Flower Power: Manuka Honey

An amazing foodiceutical made by bees in New Zealand

By Michael J. Balick

Photography by Mitch Mandel


For more than 10,000 years, humans have eagerly consumed honey, originally collecting it from wild bees. Cave paintings in Spain show women gathering honeycombs, using tall ladders to reach the bees’ nests and carrying the honey away in baskets. In ancient cultures, people used honey as both a medicine and a food. Egyptian medical prescriptions from 5,000 years ago recommend herbal mixtures with honey for treating a variety of conditions, ranging from headaches to cough, as well as to sweeten other, more bitter remedies, making them easier to tolerate. (Compliance with doctors’ orders was an issue even during those times.)

Honey is not only ingested as a medicine but applied topically, as well. Modern scientists studying honey have identified its antiseptic and antibacterial properties, and medical researchers have carried out a small number of preclinical and clinical studies evaluating its effectiveness for wound healing.

One way honey is classified is according to the origin of its floral nectar—by the species of plant from which it was collected. On supermarket shelves, you might find clover honey, orange-blossom honey, lavender honey, and others. One lesser-known honey sold in natural-foods stores or by mail is manuka honey, produced by bees collecting nectar from the manuka tree (Leptospermum scoparium) in New Zealand. This small tree is native to New Zealand and southeast Australia and is found growing in dry areas. It is an evergreen species in the myrtle family, a family also known for eucalyptus, cloves, and allspice. The manuka tree has small leaves and bears white or pink flowers.

The honey is gathered from hives placed in areas where the manuka trees grow wild. Manuka honey has a different look and taste than honey derived from other flowers—it is caramel-colored with a distinct flavor, and it does not have the overly sweet smell of regular honey. The texture is thick and rich with a very pleasant aftertaste. Manuka honey has attracted a following of people who attribute a variety of healthful properties to this unusual substance. It is featured in entire product lines, from soap and lip balm to throat lozenges.