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Maori Agriculture

Part VI — The Taro. Colocasia Antiquorum

page 233

Part VI
The Taro. Colocasia Antiquorum


Original habitat. Grows wild in India, Ceylon and Indonesia. Not an irrigated crop in New Zealand. Traditionary account of procuring of taro. Propagation. Taro employed in ceremonial performances. Planted on certain days only. How planted. Remarks by Nicholas. Varieties of taro. Flowering variety. Remarks by Thomson; by J. A. Wilson; by W. B. Old varieties not grown now. Taro cultivation at the Sandwich Isles. Method of cultivation in New Caledonia. Gravel used in cultivation. Both root and petioles eaten.

This is another of the cultivated food plants of Polynesia that was introduced into New Zealand by early Polynesian voyagers in these southern seas.

Candolle states that the taro is found growing in a wild state in India, Ceylon, Sumatra, and several islands of the Malay Archipelago. Its Polynesian name of taro, talo, and Fijian dalo, seems to be traceable to Malaysia. Rutland states that it has been cultivated in Hindostan for more than 4000 years, but Candolle merely says that it is mentioned in a Chinese work of 100 B.C. Mr. Christian tells us that kachu was the Sanscrit name for the taro, now applied to the potato, and that kachu is the Inca name for the potato.

The taro, writes Mr. Cheeseman, in the paper mentioned above, "Is considered to be truly native in India and Malaya, and possibly also in some of the Pacific islands, but it also is widely grown in most warm countries." Another paragraph in his paper is as follows:—"I have mentioned the taro among the New Zealand cultivated plants, but one or two allied species are also largely grown in Polynesia, especially the gigantic kape (Alocasia macrorhiza). How far either it or the true taro is indigenous in the Pacific islands it is almost impossible to say, from the readiness with which they establish themselves in swampy places or on the banks of streams, in a very short time presenting all the appearance of true natives. Both are often cultivated in artificial ponds or swamps, frequently of large size, and fed by runlets of water conducted from the nearest stream."

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It is a singular fact that, in New Zealand, the taro was cultivated in ordinary soil. There seems to be no evidence to show that any form of irrigation was ever employed by the Maori See Fig. 56.

In Vol. III. of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, the Rev. T. G. Hammond gives a Taranaki tradition of the acquisition of the taro by the ancestors of the Maori. This event occurred in times long past, when those ancestors were dwelling at Hawaiki, a name applied not only to various isles of Polynesia, but also to the original homeland of the race. An ancestor named Fig. 56. Taro plant growing at Koriniti, on the Wanganui River. Dominion Museum Photo. page 235 Maru, in one of his voyages from Hawaiki, reached an island named Wairuangangana, where he found the taro growing. On returning home his account of the taro as a food product induced the people to send an expedition to obtain it, hence two vessels named Pahitonoa and Hakirere were despatched for that purpose. One Rauru was in command of the former vessel, and Maihi of the latter. Pahitonoa was wrecked, and the survivors of her crew were rescued by Maihi, who safely reached the island and took the taro back with him to Hawaiki. Samoan traditions tell of a noted voyager of olden times named Maru, who made many voyages among the isles of Polynesia. The Maori tribes of Taranaki state that the taro was brought to New Zealand in the vessel named Mātātua. A note in Mr. White's MSS. is to the effect that Maru saw the taro growing at Wairua, a lake at Mata-te-ra, and sent one Maiho (?) to procure it.

Mr. John White also states that, during mourning ceremonial, taro were placed in the hands of the corpse, while the curious ceremony illustrated in Tregear's Maori Race (p. 388) was being performed.

