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Maori Agriculture

Varieties of the Kumara

Varieties of the Kumara

The Maori folk recognised many varieties of the sweet potato, most of which have now been lost, owing to the fact that certain varieties introduced by early voyagers are more easily cultivated, or more prolific, as also to the introduction of the potato. The latter tuber is much more easily cultivated, is more hardy, and keeps page 112very much better in storage. These are the causes of the decline of cultivation of the kumara.

It is probable that several varieties of the species were introduced here by the Maori in past times, others may have been produced here by continued cultivation, the differentiating effects of which are well known to us in the case of the common potato, Solanum tuberosum. As to how many varieties the Maori possessed in pre-European times it is quite impossible to say. A considerable number of names of varieties has been collected, but these have been obtained in different districts, hence it is quite probable that the list contains a number of synonyms or duplicate names. In addition to this, the spelling of some of the names is under doubt. Thus the following list of variety names cannot be accepted as evidence of so many distinct varieties:—

1.Anurangi. A Taranaki variety (called also Tokoke)
2.Anutipoki or Waniwani
11.Kaikaka or Kaihaka
12.Kai-pakeha (introduced by Europeans)
17.Kaoto or Kauto. cf. Kautowhau
29.Korehe or Koreherehe
32.Makakauri, Makakauere or Matakauri (dark blue in colour)
41.Moi or Moio
42.Monehu or Monenehu
43.Ngakau-kuri (said to blossom at night)
45.Paea. Parea
47.Panahipage 113
50.Parakaraka or Makutu (said by Ngati-Porou to flower)
53.Panataha (has reddish flesh)
59.Puatahoe (said to flower)
73.Tukou or Tukau
78.Waiha (said by Ngati-Porou to flower)
79.Waina (introduced by Europeans)
80.Whakakumu (a very highly prized variety)

In addition to the above the Rev. R. Taylor gives:—

Harikaka Pakua
Kakaunaturi? Papania?
Kurawakapeki? Puangana
Monehu-rangi (cf. Monehu)

as names of varieties of the sweet potato, but the authority is not a good one, and many of his names are woefully misspelt.

Mr J. White also collected the following names of varieties:—

Kapata Makawe
Kowhai Kakahoroa
Toenga a tahi

The parea and waina are said to grow from shoots. The kowhai, toenga a tahi, makawe, as also Nos. 1, 3, 11, 13, 29, 33, 42, 43, 61, 67, 69, 80 and 82 are said to have been broken (not cut) when planted, the sprouting end being used as seeds. The panataha, ngakau-kuri, makawe, kakahoroa, and a variety called kakano-tonga are said to have been lost many years ago. The kanawa and pantataha are said to have been the first varieties introduced.

Ngati-Porou gave the following names:—

Ra-whana. Ra-whanake. (A new variety)
Papapa-heeke. (Said not to produce runners)

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The matakauri variety is still grown (1923) to some extent by natives.

Others give rau-tainui as the name of a variety.

In commenting on a list of these kumara names forwarded by him from the East Coast, the late Bishop Williams remarked:—"The above names have been obtained in the East Cape district. It is probable that this list does not represent twenty-five really distinct varieties, though there is no doubt that the varieties were numerous. Most of them have been lost, owing to the introduction of the larger and more prolific kinds; but some few are still to be found in cultivation. Among these are the matakauri, para-karaka, pokere-kahu and toroa-mahoe, with probably a few others. The tradition in this district is that the different varieties of kumara were fetched from Hawaiki in the canoe Horouta under the direction of Kahukura, and that with them were brought the taro, the hue or calabash gourd, and the uwhikaho or yam. The uwhikaho has disappeared altogether from this district."

The twenty-five names of varieties so collected on the East Coast were Nos. 2, 7, 20, 25, 26, 29, 32, 39, 41 to 43, 45, 49 to 52, 57, 59, 60,64,66,67,71,78,81.

In a note to the above extract, the editor of the Polynesian Journal remarks on the disappearance of the yam from the list of food products cultivated by the Maori, but notes that the winter potato, which grows only in the north, is know as uwhi to the Maori, and uhi is the general Polynesian name for the yam.

