two names are sometimes used interchangeably. Despite their sometimes similar appearance, there are easy ways to distinguish the plants from one another.
Species of kanuka generally are larger, with the shrubs often maturing into trees. The manuka is a smaller, multi-stemmed shrub. Older kanuka trees can reach a height of 60 feet. The kanuka’s seed cases are much smaller than those found on manuka species, and its leaves have a much duller sheen. Kanuka leaves also are softer, lacking the manuka’s sharp tips and rough texture.
Kanukas grow best in temperate climates that tend to be on the warm side. They flourish on hills and near coastlines but are rarely found in forests. When grown in clusters, the kanuka’s white flowers can form the impression of a snowy landscape from a distance. Its wood is not well suited for building or making tools and is often used for firewood.