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Herbs in the South Island

Herbs that grow with abundance in the South Island

Travelling around the South Island in late May and early June was a wonderful time to see not only the fantastic Autumn colours, but also a great time for discovering herbs growing in the wild.

With envy I looked at the hills in Central Otago covered in rosehips. I have picked these South Island rosehips before and dried them for rosehip herbal tea.This trip I just admired them. However I also looked on in dismay at the areas that had been sprayed with chemicals. I can only wonder why this would be done, generally the land the rosehips grow on is very poor and could not be used for pasture or horticulture as it is very steep.

While walking across a farmers paddock to visit the local landmarks we saw Mullein (Verbascum thapsus), Thyme (Thymus vulgaris), Horehound(Marrubium vulgare), Yarrow(Achillea millefolium), Nettles(Urtica dioica), St john’s wort(Hypericum perforatum).  And of course the herbs that are some consider ‘weeds’ plantain, yellow dock, dandelion, chicory and chickweed.  We found a fantastic cover of chickweed in the gardens outside the Invercargill museum.  I couldn’t help but think how much chickweed ointment I could make!

The Nettles grew in wasteland and under big old farm trees.  This seems to be a preferred growing spot, when it naturalises. The yarrow was growing along old paths and where old homesteads were.


The thyme was apparently bought to the South Island by a Frenchman that worked in the goldfields during the late 1800s, and was valued as a medicinal and culinary plant. It really is everywhere, particularly on north facing slopes of the old gold fields. Thyme likes the drier, poorer soils and seems to thrive in the harsh Central Otago conditions.   The local bee keepers make use of this wild herb and produce a lovely thyme honey. It is thought that this is the only population of Thyme growing wild outside its natural range of countries bordering the Mediterranean.

Thyme has many traditional uses including as a bee-plant: the leaves were rubbed in the bee hives. The name thyme comes from a Greek word meaning to fumigate, and a type of incense was made to drive away insects. Perhaps another reason for its heavy planting around the gold fields!

Thyme was also used as a tea for sore throats, chest infections and digestive complaints.  Culpeper said “It is a noble strengthener of the lungs, as notable as it grows”. Oil of thyme ‘thymol is added as an antiseptic to mouth washes and toothpastes.
Thyme is very easy to grow in the garden, suitable to rock gardens, along borders and paths.  Thyme is a fragrant groundcover that grows in a dense style that is suitable for constant picking.