Story: Kūmara

Page 3. Tools and storage pits

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Māori developed a number of tools for gardening:

  • hengahenga – a type of hoe
  • hoto – a spade made of maire wood
  • kō – a digging stick about 2 metres long, used with or without a foot-tread to roughly break up the ground
  • kāheru – a spade used for lighter work like creating mounds and cultivating kūmara. There were three types: one but with a short, square blade, one with a triangular blade, and one which resembled the kō
  • puka – a long-bladed spade
  • tipi or pere – a very small blade attached to a handle and used to clear weeds
  • ketu – a small paddle-like tool, used to loosen the soil around plants or before taking tubers out
  • patupatu – used to break clods
  • kōkō – used as a shovel
  • timo – a type of grubber.


After they were grown over summer, kūmara tubers were harvested around March. They would not grow in winter, so the tubers had to be stored and preserved. Polynesians already had a tradition of storing certain crops in subterranean pits – a technique which worked in New Zealand with kūmara. Underground storage provided the high levels of humidity needed to preserve the tubers so that some could be eaten over winter and some planted out later.

Catching on to kūmara

After potatoes and other vegetables were introduced to New Zealand, kūmara became less important to Māori – but it was still popular. The rest of the population didn’t catch on until the Second World War. American servicemen stationed in New Zealand who missed sweet potatoes from home took to kūmara. Many Pākehā followed suit.


The remains of kūmara storage pits, or rua kūmara, are still found around the country. Many types of pit were developed, and there is some evidence that different tribes preferred particular types. Pits included small rectangular holes in the ground, inter-connected cave-like pits found on flat land and on the sides of banks and hills, and large semi-subterranean rectangular roofed pits.

After being sterilised with fire, pits were sealed with small wooden doors that kept out vermin and the elements.

Eating kūmara

Small tubers were scraped, then dried in the sun to make a delicacy called kao. They were eaten raw, or soaked and mashed, or steamed in a hāngī (earth oven).

Larger tubers were prepared in a variety of ways:

  • in a hāngī (earth oven)
  • roasted, and eaten with the liquid from kina (sea urchins)
  • baked in hot ashes
  • boiled or steamed, using geothermally heated water
  • grated, and called roroi.
How to cite this page:

Peter Adds, 'Kūmara - Tools and storage pits', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 June 2024)

Story by Peter Adds, published 24 Nov 2008