In describing the cultivation of the taro, Colenso writes:—"This also was propagated by planting its roots or tubers, or, more properly speaking, its small offset shoots; which were carefully pinched off for that purpose; but, being a perennial, and always in season, its tubers were not taken up and stowed away for future use, but were generally dug up when wanted. Hence it was doubly useful to them, in some respects more so than the kumara. It was also very prolific, increasing its set tubers rapidly, both in size and in the offshoots, in a suitable soil, so that a clump of taro tubers passed into a proverb, to show the number and resources of a strong tribe:—"He puia taro nui, he ngata taniwha rau, e kore e ngaro." (A cluster of flourishing taro plants, a hundred devouring slugs, cannot be extirpated. So with a large tribe, it is difficult to destroy them all.) Of this plant there are also more than twenty varieties or species, which, like the kumara, differed greatly in size, in quality, and in the colour of its flesh; besides one which is known to have been introduced since the time of Cook's visit. This newer one is called iaro hoia; it is a much larger root and plant, and it is also coarser in its flesh, and it is not so generally liked. Both the tubers and the thick succulent stems (petioles) of the large leaves of the plants were eaten, but only after being thoroughly cooked; a severe burning of the lips, mouth, and throat, attended by page 236constriction, followed the imprudent eating of it when not fully dressed.

This esculent tuber was made to play an important part in many of their higher ceremonial observances, as at the naming of a newly-born chief's child, at the death of a chief, at the exhumation which in due time always followed, and also at the visits of welcome strangers. For each observance, or feast, the ancient Maoris used their particular varieties or sorts; a similar usage was also practised on such occasions with their varieties of animal food. This custom they could not so well have carried out with the kumara, as there were seasons when it was not to be had at all."

In describing a journey made by him down the East Coast in 1841, the above writer says:—"Leaving Te Kawakawa and travelling south by the seaside, I passed by several of the taro plantations of the natives. These plantations were large, in nice condition, and looked very neat, the plants being planted in true quincunx order, and the ground strewed with fine white sand, with which the large pendulous and dark green shield-shaped leaves of the plants beautifully contrasted, some of the leaves measuring more than two feet in length, the blade only. Small screens formed of branches of manuka, to shelter the young plants from the violence of the winds, intersected the grounds in every direction.

A curious superstition demanded that the taro be planted only at certain phases of the moon, thus the Rakaunui, Rakau-matohi and Orongonui (17th, 18th, and 28th nights of the moon) were favourable planting days. If planted at the wrong time a fine growth ensues, but a very poor crop; so says the Maori.

The following brief note was obtained from Ngati-Porou sources:—"In planting taro the holes were made in a straight line, a flax line being used in the operation. A quantity of gravel was put in the holes, and this gravel was flattened out, a hollow was formed in it, and a portion drawn out of the hole and placed on its brink. Three or four taro were put in the hole and covered with gravel, and when the young sprouts grew up, some of the gravel lying on the brink of the hole was raked in with the hand and put round the growing shoots; this process being repeated several times. A native knew, by noting the shape of taro, what form of hole they had been grown in, whether ipurangi or parua koau, that is a shallow or deep hole.

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Concerning the taro, Nicholas writes:—"In the plantations … I observed a plant very common in our West India settlements, where it is called tacca, and named by the natives of this island tarro. It does not appear to me that this plant is indigenous to New Zealand, but must, in my opinion, have been brought hither, either by Capt. Cook or some other European navigator who has visited the country. This was the first time I had the opportunity of seeing this plant cultivated, and the care that was here employed in bringing it to perfection, was very great; the plants were disposed in rows, about eighteen inches apart, and the earth carefully dug up and pressed in round the roots of each of them." He states elsewhere that the taro was introduced by Europeans, in which he was certainly mistaken, unless he was referring to the taro hoia, brought hither by early voyagers.

As to how far south the Maori was able to cultivate the taro we have no precise information. The writer has seen it grown at Otaki, but that would probably be the introduced variety. Mr. Rutland, in a paper quoted above, says:—"In New Zealand it was planted in ordinary dry ground. Notwithstanding this adaptation of culture to the climatic conditions, it was only in the northern portions of the Archipelago the taro could be successfully raised. The very few cultivated plants the New Zealand people possessed being so ill-adapted to the climate of the country accounts for an agricultural people being mainly dependent on the root of a wild fern (Pteris aquilina) for their vegetable supplies."