Of the kumara Polack wrote:—"Of this vegetable a great variety exists, caused by the united influence of climate, soil, attention paid to its culture, exposure, etc. In taste and size they equally differ, some being the size and shape of the finger, and extremely farinaceous and nutritious, while other varieties, especially the Kai-pakeha (introduced by Europeans) are as large as a yam, weighing several pounds, and containing more saccarhine than farinaceous properties." It may here be noted that the large varieties appear to have been introduced by Europeans.

"In the early forties," wrote Judge J. A. Wilson in his Ancient Maori Life, "a new kind of kumara was brought into New Zealand which rapidly came into favour. It was more easily cultivated and made into kao (i.e., dried) than kumara maori [native kumara] and in about twenty years had superseded it. I have not seen the old native kumara for many years, perhaps twenty.

Williams' Maori Dictionary gives mangatawhiti as a name for the kumara, apparently a generic term; also mahurangi as a name for the flesh of the tuber.

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The introduced kai-pakeha variety of sweet potato is said to have been brought hither by an American whaler in 1819.

The Rev. T. G. Hammond states that he collected the names of twenty varieties of kumara at Hokianga. He also remarks that he saw at Whangaroa a flowering plant of the kumara. "The leaves and stem were a rich dark green, and the flower like the ordinary wild convolvulus. During a residence of nine years in Hokianga I had ample opportunities of seeing most of the kumara cultivations in that wide district, but I never saw or heard of another flowering specimen." No. 59 in our list above is said by Bishop Williams' native informants to have flowered. The sweet potato must certainly have been under cultivation for many centuries.

Mr. Hammond collected the names of twelve varieties of the kumara in the Taranaki district.

In a paper entitled On the Cultivation and Treatment of the kumara by Archdeacon Walsh, published in Vol. XXXV. of the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, occur the following remarks:—"Previous to the introduction and general distribution of European food plants, that is to say up to the early part of the last century, the only vegetables cultivated by the Maoris were those which they had brought from their original homes in the Pacific Islands, namely the kumara, the taro, the hue, and the ti pore (Cordyline terminalis). Of these the first-named was by far the most valuable and important. The taro would only flourish in particular spots, and even under the most favourable conditions took a long time to come to maturity, and gave but a small return for a good deal of troublesome labour. The hue was tasteless and unsustaining, and the ti pore, in reality a tropical plant, never became properly acclimatised, and the limited quantity grown was used more as an occasional delicacy than an article of every-day food. But the kumara freely responded to care and attention in the most varied situations, and yielded a large crop of an article at once palatable, wholesome, and nutritious. With the primitive Maori, in fact, the kumara stood in a class by itself, above and apart from everything else. As the mainstay of life it was regarded with the greatest respect and veneration. It was celebrated in song, and story, and proverb. Its cultivation and treatment called forth the utmost care and ingenuity, and were accompanied by the strictest and most elaborate religious observances …

A very general tradition states that, not finding the kumara on their first arrival in the country, the Maoris made an expedition page 116back to their old home among the Pacific Islands to secure a supply for cultivation. That they brought back a large and well-assorted stock is evidenced by the number of varieties they possessed. Mr. Colenso states that not less than thirty of these had come under his notice, while several of the old sorts were already known to be lost. All these varieties were well marked and permanent, and must have been produced before their introduction here, as, although occasionally flowering, the plant has never been known to seed in this country. They had each their separate name, and were distinguished by different peculiarities in size, shape and colour; some being valued for their superior flavour, and others giving a more abundant crop, while probably certain of them were specially adapted to local conditions of soil and situation.

As the European food plants, especially the potato, came into use, the relative importance of the kumara somewhat declined, and many of the smaller varieties became gradually extinct, the cultivation being chiefly confined to a few of the larger sorts, including the merikana (American), so called from the American whalers, who brought it from the Pacific Islands. This was a long white twisted tuber, and was the first addition to the old native varieties. Of late years the number has been still further reduced, and at the present time the waina (vine), a later introduction, so called from being occasionally propagated by cuttings from the vines or runners, is almost the only sort used for a general crop. This, being a very heavy yielder of robust habit, has quite taken the place of the old smaller varieties, a few of which, however, are still grown in some of the more primitive districts as a special delicacy."