Food & Bio-Based Products

Unlocking the secrets of Aotearoa's native tree fern Mamaku

5 November 2019
Unlocking the secrets of Aotearoa's native tree fern Mamaku

It’s a sunscreen that grows on trees. It has been used for centuries as a healing extract to soothe a myriad of ailments. Some believe it even contains anti-ageing properties. Could it be New Zealand’s best-kept beauty secret?

Curious? AgResearch dairy scientist Paul Harris was when first approached by Ora Ltd, a proudly Kiwi company that uses Mamaku as the base ingredient in its product range. Ora wanted to gain a greater understanding of the science behind the versatile New Zealand native Black Tree Fern. Harris, and AgResearch, were the perfect fit. One of the science institute’s specialities is food and bio-based product research.

“And the networks we have established with Food Innovation Waikato led Ora to ask us to help with Mamaku extraction. Generally, we research farm produce but all our research tools and equipment - continuous centrifuges, molecular filtration technology, spray- and freeze-drying, thermal processing equipment – that help with food analysis and processing can equally be applied to a diverse range of products other than just milk. Naturally, the chance to work with an extraordinary product like Mamaku piqued our scientific interest,” said Harris.

Harris and Ora put together a couple of applications for research funding which were accepted by KiwiNet and the Ministry of Business and Innovation and Employment’s Vision Mātauranga Capability Fund (Te Pūnaha Hihiko).
Ora harvest the Mamaku and Harris and his team extract the thick gel from the tree fern. They can then process it into various forms and test its active ingredients.

“Processing it into a powder, for example, means the product can be packaged and marketed in different ways and it’s easier to store and transport. We’re learning more and more about the traits and efficacy of its uses all the time.”

For example, Mamaku offers excellent sun protection.
"It’s been used for centuries by Maori as a sun screen and we now know why. It has a really high Sun Protection Factor (SPF). We’re actually having to heavily dilute it because it's so powerful and we have further work planned to determine its efficacy as a sunscreen product.”

While Massey University has already conducted a compositional and rheological study of Mamaku, AgResearch plans to delve deeper into its skincare properties. This includes looking at its biochemical properties, such as controlling melanin production and its anti-oxidant value. Skin cell assay trials and human trials are also planned. Ora is also keen to find new uses for the by-product of Mamaku extraction, so that the whole of the taonga (a highly-prized object) can be utilised.

Harris presented some of his findings at a wānanga at Taupiri Marae in October.

“The reception was really positive. I think we’re adding to a lot of what has been known by Māori for centuries, by adding Western science to the Mamaku story.”

AgResearch Māori Agri-business manager Tamara Mutu said: “The collaboration with Ora has been excellent. The company is run by three sisters from Waikato and Ngāti Kahungunu - Tessa Davis, Adele Anderson and Karen Renata. They are really hands-on and totally engaged with the science. Not only are they interested in the findings we come up with, but also how we do it. The future looks bright for this unique New Zealand taonga.”

Photo: AgResearch scientist Paul Harris (L) is welcomed onto Taupiri Marae by a representative (R).

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