Dieffenbach tells us that he saw the taro being cultivated at Queen Charlotte Sound in 1839:—"At the head of East Bay is the village of Mokupeka…. This village stands on a spacious beach surrounded by hills. Neatly planted taro and potatoes, kept free from weeds, ornamented the fields." This was probably about the southern limit of the taro; it may possibly have grown at Nelson.

Nicholas, an early sojourner in the far north (1814-15) wrote concerning the fern root:—"This root is to the New Zealanders an invaluable production, as it forms the chief article of their diet, having no idea of subsisting on potatoes or coomeras [kumara] exclusively, which are considered rather as luxuries diet, having no idea of subsisting on potatoes or coomeras food capable of supplying them with their principal sustenance." After the visit of Nicholas the ordinary potato was grown to a page 238much greater extent, and became the main food supply, as it still is. His remarks, as applied to the kutnara, are just, and describe the position. In most districts the sweet potato and taro cannot have represented the main food supply; in a few districts, such as the Auckland isthmus, the lower Whakatane valley, &c., where large areas of very fertile soil were available, great quantities of the sweet potato might have been produced, and which probably formed the chief food product. Some of the great fortified hill villages of Tamaki must have contained thousands of inhabitants, and this would mean much agricultural work.

The fact that no ceremonial performances pertained to the planting and cultivation of the taro tends to show that it was not held in such esteem as the kumara.

The taro was always planted in patches by itself, and not among or near kumara. The basin-like holes in which it was planted were termed parua, and of these there were two forms, the parua koau, a deep hole, and the ipurangi, a shallow one. As a rule the holes were about two feet in diameter, and eight inches deep, of a circular form. Large mussel shells were often used for scraping earth and gravel in cultivation work. It is generally stated that four seed taro were placed in each hole, and the holes were from a cubit to half a fathom apart. As the taro grew, more covering of gravel or earth was occasionally added. As growth proceeded the rito or innermost immature leaves were, at least in some cases, pinched off, with the effect, it is said, of increasing the size of the edible part. If well grown plants, the product would fill the parua. There was no tapu pertaining to the cultivation of the taro. When the crop was lifted it was, in many cases, not stored in the rua or food storage pits, but stacked outside in conical heaps and covered with rushes or sedge grass, or toetoe.

The name wha taro denotes the leaf of the taro, including the petiole, both of which, in their younger state, were cooked and eaten as greens. Mr. White gives rohewa and hikaukau as names for the stem, presumably the petiole, but possibly including the whole leaf.

The statement of Mr. Hammond anent the flowering specimen of taro seen by him at Hokianga is interesting.

Mr. A. E. Pickmere of Te Aroha supplied the following note:—"I once, and once only, came across a single flower ona (taro) plant of the large variety, which was growing page 239luxuriantly in a watercourse, with leaves six feet high. The flower bore a great resemblance to that of the small dark green veined arum lily, which is common in many gardens in this district." This may have been the introduced species or variety of taro.

The following list is of names of varieties of taro, as given by Messrs. Tregear, Williams, Colenso and White:—

  • W. = Williams' Maori Dictionary. C. = W. Colenso.
  • T. = Tregear's Maori Dictionary. J. W. = John White.
Akarewa W.
Awanga C., J. W.
Haukopa C.
Ipurangi T.
Kahuorangi. See Kohurangi. Kohuorangi. W.
Kakatarahae W.
Kakatarahaere C.
Kakatupari T.
Kaokao-paraoa J. W.
Kaunaunga (?) T.
Keakea. See Kiekie T.
Kiekie J. W.
Kinakina J. W.
Koareare C.
Kohurangi W.
Kohuorangi C., J. W.
Maehe T.
Maire J. W.
Makatiti. See Matatiti W.
Mamaku C.
Manuwenua (? Manuwhenua) T.
Matatiti C.
Ngaue W.
Ngongoro C.
Paeangaanga C., W., J. W.
Pakaue W.
Patai C.
Pehu W.
Pongi W., J. W.
Pongo C.
Potango C., J. W.
Takataka-a-po C.
Tanae W.page 240
Tangae T.
Taro hoia (Introduced by Europeans) C., W.
Taropo J. W.
Tautaumahei C.
Tokotokohau C.
Turitaka C., J. W.
Uhikoko C.
Uhiraurenga C.
Upoko-tiketike C.
Wairua-a-rangi C.
Wakahekerangi(?) T.
Wakarewa (?) T.

