Aruhe is the root of rārahu or rauaruhe (bracken fern), a tough ground fern with reddish-brown stems, which grows up to 2 metres tall.
Fern root was the most important wild vegetable. Several traditions explain its origin:
- Aruhe was a grandchild of Rarotimu and Rarotake, and grew on the back of Ranginui (the sky father). When Tāne separated his father Ranginui from his mother Papatūānuku (the earth), Aruhe tumbled down to the ground.
- When Tāne separated the earth and sky, he was attacked by his brother Tāwhirimātea (god of the winds). In fright, another brother, Haumia (god of wild or uncultivated foods), fled into the folds of their mother. Fern-root fronds are said to be Haumia’s hair sticking up out of the earth.
- The explorer Kupe brought the first fern root from Hawaiki on the canoe Tapuwaeputuputu (the canoe’s remains are said to be at Waimā in the Hokianga).
- Aruhe is said to have come from the fairy-like beings tūrehu or patupaiarehe. In former times, working parties offered the first three roots they collected to these ancient creatures.
Harvest and preparation
Bracken fern flourishes in open woodlands where felled or burnt forest is regenerating. Māori harvested the roots and shoots throughout the year, although late spring to early summer was the optimum time. The best plants were about three years old and had rhizomes 2–3 centimetres in diameter. These were dried, steeped in water, roasted, boiled or steamed, and then pounded to separate the edible flesh from the fibres. The resulting paste was formed into large blocks or cakes, and sweetened with tutu juice or wai kōrari (harakeke nectar).
Eat your greens
The best-known Māori ‘green’ is pūhā. However, a number of others were also eaten, including pōhue, raupeti (black nightshade) and the young leaves of puahou (five-finger).
Māori ate other ground ferns, including the young fronds or shoots of kōwaowao (hound’s tongue fern), rereti, mouku (hen and chickens fern) and huruhuru whenua (shining spleenwort). They ate the koru or fiddleheads of kiokio and pikopiko (common shield fern).