REUSABLE: Sarah McLaughlan seals the lid on another cake of kawakawa soap.

THE therapeutic properties of New Zealand’s native kawakawa have led Whakatane woman Sonya McLaughlan on a journey both personal and commercial.

Searching for something that would bring relief to a skin condition suffered by a family member, Sonya says a friend had suggested kawakawa – a plant long believed to bring relief to a variety of skin disorders. It was that initial suggestion, she says, that eventually led to the range of kawakawa-based natural products that Sonya now produces under the name SmASH Natural Products.

Having previously been “playing around” with making soap, she says her interest was piqued by the possibility of including kawakawa in a soap product and led her to attend a workshop being run by Soul Time in Opotiki on the properties and use of the plant.

HAIRCARE: Right, Sonya’s kawakawa shampoo bars are sold in reusable tins. D8469-12

With a long history of use in rongoa Maori (traditional Maori medicine), kawakawa remains popular with both Maori and non-Maori alike. The fruit, bark, and leaves have long been considered to have medicinal properties.

Infusions of leaves are thought to be beneficial in the treatment of skins conditions such as eczema, and for the treatment of cuts, boils, bruises, nettle stings, and rheumatism.

Leaves are also used to treat stomach problems, can be chewed to ease toothache, and rejuvenating tonics made from the plant are considered a general immune booster. Burning the leaves is said to deter mosquitos.

Following her study of the plant, which included learning the appropriate and respectful way to harvest the leaves, Sonya succeeded in producing her first product, a kawakawa-based soap. While it didn’t help her family member – whose condition turned out to be the results of something else – she says the soap elicited positive feedback including from a woman from Australia who contacted her to say it was “the first thing that had helped her eczema, ever”.

Inspired, Sonya says she started experimenting with other kawakawa-based products, and since then, “everything has just exploded”.

The SmASH Natural Products range quickly grew and has now extended to kawakawa-based shampoo bars, moisturisers, deodorants, balms, a remedial cream, tooth powder, men’s shaving products and an infused oil.

SKIN SOOTHERS: Sonya’s kawakawa remedial cream and soap with lemongrass and oatmeal. D8469-13

With a vigilant eye to keeping all her products natural, and all packaging environmentally friendly, Sonya says SmASH products are sold without packaging at all, or in packaging that is either fully recyclable, or able to be composted.

Tins in which the soaps are sold can be brought back in when a new soap is bought, attracting a discount off the new bar. A similar concept applies to some items now featuring in a range of cleaning products she has produced – environmentally friendly citrus or peppermint toilet bombs, sold individually, or in a jar of many, with a hefty discount offered to customers returning the jar for a refill.

“It makes perfect sense,” Sonya says. “I don’t have to use another jar; the customer is better off and so is the environment.”

The cleaning range also includes laundry powder and laundry soap-nut berries, and cotton crocheted make-up pads and knitted face cloths and dish cloths all of which can be thrown in the compost when they’re done. There are woollen clothes-dryer balls, also compostable, and a small range of other products, dish brushes, bamboo toothbrushes and other items.

Having only arrived home a couple of years ago following decades away, Taneatua-born Sonya says nothing could have prepared her for what she finds herself doing now.

A former children’s music teacher and accountancy clerk living in various locations over the years including Argentina and Canada, and more recently, Auckland, she says she never imagined her pathway would lead her to SmASH (so named for Sonya m’s Awesome Stuff Handcrafted). “It’s a place I’m very happy to be.”

Recently joining forces with The Crafty Chook upcycling and gift store owner Justine Coventry and Red Hair Concepts owner Jo Cavey, Sonya explains that the three small businesses have come together to work collectively from a single premises in Boon Street.

By Lorraine Wilson