How many varieties of taro the Maori possessed it is impossible to say, for it is highly probable that many of the above represent duplicate names. Colenso gives twenty-one names, and yet he remarks, "several of these taros I have both seen and eaten." How is it that he saw no more than several varieties in his numerous journeys in early days? He himself doubted if the uhi-koko and uhi-raurenga were really taro. He remarks that the pongo (? pongi) and turitaka had a pleasing scent, that the potango was a very superior variety, and that all three of these were used in ceremonial feasts. Also that the awanga was an abundant grower, the ngongoro a very large and prized variety. The wairua-a-rangi had pink flesh, the koareare white flesh, and the kaka-tara-haere dark flesh. The tokotokohau was a large kind.

Williams gives ao taro as meaning "to prepare beds of gravel for taro."

In a paper on The Polynesians and their Plant Names, H. B. Guppy tells us that 21 varieties of taro are cultivated in New Caledonia, 18 at Fiji, and at least 13 at Tahiti.

Dr. Thomson, a resident in New Zealand for eleven years, who published his Story of New Zealand in 1859, writes:—"Next in importance to the original sweet potato was the taro. The edible part is the bulbous root, which weighs from ten to sixteen ounces. This plant grows best in damp soils, but its cultivation is now much neglected."

Judge J. A. Wilson remarks, in his Ancient Maori Life, that the Maoris are proved to have come from the tropics by the tropical character of the plants they brought with them:—"Kumara and taro are both of that character. The latter is especially so, in the fact that it never could be properly acclimatised to the change. For six hundred years the taro always page 241had to be grown artificially. Sand or gravel was dug from a pit and carried to the field, and placed in a layer over the soil: this drew the sun's rays and warmed the plant, which was, moreover, defended from cutting winds by rows of manuka branches fixed in the ground at intervals. The same remarks in a much less degree apply to the kumara. The great labour of growing taro maori (the old pre European variety) caused it to be abandoned when the taro Merekena was introduced. The latter is hardy, prolific, runs wild in fact, and easily cultivated, but it is very inferior in flavour and flouriness to taro maori. I don't think I have seen taro maori for thirty years."

"Taro," writes W. B. in Where the White Man Treads, "being a root neither as palatable nor prolific as the kumara, nevertheless, with the hue (gourd), held a strong position of its own. Besides being a succulent delicacy when young, the matured vegetable hue (gourd); with its strong, horny rind, could be put to the uses of many utensils, as drinking cups, bowls, &c., and, most important of all, water and oil flasks."

In his account of the Sandwich Isles Cook writes thus of a plantation seen: —"The greatest part of the ground was quite flat, with ditchesfull of water intersecting different parts, and roads that seemed artificially raised to some height. The interspaces were, in general, planted with taro, which grows here with great strength, as the fields are sunk below the common level, so as to contain the water necessary to nourish the roots…. On the drier spaces were several spots where the cloth mulberry was planted in regular rows, also growing vigorously, and kept very clean." Again, he writes: —"What we saw of their agriculture furnished sufficient proofs that they are not novices in that art. The vale ground has already been mentioned as one continued plantation of taro, and a few other things, which have all the appearance of being well attended to. The potato fields and spots of sugar cane, or plantains, on the higher grounds, are planted with the same regularity, and always in some determinate figure, generally as a square or oblong, but neither these nor the others are inclosed with any kind of fence, unless we reckon the ditches in the low grounds such, which, it is more probable, are intended to convey water to the taro."

