By Hannah Schenker
New Zealand is blessed with plentiful native bush – people travel from all around the world to marvel at its beauty. But many aren’t aware that it is home to medicinal healing plants. Rongoa Maori is traditional Maori medicine, based on the healing properties of our native plants – something one mother discovered in her search to ease her daughter’s symptoms of eczema. Drawing on this ancient knowledge, Michele Wilson developed two key products that markedly improved her daughter’s symptoms, and which became her business – Frankie Apothecary.
Eczema (atopic dermatitis) is a recurring, non-infectious, inflammatory dry skin condition that affects 1 in 3 New Zealanders at some stage in their life. Those with a history of asthma or hayfever seem to be more prone to it, and those in early childhood. A huge 20 per cent of people develop the itchy condition before age 5, according to the Eczema Association of New Zealand. Of these, a small percentage carry it into adulthood. The exact cause is unknown but there are many known irritants/aggravators: diet; stress; exposure to smoke, chemicals and weather; exposure to allergens like mites, moulds, grasses, pollens, pets and products. The effects are awful for the child and for the parents too, whose lives are disrupted by managing this horrid itching of the skin. Managing eczema usually involves topical moisturising or steroid creams to try to tame the inflammatory beast and for some this works, but not for Michele’s daughter Eva.
When Eva was about one year old, the eczema began with itchy patches on her knees and back. Unable to stop herself, Eva began to regularly scratch, in turn worsening the eczema, which was noticeably worse at night before bed. Michele would watch with an aching heart, feeling helpless while her daughter screamed as they tried to hold her hands to stop her from scratching.
“It kept her up most nights and was distressing for the whole family,” she says. “She would wake in the morning with blood stained sheets.”
Desperate for help, Michele took Eva to see some professionals which ultimately was of little help.
“The doctors sent me away for allergy tests – something that came back completely normal so this was little help for me. They also gave me a Sorbolene cream [moisturiser] and a steroid cream, both of which didn’t help. I then looked to natural alternatives: we saw an herbalist, a naturopath, undertook a full gut health regime and undertook the food elimination diet.”
While these health and diet changes helped them discover some of the triggers and irritants, Eva’s skin still wasn’t clearing. At that point, Michele began more of her own research which eventually led her back to her own native culture and roots.
“I am Maori, but while I was never formally trained in Rongoa Maori, I was interested in the healing abilities of plants like Calendula and wanted to learn more about native NZ plants. My father, also Maori, told me about the healing abilities of Rongoa and took me foraging in his native bush in Mangawhai.”