PLANTS, EDIBLE NATIVE
The Maori brought the kumara and taro to New Zealand. Without these plants they would have been hard put to it for vegetable foods. Apart from fern root, New Zealand yielded little in the way of fruits or of plants which could be cultivated, harvested, and stored. Laborious and often lengthy processing was necessary to make the native plants edible, but even so several plants were utilised.
“Fern root” or aruhe, the staple food, is the creeping underground stem or rhizome of the common bracken (Pteridium aquilinum var. esculentum). The rhizome is extremely hard and fibrous, requiring steaming in an umu or earth oven to soften it, followed by pounding or chewing to extract the relatively small amount of starchy material. Aruhe was used even in the areas where kumara and taro could be grown. Only well-grown fern plants with thick rhizomes would yield sufficient food to warrant the effort of preparation.
Only three berry fruits were used to any extent, hinau, karaka, and tawa. Children would eat these, and several others, in the raw state, but usually considerable effort was expended on preparation for general consumption. Hinau (Elaeocarpus dentatus) was prepared by pounding or soaking the fruits to separate the flesh from the stones, the flesh being dried and made into cakes which were steamed in an umu. With tawa (Beilschmiedia tawa), the kernel was the part used for food. The berries were steamed in an umu for two days, then washed to remove the turpentine-flavoured pulp. The dried kernels were stored. When required, they were soaked in hot water and pounded, sometimes flavouring being added to the mashed meal. Karaka (Corynocarpus laevigatus) was prepared in a similar way, the edible pulp being largely rejected in favour of the kernel, in spite of the presence of a poisonous glycoside, karakin. This poison is also present in the unripe pulp. To remove the poison the berries were cooked by steaming and then washed in running water. The washing also removed the pulp. Further steaming prepared the kernels for eating. Karaka trees and groves were highly prized and were usually family or tribal possessions. Many groves found far inland were probably planted near pa sites, as the trees are normally found only on the coasts.
Tutu (Coriaria spp., especially C. arborea) also yielded food from its berries, but again a dangerous poison is contained in the seeds. The fruits were crushed and strained through the flower heads of toetoe grass (Cortaderia spp.) to remove the seeds. The juice formed a thin jelly or was allowed to ferment into a “wine”. Other foods were often soaked in tutu juice to improve their flavour. Numerous other berries were eaten raw, especially by children, but they did not form any appreciable part of the Maori diet except for special occasions. Examples are kahikatea or white pine (Podocarpus dacrydioides), rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum), poroporo (Solanum aviculare and S. laciniatum), konini, the fruit of the tree fuchsia (Fuchsia excorticata), and kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum).
The only non-berry fruit of significance was that of kiekie (Freycinetia banksii), the flavour of which has been likened to that of a pear. The fleshy bracts surrounding the flower head were also prized for food. The upper leaves were often tied over the young heads to protect them from rats.
Mamaku or black tree fern (Cyathea medullaris) was an important source of starch food, but to obtain it the plant had to be cut down and killed. Slow growth of the trees thus restricted the supply. The trunk was split and the thick, slimy pith extracted, the upper third of the trunk being preferred. The pith was steamed for about two days, by which time the sliminess had disappeared and the resulting sago-like substance could be eaten cold or dried for future use. The stalks of young, still curled fronds were also eaten after cooking.
Very young leaves of nikau palm (Rhopalostylis sapida) and ti or cabbage tree (Cordyline ausstralis) were eaten, also the pith of the stems, especially that of the cabbage tree. This plant has the advantage over mamaku and nikau of regenerating well after being cut. Considerable ceremony was involved in the annual collecting of cabbage tree stems. These were stripped of bark and cooked in trenches, then dried. The starchy edible material was rubbed or beaten from the fibres and then soaked in water.
Raupo (Typha muelleri) yielded enormous quantities of pollen which was collected and made into cakes. The rhizome also provided a starchy food.
“Greens” were obtained from quite a number of plants, such as rauriki (Sonchus oleraceus and S. asper), pohue (Calystegia sepium), and raupeti or black nightshade (Solanum nigrum). The word puha was applied to many edible greens, but is now confined in popular usage to Sonchus oleraceus. Young leaves of five-finger (Neopanax arboreum) also make a palatable food when cooked.
The best-known “greens”, the scurvy grass (Lepidium oleraceum) of Captain Cook and New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides, T. trigyna), do not seem to have been used, at least not extensively, by the Maori. The former is now almost extinct on the mainland because of its being eaten out by stock. Spinach is perhaps the only contribution the New Zealand flora has made to the European diet, although its popularity has diminished considerably in recent years.
Minor food products include fungi, only eaten in times of stress, and masticatories or chewing substances. Gums and resins for these were obtained from kauri (Agathis australis), tarata (Pittosporum eugenioides), kohuhu (Pittosporum tenuifolium), rangiora (Brachyglottis repanda), and wharangi (Melicope ternata). The juice of rauriki (Sonchus oleraceus), a latex, was also used.
by Bruce Gordon Hamlin, Botanist, Dominion Museum, Wellington.