Cook remarks that the natives of Tahiti had about twenty names for taro.

Cook also gives us a description of irrigated taro grounds seen by him at New Caledonia in 1774:—"The taro plantations page 242were prettily watered by little rills, continually supplied from the main channel at the foot of the mountains, from whence these streams were conducted in artful meanders. They have two methods of planting these roots, some are in square or oblong patches, which lie perfectly horizontal and sink below the common level of the adjacent land, so that they can let in on them as much water as they think necessary. I have generally seen them covered two or three inches deep, but I do not know that this is always necessary. Others are planted in ridges about three or four feet broad, and two, or two and a half high. On the middle or top of the ridge is a narrow gutter, in and along which is conveyed, as above described, a little rill that waters the roots planted in the ridge on each side of it; and these plantations are so judiciously laid out that the same stream waters several ridges. These ridges are sometimes the divisions to the horizontal plantations, and when this method is used, which is for the most part observed where a pathway or something of that sort is requisite, not an inch of ground is lost. Perhaps there may be some difference in the roots which may make these two methods of raising them necessary. Some are better tasted than others, and they are not all of a colour. But be this as it may they are a very wholesome food, and the tops make good greens, and are eaten as such by the natives. On these plantations men, women, and children were employed."

It is probable that irrigation of crops was carried out more thoroughly in New Caledonia than in any other isle of Polynesia and Melanesia. A passage in Captain Erskine's Journal reads as follows: —"It is evident that this part of the country is not generally fertile, but a degree of pains seems to be taken in its cultivation that I never expected to see among savages. The face of the hills above the river is covered with rectangular fields surrounded by channels for irrigation, which, as far as can be seen from below, is conducted on a careful and scientific system, levels being carried from the streams."

I have been informed by persons who have travelled in New Caledonia that in many places are seen hill sides formed into many terraces, these being cultivation grounds of former times.

The natives of the Waiapu district informed me that the taro plant was planted in damp situations, about three in each pit, and gravel was placed round them. If the holes chanced to become filled with water the plant would still flourish. It was propagated by side shoots that spring from the edible root. The page 243parent root was then eaten. When placed in a store-pit they were covered with a plant called maikaika. These folk gave pongi matapo as the name of a variety. The pit in which the taro is planted they call parua taro. The word ranga is employed to denote the lifting of the crop, not hauhake, as in the case of the sweet potato. (Kai te ranga a Mea i tona taro.) Taro was viewed as a high class food product; it was a kai rangatira. reserved for persons of consequence, placed before distinguished guests, manuhiri paerangi.

It has been held by some that the draining of swamps in the far north as carried out in past centuries was for the purpose of cultivating the taro. Such a damp situation would be highly suitable to the growth of the plant.

In Maori folk tales the taro is alluded to as the raho or testes of Tuna, who is the personified form of the eel. The taro is said to have been brought to New Zealand by the immigrants of Nukutere, Matatua, and other vessels, but originally was brought from the old homeland in the west.

The Hawaiians practised both methods of cultivating the taro, that is in both dry and wet land.

Concerning the draining of swamps by natives in pre-European times it may be noted that Mr. D. M. Wilson has contributed some interesting papers on this subject to the Journal of the Polynesian Society. These papers will be found in Vol. 30, p. 185, and Vol. 31, p. 130. They refer to drained swamps of the North Auckland district, and are of much interest. It seems probable that the swamps were drained for the purposes of cultivation. If rendered sufficiently dry the old varieties of sweet potato may have been so cultivated, but some think that the taro was grown at such places. Mr. Wilson tells us that many wooden earth working tools have been found embedded in drained swamps of the north.

The late Mr. C. W. Adams described similar drains as found in the Marlborough district of the South Island. We have no satisfactory evidence from native tradition concerning any of these drainage systems, though probably it might have been obtained in the early days of European settlement.

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