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Maori Agriculture

Part V — The Yam. Diascorea Sp

page 228

Part V
The Yam. Diascorea Sp.


Local names of yam. Seen by early voyagers. Its far spread name. Evidence of Banks and others. Distribution of the yam. Its original habitat. Diascorea alata. Candolle's evidence. Several species grown in Polynesia. The species cultivated in New Zealand said to be D. alata. Cultivation of the yam abandoned by Maori early in nineteenth century. The name of uhi applied to other plants.

The yam is but seldom included in the list of cultivated food products of the Maori, though it unquestionably should be. It was certainly cultivated in the northern part of the North Island, and on the East Coast, as observed by Cook and his companions, though we are not aware of its southern limit. Its Maori name is uwhikāho, and it was also known as uwhi. Cook gives its name as tuphwhe, which presumably stands for uwhi or te (the) uwhi.

Capt. Cook remarked as follows on the cultivated food plants of the Maori:—"We could find but three esculent plants among those which are raised by cultivation, yams, sweet potatoes, and coccos [taro]. Of the yams and potatoes there are plantations consisting of many acres…. Gourds are also cultivated by the natives of this place, the fruit of which furnishes them with vessels for various uses." In another place he remarks that no cultivations of these products were seen to the southward, by which he evidently meant the South Island.

At Tolaga Bay Cook speaks of sweet potatoes, taro and gourds as having been seen. A few pages further on, in his description of the district, he writes:—"The soil … is light and sandy, and very fit for the production of all kinds of roots, though we saw none except sweet potatoes and yams." At Mercury Bay he saw—"About half an acre planted with gourds and sweet potatoes, which was the only cultivation in the bay."

In Forster's account of Cook's second voyage occurs a remark connected with the yam. Describing a visit of a Maori to the ship south of Cape Kidnappers (October 22, 1774), he says:—"Our young Borabora man, Mahine, … hearing from us that page 229these people were not possessed of coconuts and yams, produced some of these nuts and roots with a view to offer them to the chief, but upon our assuring him the climate was unfavourable to the growth of palm trees, he only presented the yams, whilst we made an effort to convince the chief of the value of the presents which he had received … and to plant the roots. He seemed at last to comprehend our meaning…." This incident may perhaps show that the yam was not cultivated in the Napier district, but only further north.

Uwhi and uhi are names applied by the Maori to the yam, and it bears similiar names in Polynesia, uhi at Tahiti, Mangareva, Nukuoro, and the Paumotu and Hawaiian groups, ufi at Samoa, while related forms seem to exist in Melanesia. In Malay and Malagasi the yam is termed ubi. Williams' Maori Dictionary gives pounamu as the name of a variety of yam.

In his story of The Peopling of the North, Mr. S. P. Smith mentions two small islands at Oruawharo named Motu-uwhi (Yam Island) and Motu-kumara (Kumara Island), and, in a footnote remarks:—"The name of this island, Motu-uwhi, if it is an ancient one, which I have no reason to doubt, is of great interest. Uwhi is the name given to the winter potato, which only grows in the north, and it is also the Polynesian name for the yam. Major Gudgeon says that he learnt from the Maoris that the uwhi was known to them before the arrival of the Europeans. In Sir Joseph Bank's Journal he gives a list of Maori words collected by him when he was in New Zealand with Captain Cook in 1769, and in this list we find the following: Cocos, taro; sweet potato, cumala; yam, tuphwe, which later is clearly the name uwhi. This shows that the yam was still growing in New Zealand in 1769. Banks also mentions the yam in other parts of his Journal as forming part of the food of the Maori."

In an account given by a native of the far north many years ago, he stated that the yam, termed uhikaho by him, had been introduced but had become extinct. Its cultivation probably demanded much care in this country, and, on the introduction of the common potato, a very easily grown esculent, the growing of the yam would be abandoned, even as the cultivation of the taro is now almost unknown here.

The late Bishop Williams, in a short paper on the kumara (Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. III., p. 144) states that, in the East Cape district, tradition states that the kumara, taro, hue (gourd) and the uwhikaho or yam were brought hither page 230from Polynesia in the vessel named Horouta, and adds:—"The uwhikaho has disappeared altogether from this district."

In the Journal of Sir Joseph Banks mention is made of yams having been seen at the Bay of Islands—"They then showed us their plantations, which were very large, of yams, cocos [taro] and sweet potatoes." Again, in his general account of New Zealand, he writes:—"Nor does their cultivated ground produce many species of esculent plants; three only have I seen, yams, sweet potatoes, and cocos, all three well known and much esteemed in both the East and West Indies. Of these, especially the two former, they cultivate often patches of many acres…. They also cultivate gourds, the fruits of which serve to make bottles, jugs, &c., and a very small quantity of the Chinese paper mulberry tree." These observations evidently refer to the far north, about the Bay of Islands. These voyagers did not land in the southern parts of the North Island, and saw no cultivations in the South Island. They saw a few small ones about Tolaga Bay, and one only at Mercury Bay.

Candolle, in his Origin of Cultivated Plants, states that "The yam which is most commonly cultivated in the Pacific Isles under the name ubi is the Dioscorea alata of Linnæus…. It is divided into several varieties according to the shape of the rhizome." Three species appear to have been cultivated in China for a long period, and perhaps the balance of evidence is that it was introduced into Oceania from Asia.

