The planting, tending and harvesting of the main crop, kūmara (sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas), was accompanied by many rituals, believed to ensure plentiful results. Traditional kūmara plants were different from modern varieties – they were bushy, with few runners, and long, thin tubers. These early varieties had white skin and white flesh, or red skin and purple flesh. Tubers were planted in puke (mounds) in spring and the crop harvested in autumn before the first frosts. Early European visitors described in detail the ordered and tidy state of the kūmara gardens.
After harvest, the kūmara were sorted to remove any damaged tubers, and placed in storage pits designed to maintain an even temperature and high humidity through winter. This helped preserve the tubers to be eaten in winter and spring, and the seed tubers to be planted for the next year’s crop.
Hue (gourd, Lagenaria siceraria) was grown primarily for its fruit, which were made into containers when mature. In summer, the small immature fruits were eaten. Gourd plants were grown in hollows, as they preferred moist soil, and the trailing plants may have been grown up stakes. In 1769, William Monkhouse, surgeon on James Cook’s ship the Endeavour, reported gourd plants being grown over houses at Anaura Bay on the East Coast. In Māori tradition, the hue originated with Pū-te-hue, a child of the god Tāne.
Aute (paper mulberry, Broussonetia papyrifera) is a shrub or small tree that is abundant throughout Polynesia but does not appear to have thrived in New Zealand. The plant was a valuable source of tapa cloth in Polynesia. Bark was stripped from the stem, beaten and felted with a wooden beater on a hard surface. Only small quantities of cloth were made in New Zealand – it was observed in the Bay of Islands in 1769, worn as small rolls in earlobes. Tapa beaters are reported from as far south as Taranaki, which may indicate the southern limit of aute cultivation.