The Elusive Moth and The Cure-All

Patricia Howitt

Kaeo, New Zealand

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Acrylic on Bainbridge board 15″ × 20″. Illustration for ‘Taketakerau The Millennium Tree’ published 2012. The illustration is called ‘Endurance’.

A few days ago, I cut down a heap of understorey bush known as kawakawa or pepper tree (Macropiper excelsum) and threw it in where the sheep were grazing, to be burnt when the time comes.

It is aromatic and very hot to the taste. I soon discovered the sheep will eat it – not entirely surprising because when I had my neighbor’s cattle in here a few years ago, they also ate it.

It was highly regarded by the Maori people as a remedy both external and internal for many ailments – abdominal pains (especially digestive), rheumatic pains, toothache, kidney and bladder complaints, and as a blood purifier. As a poultice it was used for boils, bruises, eczema, toothache and badly infected wounds.

Many Maori people still use it today, and I boiled up some leaves to try it – much more mild, warm, and pleasant-tasting than I had expected: definitely added to the ‘drink more often’ list! I’m about to try making a healing ointment out of it, too.

Branches were burned by the Maori to keep away insects from rows of sweet potato seedlings, and more recently by explorers, surveyors and hunters to keep mosquitoes and sandflies out of their camps. One asks – why are we messing with deadly chemicals when the Creator has made this stuff available to us? (And we all know the answer to that.)

The leaves of this plant are invariably covered with shotholes, and when I was illustrating ‘Taketakerau The Millennium Tree’ I finally found out (after quite a bit of hunting) that these holes are caused by the nocturnal caterpillars of the Kawakawa Looper moth (Cleora scriptaria). You will find, if you research it, that many people can tell you the holes are caused by caterpillars (big deal!), but it was hard in 2011 to find a source that would actually identify the species. There are far more illustrations of Cleora scriptaria on the net now.

Needless to say, though I’m surrounded by this stuff, I’ve never seen either a moth or a caterpillar in daylight. As you can see, when I did the artwork for the book, I took the liberty of painting the moth on the leaves of the plant, in the subdued light of a storm.

Artwork Comments

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