Scott Smith has worked closely with natural medicines for two decades, through his roles as a medical herbalist and naturopath. But it was by getting to know New Zealand’s native herbs that Smith was inspired to start incorporating them into tea blends and other products, making their benefits more accessible to the general public.

Together with his wife Helen Smith, he founded Oku in 2010 near Hamilton, on New Zealand’s North Island. Named after a Māori word meaning “belonging to me”, the small company places sustainability and restoration for the herbs at the centre of its business.

“These are the plants that belong to us here,” Smith says. “So we should be experiencing their benefits, as well as respecting them and harvesting them sustainably.”

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There’s a more personal story behind Smith’s relationship with these herbs. Born with a hereditary condition that led to his kidneys failing at age 25, Smith has had three transplants and spent years on dialysis. The long journey through multiple health challenges is what introduced him to natural medicine. After working in clinics in a professional capacity, he discovered the particular benefits and properties of New Zealand’s native herbs, which have been used for centuries by Māori people.

“All the products on the market were using Western herbs, mostly from Europe,” Smith says. "We wanted to develop a product range that enables the average person to access these plants.”

Most prominent among Oku’s products is kawakawa (one of two distinctive pepper trees in New Zealand). In Māori culture, kawakawa is used to relieve a variety of ailments, as well as for its ceremonial purposes; the native plant is also used as a calming and digestive agent. It’s also thought to offer immune support and act as a strengthening, restorative herb that can be taken regularly to offset stress. The versatility of the herb meant that the Smiths were able to develop different tea blends that underscore each of kawakawa’s key properties.

Kawakawa is the invigorating star of the company’s wild-harvested Pure blend; it’s also in the Energise blend alongside organic green tea, liquorice and ginger. It also features in the Digest, Restore and Protect blends, bolstered in each by ingredients with similar restorative properties. Smith notes that while many native New Zealand plants are bitter on the palate, kawakawa leaves can be plucked fresh and added to hot water for a delicious tea that’s naturally sweet and warming.

Oku also makes a tea starring manuka, a fragrant native flower famous for its honey. “But the reason why the honey is so amazing is because of the plant,” Smith says. “We use the leaf or the essential oil or a tincture, [much more] than the honey. Because that’s going to the root source of the medicine in the plant.”

Beyond the core range of teas, Oku makes elixirs and balms that also tap into the versatility of native New Zealand herbs. Available in Australia via David Jones and Amazon, the two different balms focus on the healing and anti-inflammatory properties of kawakawa, which has topical benefits for skin conditions such as eczema or nappy rash.

But the Smiths are not just focused on sharing these plants with the world – they want to preserve and grow them too. A portion of Oku’s profits goes back into trusts that focus on the restoration of native blocks of bush (or similar goals), while the company has also funded its own planting projects from the start. All of the packaging is either recyclable, reusable or compostable, and the Smiths utilise both a septic-tank worm farm and collected rainfall for their business.

The pair are being recognised for their hard work: Helen was a nominee at this year’s MWDI Māori Businesswoman Awards, and she and Scott accompanied Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on her recent trade mission to Australia. “That was a great honour for us,” Smith says. “We’re starting to get a wider awareness for what we’re doing.”