Mr. Rutland, in describing the cultivated food plants of Polynesia (See Transactions of the N.Z. Institute, Vol. XXIX., p. 14) writes as follows:—"The common yam (Dioscorea alata) was found in cultivation throughout Polynesia by the old European navigators. Another species, Dioscorea sativa, was also cultivated, but the rhizomes contained an acrid principle, and required a particular sort of cooking, hence it was less in vogue than D. alata, which seems to be foreign to the region, though its original habitat cannot be accurately determined, it being now very widely spread both on the mainland and the Asiatic Islands. Since the European discovery of America the indigenous species cultivated there have been superseded by African and Asiatic species."

Candolle states that there are about two hundred species of the genus Dioscorea scattered over all tropical and sub-tropical countries. In summing up, he says:—"Several Dioscorea wild in Asia (especially in the Asiatic Archipelago), and others less page 231numerous in America and in Africa, have been introduced into cultivation as alimentary plants, probably more recently than many other species. This last conjecture is based on the absence of a Sanskrit name, on the limited geographical range of cultivation, and on the date, which appears to be not very ancient, of the inhabitants of the Pacific Isles." If the yam was cultivated, as Candolle appears to show, in Asia, Africa, and America, as well as the great island system, its range of cultivation was fairly wide. As to inhabitants of Pacific Isles, some of these, such as the Papuans and Negritos are certainly far from being late comers in the Pacific area.

Mr. Cheeseman, in a paper on the food plants of Polynesia (Transactions N.Z. Institute, Vol. XXXIII., p. 309), says:—"Five or six species of yams are grown in Polynesia, in some of the islands to a very large extent. In Fiji their cultivation was of so much importance that the months received special names from the class of work that had to be done at those particular times in the yam plantations. Some of the species are doubtless indigenous, but others are almost certainly introduced, probably from tropical Asia, or Malaya." The same authority has also sent us the following notes:—"There is plenty of evidence that it was grown to some extent in the north, and sold, together with potatoes and kumara, to the whaling vessels at the Bay of Islands, Mangonui, &c. In the former locality, Sir J. D. Hooker explicitly states that one species, Dioscorea alata, was grown by the Maori during his visit to New Zealand. The cultivation of the yam in the North probably ceased at the time when the Maoris abandoned general agriculture, not being able to compete with European farmers."

This evidence makes it appear that the yam was cultivated by natives for some time after the commencement of European settlement, in which case the statement made by a native many years ago, and quoted above, must have referred to some local condition. It is just possible that, after the introduction of the potato, the cultivation of the yam was gradually given up, and that it was re-introduced by the early whalers, great numbers of which vessels used to cruise about the Pacific area, the Bay of Islands being one of their principal rendevous.

Mr. Cheeseman states that, very many years ago, a Colonel Wimberley conveyed a variety of the yam known as the Otaheite (Tahiti) Potato from New Zealand to the Andaman Islands, where it was much appreciated and is still cultivated. page 232He also remarks that between 1860 and 1870 the Maoris ran a little schooner between Auckland and Rarotonga, bringing oranges, bananas, cocoa-nuts, and yams to Auckland.

Mr. John White gave uhi para as a name for the para tawhiti (Marattia fraxinea), the large starchy rhizome of which was eaten by the Maori in former times. Mr. Cheeseman states that it was occasionally cultivated near their villages. See Manual of the New Zealand Flora, p. 1026.

Te Manihera Waititi of Whanga-paraoa, tells us that uhi was the name of a kind of kumara that is now extinct. It was a small kind, in form resembling the potato called taewa roroa. He speaks of it as being hairy or bristly, a singular term to apply to a tuber. Its flowers and leaves resembled those of the pohue (Calystegia sepium). The tubers were not scraped prior to cooking, but cooked in the skin, which was removed after cooking. Apparently this was not the yam. In a later communication he says that this tuber had many fine fibrous rootlets attached to it.

Williams' Maori Dictionary shows us that the term uhi or uwhi is used in rather a loose manner, as uhi po is a variety of potato, uhi perei is applied to Gastrodia Cunninghamii, and uhi koko and uhi raurenga to varieties of taro. The same work gives ngangarangi as a name for the yam.

In a letter written by Captain Cook to Mr. John Walker of Whitby, giving some account of his first voyage, his description of New Zealand includes the following statement:—"Their chief food is fish and fern roots; they have, too, in places, large plantations of potatoes, such as we have in the West Indies, and likewise yams, &c."

The Ngati-Porou natives of the Waiapu district state that there were two forms of uwhi, the uwhi kumara and uwhi parareka. The former, it is said, was not scraped prior to cooking, inasmuch as its skin was very easily detached when cooked. It is possible that the uwhi parareka is the same as the uhi po of Williams.

Shells were used wherewith to scrape the kumara in olden times. When these were not obtainable a piece of split supplejack, bent into a curved form, was often used as a substitute.

Tutakangahau, of the Tuhoe tribe, stated that, in pre-European times, the Maori cultivated the uhi, which resembled the kumara in growth, but tasted more like a taewa, the introduced Solanum.